Flying Colours

Norwegian blue is a fictional parrot, a state of mind and a real colour.

May 17

Sure, Norwegian blue isn’t its proper name. The indigo blue is more accurately called Pantone MS 281 U, but let’s stick with Norwegian blue for now. So imagine a cross in that colour, outlined in white on top a red base (or a PMS 032 U base, if you like). Width to length proportions of the base are 22:16, with colour elements having widths of 6:1:2:1:12 and lengths of 6:1:2:1:6 so that the vertical part of the cross is shifted to one side. What we have here is the Norwegian flag.

May 17

A nation’s flag will always be a symbol that folks very naturally invest a lot of feelings in. And as a symbol it represents the sum total of the values projected into it by the population of its country. Thus the symbolic values vary over time. At the time of its introduction in 1821, it was meant to symbolize both a certain concord between the Scandinavian people as well as Norwegian sovereignty. Using the tricolour of red, white and blue was also a nod to France and the USA, nations whose constitutions had inspired our own when that was drafted seven year prior.

May 17

Last Friday was Norway’s National Day, celebrating the 199th anniversary of the signing of our constitution at Eidsvoll on May 17, 1814. As always, thousands upon thousands of flags were flying. These flags are no longer political instruments (well, of course flags are always politically charged, but not to the same extent as during Norway’s union to Sweden), neither are the flags a symbol of resistance, as during the WW2 occupation years. Today’s flags are celebratory flags, and what we are celebrating is our way of life.

May 17

Norwegians are a proud and self-righteous people any day of the year, but Constitution Day is of course something of a climax. This is probably the case for most countries’ National Days. Somehow Norwegians often manage to pull it off without too much sickening self-indulgence on the topic of our own excellence. Well, some do, at least. My hometown doesn’t. Bergen has perfected the act of indulging in excellence to a degree that’s certainly nauseating but also quite charming (some will disagree – Bergen is an acquired taste).

May 17

I wasn’t celebrating May 17 in Bergen this year. Instead, I was in Nordfjordeid, a small community in a county further north, with a population of less than 3,000 people. I wasn’t really celebrating here either, but that’s my own fault. Nordfjordeid is a nice place with laidback townsfolk, honest traditions and an unassuming yet proud way of observing days like this. But seeing that I feel lonely in crowds, am suspicious of parades and might possibly be called patriotically challenged, I’m not really inclined to National Days in general.

May 17

Don’t get me wrong: I’m genuinely proud of Norway’s egalitarian values and ideals, the welfare state and the kindness of my fellow Norwegians. I do indeed think that our constitution – being the basis of all this – is something very worthy of celebration. And I don’t really mind the way it is celebrated either. Although I am naturally sceptical to nationalism of any sort, the benign kind that is on display on May 17 doesn’t really bother me.

Still, pardon me for not partaking in the celebrations myself. In situations such as this, I usually find myself relegated to the role of the observer. And quite comfortably so, I might add.May 17May 17May 17May 17May 17

The Knack to Human Flight. Sorry, I Mean Happy Ferrying

Norway, having a somewhat fjordy coastline, has a lot of ferries.

Good view? Yes. Good food? Rarely.

Good view? Yes. Good food? Meh.

Being stuck in a ferry queue and damning the world is one of the most common Norwegian pastimes. Sometimes we also damn our fellow motorists for being too many and the shipowners for operating too few ships. We never damn ourselves for being too late, though.

Surviving the misery that is ferry travel relies on a few smart choices. Some are obvious: Bring a book. Take slow and deep breaths. Never have children (this goes for all travels by car, of course). And give yourself a reward.

Now, the last one – that is the knack to happy ferrying.

The ferry pancake. A lifesaver - or is it?

The ferry pancake. A lifesaver – or is it?

Side note: The knack to – that is one of my favourite expressions in English. I very much like the sound of it. Douglas Adams wrote that the knack to flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Well, I never learned that. But I try to say knack a lot.

Back to the ferries. Yes, the knack to happy ferrying is enjoying something called a “svele,” a thick pancake made with sodium bicarbonate and hartshorn. It’s the staple food onboard ferries, and as such, something that I will from here on refer to as ferry pancakes.

There are two schools of thought concerning the consumption of ferry pancakes. One swears to adding buttercream and sugar, which is fine. The other prefers brown cheese, which is just plain wrong.

