Simon & Lotta, Lotta & Simon
Having assigned Gothenburg-based painters Fredrik Åkum and Tomas Lundgren with the same task earlier this year, the turn has come for friends and former HFF School of Photography graduates Lotta Törnroth and Simon Berg (<3) to freely record a conversation in which the notions of death, anxieties and turning the lens towards one's own parents are brought to the table.
S.B: Alright, let's dive right into it and see where we end up.
L.T: Why don't you begin with asking me something you've never been asked but would have wanted to?
S.B: That idea crossed my mind too. Yes, let's do it.
L.T: So what's your question then?
S.B: Why image-making?
L.T: Wait, do you want me to answer that?
L.T: Why do I take pictures? Hmm, I don't know... Because I don't know how to paint? I mean, I do but I lack the skills. You know how people often say that the strength of photography lies in its ability to capture reality? Personally, I think it's rather the opposite.
S.B: But wasn't that the allure of it in the first place; the idea of capturing reality?
L.T: Perhaps, yes, but I quickly learned that wasn't the case. What makes it interesting to me is that it allows you to create your own reality by creating and staging scenarios.
S.B: How does the portrait series I have in front of me (I am going to tell you that the dream is more important than reality, 2011-2013) relate to reality? The first time I saw it which must have been years ago, I remember thinking they were really pretty portraits.
L.T: What do you mean?
S.B: Well, that's the first thing that strikes you. The fact that they are what they are; portraits.
L.T: I find it very fascinating to have portraits taken in which the subjects don't recognize themselves. I think unfailingly everyone I ever photographed, including my own parents, have not recognized themselves in my pictures.
S.B: And have you?
L.T: Sure, how they appear in my pictures is how I choose to see them. It's a game of sort, I'm playing with the photography medium. My subjects are assigned roles they're not initially aware of.
S.B: Were these pictures staged or were they taken in situations that just emerged naturally?
L.T: I do pay some attention to the lighting but that's about it, really. It might have been evoked by a beautiful shadow I felt the need to capture and told whoever that happened to be there to stand still.
L.T: How about you? Why did you start taking pictures?
S.B: I mainly recall two things; one was being drawn to visual arts through Russian Constructivism. I remember being stunned by the compositions. Another entry was by having seen the iconic photographs of the likes of Anders Petersen. And various books at the library that rendered an illusion of photography being the gateway to something bigger. However, then you learned that working with photography is to be in a constant state of delusion. Images cease to exist and everything turns into depictions of reality.
L.T: So what you're saying is that you see everything as things waiting to be depicted?
S.B: No, quite the opposite. The only time I actually stop to look at things is when I'm working. My practice mainly puts forth motifs that arise from just going about in my daily life. It might be the soap lather creating something visually interesting that catches my attention while doing the dishes. That's what triggers me to work.
Now let's talk about your practice for a while. Aside from the visual darkness in many of your pictures, there's also often an underlying darkness like in your work To wait for the inevitable (2013-2014). Without any specific works in mind, can you tell us a little about this undertone that to me runs like a thread throughout all your work? I believe it's also present in the act alone of taking portraits of your friends and family. Portraiture is a pretty morbid activity when you think of it. By collecting slices from specific periods in life, you in a way conserve your beloved ones, no?
L.T: This is so creepy. I've just read a novel called The invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Without going into details, it tells the story of a man who invents a machine of sort with which he depicts people who later passes away.
S.B: To me, even without reading the accompanying texts, the notion of death is omnipresent in your work. To connect motifs such as the sea which recurs throughout your body of work to death isn't very farfetched.
L.T: Well, I think it all stems from my severe form of death anxiety.
S.B: How does that gel with the fact that you spend so much time dealing with death in your practice then? Also, what strikes me, if one reads your book (Att vänta på det oundvikliga: berättelser från havet, 2014), is the sense of longing. To me it seems like you're rather suffering from something else.
L.T: Perhaps, yes. I'm dwelling, that's what I do in fact. Everything and anything that I need to process and get out of my system. The portraits of my friends is a social experiment. That goes for the ones of my parents as well. They just haven't been aware of my intentions until afterwards. I've had some kind of vision for that project all along; to apply my death anxiety on to them. And in the book, I've tried to move on. I've wanted to tell a story of somebody whose voice is never heard.
