November 21st 2012 by Andrew S Gibson
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This article is part of a series of interviews with long exposure photographers to celebrate the release of my ebook Slow. You can keep track of the interviews by clicking on the Long Exposure Photography Interviews link under Categories in the right-hand sidebar.
Håkan Strand is a fine art photographer from Sweden. He specialises in black and white landscapes and seascapes, and a selection of his finest photos is available in limited edition fine art prints from galleries throughout Europe and America (full list here).
How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look do you try and create in your photos?
I do not have a general photographic vision that is applicable to all my work. I’m always working on several projects involving different ways of approaching the subjects. When I work with landscape, I often look for simple and graphic images that can provide a feeling of peace and harmony. But, I also sometimes look for an underlying drama in the tranquil images, which may not always be so visually prominent.
I quite often work during the time between light and darkness, at dawn or at dusk when the day turns into night. In the vague light, I can expose the film for long periods of time. This sometimes causes a distortion of the image, which can strengthen the mood, and may sometimes elicit associations of the boundary between dream and reality. One can perhaps describe my images, especially the landscapes and seascapes, as a mixture of minimalism, romanticism and Zen, influenced by Scandinavian design and Nordic melancholy.
Name three photographers you like and why?
I like Michael Kenna, Bill Schwab and Kirsten Klein. They are all great photographers. All three have their own personal style, but in their imagery they have something in common which appeals to me. This appeal cannot always be put into words. Why does one like a particular piece of music or a special book? Sometimes the attraction, the tension, the unspoken, is written between the lines.
Kirsten Klein, from Denmark, is the photographer who has most strongly influenced me. Kirsten has been a successful photographer since the late 60’s and is today arguably one of Scandinavia’s foremost photographers. Her landscapes are outstanding. She is a master of creating tension in her seemingly serene images.
I feel that her photographs capture a Nordic tone, with an underlying melancholy, and at the same time, her photographic world is visually beautiful, atmospheric and very artistic. There is much to discover in her images, although at first glance they may seem simple in construction. Her photography requires an active observer. The more shows I have seen of her work, the more fascinated I become.
Long exposure photography – what’s the attraction and why do you do it?
I think that long exposures can help to create an atmosphere, a tension, a drama that enhances the visual impression. There is also something unpredictable about this technique. You never know exactly what the end result will be. I obviously have a rough sense of how the photographic image will turn out, but there are always elements one does not have control over. This increases the excitement of working with long exposures, especially when making exposures of 20 minutes or longer. Things happen that you don’t expect at all.
Why black and white – what is the appeal for you?
I always liked black and white photographs. I have several books with old photos from Stockholm. I think a good black and white photograph has aesthetic qualities which I find appealing. I like the relationship between the darkest black and purest white, and all the variations of grey in between. I also like well-composed photographs with strong graphic elements, which I think can be enhanced in black and white.
I believe you live in Sweden. How does the climate and landscape of Sweden influence your approach to long exposure photography?
The climate here in Sweden is perfect for both long exposures and black and white images. The winter in Sweden is long, overcast with much fog, and with a soft light compared to countries further south. It is easier to control long exposures when the light is not so strong.
There are three threads to your long exposure portfolio – the landscape, seascapes and architecture. How does your approach to these themes differ, and in what way are they similar?
Basically, I think I have the same approach for all three categories. However, when I work with architecture I put great emphasis on the composition. Working with architecture is fun, but it requires a lot of attention to how you are going to compose the image. You have to think several times before you decide what you are going to include and what you are going to exclude from the image’s frame.
I can see from your portfolio that you are widely travelled. How important is the contribution of travel to developing your portfolio from an artistic point of view? How has travel helped you develop as a person?
It is much easier to work when you are away from home. You know, when you are home there are always things you have to take care of, things you have to fix in the house, or with the car, or just about anything. There are always things to do. When you are away from home you get rid of that distraction. The only thing you have on your agenda when you are on a photo trip is to take pictures. It is one of the best things I know, to take an airplane to another country, visit a place where you’ve never been before, load the magazines with black and white film and start to explore the new surroundings. It doesn’t get better then that.
How important is light in your imagery? What types of light do you prefer for long exposure photography?
As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to work in the soft light of dawn and dusk, especially when the sun is low as it is here in the northern part of the world during the winter months.
Your photos show a mastery of composition. What are the principles behind the way you compose your photos?
I actually got a lot of help from my wife regarding the issue of composition. She has an artistic background and a degree in Illustration from Pratt Institute in New York City. She taught me to think of all the objects in the image’s area, not just the things you focus on, or perhaps the background, but even on the empty spaces and ”unnecessary things ” in a picture, and how to make all the parts interact with one another. Also, to look at the pictures in a graphic way, and how to make all the lines, forms and empty spaces work together instead of against each other. Her way of thinking actually improved my work a lot.
I believe you earn a living as a fine art photographer. Do you have any advice for our readers on how they can work towards achieving the same goal? What can they do from an artistic viewpoint to improve their work and a practical viewpoint to selling their work?
This is really a hard question to answer. I wish I had something good to come up with.
A short answer would be, work hard and don’t follow the trends! To work hard will always help you to get food on the table, no matter what you do. I have been working seven days a week for many years now. It took a long time before I started to sell any photographs at all.
One of the most important things that helped me transition from working in the health care field to becoming a fine art photographer, was that I have always been able to do some commercial work while I was building up my fine art business.
Another thing that helped me when I first started to sell photographs, is the fact that I never followed the trends here in Sweden. I always liked the old and traditional style of black and white landscapes and seascapes. I am fascinated by the mood and the mystery of Nature. I get a lot of inspiration from the romantic period, for example, the German artist Caspar David Friedrich and many of his followers. This type of image is out of fashion here in Sweden.
The most popular trend here is to follow a group of photographers who are associated with the Helsinki School of photography. We have many very good artists in Sweden who follow this trend. However, I didn’t want to follow that path, which was already too crowded. In fact, since there are so many artists here in Sweden following this popular style, a demand was created for images that are different. So, not following the prevailing trend actually helped me to build my career as a fine art photographer.
Here are some more of Håkan’s photos:
If you’d like to learn more about long exposure photography, my ebook Slow takes you through the creative possibilities of using slow shutter speeds, from blurring motion with a shutter speed of 1/30 second all the way to long exposure techniques using shutter speeds of five minutes or longer.
All photos in this interview are protected by copyright. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.