Bjørn Opsahl: All Good Photographs Are Self-Portraits

Years ago, during a lunch break from work, Bjørn Opsahl went to the local convenience store to buy a sausage and five lottery tickets. He won 25,000 Norwegian Kroner (approximately $5,000 USD) and left directly for Stockholm to celebrate. Arriving home a few days later he had also bought his first camera, and the rest, as they say, is history. A self-taught photographer, director and lecturer from Oslo, Opsahl teaches photography and directing at Bilder Nordic School of Photography and has held a number of workshops and lectures around the country since 2005. In 2011 he started working with the Scandinavian talk show Skavlan, a commitment that ends in autumn 2014 with a book and exhibitions in Oslo and Stockholm. His photos have been published in international magazines including Rolling Stone, Elle and Cosmopolitan. Opsahl also works as a director of commercials and music videos. Here he reveals the amazing story of his unquenchable passion for photography.

Q: Can you share the story of how you got your start in photography and how you made it into a full-time career?

A: Well, I won some money in the lottery (I’m not kidding) and bought my first camera as the prize. I was already working as a roadie for all the big artists coming to my hometown so I already had an “access all areas” pass. That pass with a camera to go with it is a deadly combo. I had what I consider every photographer’s greatest asset — access. So I started hustling around backstage between shows and shot some portraits, then went out in the pit and shot live photos. So I started out as a rock photographer, thanks to the lottery.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: I never studied photography or took any classes. I never worked as an assistant, which I regret in retrospect. I simply went out and shot some pictures that then all made it into print. So I had my education in full public “print-ness” so to speak. I never got the chance to develop my technique through trial and error. I started late, around the age of 24, so I was in a hurry.

My biggest influence was Anton Corbijn, and with typical naivety I bought a Hasselblad thinking it would make me Anton Corbijn overnight. I even called him up in 1994 in London and set up a portrait session with him. Sadly his longtime friend and subject, Kurt Cobain, passed away the day before so the whole sitting was colored by that tragic event. I shot Anton again last year, and at the end of the session I turned the camera around and asked him to shoot a couple of me. These ended up as my own publicity shots (obviously), and he even uses mine as his publicity shots this year. I always come back to Corbijn. There’s a myriad of photographers I love who have influenced me over the years, but opening one of Anton’s books is like coming home.

Q: You are a long-time Leica M-System user, going back to the M4-P and now the new M. What first drew you to the M-System and what is it about the M that you’ve stuck with it for all these years?

A: The M-System always had an almost mythical status for me. All my first heroes used the M, and to be quite honest, I thought getting the same camera would boost me into their realm. But, once I laid my hands on my own, first M4-P, I realized why they used it and that was imperative. It requires some training and getting used to, but once I got the handling down, it was the most beautiful camera for me. It’s fast, light, discreet and it never failed on me.

And its solidity is impressive. I treat my cameras like I treat everything else — I’m sloppy. But the M can take a serious beating. I recently started using the new M for my studio work as well, for one good reason: the subject can actually see my face while I’m talking to them. And it delivers files superior to anything else out there.

Q: You describe the new M as a “beast.” What characteristics does it possess that make you call it a beast?

A: The M is a beast in a good way! It became the man it should be. It sounds, performs and looks like my old M4-P, only it’s digital. I think the M9 was excellent, but there’s a mile and a half between the two. Leica, it seems, has gotten back to its roots and nailed a camera worth dying for.

Afghanistan © Bjørn Opsahl

Q: You put your cameras, particularly your M cameras, through a lot. What’s the worst abuse your camera has experienced (and survived)?

A: Well, I travel a lot, and my M is always in my shoulder bag along with everything else I carry with me. The S is safely padded and I break it out for the big sessions, but the M has some 200 travel days a year. It’s with me at all times. My M9-P got a really good beating for the same reason. Every time it came back from service in Solms, it was with the line “signs of heavy use.” I spent 10 days in Afghanistan last summer, with the American and Norwegian troops — 55 degrees Celsius, extreme amounts of dust and rattling around for days on top of an armored vehicle on the bumpy roads of Faryab. That really took its toll on the exterior, and the interior too I guess. But that’s why the Ms are in a league of their own; they can handle it.

Q: What are some improvements you feel Leica made with the M compared to the M9?

A: All the techies are going to hate me now, but I’d say the shutter sound, which really took me back to the old analog Ms, as well as the responsiveness, the build, and how the video part was implemented so gracefully. I know the megapixels and the new CMOS sensor and all that are really groundbreaking too, but I go for feel.

Q: You said that you sometimes break out an M-System camera in the studio. How do you think the M-System holds up in the studio?

A: Like nobody’s business! I don’t see why it should not be a common studio camera. It’s got shutter, f-stop and a focusing ring. The files are impeccable, plus it does not cover my face and my assistants love the fact that they have less weight to carry. I’ve used it several times in the studio and if I’m shooting spreads for magazines the files are way up there with the Japanese brands, even above them. The S is a locomotive, and the files are unbelievable, but sometimes I need the camera to take up a little less space. In particular if I work with subjects who need a little more eye contact and direction. I’ve spent so many hours with the M it feels natural and organic in my hands.

