Knut Skjærven: Phenomenologist and Photographer, Part 1

Born and raised in Bergen, Norway, Knut Skjærven once intended to become a lawyer but “in a state of existential despair” began specializing in philosophical aesthetics and soon developed a passionate interest in film and phenomenology. Shortly after earning an M.A. degree in film science at the University of Copenhagen he bought his first good camera, a black Nikkormat and started freelancing for newspapers in Norway, which he still does occasionally. After a brief stint as a university lecturer, he began “gatecrashing” the Danish advertising industry, eventually taking a full-time position at the national telecommunication company where he worked for 20 years. Still searching for something more creative and fulfilling he began blogging in 2007 and later started the Berlin Black and White blog in July 2010. “After I turned to Berlin and Leica I have been extremely lucky,“ he says with a smile. “I have deliberately tried to eliminate all sources of error by doing things the right way and working with the equipment that I feel good working with. That‘s very important not only in photography, but overall. So when things don’t succeed I only need to look in one direction to get it right, at myself.”

His next milestone is a photo project that will take place in Berlin this summer and his goal is to mount an exhibition in Berlin two years from now. Why Berlin? “Because Berlin is the photographic capital of Europe. I clearly sense that.” Knut has written many articles and two books, one on phenomenology and film, the other book on advertising. Here is the story of his excellent adventures as a Leica photographer.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use and why?

A: Mostly I use a Leica X1. This camera is perfect for my kind of photography. It is small, it is light and when I use it I become almost invisible. Nobody, unless you are a Leica photographer, will have any idea the X1 is one of the absolute sharpest tools in the box. Add to that the fact that it is beautiful and completely silent. There are many things the X1 cannot do, but for my style of slow photography the X1 is perfect. I also have a Leica D-Lux 4 and Canon 5D Mark II with Carl Zeiss lenses. They set the same high standard and are a perfect complement to the X1. It was with quite an open mind that I decided I wanted manual lenses and gear that slowed me down a bit. It forced me to think before I shot. Not a bad idea sometimes. I still can manage a thousand plus shots a day when I set my mind to it. Sometimes I do.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I describe my photography as documentary. Most of it is street photography. I consider street photography as an approach and not as a location. Pictures do not have to be shot on a street. Basically it is unstaged photography and it deals with people. One has to be a bit careful with that word “unstaged.” As soon as one opens his/her eyes the staging begins. The choice of camera and lens, the choice of film or digital, the choice of camera settings, the choice of background, the choice of time of day, etc. All these are implicit ways of staging a photograph. Also, street photography is for me respectful. I’m very old fashioned, I know, but that is the way it is. You will never see me interfering with people by sticking a flashgun into their faces, á la Bruce Gilden, and then run. I will never deliberately pick a scene that would not be consistent with what I think the people in it would presumably like or agree with. Such an approach yields better pictures and it keeps you out of jail or prevents an early death. I find it ridiculous that good reportage photography for many today is equivalent with working in a war zone. Is what I do boring photography? Well if you have a very blank mind and lack any form of fantasy, this type of photograph might be very boring indeed. For example, look at the images I’ve entitled “Sunday At The Beach” or “Over The Ocean.” I am sure some would find those shots boring, but I don’t. Hopefully, I manage to capture pictures with something extra. Composition and small human gestures are for me very important because they add balance and focus the viewer’s attention. Composition is what takes photography from non-art to art. It also adds beauty, which is very important. Add to that the mindset I carry with me from the realms of advertising and business communication, which was my professional field for many years. Keep It Simple Stupid – KISS. I even wrote a book about it. Essentially, I do KISS photography, or at least I try to. Why is KISS important? The human brain is an advanced machine, but there are certain things that it is not particularly good at such as the number of items it can hold at a certain moment. Visually it can only cope with one basic idea at a time so that is what I try to do in my pictures. They all have one basic idea. Pictures with one basic idea can be very complex and have many levels, but all elements should move the spectator in the same direction. That is important.

Q: Were you a serious enthusiast before going pro? What made you decide to go pro?

A: My decision to go pro, as you call it, was taken in June 2010 so it is quite new. By that I mean I defined a project and stuck with it. I have been taking pictures for many, many years as a freelance photographer and journalist. However, last summer I started to do real photography. That is how I describe it. The difference between being a picture taker and doing photography is huge. It has to do with ambition and staying power — and a bit of talent. Most of all, it has to do with hard work and deliberately putting energy into building up your confidence as a craftsman. The only way you can get from one to the other is by taking lots of, lots of pictures. You also need to get outdoors. If you want to be a photographer start studying art and read books. Look at other people’s pictures, especially the best ones you can find.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, and art form, a profession?

