Photographer Roger Johnsen talks to us about his photo series from last winter.
“I would regularly walk home after midnight…in empty streets and with people asleep I convinced myself I was walking around in their dreams. Where they received messages from the collective unconscious, riddled with sacred geometry and metaphors for their hopes and fears.”
K.N. Do you remember the particular moment when you decided that these midnight experiences should be represented in photos?
R.J. Can’t say I do. I pretty much always carry a camera, and if something catches my attention I’ll snap a photo of it. The decisive moment was probably when I started browsing through my own photos and could see the outlines of a conceptual approach there. The whole thought of how I might be shooting elements of people’s dreams. Then I started shooting with an intention, still in a very stream-of-consciousness style mind you, but with a bit of framework.
Some of the images are utterly baffling to me optically - especially the close images of snow on various surfaces. Removed from their original context, they become almost supernatural - are we looking at a constellation in the night sky marred by snowflakes, or a piece of asphalt under you? How deep is the snow? From what angle are we looking at it? I was unable to answer these questions, and regarding a couple of the images, especially the one with what appears to be snow over a map, I had no idea what I was looking at for at least a couple minutes. I thought maybe it was a broken digital image - I was very confused and then delighted when I realized it was “just” snow. Now I can’t help but see it as the view from an airplane, overlooking the expanse of clouds above a landscape. Were these optic tricks a primary intent, or did it happen naturally as you sought out imagery?
It’s obviously difficult to scale size or proximity when all you see is snow! The post-processing on this project is generally limited to some contrast changes, minor crops and sharpening for web. Optical tricks wasn’t a primary intent. It’s more a bi-product of my approach when I was shooting I suppose. I felt the abstract has more to offer where the unconscious is concerned, and if I could avoid mundane elements in the frame, I would! Which gives the viewer fewer landmarks to navigate by. So the primary intent was capturing whatever I associated with the concept. I think if you tell photographers to shoot a project of this nature, many of them would try to achieve a dreamy sensation by applying effects and “tricks” to their photos. Adding the unreal onto the real. Whereas I wanted to stick more with basics here. Challenge myself to see things differently, develop artistic vision, and be creative with the camera rather than the software or a weird lens. Because on this project this was more powerful to me. To think that others have walked where I did, and could have seen what I saw. But they simply wouldn’t have thought it interesting or photogenic, because in this case it’s the artistic vision that makes the image. I’m really glad you like the map-photo! In this series it’s the gateway image if you will, from the actual place as it’s mapped out, to the place I created. And I was thrilled to see the snow look like clouds as well.
Can you tell us about the photograph with the light at the bottom - with the orange halo around it. This is another image I am baffled by.
“Let the Lighthouse-Eye, crumble to the depths. Neath docile waves, adrift on currents. This searching vessel, a speck of light. Descend on you, from the world outside” That’s what I wrote when I posted it on my blog anyway. It’s a lamp on a wall that caught my attention, and when I framed it like this, flashed the wall and caught the blur of falling snow, it looked to me like a single light sinking.The minimalism in terms of the one light-source and it’s geometric form reminded me of the kind of dreams one would want to interpret.
You said that in the end you were documenting your own state of mind - “the state of mind you’re likely to acquire after a long winter.” Can you describe some of the properties of this state of mind? A questioning of temporality and illusion, maybe from watching things be covered up and slowly revealed and then snowed over again?
I guess this is what’s hardest to explain, the whole state of mind thing. With it’s short days and lack of proper daylight a long winter has an effect on most people here. And although I’m not exactly prone to winter depressions, winter doesn’t cheer me up in the long run! When the outdoors are covered in snow and it’s freezing cold it somehow feels less real than summer, and could make anyone want to cuddle up inside. But taking these photos I felt like I ended up doing something a bit more constructive with it instead. The darkness became a creative opportunity, something to cherish.
What do you think the strangest qualities of snow are?
In terms of photography I guess it’s how it easily lends itself to playing with positive and negative form. And how shifting snow can change the appearance of a place or object entirely, all within a short period of time.
What were you reading about, listening to, thinking about last winter when these photographs were taken?
When I headed out in the cold I usually favoured minimalist electronic music. Such as Biosphere, Klaus Schulze, Ulver’s electronic releases, the ambient jazz of Arve Henriksen. etc. And at the time I was re-reading Carl Jung’s “Psychology & Alchemy”, which was a significant influence. Especially in terms of his ideas about the collective unconscious, and the transcriptions of specific dreams his patients had. Apart from that I think I read most of the books in Steven Erikson’s “The Malazan Bok of the Fallen” last winter.
Are you looking forward to another creative winter?
I guess I’m bit ambivalent. Looking forward to being creative obviously, but I know I’ll tire of winter before it’s over.
What are some of your favorite artists, from history or contemporary practice? What sort of work are you interested in?
Let’s see. Edvard Munch is definitely up there, William Blake, Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper, Max Ernst, Odd Nerdrum, Sally Mann and Francesca Woodman. And of photographers I need to mention Anders Petersen and Arno Minkkinen, both of which visited a school I attended and has been major influences on me. Many of my fellow previous students are worth a mention as well, but singling people out seems unfair so just take a look at the www.mystudent.me
website, where you’ll find quite a few of them. Apart from that I find most of the inspiring artists or photographers on tumblr these days, and I reblog quite a few of them on www.ekkolalia.tumblr.com
should anyone be interested. It’s hard to sum up what kind of work I’m interested in, but I obviously have a weak spot for works that are expressionist by nature. And artists that are pushing themselves to see the world as subjectively as possible.
What is the art scene in Norway like?
You’re asking a introverted semi-recluse that can’t adapt to urban environments, has few if any commercial ambitions, and apparently talks about himself in third person? I wouldn’t really know, haha. I guess it’s okay? What I can say for Norway is that there are decent schools around for those who’d like to pursue art or photography. And it’s generally not hard to find an interesting exhibition if you’re in Oslo or another city. Apart from that I’m under the impression that “making it” as say, a fine art photographer in Norway has the same requirements as anywhere else. Having an interesting and consistent (meaning at-least slightly predictable) body of work that could be defined as conceptual. Add to that attending parties, where you have to network, so you can get important contacts, to which you have suck up, and the whole thing goes on and on. I might come across as a bit grumpy here, and I am! But I just prefer to engage myself in an online community such as tumblr instead. I’m getting great feedback and constructive criticism from all sorts of people, all of it without attending social gatherings or going to clubs. What’s not to like?
Do you like metal? I ask for two reasons that are complete stereotypes, and I apologize - you live in Norway, and you have an epic beard. Sacred geometry is also very metal.
Haha, I do indeed like metal, though I’m quite picky these days. Grew up listening to my mother’s glam, heavy and thrash metal records, and my discovery of black metal when I was 13-14 years old has had a major influence on my interest in music. It branched off in all sorts of directions as soon as I started checking out the more avant-garde bands. Also having my beard called “epic” calls for a celebration!
What kinds of projects are you working on now? What are you inspired by these days?
Apart from keeping up the work on this one, I’m considering doing a project on digital identity, with so-called pixel-sorted portraits. I’m playing with the idea of combining cyanotype prints with water-colour paint, though I’m not sure what direction it will take yet. I’m also planning to create the material for an EP of ambient music this winter, though if it’s for a web release or a limited edition physical version at some point, time will tell. The most important thing for me however is just to keep snapping photos and staying creative, because then something always pops up!