Interview – Helene Schmitz
My interview with Helene Schmitz comes just after her return from New York. Her work was part of the opening exhibitions at the newly opened branch of Fotografiska museum. One of Sweden’s top internationally known photographers, Schmitz’s early interest in photography stemmed from her fascination for the impermanence of life. Over the years she has taken to researching and documenting the brutal relationship between man and nature, the exploitation of land and natural resources in Sweden and Iceland and the human obsession for control. Stunning and dramatic, her large format analog prints of landscapes sometimes resemble idyllic scenes from classical paintings, or as in the case of Livingrooms, resembling cinematic stills. Her work has been exhibited internationally and in the collections of museums and private collectors. Schmitz has also published several award winning photography books, collaborating with writers and philosophers.
Portrait of Helene Schmitz by Joakim Rolandsson.
What is your earliest memory connected to photography?
When I was 12, I had really wanted a camera and was given an Instamatic camera with an in-built flash. I started to photograph my family and landscapes. There was a gallery in Stockholm called Camera Obscura run by Lars Hall that showed photography exhibitions with big names like Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus and other well known international photographers. I used to go there all the time as a teenager as he was the first to show photography as art in Stockholm.
What was your journey in becoming a photographer?
I knew when I was 17 that I wanted to become a photographer. My parents had wanted me to study law or medicine as I had good grades in school, which I wasn’t interested in doing. The only place I could study photography was at Konstfack. I applied when I was 19 and was rejected. I took this rejection very badly at the time and saw it as the end of that, of course I could have reapplied the following year, but I was crushed! After that I trained to obtain a license to ride race horses, and rode at races for two years. I was also very interested in film so I went on to study film and art theory at Stockholm University, thinking at the time that I would become an academic. I did some photography at the same time and had exhibitions and decided that was the direction I wanted to go in. I was 26 or 27 and had my first child while I was still studying.
There is a fascination for the phenomenons caused by nature and how over time, it completely transforms a space, as we see in Kudzu Project, Sunken Gardens and Earthworks. What is it that pulls you to these subjects and to document them in your photography?
As a child I was completely obsessed with the subjects of infinity, death and the passing of time. In choosing photography as a medium, I was in a way able to capture life that is so transient and fleeting. We also live in a very control obsessed world, but there are things that are still beyond our control and that can’t be tamed, like our ageing bodies, and the forces of nature. This is something I explore in many series and Kudzu Project was one of them. Kudzu was a plant that was gifted to the United States from Japan. Fast growing, beautiful leaves and giving shade in the American south. What they didn’t realize was that the warm, humid climate made the very deeply rooted plants grow about 30 cm in a day, in all directions, resulting in a complete invasion! We have this idea of plants being beautiful and gentle, but there are so many species that are highly invasive and very powerful.
Your last exhibition series is called Thinking like a Mountain. Could you explain the inspiration for that and why that title?
I had already been working with the elements of nature. In 2014 I was paddling around in a kayak in the outer archipelago of Stockholm. It was an extremely hot summer with a lot of algae in the water. I could smell the smoke from the bad forest fire in Västmanland that was raging about 250 km away. I felt the need to go there and study how the fire had transformed nature and document how the forest recovers from this. My artistic practice seemed to have been invaded by all the information on climate change and the effects on our eco system at that point of time. I had been doing a lot of travelling abroad researching colonialism and I wanted to do something closer to home. Our natural forests were being turned into commodities and being industrialized. As a visual artist I see this work as meditations on the contemporary landscape. I also did a project in the north of Sweden and in Iceland, where previously untouched landscapes were being transformed into something completely different. Thinking like a Mountain is a term taken from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.
In the series Livingooms, the pictures project loss, decay and a sense of tragedy and at the same time provides such poetic beauty. Why did you choose to do a series on this?
I had not plannned on doing a series on this. It was the winter of 1994 and I had just lost my mother two months earlier. Having my childhood home perish in a fire so soon after my mother’s death made it an extremely emotional time for me. I wasn’t interested in any of the personal stories or artefacts in the apartment but saw it as some form of closure. My father lived on the top floor, I had to access it from the outside, the building was very badly burnt inside. It was freezing and snowing in, mould had begun to set into the furniture, in these very rooms that held so many memories of my childhood. I was also very inspired by all the films and documentaries I had seen over the years, especially Andrei Tarkovsky. Galerie Aronowitsch had heard about these photographs and requested to do an exhibition in 1996.
You have published several books, some of them have won awards. What is your process with a new book?
When I get an idea for a book I am able to already see the finished product in my mind. I am very interested in design and I always have others contribute to the text. I also like to intertwine other people’s thoughts and ideas with my work as a visual artist, so my books are not only about my photography. As in my latest book Thinking like a Mountain, the texts were contributed by five authors from different fields. The series may seem to resemble classical landscape paintings but when you look closer you will see the human exploitation of the land.
What are the challenges when working with large format analog photography?
It is extremely time consuming, heavy, difficult to travel with and expensive. Especially when working with landscape. It takes an hour to prepare for a shoot. For example when I was in Iceland and wanted to capture a scene with beautiful light, by the time I had the camera prepared there was a snowstorm raging so I had to pack everything down again! The exposed negatives need to be brought home, which when travelling abroad is a total nightmare, having to deal with customs officers is very stressful. Then they are developed and scanned after which I work with large digital files so I need a powerful computer. I do like the process, but it is very time consuming and all the preparations need to be done before unlike digital cameras where the work is done after.
Why do you choose to shoot using analog cameras? What are the properties in an analog that you prefer as opposed to digital?
I work with large format photography and the quality is still better with analog cameras, the depth of focus and softer effects, and the highlights are better. But the quality of digital cameras are getting close to achieving the effects of the analog. I just enjoy the physical process, being able to touch and see the negatives and not have them in a digital cloud. I do mix the technique now as I scan the negatives into a digital file and work on them from there.
Your earlier subjects were flowers and plants, how did you become involved in those projects?
It was just that period in my life where I had young children, I enjoyed working in the garden with plants and inspired by all that beauty. That first project was one of pure joy. I was also fascinated by Karl Blossfeldt, a German photographer who published a book of photographs in 1929 of plant surfaces in detail. The next book on macro photography was inspired by Carl Linnaeus. I then did an assignment for National Geographic. And just as I was starting to get internationally renowned for macro photography I found I was done with it. I then made a trip to Surinam following the footsteps of a student of Linneaus , Daniel Rolander which resulted in the Sunken Garden series.
Having originally studied film and art history, could you see yourself returning to film in the near future?
No, after an intensive film workshop in New York in 1995 I realised that I would be a terrible filmmaker! I am too obsessed with each image to see the whole together. I do think I will just stick to photography.
Who have you been inspired by over the years?
Karl Blossfeldt and how he treated plants as sculptures, which was what sparked my interest in macro photography. Lately, Canadian Edward Burtinsky who photographs industrial landscapes. The films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and French filmmaker Alain Resnais. Documentary filmmaker Erik M. Nilsson. I have also been inspired by the American author Michael Pollan. There are also artists, C.F. Hill being one of them.
Is there a dream project?
It feels like everything I have done has been a dream project. I could say the one that I am working on right now, which unfortunately I am not able to reveal at the moment. But it will be a new series.
Video made for the exhibition at Fotografiska in 2016.
Follow Helene Schmitz on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/heleneschmitz/