Both schools, however, agree that just the thought of a coffee and a ferry pancake can relieve tensions that otherwise would have led to acts of bloody aggression while queuing. The svele is a peacekeeper.

Coffee. Pancakes. Self service.

Coffee. Pancakes. Self service.

Rough seas are appreciated. You don't eat when you're seasick.

Rough seas are appreciated. You don’t eat when you’re seasick.

This concludes the part of this blog post that I wrote in the queue, before driving onboard and actually having one of these ferry pancakes. And now we’re through the looking-glass.

Because holy mother of mercy – holy mackerel with a mohawk! – that’s… actually quite nasty.

That’s not the way they are supposed to taste. They were supposed to be an instant relief to all ferry-related worries. Not like this doughy, bland and tasteless icky sweet loaf of mediocrity.

Could it be a bad sample? One simple bad product among the sublime pieces of heaven that my brain tries to recall? Better have another one just to be sure…


Damn you, world!

Sometimes when the ferry food is really bad, there is no option but evacuation.

Sometimes when the ferry food is really bad, there is no option but evacuation.

Museum Watching

I go to formal openings for the same reason I go to zoos: to watch the people.

Say Scream cheese. Shooting a pen and ink version of one of the world's most famous works of art.

Say Scream cheese. Shooting a pen and ink version of one of the world’s most famous works of art.

Then a few days or weeks later, I return to actually see the exhibition. But opening day is all about the crowd. Yesterday was the reopening of The Rasmus Meyer Collection at The KODE Art Museums of Bergen. One of the largest collections of Edvard Munch paintings in the world was among the works on display. Some 700 people visited the museum during the day, and looking at the queue a few minutes before the doors opened, most of them thought it a good idea to come at the exact same time. I guess quite a few actually was interested in hearing the director’s speech, but I suspect that for some it was of equal importance to be seen themselves.

Women on The Jetty. Photographer in front.

Women on The Jetty. Photographer in front.

Long is the line. And cold. And wet. That out of light day leads into the dark arts.

Long is the line. And cold. And wet. That out of light day leads into the dark arts.

I was in that queue, but seeing that I wouldn’t get in with the first (and keenest and thus most photogenic) wave of visitors, I left and had a few coffees elsewhere. Returning a couple of hours later, the speech was over and the crowd had thinned out quite a bit (possibly to go and observe World Naked Gardening Day). At this time it was possible to actually see the Munch paintings, but considering what I had really hoped to capture – the ladies of the arts clutching their glasses of faux Champagne and investing in their cultural capital by mere attendance – it was also a bit of a downer.

Watching the watchers

Incidentally (or maybe not) two of my favourite photographers have also worked a lot with the theme of museums and their visitors – in two very different manners. Thomas Struth, a German photographer associated with the so-called Düsseldorf school of photography (including Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte and Thomas Ruff) makes extremely rigid, sober and straight-on pictures with large format cameras – and usually presents his works in gigantic prints often measuring two by two meters. In his museum series, he would set up his 13×18 camera in front of certain works of art and wait long hours or even days before feeling that the crowds in front of him fell into the right formation. I especially remember seeing a large exhibition of his in the Whitechapel Gallery in East London a few years ago. If I remember correctly, one of his pictures from the Art Institute of Chicago – printed so large that the people in the picture was almost life-size – was the very first thing you saw when you came in through the doors. And that meta feeling of me, an actual gallery-goer, looking at a huge photographs of other gallery-goers looking at paintings – that is really, really engaging.

The other museum watching favourite is Elliot Erwitt, a Magnum photographer and the grand master of ironic and absurd photography. He actually has a book called Museum Watching, consisting of pictures from 40 years of attending museums in his spare time in between assignments. Compared to Thomas Struth, Elliot represents the opposite end of documentary photography. Working with small Leica cameras, his work is spontaneous and affectionate and more often than not very witty. His Museum Watching book is in no way one of his best, but at times it is absolutely superb. I honestly think that his 1995 picture from Museo del Prado in Madrid is one of the funniest photographs ever made (Erwitt has several contenders for this prize).

Elliot Erwitt's picture Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1995, photographed off of his book Museum Watching.

Elliot Erwitt’s picture Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1995, photographed off of his book Museum Watching.

Looking through Erwitts and Struths work today, there is one thing that strikes me: no one in the pictures are taking their own pictures of the art. Since then of course, the camera phone arrived. Yesterday at the The Rasmus Meyer Collection, as good as everyone was snapping away. A few were seemingly trying to capture the mood of the opening, but most were taking pics of the paintings, and I guess a fair share of those pics were going straight on Instagram and the like – showing that yes, we were there.

According to Thomas Struth: “[…] when art works were made, they were not yet icons or museum pieces. When a work of art becomes fetishized, it dies.” I’m not so cynical myself. Munch’s work is obviously fetishized, but I have a feeling that it’s still able to evoke some feelings independently of the fact that they are Munch paintings. But it’s difficult, of course. The Scream, for example, is so much a part of our common cultural heritage that I find it impossible to separate the picture itself and my emotional response to it from its role as an artefact in popular culture. The only Scream on display at The Rasmus Meyer Collection is a tiny pen and ink version. I don’t think that will be able to elicit any new emotions. But maybe some of the other works will. I’ll have to return another day to find that out. And leave my camera at home.

The director's speech. Spoken.

The director’s speech. Spoken.

April Showers Bring What Exactly?

The sun shines, having no alternative, atop the clouds. Below is misery.

May 3. I woke up to this view.

May 3. I woke up to this view.

The weather is the fallback topic of any conversation gone stale. I don’t believe this blog has gone stale quite yet, but I’m still writing about the weather. Go figure. 

Here, west of the mountains, the default weather is either “raining” or “inbetween two showers” – the latter something we actually have a dedicated word for in Norwegian: “Opplett” means “yes, it is actually raining. Just not right now.”

Mt. Ulriken in July 2011. Compare with the official  official tourist view.

Mt. Ulriken in July 2011. Compare with the official tourist view.

Not long ago it was “opplett” for almost 30 days straight. Which left us in a bit of a panic once the rain started again, as we feared that we had used up all the sunny days allotted to us this year. This is nonsense of course, except that so far it has proven true. Now it is the third of May and it is … snowing? The proverb “April showers bring May flowers” could possibly be corrected to “April showers bring May snow and dread and bollocks to all your optimism: spring is dead.”

Pretending It’s Summer

The last week of March I was in Copenhagen and Roskilde photographing for the upcoming summer edition of KLM’s inflight magazine.

Roskilde in March. Indistinguishable from summer.

Roskilde in March. Indistinguishable from summer.

Shooting a summer story at this time of year is always difficult, but this time Denmark experienced its coldest month of March in 30 years. I think I spent three hours on Amager square just waiting for a couple of hipsters in seasonally neutral attire to pass. And there really aren’t that many hipsters too cool to be cold when it’s ten below. 

This is a Danish icebreaker.

This is a Danish icebreaker.

This is of course no joking matter (well, hipsters in ten below is, but the climate isn’t). This spring chill is not an isolated Nordic phenomenon, but something affecting much of Europe and the Southeast U.S. And that even in a year (yet another) with global March temperatures reaching record highs. These two facts are probably linked. As The Guardian writes, scientists link frozen spring to dramatic Arctic sea ice loss.

The basic science of it being this, according to the article: Because of global warming, sea ice is now 80 per cent less than it was thirty years ago. This ice loss adds heat to the ocean and atmosphere thus shifting the position of the high altitude jet streams that govern most weather in the northern hemisphere. This shift allows the cold air from the arctic to plunge much further south and screw up our spring.

Now, I have never really been prone to swinging moods because of bad weather as such – but I have spent much of my adult life in a state of a mild, constant climate depression.

And the combination really gets me.

The Tourist and The Tulip

Welcome to a brand new blog and an opening pic of a shitty flower bed.

A tourist trap outside my office in Bergen.

A tourist trap outside my office in Bergen.

This bed of tulips is right outside my office, and a few days ago I came across a tourist sitting on his knees and interrogating one of the flowers with his Handycam. Now, he’s probably not the first to do this. My office is right by one of the busiest cruise ship ports in Norway, so close to half a million cruise passengers pass by each year. Last year I had this conversation with an American woman in her late sixties, just moments after she had disembarked:

– Are you local?
– Yes, I am.
– Where is the nearest McDonald’s?
– Really?
– Yes, really.
– Oh, it’s that-a-way. About a five minute walk.
– No! That’s too far!

I don’t know – maybe she was just looking for free wifi at McDonald’s. But her general physique suggested that she was used to having extra large meals with her free broadband access.

Vision of the Seas. Old ladies starving for a happy meal won't find salvation onboard this vessel.

Vision of the Seas. Old ladies starving for a happy meal won’t find salvation onboard this vessel.

