Like a Bergman movie - Interview with Kathy Ryan


 42nd Street and Eight avenue, Lars Tunbjörk

 42nd Street and Eight avenue, Lars Tunbjörk

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.”
International Tendencies 
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!"
The  Now 
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.
From Winter, Lars Tunbjörk

From Winter, Lars Tunbjörk

 This interview was featured in Objektiv #11, nordic now, from 2013. The issue was a collaboration with the Finnish Photo Raw and Danish Filter, and focused on five tendencies within Nordic photography; private and autobiographical photography, hybrids between photography and other media, the return to analogue techniques, the immense changes that the genre of documentary is undergoing, with its practitioners questioning and pushing the borders of how it is defined, and what we have labelled ‘Everyday Fantasy’, dream-like scenarios, primarily produced by female photographers

A passion for photography - Nan Goldin

The legendary photographer Nan Goldin in conversation with JH Engström.

Nan Goldin and JH Engström in Landskrona, August 2014 Photo: Nina Strand

Nan Goldin and JH Engström in Landskrona, August 2014 Photo: Nina Strand

Text: Nina Strand

During the photo festival in Landskrona last August, Nan Goldin was one of the four main exhibitors. She presented the version of her slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency that was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2007. The work, first published as a book in 1986, was revolutionary for its personal, intimate diaristic style. In Landskrona, she granted us an exclusive interview on the condition that her close friend, Swedish photographer JH Engström, could join us in the small, cosy restaurant in the basement of Hotel Öresund.

“My work is best either as a book or as a slide show. Photography has to be experienced physically, not online”, says Goldin. “Photography is the only art form that works in books”, she adds. She loves books, but originally wanted to make films. She says that the slideshow is the closest she comes to filmmaking. She has made one film installation, Sisters, Saints & Sibyls, a work about her sister’s suicide in 1965, shown at Rencontres d’Arles in 2009, but according to Goldin it’s not yet finished, and it’s uncertain whether it ever will be.

“Three hundred and fifty people fainted when they saw it”, she claims. “That’s the best accolade I could get. It made me feel good. I always want to make people laugh or cry. I could never dream of fainting!”

The two photographers hope that Rencontres’ new director Sam Stourdzé will be able to bring more magic to Arles.
“I still remember seeing Guy Bourdin there”, says Goldin. “He’s been a great influence.” “Really strange stuff”, Engström agrees.
“Really radical work. I saw his work when I started to look at photography.”

Goldin says she has always been fascinated by photography, but that it took her a while to realize that it could be viewed as art. She was overjoyed when, in an evening class, she was introduced to photographers like Diane Arbus and Larry Clark.

“Clark’s book Tulsa made a huge impression on me. I’ve never been interested in so-called ‘good’ photography, only 100% honesty.

Engström remembers the magic of taking his first photograph.
“My father had a box camera. I was four years old. We put the negative under a glass in the sun. It was absolutely magic. It’s magic now even. The Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi said this in her talk earlier today: that the most important process of photography is in the darkroom and that she longs for the darkroom-magic.”

Goldin agrees.

“I don’t like what the internet does to photography: you no longer see the images. The computer should only be used for sending mail and reading news”, she insists. “Computers and social media have ruined the world. And I feel I’ve lost my medium. I was recently at a party for Magnum, where I stated that photography is over – it’s dead, it’s just a video game. No one talked to me for the rest of the evening.”

Engström disagrees that Goldin has lost her medium.
“You spent two hours inside the book tents after your talk today. I don’t know anyone who’s so passionate when it comes to photography as you.”

They were destined to meet, she says of Engström. She has a strong relationship with Scandinavian photography.
“My favourite photographers are Swedish. I really believe in the heritage that came from Christer Strömholm, which his student Anders
Petersen continued on and what Petersen’s student JH Engström is working with now. All three of them have a special sensitivity that they’re not afraid to show. When I first met Strömholm, he was happy to have met someone as egotistical as himself.”

They also share a true passion for photography.

“We both take images to stay alive”, Goldin says. “This is my reality. I’ve made a record of my life. Photography has really saved my soul.” Later she says, “My advice to young artists is that they shouldn’t do it if they don’t absolutely have to. If you don’t have to make art to stay alive, then do something else. It’s art – it’s not a job – it should be what you do to survive. When I was teaching, I wasn’t interested in tearing my students apart; I wanted to look for the positive in them. I wanted them to believe in themselves, and from that point they could do anything. I grew up before there was an art market, where you were an artist in a more spiritual way. Today, my students only talk about what gallery they want to exhibit in. I’m not sure if this is the way to go. Art must come from deep inside yourself, and how you look at the world around you. I tell my students never to read texts on postmodern theory – they should take LSD instead.

Engström praises Goldin’s teaching and inspirational skills.
“I remember once in Skåne, when we’d worked on one of my books all day. I was tired and made a joke, and you looked really angrily at me and said if it wasn’t important for me then we should just quit. I’ve never forgotten it. It’s important to stay focused.”