And the reason why I'm so drawn to the sea is its dual qualities. On the one hand, it can be seen as something very powerful and daunting and on the other as very peaceful and serene. Everybody relates to it differently. Ultimately, I think my obsession with it, and in my book especially, stems from feeling pity for those who have been affected by it negatively. I think I've inherited this character trait from my mother who's a very worried person. Dwelling about these things and preparing for the worst has a relaxing effect on me. If you're already set for the worst, there's nothing worse that can get to you. You know what I mean?
On that note, in many of my works, I subject myself to dangers that I couldn't bare myself to ask somebody else to. If somebody should have to die, it should be me. The idea of drowning is utterly terrifying but yet I find myself plunging right into the sea in the middle of the night.
S.B: I've heard drowning is pretty nice. If you allow yourself to, that is.
L.T: Gosh, no, I really don't like the idea of that. I don't want to die – period. No, seriously, I'm very easily frightened. Through my images and what I subject myself in order to make them, I think I force myself to challenge my own cowardice.
S.B: If we rewind just a little bit. How did you find the experience of working with your parents?
I think it's quite common as a photographer to turn the lens towards your own family members at some point.
L.T: My dad is exceptionally easy to work with. He'll basically agree to anything. My mom isn't nearly as cooperative.
S.B: And how was the experience for you?
L.T: Well, I've used them in all kind of ways for my own benefit...
S.B: Were you never afraid of getting a no from your mother?
L.T: Let me tell you, I've had more no's than I can count. I've had to take photos of her without her knowledge and god knows what. She used to be very uncomfortable with seeing pictures of herself. In the past, I would find torn photographs of her that I had taken. I was very persistent though and kept taking pictures. Goes without saying that as a photographer, you should be respectful of your subjects but I also felt that I really wanted that photograph of her. So once I had it, the one that now appears on my website, I didn't leave her a choice. I sent it to Liljevalchs for the spring exhibition (Vårsalongen 2011) and it ended up being selected. Naturally I then had to call her... However, seeing it in there, and it was shown in a rather large format, marked a turning point for her. Her friends who came to see it all commented on how beautiful the photograph was and she was quite pleased in the end.
S.B: Myself, I've been photographing my mother from day one. Initially I found it a bit troublesome
that she never seemed to get what I was doing. A few years ago, I believe while she was cutting the Christmas ham, I asked her to stay still and went to fetch my camera. When I returned, I found her in the very same position as when I had left her. Since then, she's been very willing to be photographed, often while working around the kitchen.
L.T: As I was saying, my dad has always been very easy to work with. He's more or less agreed to anything I've asked for. I've always found that pretty interesting, especially with the balance of power in mind.
S.B: It's interesting that you mention balance of power because to me, it's so embedded in the act of taking portraits. Perhaps it's a little different for me as I mainly work with still lifes. I do however work with people on the occasions when I photograph body parts which happens quite often. For me, it's easier just to see people as objects. To tell you the truth, I'm not very concerned with how they are portrayed. I'm very frank about using them for my own purposes. My practice is very much about capturing specific details or materiality that perhaps the owner would prefer hiding or neglecting.
L.T: While listening to you, I can almost hear J.H. Engström and Anders Petersen in what you're saying. Would you say that you've been inspired by that genre?
S.B: I see what you mean, but no, not really. I'm not so interested in people, really.
L.T: Do you think they are?
S.B: They might not admit it, but I think they're genuinely sociable people who enjoy being around people. My lack of interest in people probably stems from my laziness. It's easier not having to deal with social interaction and just focusing on the things I have at hand.
I have one last question for you before wrapping this up; what made you want to work with box cameras?
L.T: I sometimes feel like I'm this conservative ninety-year-old white man who refuses to get with modern technology (laughs). Jokes aside, the reason why I began working with box cameras is because I accidently dropped my Hasselblad on the floor. I couldn't rely on it any longer and I need things to be reliable in order to do the things I do (laughs). Honestly, what I really appreciate about photography, and to get back to your initial question, is the unreliability. That's also the reason why I work without a light meter for instance. I quite enjoy not knowing the outcome. There's a great sense a freedom that comes with that.
All images accompanying this feature courtesy of the artists <3.
For more info about Lotta Törnroth and Simon Berg, please visit: