After hearing about the passing of Lars Tunbjörk, we want to share our interview with Kathy Ryan from our seventh issue, nordic now, where we were able to show some of his works.
By Nina Strand
The first thing a picture editor does is to edit: “I wonder why Joachim Ladefoged with his film about bodybuilders isn’t included”, Kathy Ryan asks during our three-day phone interview in March 2013. The Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjörk is another important omission from our presentation of the contemporary Nordic photo scene, according to her:
“I really like his series Winter (1998–2007). This crazy, social commentary on Swedish life. I like the wit in his work, and the emotional engagement in his imagery. On assignment, he’s made extraordinary work, like the image 42nd street and eight avenue, just before the street changed, which he did on commission for us for our portfolio on Times Square in 1997. I rate that as one of our best photos of all time. I was shocked when I saw Winter. It was so much darker and more depressed; right from the heart.”
We asked Ryan, the busy picture editor of the New York Times Magazine, always being snatched off to meetings, to provide us with an outside view on our presentation of contemporary Nordic photography. During her twenty-five years at the magazine, she
has won numerous prizes for her work. Educated as an artist and an art historian, she started out as a painter, but she wanted to work with other people, making something visual. Ryan loves her job:
“It’s have the opportunity to work with the best photographers in the world.”
In 2011, Aperture released the book The New York Times Magazine Photographs, edited by Ryan, a survey of the best work commissioned for the magazine. She is notorious for her hybridisation of genres, sending fashion photographers on documentary assignments and commissioning visual artists to portray famous actors, like asking Rineke Dijkstra to shoot
actress Cate Blanchet or Ryan McGinley to portray the artist M.I.A.
So what is her take on nordic now?
“My first overall impression is that there’s a sincerity to the images”, she says. “It’s very hard to make a general statement, but I think that the majority of the photographers
portray the people and landscape they know. Out of that they make dreamscapes of things related to them emotionally. This is opposed to photography that’s about photography. I feel that there’s a kind of genuine classical use of photography for storytelling in many of these cases.”
The motto “Home, sweet home” carved on the fence in Johan Bävman’s image confirms Ryan’s impression that we photograph close to home in this region of the world.
“It’s interesting that this image is from a road trip. If it were an American photographer, they’d probably show sad, homeless people, images of what life is like in the outskirts of town, portraying the industrialisation of our landscape and using it as a social commentary. Bävman seems to be drawn to small figures in big, cloud-filled landscapes. I really believe this is to show his own interior space, giving the landscape a soulful meaning.”
Ryan seems to see the images as very much within the Nordic tradition. She excuses herself for making this sensibility exists.
“I love Pekka Niittyvirta’s wash of colour, with the lone figure in the large landscape – not in an Ansel Adams way, but in some kind of way of using nature to express the soul. Maybe I’m being too romantic and reading too much into it, but the landscape seems to be used metaphorically, for the photographer’s inner self, and the landscape-images
have this kind of poetry in them. I find it uncanny how the landscape images often have this one, lonely, tiny figure in them. The work is close to home, and less about looking out to the larger world. It’s less about having some kind of cerebral, academic engage-
ment with the history of photography. I’m not saying that this work isn’t aware of the history, of course it is, and every so often the connection to painting and art history is found.
The Danish photographer Trine Søndergaard is a good example of this”, says Ryan.
“She’s clearly playing around with art history, with the portraits from behind, the use of the light and the old-fashioned look to the images.”
“I love it when photographers plays with clichés like this and twist them around for their own purpose”, she adds, referring to the works of another Dane, Joakim Eskildsen. “Like his use of the rainbow, with the promise of this happy and magical world of joy at the end of it. The picture is unbelievable, with the sunlight, and yet the sense of thunderclouds on the horizon, with the dark bushes and the innocent child running in the field. I’m sure he saw it, the possible image, before he got his camera. He saw the grass and bushes and the child in the protective blanket. Everything in the image adds up to a wonderful, biblical,
poetic comment on life maybe, or the age of innocence. And the child looks like it’s his own, so it seems to be true that these photographers are using people close to them."
The private images
In the Dutch Foam (#23), Nan Goldin introduced fellow photographer JH Engström as follows: “JH Engström is never an easy read. I usually have a facility for perceiving the photographer’s intentions after viewing the work, but with JH it’s
about learning a new language.” Ryan agrees with this:
“The lineage is interesting, from Strömholm to Anders Petersen and to JH Engström. It seems very Nordic as a “school” within photography, and very much something that reflects on Nordic life. Engström has this very robust and muscular engagement
in his photos. He’s definitely not shy. There’s always an intensity to his images, and it’s entirely his own.”