Goldin says she suffers from a ’Pygmalion complex’.
“I can help people see themselves, show them how beautiful they are. I’m famous for getting people out of the closet, and some have fallen in love with themselves through my photos of them.”

So photography may not be completely dead for Goldin, but she no longer believes in a singular photograph.
Engström agrees.
“Many photographs make one photograph.”

“I work in series, just like you”, Goldin says. “When I saw one of your first books, Trying to Dance, I was so happy. And I love the title, it’s very Scandinavian. I was thrilled that one can make such tremendously powerful work without creating the ‘good image’. I was raised to believe that a book should look a certain way, be printed in a certain manner, but you’ve found a different way. You’ve achieved a freedom from the conservative idea of what’s right. I’ve previously said, when looking through your book La Recidence, that when looking at your work, you have to learn a new photographic language.”

Goldin says that it was when working on her latest exhibition Scopophilia, commissioned by the Louvre, Paris, that “I lost my faith in the single photograph and started working with grids.” In 2010, for a period of eight months, she was allowed to wander around the museum every Tuesday with her camera. The exhibition featured details from various paintings, put together with pictures from her own archive.
“I fell in love with several of the paintings. There were some faces who brought back memories of people I once knew. My dear friend Peter Hujar explained to me what the word ‘scopophilia’ really means: ‘fulfilment of your whole self by looking’. It was fantastic to work at the Louvre. I could walk into a room and fall totally in love with a painting.”

Lo in camouflage, NYC, 1994,   from the book   Eden & After  , 2014 Nan Goldin, Phaidon 

Lo in camouflage, NYC, 1994, from the book Eden & After, 2014 Nan Goldin, Phaidon 

Goldin has just published her first book in eleven years, Eden & After. She explains that the reason it has taken so long was a strict publishing deal, which she doesn’t want to talk about. Eden & After, is a collection of images that the childless photographer has taken of her friends’ children over a period of 35 years.

“My philosophy is that children come from another planet; they know everything when they’re born. I once heard a friend’s child – she was maybe four or five at the time – asking a baby: ‘Do you remember God? Because I’m beginning to forget.’ Children come so wise, and in the course of taking pictures I began to understand that they understand everything, and then people devote their lives to making them forget. This work isn’t so different from what I’ve done before. I’ve photographed artists and children my whole life. I photograph the wild ones, the ones who can’t be tamed.”

The book also deals with the relationship between parents and children, as well as the issue of gender. In some images, Goldin portrays a child who wanted to be a boy between the ages of six and fourteen.

“There are no images of kids crying in the book”, Engström remarks. “That’s not what I was focusing on”, Goldin says. “It’s the knowledge they’re born with, and that they are taught to lose.”

Goldin works constantly – obviously not on a computer. The floor of her studio in Brooklyn, New York, is scattered with prints, ready for editing. “I have assistants with aspirations of becoming archivists who go through all my photos for me. There are many images I’ve forgotten; it’s like a treasure hunt. I heard a rumour that Weegee had big bags full of negatives in his garage when he died, something that’s comforting for me to know if I don’t get through my own.”

She photographs whatever her gaze is drawn to, believing that photography is all about memories. Whether the images show people or buildings is irrelevant.
“Right now, I’m very into architecture. Maybe I’ll look closer into this. My latest work consists of landscape imagery. I had a visit from a friend in my studio who took a look at them and said they were landscape photos taken by a person from another planet.”

Goldin, who divides her time between apartments in Paris, Berlin and New York, was not keen on leaving New York this time. She’s worried about the growing anti-Semitism in Europe. During her artist talk, she also expressed her deep concern about the situation in Gaza and said that instead of listening to her, we should all be out on the streets demonstrating.

“It’s a massacre we’re witnessing. This situation is raising the anti-Semitism, and it’s very scary. I encourage all artists I know to make a cultural boycott of Israel. I’ve always been afraid of anti-Semitism, and always been pro-Palestine. I remember a book I saw when I was fifteen, with images of Palestinians in the camps. I’ll never forget it. Ever since, I’ve refused to have anything to do with Israel, despite repeated invitations. There are no grey tones in this conflict: the situation is completely black and white.”

“I came here because I love you”, she tells Engström. “All I do is about love. I never photograph anyone I don’t love. Or maybe The Ballad is made of both love and hate. Eden & After is more tender. I’m more tender.”

It is late. The restaurant has actually been closed for an hour but our waiter did not want to disturb us. Now he asks us kindly if we can possibly take our last drinks in the restaurant lobby. After Goldin has given him a huge tip, we go outside for some fresh air. Engström hands me his camera to photograph the two photographers. We’re all happy with the result. And in a way, we all took the image.

“It doesn’t matter who pushes the button”, Engström says.
And then Goldin is done. She has a new book she wants to read. “Every night I read for two or three hours. I’m from the not-googling generation. We can keep the book alive. I don’t need to explain myself further”, she concludes. “It’s all there in my photographs.” 

Ava twirling, 2007,   from the book   Eden & After  , 2014 Nan Goldin, Phaidon

Ava twirling, 2007, from the book Eden & After, 2014 Nan Goldin, Phaidon

This interview is published in Objektiv #10.