Art vs. Holiday: Photographing Scandinavia

The eternal dilemma of the amateur photographer on holiday: do you want to be the next travel photographer of the year or simply document your sojourn and keep your mum happy? If the former, you will inevitably ruin the holiday for yourself and everyone around you by becoming increasingly obsessed with finding the perfect shot and cleaning lenses. If the latter, you may regret the blurred snapshots that really don’t look as good as you remember. This was my predicament whilst roaming across Scandinavia.

First, the trip. Mainly city hopping, we started in majestic Stockholm and then meandered across the Swedish countryside to the more routine, yet quirky Gothenburg. Several plates of meatballs and herring later, we crossed the border to the relatively metropolitan Norwegian capital of Oslo. Next, a surprisingly enjoyable, seven hour train journey the width of Norway, via the stupendous fjords to the finish line of the quaint-fishing-village-yet-tourist-honeypot of Bergen. All perfect locations to photograph, be it for artistic purposes or to remember in twenty years time.

Now a disclaimer, or perhaps an excuse: I only have a consumer Digital SLR, which is about four years old. Also, I was travelling light and only had room for one camera and one lens; in an ideal world I would have taken something with film, several different lenses and a tripod. Also, I make no claims of great expertise, nor full mastery of the medium. Consequently, what follows is simply my reflections on my personal attempts to photograph Scandinavia.

Stockholm

I quickly learned that Stockholm’s tightly woven streets made photographing the whole scene difficult. Instead, I switched tactics to the other extreme – capturing slices and cross-section samples of streets and buildings. I feel this technique can often more accurately represent the architecture and define the ambience than trying to squeeze everything in by pressing yourself against wall and or climbing on a phone box (I had a bad experience). Sometimes less really is more. Therefore in the case of Stockholm, particularly known for its historic architecture, I decided to make a feature of the overlapping and disorganised buildings.

I fell in love with Stockholm – I felt very at ease and at home. This was in part due to the Swedish way of life: comfortably relaxed, but efficient. How to capture this was on my mind for a good while until a lunch stop after several hours of “city-trekking” brought us to an urban park. Here, in a lively square, there were working Stockholmers relaxing in the sun with the morning papers. Not a care in the world whilst the city was a hive of activity around them.

To me, Stockholm is a city of split personality. On one side you have a slightly démodé ancient town and on the other, a slick, sleek metropolis. Flicking through my photos on our departure at Central Station, I realised this latter “personality” was well and truly un-represented – I had fallen into the trap of photographing all the prime tourist shots. Fortunately for me, Stockholm’s Central Station provided a perfect opportunity to rectify this and bolster my chances of winning a low-grade photo competition. The cool lines of the space age trains against a backdrop of futuristic architecture glistening in the sun was a perfect shot.

Gothenburg

The second-largest city in Sweden, Gothenburg, presented a new challenge and if anything, the opposite of Stockholm: there isn’t really anything specific to photograph. At least, there is no tourist shot. Some would say boring, I would say understated, but Gothenburg does have a certain charm and off the (not very well trodden) tourist trail there were some beautiful streets, cool cafés and really good art galleries. Thus, the predicament here was how to take photos of Gothenburg that did not make it look humdrum. My solution was to resort to the more artistic and adopt a style of ambiguous angles with divergent compositions. I felt this was a step closer to solving the Eternal Dilemma; I attempted to photograph Gothenburg from an artistic perspective in order to try and present the intangible qualities so I could thus remember how much I liked the city.

Oslo

Oslo is not pretty to look at. Well, at least not in a conventional sense. There are some areas of architectural beauty (such as the award-winning opera house), and the views from the town hall over the Oslo fjord are liberating, but in terms of postcard-picturesque, it ends there. Yet what Oslo lacks in traditional beauty, it makes up with an abundance of culture and ethnic variety. And culture is what the majority of visitors to the city are after. But how do we capture “culture”? Let’s not get started on what culture is and how it is manifested, but simply thinking photographically: how do you convert a cultural experience – often participatory – into a photograph? My answer was to shrug off the shackles of holiday album documentation. Unlike in Gothenburg where I became so bothered about “capturing” its ambience, I went all out for the interesting photo, worrying less about whether it was representative as a shot. The lens cleaner was out and I felt myself constantly championing the mundane – nothing was off limits and everything was worth a photo.

You would think that Oslo, as the least aesthetically pleasing destination of the trip, would result in me taking the fewest photos. Quite the contrary – Oslo scooped the “most photographed” prize. I felt myself capturing the “instant” in all its glory – making the most of the micro-stories that make up a city. One of the aforementioned cultural attractions for me was the Ultima Contemporary Music Festival. I therefore sensed a certain irony, taking a photo of a photo within the poster advertising the festival. Having said this, my photo wasn’t just for ironic purposes; the poster was on top of layers upon layers of posters boasting what the city has to offer. I had cracked how to take a photo of culture!

Norwegian Fjords

National Geographic rated the Norwegian fjords as the best destination in the world. You can’t blame them. Even after five hours on a boat with patience-trying Spaniards, I couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer scale and beauty of the breathtaking fjords. Photographer’s job sorted? Perhaps this makes the souvenir documenter’s task simpler. No matter how shoddy the camera and no matter how inept its user, shots of this breathtaking scenery will never fail to impress. But it may be surprising that the fjords presented me with the biggest challenge of the trip; at times I struggled to get the shots I sought. The first problem is more of an excuse (again). In my opinion, the best landscape shots, if not taken on a professional Digital SLR, with incredibly high detail and saturation of colours, are often those taken on old, grainy film cameras – just the sort I had left at home. The moody surroundings of the Fjords cry out for something lo-fi. This is why firstly, most of my fjord photos are in black and white and secondly, I found many of the photos I took accidentally, with the wrong settings and out of focus, were the most pleasing. It definitely helped reinforce my mantra of never deleting a photo until you’ve seen it enlarged.

A further issue was how to take a creatively-minded photo. After Oslo, I gave up on art. I simply wanted to take a photo to show my friends how picture-perfect the fjords are. Perhaps in these circumstances, when the background is this good, the contents should do the talking, not the concept. An off-kilter angle or zoomed-in cross-section might sacrifice the detail and information the uninitiated viewer needs to appreciate this type of natural scenery.

I feel that I have reached quite a solid and justifiable conclusion. The dilemma of whether I should think artistically or just take the simple shots whilst travelling will continue to rage, but perhaps it shouldn’t be seen as a dilemma. Different situations ask for different methods of photography and there will always be ways to keep both camps (family and competition judges) happy. Furthermore, in some circumstances, the scenery will do the job for you – in fact your “creativity” might cramp its style. And finally, is there a solution to combining art and holiday? Can I prove I was there and provide a photo for the mantelpiece? My best effort can be seen below.

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