Q: I also read that you use the S2 for some of your studio work. What qualities of the S2 do you enjoy and what makes it a good fit for that kind of work?

A: Any photographer loves a good camera and the S is the best around. The files you get, coming through that glass, have no comparison. The way the camera fits in my hand like a regular DSLR is incredible. I think it’s an innovation that’s very worthwhile. If I know it’s going on print, I break out the S, unless, as I said, the M has a purpose for that day. It’s just the best camera around for me, no question. And I would say that not as an ambassador. It’s just a fact.

Q: You shoot many different types of celebrities — authors, singers, athletes, etc. How much of the shoot is dictated by their personality and how much of it is your personal, artistic input?

A: I think, ultimately, a photographer should always pursue the self-portrait when shooting whatever. The shoot is always based on my showing my subjects respect and giving directions — directions coming from a place inside that’s honest and believable. Once you gain their trust and show some enthusiasm, you can ask anything you want. I always try to show them from their best side, but also implement my own look. which should be honest and true. If I can nail those little things, magic stuff can happen. I remember the story of Platon asking Bill Clinton “Will you show me the love, Mr. President?” and I flipped it around for a few of my portraits: “Mr Kingsley, will you show me the hate?” I wanted the anti-Ghandi from Ben Kingsley, and it worked like a charm.

Q: Your portrait of Ben Kingsley is certainly a powerful and compelling statement that’s reminiscent of the well-known classic portrait of J.P. Morgan shot in the early 20th century. You mentioned that you asked Kingsley to “show you the hate” in order to get that expression. Why did you do that, and what do you think you achieved?

A: I can’t really recall precisely what I said (I never do), but I wanted to create something as far from his famous Ghandi character as possible. I told him I wanted the anti-Ghandi (since he probably has that ghost hovering over him still, an Oscar-winning ghost though), and I think he loved my suggestion. Show me the hate/evil eye/darkness, I can’t recall, but it worked.

Q: You made a very revealing statement, “I think, ultimately, a photographer should always pursue the self-portrait when shooting whatever.” Can you comment on how this applies to all of your photography, not just to celebrity portraiture?

A: Essentially what I’m saying is that it is imperative you find your own voice, because you’re one of millions out there. To get recognized in this overwhelming ocean of photographers, you need to stand out. The only way to do that is to be honest and believable in what you do. People need to see a sort of consistency and truth in your work. We are all unique in various degrees, and pursuing that in the look and feel of your work will hopefully set you apart from the rest. I try to exaggerate my taste in color and feel in my photography, but it’s still a work in progress. My advice would be to make a list of films, authors, photographers, color palettes, architects, etc., mash that up and stick to that recipe, no matter what happens around the next corner.

Q: This portrait of an intense looking elderly gentleman, gazing intently at the pages of a little booklet marked Field Notes, really captures something of his character. However, I wonder why someone who seems to embody enormous gravitas and a wealth of experience is looking at such a booklet with your name imprinted on the back? Was this a set up shot, and what was the concept you had in your mind?

A: This is author John Irving. This was one hell of a day, I had six portraits to do in a mere 10 minutes, and my original setup was ditched at the last second. I figured an author of his caliber writing notes in a tiny notebook, would be … well, you know, I was desperate within my given 90 seconds. I merely asked him to write me something in my book while I was mid-shoot. He wrote nothing, but I’m also actually saving the very best shot for the book that’s due out next year.

Q: This powerful triple portrait makes very effective use of space and dynamic composition with the central, larger figure dominating the foreground. None of these guys is looking directly at the camera and that gives it a grab shot feel even though it was obviously carefully composed. How did you happen to create this image and what was going through your mind when you pressed the shutter release?

A: This is MUSE, a famous rock band. I was waiting for my two minutes outside where the limos wait. I mounted a wide-angle lens to my camera, and started shouting for them to come over to this concrete wall. Shooting bands is difficult, but trios are very forgiving composition-wise. I knew what I wanted so I posed them and went down on my knees real close to the singer, whom I wanted to portray like an aristocratic figure. That is also why he didn’t look at me. That would give a very different feel to the image; probably something he would not like. Click, click, done; and off they went into their cars.

Q: Clearly you are one of those fortunate people whose career is also his passion, which may even beat winning the lottery. Do you have any advice for others who wish to follow this path? Do you also shoot pictures for personal pleasure or pure creative expression, and if so what other types of subjects or genres do you find fulfilling?

A: I’d be happy to win a lottery over this anytime! No, it’s just that I ruined a perfectly good hobby and went pro, with all the paperwork and nonsense that comes along with it. This is what I know how to do, and would not change it for anything. But my advice would be, as stated, try to find your voice and stick with it. More important, to the rest of the world, keep your paperwork straight and don’t cut any corners with the taxman. Then you can walk the earth with your passion in your pocket at all times and enjoy it fully. All my pictures are for my personal pleasure, and I shoot pictures every day — street, war, reportage, celebrity, fashion, anything really. I’d shoot a superhero in a sunset if I had nothing better around (and I’ve done that too).

Thank you for your time, Bjørn!

- Leica Internet Team

Vist Bjørn’s website to see more of his work.