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Hans Kvernsjøli

31 March 2021

Hans Kvernsjøli is a Norway-based photographer with a dark, foreboding style, and a heavy emphasis on deep blacks and desaturated colours. He joins us to talk about how he became acquainted with cameras and why he likes to shoot decaying structures.

What is your backstory?

I come from the central region of Norway, born in the middle of winter thirty years ago. I grew up reading, I suspect an attempt to not have to deal with the utter mundanity of life in rural areas. Of course, life was not only books, but that is one of the things that stuck with me.

I moved to Trondheim to study history. I have stumbled into a couple of academic fields through my studies, primarily connected to literature and aesthetics. There was a slight change of plan somewhere along the road, and I currently work in a bookshop (and a bar when the pandemic is less prevalent).

How did you first start out in photography?

As is the case with many things, my father is to blame for my interest in photography. He gave me my first camera when I was twelve or so (a simple point-and-shoot 35mm film camera) and entrusted me with his Nikkormat a few years later. He used to have a collection of analogue Nikon gear, which gradually ended up in my care and is still used today. I got my hands on my first DSLR when I was going to festivals as a journalist in my early twenties (and my second, as I promptly broke the first one when attending my first concert with it). It still took a few years before I learned to edit images and a few more before the images looked even half decent.

In other words, I have been taking pictures for a while, but I wouldn't say that it was until my mid-twenties that it could be called photography. In a way, what made me focus more on what had until then been a minor hobby, was concert photography - being the only guy with a camera at small, underground gigs made me the designated photographer. Apparently, I had a knack for it and the photography sort of just escalated from there.

I started with photography as a means of documenting trips, hikes, or events - capturing moments in time to form a story. I was quickly drawn to more abstract expressions, such as macro and low light photography. An attempt to provide a glimpse into a different vision of the world that cannot be seen by the naked eye - for instance, one without light.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

My creative process for photography involves attempting to use what is around me, placing myself in locations where I think I can find something strange or unfamiliar. In a sense, defamiliarizing the world, to use a term from literary theory.

Given my interest in literature, one should think that I would think about photography as a means of telling stories, but it is not. I think of it more as an attempt to capture the atmosphere that I am given there and then and to give some impression of a moment or place as I experienced it, and hope that I can convey some sliver of a vision of a world that may or may not be the one that the viewer can see with their eyes, yet all the same undeniably there.

The impulse to start doing low-light photography comes from the fact that it was more or less impossible with my first point-and-shoot and I had no clue how to do it with my SLRs. However, I was fascinated with the technical challenge and the effects produced by long shutter speeds, perhaps because I could not do it. When I eventually got into it, my interest shifted and I was rather interested in the effects of low light itself, rather than the technique. Images taken in darkness can be radically different from what we perceive.

And then there are the images with all the strange lights. That was an idea from a late night and an abandoned house.

What subjects do you like to shoot and why?

While my instagram account doesn't reflect the totality of what I shoot, the primary elements are present: old buildings, decaying things and landscapes without people tends to get me going. On one hand, it is the slow movements of a changing cityscape, buildings deteriorating to the point of not really serving as such anymore - caught in between one state and the next, movement caught in time. On the other hand, it is the empty landscapes, a monument to the fact that very little actually changes.

As a counterpoint to that, I do enjoy concert photography and attempting to capture life - but that leans more towards documentation and less towards a conscious.

It boils down to finding ways of relating to the world, engaging with the impressions that it gives, be that at a concert, in the street or on the top of some mountain in the middle of nowhere. To capture something that might reflect a state of mind - the image of the outer landscape reflecting something of the inner world. What that says about my inner world, I'm not sure...

Are you an impulsive or planned shooter?

I have always been an impulsive shooter, given my approach to capturing atmosphere and using photography as a means of finding details and perspectives on the world. I am prone to take more images than I need, hoping to hell that things work out and, more often than not, be surprised at my own luck when I get the images on a computer - similar to the feeling of seeing images taken on film after the shoot is over.

There are times when I know how I want images to be in the end, but then I will often involve flashes, annoyingly detailed planning and even that generally becomes slightly altered or utterly derailed - never completely according to plan. That might be because of lack of practice with planned shoots, though...

What camera equipment do you use?

I use a Nikon D810, an ancient Gitzo tripod and my assortment of Nikkor AI-lenses. Since Nikon hasn't changed their mount since the dawn of time, and made rather good glass back in the day, the old stuff works well when snappy focus isn't a priority. When I do need autofocus, I use a Tamron 35mm and desperately want longer lenses with autofocus. Occasionally I point lasers at things and hope stuff doesn't catch on fire.

