Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen has created a unique tribute to both his homeland and the extraordinary world of Norwegian Black Metal music in his new series, Singing Norwegian Singers. More than 40 photographs from this project, commissioned by Leica UK and shot on the Leica M rangefinder system over the past year, will be exhibited for the first time at the Leica Gallery Mayfair from 17 – 27 October 2016. We had the opportunity to interview Jonas and ask about this series.
Please share the approach you had when photographing these individuals – surely, you must also have a deep appreciation for Black Metal music.
When it comes to music, I am very nearly omnivorous as far as types of music go. In the space of two hours in my office I can easily have everything from Bach, Black Metal, Bob Dylan, James Blake to jazzy versions of Swedish folk music pouring through my loudspeakers. I only care that it is good, that is organic, that it uses harmony in an interesting way. In music, I can’t go on raw energy alone, I need harmonic progression. Much of black metal music is very symphonic and interesting melodically, so I’m more drawn to those variants.
Now, not all of the guys I photographed here are to be considered black metal per se, quite a few people are very concerned with the exact denominations of the music. Black Metal, symphonic black metal, death metal, trash metal, there are dozens of styles, and different philosophical approaches. My starting point was really that I’ve been fascinated a long time with the enormous appeal and spread of Norwegian extreme metal around the world. And I wanted somehow to photograph that.
The images are accompanied with audio files of each singer performing a capella. It definitely helps the viewer gain a deeper sense of admiration of the images through this additional dimension. How was the process to achieve this?
They sang their songs, I recorded.
The project was commissioned by Leica UK. Were there any specific parameters for required? Or were you free to explore any photography theme?
Well, when we started talking about doing something together, we were in general talking about photographing something in Norway. I always like it when I can use photography to explore aspects of my home country. I experimented with a few different subjects, but this project gave me a chance to photograph something I always wanted to photograph, and also play around at the same time. Leica gave me full freedom to do that. When given a totally free brief, it is fun to try out something a bit different.
You shot this project throughout the year on the Leica M system. Can you please share the details of the equipment and production process? 5) The red eye. Considering it’s an almost inevitable result of using the flash, it also seems to be an aesthetic decision. What is your perception on this front?
I don’t want to get caught up in too much theorizing about it. The guys are singing some brutal music, I tried to photograph it a bit brutally. Anyways, the #1 function on most photo editing softwares is red-eye removal, and cameras are built to avoid it at all cost. So I guess I just thought it would be fun to go against the grain on that, and take pictures one isn’t supposed to take. I wanted to do something really raw, and use the flash head on. Much of this music is historically pretty raw and lo-fi. So it was inspired by that, even though what I ended up with probably doesn’t look much like what the typical metal music aesthetic in Norway. Once I decided to use the flash like that I decided to really go for it.
At first, viewers may feel a degree of intimidation when observing and listening to these pieces. Big, hairy men singing in gutural technique. But mainly, it’s a matter of understanding the nature of this particular style of music and why it is so popular in specific niches. What do you want to communicate to viewers through these images?
It’s more that I have been really fascinated about how popular and widespread Norwegian metal music is around the world. I met people everywhere from Pakistan to Brazil, living in tiny villages, that lit up the moment they hear I am from Norway. They know everything there is to know about this music. They say Norwegian black metal is Norway’s number one cultural export. So it is more that this was an opportunity to try to photograph it. I’m not sure one needs to understand the details.
Musically speaking, folks might argue that this is “not singing”. However, gutural signing technique or doing “death growls” are a very popular and hard vocal technique, even used by monks back in the day. What is the musical background for these singers?
They are a wide array of personalities. But back in the early 90’s when black metal made its entry on the scene, it was really extreme, people were shocked at these people. Today, it is pretty mainstream. Today’s version is a father of three and mows the lawn on weekends. Whether it is ‘singing’ or not, that’s like discussing if something is ‘art’ or not. I don’t see why it would be any less ‘singing’ than anything else made with your voice to make music.
You will be exhibiting at the Leica Gallery Mayfair in London from Oct 17 – 27. What are your expectations for this show? It must be a truly unique edition for what is usually shown there, right?
I don’t have so many expectations one way or the other. Maybe it is not so typical for what is normally shown there, but I really appreciate Leica wanting to show a wide gamut of different work.
Lastly, is there anything else you might want to add for our readers to know or other projects you are working on right now?
I am working on a big new book project that will come out next year. But more about that closer to the time!
Thank you Jonas!
To know more about Jonas Bendiksen, please visit his official website.