A: As I said, in June 2010. It happened in Berlin.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: Did I have any formal education in photography? Yes, I probably have, but not the way you might think. I have no formal education in handling the buttons and wheels on a piece of machinery no matter how fine and exclusive that machine might be. What I do have formal education in aesthetics, communication, visual communication, mass communication and film. I find these soft issues to be really important. The rest is fairly easy when you mainly do available light photography, as I do. Nowadays the camera does most of the job. I only want to drive the car — I don’t manufacture it. Who inspired me? Henri Cartier-Bresson inspired me. No one else if you talk about photography.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I was not a born a Leica user. For many years I used a Contax G as my main camera, but I was not so dedicated at that time. When the production of Contax ceased in 2005 I looked around for something else. I had already bought into the Canon system at that time, but I needed a smaller, handier camera as well. So I bought a Leica D-Lux 4 and liked it from the start. The glass is incredible. It was that little camera that made me want more of the same sort. On March 31, 2010 I bought a X1 at the Leica shop in Berlin, even before it was officially on the market. I was probably the first one in Berlin to have one. I was lucky.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: If you had asked me this question a year ago the answer would have been different. Today it is very easy for me to answer: I have an approach of total dedication. I don’t photograph because I have to, I do it because I love to. Taking a camera along for me is like having instant brain surgery. I get a different mindset. I only need to set the mental image scanner to work, and images jump into the camera. I only follow along and record what happens. What really surprises me when I am in this mood, is that I am always lucky. I don’t know why, but that is the way this brain surgery works. It is very addictive. I really, really believe John Szarkowski when he says, “the world is an artist of incomparable inventiveness, and to recognize its best works and moments, to anticipate them, to clarify them and make them permanent, requires intelligence both acute and supple.” I have that as a motto on one of my blogs. It is hard work too. You don’t become a street photographer by shooting randomly in the streets. It is a carefully planned activity. You need to find a corner, a café, or do extensive walking and wait for the unexpected to happen. Very often a good picture is a combination of small but significant things. A gesture, a glance, a direction, open space, not open space, etc. Patience is definitely a must. The best pictures often come from doing nothing, like just roaming around, mind wide open. I would like to think that my photography is a series of relatively clean understatements. Understatements are important because they are more demanding for the spectator than other types of photography. I like that.

Q: Can you tell us what inspired your blog Phenomenology and Photography and what do you hope to achieve with it?

A: You ask about Phenomenology and Photography. This is the last, slowly developing project that came about as a natural development in a chain of activities. The blog is developing slowly because it does not need to develop faster. I started that blog in July 2010. I started it about the same time as I started Berlin Black And White. They run in tandem.

Q: What is phenomenology and why do you link it to photography?

A: I don’t really like the word phenomenology because it is too difficult, but at the moment it is what we have got. Phenomenology was the main philosophical thrust in European during the last century. It started in Germany, crossed the border to France for a period, and from there it spread to the rest of the world. Well-known names, the most important ones within the early tradition, are Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology deals with actual experience. It states that the objects of human knowledge are those that can be experienced. To understand what is going on when you experience, you need to do an analysis of the things themselves, the things that comprise what can be experienced. In a way, you have to stop the world to get a better grasp of it before you can get on it in a meaningful way. Phenomenology calls this “bracketing” the world. You “freeze” it to study and understand it. This stopping of the world to get on it is very similar to what you do when you take a photograph. You stop the world by freezing a moment.But quite opposite to the traditional view of photography, in which you stop the world to get OFF it, phenomenology stops the world to get ON it. The difference is from here to the moon. Photography is often described as being implicitly concerned with death, or things past or other negative concepts (Susan Sontag/Roland Barthes). Phenomenology, as I see it, has the opposite concern. It has to do with life and things future. You will find my photographs to be open, confirmative, positive, pointing to the future more than looking to the past. You should try it!

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Knut’s work on one of his several website: Berlin Black And White a photoblog that contains 400+ black and white images from Berlin, Barebones Communication a theoretical blog on communication and photography and Phenomenology and Photography a theoretical blog dealing with phenomenology and photography.