Ryan would not compare the current Nordic tendency to make personal images with Goldin’s works.
“Where Goldin is more diaristic and raw, this looks more staged and dramatised. For example, Liv Carlé Mortensen and Marie Sjøvold have a sense of something being significant and then turn it into a cinematic moment. And when we look at Erica Kovanen’s images, where she places her family around a table, it’s like a moment from a Bergman movie. Maybe the Nordic photographers take it one step further. I find that these Nordic artists make a larger statement than we’ve seen previously within this type of
The differences between the private and the documentary tendency is nonexistent according to Ryan. “In many of the portfolios it seems like that the photographer knows the people and the stories, as opposed to going out and shooting strangers and new
environments. There’s one exception, the Battered series by Harri Pälviranta. What a wonderful and crazy idea he had, to be pounding the pavements to photograph day after day. And brave, saying what he says about the Finnish culture. It is a stunning body
of work. To me, he’s an updated, modern Weegee.”
Andrea Gjestvang’s images of survivors from Utøya suggests other associations to Ryan: “I was struck by the young man in the hospital bed. He’s so young, and yet there’s something so sad in him. Gjestvang seems to capture the subtle expression on faces, showing the viewer that something terrible has happened. These images show what they should be showing, without us knowing the story behind the series.”
Three years ago, Ryan commissioned the Norwegian photographer Sølve Sundsbø to direct the work Fourteen Actors Acting. A video gallery of classic screen types for the magazine’s Hollywood issue, in which stars like Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman and
Michael Douglas portray a series of movie stars and types.
“I really liked Sølve Sundsbø’s work and we had fun making these elegant, cinematic short films. I came up with the idea to ask the actors to act out classic scenes that occur in films, such as the legendary monologue from the movie Taxi Driver where Robert de Niro talks to himself in the mirror. And then Sundsbø had the idea of James Franco kissing himself in the mirror."
The American artist Daniel Gordon is, according to Ryan, the most interesting photographer currently working in this genre: “I think the potential for these kinds of images, the recycling, has been there for so long, and it all comes from different people. Some are documentarians and some are artists. And here photography is the equivalent to oil paint, or wood or sculpture: it ends up being a medium that these photographers want to use in a more abstract way. Look at Azar Alsharif and Julie Boserup, taking existing things, cutting images into shapes to make a comment. It’s not pure abstraction; there’s more to it.”
The tendency towards fantasy and the flirtation with Alice in Wonderland has also reached Nordic countries notes the picture editor: “I loved the piece in Vogue in 2003, where Annie Leibovitz shot the model Natalia Vodianova dressed up by famous fashion designers, and had all the designers imitate characters from the book. Such a great idea, and Karl Lagerfeld is in a way like an Alice-character himself.”
This trend echoes the evolution in the history of the medium itself, Ryan says: “It went from early documentary to a more photo-journalist-based photography before it discovered itself as art, where photographers like Gregory Crewdson and Cindy Sherman played with fantasy in their work. This tendency goes back for decades, but maybe the Nordic photographers have a different take on it. Again, there’s the presence of the
dark forest, the dark blue light and the eerie-looking pale child in the images.”
And finally we have arrived full circle at the analogue tendency, which Ryan states is borderless. “You’d have to do a survey, but my hunch is that this is a worldwide trend. Just two days ago, I had a conversation with photographer Richard Learoyd who’d just
bought all the film he could get his hands on. He’s literally purchased all the film he can use in his lifetime!"
At the end of our third telephone conversation, we try to sum up where Nordic photography is at the moment. “It’s hard to point out exactly where it might be”, says Ryan. “Saying where photography is in general is equally difficult. Maybe looking back in ten years’ time we’ll know what time we were in. It’s hard to point it out as it’s happening. Like we can now see the trend of the Becher-inspired Düsseldorf School.
It’s not like I see some new group of trends; I see a variety of things going on; a lot of it’s work that’s crossing the disciplines, like the work of Daniel Gordon, and maybe this will be a defining trend of our time. The Nordic photography has a spirited, nude, happy, paradise imagery, with the intimate, close-to-home, metaphorical landscape and with Joakim Eskildsen right at the top of it”, she concludes, before she has to run off to yet another meeting.