To scratch that analogue itch that I suffer from, I use a Mamiya RB67, a Nikon F, F2 or FA. At the moment I am shooting B&W and developing the film myself - with varying degrees of success, but that's the point: experimentation. I want to get into developing colours, mostly because I like colour photography more, but also because the film lends itself better to greater degree of experimentation and intentionally mistreating the film for strange effects.

How do you achieve the look in your photos?

I edit in Lightroom - unless stitching of multiple images is involved or I need to mess with colours beyond what I possible in Lightroom - then I move over to Photoshop. My images are desaturated, mostly through the hue-slider and more selectively in the HSL panel. I like faded colours, and by colours it would seem that I mainly mean blues and teals.

In order to edit shadows and highlights, I tend to use a lot of luminance filters in order to alter white balance and luminance, often in various directions throughout an image. In some parts the shadows need to be darker, in others lighter - in particular with dark skies.

Beyond my editing process, I think it boils down to being at the right place at the right time - which may be the absolutely wrong time to take the picture you thought you were going out to shoot, but instead you try something entirely different. For me, this often means late night walks and just attempting to get something out of them, even though conditions are in no way perfect, but somehow end up being just right.

Before and after editing

Can you tell us the story behind one of your images?

A friend and I had been keeping an eye on an abandoned house for a while, wanting to get into it and see what it was like. We decided to check it out one night, expecting to return home some ten minutes later. It's the middle of the night, and it is evident that there hasn't been anyone around in years. With minimal effort, one of the boarded-up windows gives way - someone had been here before us, probably. As we continued exploring, we found all manner of strange artefacts from what seems like ages ago, and weird rooms, all devoid of furniture. After a while, we realise we must be getting back as it is rather cold and the sensation of being stared at in an empty house is really not that fun. On our way out, my friend decides to try the door right next to the window. It was open.

In fact, we later learned that all the doors were open. There might be images from inside this house.

Anyhow, this image was an attempt to capture a sense of the mystery of this house before we entered it, although it was taken after. The perspective, the grass and the limited lighting just gave itself to the idea of a haunted house one really should not enter - but invariably will.

What advice would you have for people getting into photography?

For those that are not already taking pictures in one way or another, I would suggest exploring the world through the lenses of the camera on your phone. Attempt to see the world through the lens, capture everything that comes to mind. Do strange things that you're not sure has been done before, do the things everyone is doing. The results matter, of course, but not to others than yourself.

Gear can come later, when it is needed. Then it is a matter of simply continuing with that.

How has COVID-19 affected your photography?

In many ways, this year has been difficult, which has made it less tempting to go out and shoot. It has been more about quiet introspection and wondering where the world is headed. While a lot has changed, it has taken me quite some time to realise that not that much really has in terms of my own life. So while I have shot less, I think that I have managed to find more motivation to get out there and shoot - if nothing else, to remember that there is a world outside these four walls.

What are your thoughts on Instagram as a photography platform?

Instagram has become, and perhaps social media always has been, a strange place where the people with real talent but sort of lacking in the ability to promote themselves, ought to be found and perhaps even thrive. Instead, it seems that those who display their lives in a manner that bears more resemblance to social-pornography than photography are the ones that “win” at that game. Perhaps it is due to the algorithm, perhaps it is due to something else. It seems that it has become this self-perpetuating propaganda machine for the perfect life. And memes and cute dogs.

At least, that is what one notices, and most of us have a tendency to remember the bad parts more often than the good. We still use these platforms, and I imagine that is because there is something here that can be good.

What are some of your hobbies outside of photography?

Everything feeds into each other in new and unexpected ways, but at least the need to explore and see new things, do new things, give ample opportunity for photography. It is at the same time both a motivation for getting out there and a means of engaging with the world, feeding into what I hope will become a self-sustained cycle of creativity and exploration.

My spare time is mostly dedicated to reading, writing and photography, with the occasional trip out of the city, into some abandoned buildings or other places of interest.

I also have my interest in skiing and hiking, though these days motivated primarily by a wish to see new places and exposing myself to a challenge. I lost this interest, but in recent years picked it up again, a wish to break out of life in the city, which sometimes seems a bit grey.

Thank you for speaking to us Hans. Any final comments?

Thank you for the opportunity to formulate thoughts on photography, it has been refreshing to attempt to put this into words that are not meant only for myself.

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