Back in March I overheard two other American tourists walking and talking along the Hanseatic wharf. Their conversation went like this:

– Look at the angle of those buildings! Look at that! Have you ever seen such crooked buildings? Have you ever seen such a crooked door? Look at those angles! Will you just look at that..!
– Jim, we’re drunk.
– Oh. Yeah. Right.

At least Jim and his drunken buddy had something to look at. I met a Japanese guy on top of the funicular Fløibanen a few years ago – in a dreadfully foggy weather. Visibility was limited to just a few metres, so this unlucky Japanese guy was photographing the supposed view off of a brochure! I made one of my all time favourite tourist pictures of him.

Mr. Hideyuki Uchida from Matsuyama in Japan photographs a brochure showing the view from mount Fløien the way it's supposed to be. Mr. Uchida onlys has nine days for all three of the Nordic countries, leaving him with no time to wait for the fog to clear.

Mr. Hideyuki Uchida from Matsuyama in Japan photographs a brochure showing the view from mount Fløien the way it’s supposed to be. Mr. Uchida onlys has nine days for all three of the Nordic countries, leaving him with no time to wait for the fog to clear.

Of course, as a lot of other photographers, I find tourists to be an invaluable motif. I can spend long summer mornings discretely following groups of Japanese tourist being led around by guides with red umbrellas (a friend of mine once «kidnapped» an entire group by a clever coup d’umbrella). And sometimes the opposite happens. I was having a morning cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll in public once, when a tourist guide must have remarked that I was enjoying something alike the Bergen national dish. In any case, I suddenly had 20 Japanese photographing me having breakfast.

Gran Canaria

Gran Canaria

Photography and tourism are of course merely two sides of the same coin. Since the very beginning of the medium, photographs of the exotic lands has allured people to travel to the very same places so that they themselves could experience the photographs in real life. Pictures of the pyramids in the 1850s led to the first proper wave of tourists going to Egypt. And the more people travelled, the more they photographed, the less exotic these places became. Now there is no real distinction between the real pyramids and the tourist pyramids. At least I don’t think there is. I haven’t been to Egypt. But I have been to Venice – and thus experiencing the most intense love/hate relationship that I have had to any city. As with the pyramids (probably) there is as good as no difference between the real and the touristic Venice. It’s doubtlessly one of the most beautiful cities I have been to. Still, I felt absolutely suffocated. Some hundred thousand tourists may pass my office each year, but over 15 million visit Venice. Tourist Venice is the real Venice today. And without my camera I wouldn’t have managed. Of course, this makes me one of them, yet another tourist with a camera. I was photographing other tourists rather than the gondoliers. But still.

Venice - the cradle of... something.

Venice – the cradle of… something.

Sintra. Castle of the Moors (and the day trip crowds).

Sintra. Castle of the Moors (and the day trip crowds).

This sort of brings me around to the reason of this blog. I much prefer to travel when working (as a photojournalist) rather than in my spare time. The reason is two-fold: one is the tourist’s shame – the other is access. I’m curious by nature, but I’m also shy. Not painfully, but I’m not great with people either. Smalltalk doesn’t interest me. I have a hard time of approaching strangers – unless that is – I’m working. When having an agenda, having a story to tell, I am to some extent a different person.

This summer I’m going to the US for a month long road trip with my girlfriend.

USA. Mapping FTW.

USA. Mapping FTW.

It’s not a work trip. It’s a holiday. I don’t think I’ve had a holiday lasting as long as this since high school. That’s fifteen years ago. And I really believe that I will have a substantially more interesting time in the US if I try to tell some stories from this trip. But I’m not going to commit myself to a publisher other than myself as that would sort of kill the idea of a proper holiday. So I need a different outlet, another audience – at least a potential audience. Thus a blog.

(Truth be told this is my second attempt at a blog, the first being a tumblr-site that never really took off. Then again I never really felt at home in a community based on the microblogging of nonsense either.)

Anyhow – now it is soon my turn to be the traveller and the Americans’ turn to mock me (lovingly, the same way I mock them, I hope). I pretty much know I won’t be asking for directions to McDonald’s, and I very much doubt I will be crawling in their flower beds to shoot tulips up close. But I just might be looking at crooked houses while drunk. And this blog will be where I boast about it.


(Read Geoff Dyer’s brilliant introduction to Martin Parr’s even more brilliant Small World for more on the relationship between photography and tourism – some pics here).