Tuesday, April 22, 2008

interview • morten nilsson

i heart photograph: this is one portrait from a longer series you've been working on about professional dancers. could you talk a bit about this image's relationship to the overall series?

morten nilsson: for me this is one of the portraits that has succeeded. i like that it is too cold, german, impersonal. for me the best pictures in ‘dancers’ are the ones that are with out any “feel good” quality. i was playing a small game with myself trying to see how artificial and cold i could make the portraits and still feel that they were working.

i.h.p.: could you describe more what you mean when you say a "cold" photograph, and why you would be drawn to making one?

m.n.: i don’t know if it is the right word, but for me it means that i have taken the full control deciding how the person should pose, if their mouth is open or closed—all the small details. not working together, but using the person to get what you want. i used different techniques—ask them to hyperventilate, have them stand in poses too long—i tested all the techniques i could come up with. photography is so subjective in a split second you can turn a cheerful young dancer into a “sturmbannfuhrer” if you’re lucky; it’s all a game.

i.h.p.: i'm wondering if you could talk more about your relationship with your subjects, both as a photographer and interpersonally (when you're not taking photos). there's a mixture of intensity and what might be hostility in the man's expression that makes it seem as if he's ambivalent about being photographed but comfortable with you taking his picture. in other words, there's no effort on his part to present himself in the "best light."

m.n.: i did not seek any relationship with the dancers i photographed. i did not want to get to know them as people; i wanted to stay in the role as the photographer—no one really knew what i was doing. because i did not want them to feel too comfortable and safe with me, i did not promise them any pictures; i wanted to maintain tension and have them do what i told them.

i.h.p.: also, this images seems to play with some of the conventions of contemporary portraiture. the clothing, makeup, and backdrop are all highly theatrical and very general, yet what comes through is a very specific portrait of a particular person. i was wondering if you could comment on your strategy in this project.

m.n.: i used a very simple technique. i went to different dance competitions and used whatever background was available and a ring-flash. then you are down to the expression of the face and the way the person is standing. you become aware of the very small details—i found it very interesting to cut out as much as possible and see what was left.

i.h.p.: from how you describe the shoot, it seems like you only spent small amounts of time with each portrait subject. this is interesting because the photos look so carefully composed.

m.n.: in this project i have done all the portraits on location at different dance competitions. that gives a very short time for each portrait because the dancers are busy dancing. i only have the small breaks in the competition to make the pictures, that gives me very little time to think and for me too much thinking and shooting at the same time brings bad pictures. i look for faces and attitudes; i don’t shoot a lot, but concentrate on the few dancers i find interesting.

when i arrive i make a lot of "noise." sometimes i ask the emcee at the competition to announce that this very fine professional photographer is attending the competition. i bring a sweet girl to do the talking and to avoid suspiciousness from the parents and the dancers so i can do whatever i want without being looked upon as some strange pervert standing in the corner taking pictures of their children.

i.h.p.: were the methods you used specific to this project or do you have a customary way of working, and if so, does it affect what you choose to photograph?

m.n.: different projects require different methods and technique. when i started the ‘dancers’ i came from documentary black-and-white photography, the kind where you stay a long time with people to get to know them, tell the story of the repressed and poor, try to build pictures with many stories and things happening at the same time. “the fly on the wall.” but i got fed up with all these feelings, and if you really want to tell that kind of story buy a video camera. eugene smith was there. the ‘dancers’ became a protest against myself and the way i had made photography in the past. that made it really fun.
[photo: dancers #22 by morten nilsson. see more of morten's work here.]

interview is a weekly column by nicholas grider that appears each tuesday on i heart photograph.