Interview: Jan Tove
Swedish photographer Jan Tove very kindly agreed to answer some questions to coincide with the publication of Night Light, images of dormant small towns and communities during bright nights and dark days. Jan answered in excellent English, of course - thanks!
How did the idea for Night Light evolve?
Everything started on a warm, bright summer night. I didn't want to go to bed, instead I took the camera and started walking around the community. It was a lovely evening, but almost no people in the streets. The holiday had not yet begun. But there was something about the darkness and the bright sky. The street lamps. The shadows. Things overlooked during the day became enigmas in the dark. It sparked my imagination. Walking the dark alleys also aroused memories. Inside me is a little scar from a period in my life when I was looking for the slightest streak of light. Somehow I felt like a moth being drawn to the light. And that is universal. We all strive for light and security. However weak it is.
Did you have a clear idea about locations when you started out?
No, I didn't. But I kept going out at night, to different places. The choice was random.
Then I also continued during the winter, which is the opposite of the Nordic summer. It darkens early, already after three in the afternoon. At first, the working title was ”Bright Night/Dark days”
What practical difficulties did you have to overcome?
From a technical point of view, the most difficult thing was to adjust the focus. And personally, sometimes I had to overcome my own fear of walking alone in cities at night with a camera.
Your previous book, Faraway Nearby, was published by the prestigious German publisher Hatje Cantz. They must have been very contrasting experiences – what do you find to be the main differences between self-publishing and being published by a large commercial publisher?
The biggest difference is that a large publisher handles the marketing and everything that comes with selling it. Now I have to do everything myself, and I'm pretty bad at it. I had contact with the curator for Hatje Cantz and they were interested and wanted to see the material, but I wanted to finish the book quickly in order to synchronize it with a big exhibition in January this year [in Boras]. And then I chose to self-publish it.
Your photographic career has had many different phases, broadly speaking moving away from wildlife and nature in order to explore areas of the social landscape and new topographics. In the UK, you’re probably still best known for that earlier work and in particular for the book Beyond Order. Do you find that frustrating?
On a personal level, not really. I had come to the end of that genre. Maybe I betrayed an audience, and released myself into something completely unknown, where I had neither the audience nor the anchorage, but for me there was no other way to go. I myself think the change is not so revolutionary. One leads to the other. Already when I did Beyond Order, I was tired of the romantic view of nature, that it is good, harmonious and in balance. Several of the images in it are photographed along the River Viskan - in the 60s an environmental disaster. In Riverside I travel along the river, but depict everyday life and life in a new and matter-of fact way for me. The interest in what we have done to the landscape leads to Silent Landscape. In Faraway Nearby, I'm back in the same spirit as Riverside, though now it's about the countryside, the environment I grew up in, and how it's changed. To Night Light, however, there is no clear transition, but from my perspective, my methodology is much the same. Now I am doing a project "Black Water" and I am back in similar environments as in Beyond Order. The landscape and nature are always included in one way or another, but more subtle perhaps and in a way that is freer to me. A turning point for my self-confidence was 2012, when Silent Landscape came out and I received a Special Grant from the Swedish Author's Fund, which gives me a basic financial security until retirement.
At the time, did it feel like a brave decision to move away from nature photography or was it something you felt impelled to do?
The answer is probably in the previous question. No, for me it was not about courage, but rather about necessity. It was something that grew within me. It coincided with the fact that I was exhausted mentally. The way out of it, was that I listened inward and slowly began to find myself again.
What many may not know is that in the 1980s I photographed the countryside and everyday life in black-and-white in a series of prominent articles in a local newspaper that I worked on. My photography did not start with an interest of nature, as it may have done for many nature photographers. But I still spend a lot of time outdoors and my interest in the natural world and the evolution of the earth and all species and existential issues never fades away.
Since you started out, the digital revolution has had an enormous impact not just on how people take photographs but also on how professional (or would-be professional) photographers present their work to the world. What is the relative importance for you between the online world and social media compared with exhibiting and publishing? What do you feel is the distinctive contribution that books continue to make to the development of the medium?
People constantly tell me that I need to be more active on social media. I'm there, but I'm getting tired very quickly. There is something about the flow. Images become something to be consumed within seconds, and the ‘likes’ are clicked almost as a reflex action. Teju Cole wrote in The Guardian that seeing pictures on social media is like eating frozen pizza. And I could add: with the plastic on!
Social media is good for keeping in touch with friends you don't see very often, and what's going on but, if I want to see photography, then exhibitions and most preferably photo books are number one.
Which photobooks from the last couple of years have impressed you most? Looking further back, which earlier photobooks do you find yourself going back to for continuing inspiration?
Alec Soth's Songbook, because it's so beautifully enigmatic. The minimalism in Daniela Tkachenko's Restricted Areas. The poetry in She Dances on Jackson - Vanessa Winship. Also Joel Sternfeld’s work and Jem Southam's.
But I always return to Robert Adams. There is something really special about the simplicity, the presence, the poetry and the light in his pictures that I never really get done with. I never get tired of them. Among Swedish photographers I like Gerry Johansson, Gunnar Smoliansky, John Webb, Hannah Modigh, Kennet Gustavsson (he died too early) and many more…
What hints can you give us as to new titles or initiatives we might look forward to from you over the next few years?
"Within the corner of my mind” (working title) about landscapes that arose from memories and dreams.
"Blackwater” and "Grusvägar” ("Winding road”). I am also doing a book about an isolated marshland. It has no title yet.
Wow – it sounds like you’re going to be busier than ever! What other art forms are important in your life? What music do you listen to? What sort of books do you find time to read apart from photobooks?
I love paintings and sculptures. And movies! I listen to a lot of music, different genres. Not so much contemporary pop. Mostly Jazz, Blues, Singer / songwriter. Very often Dylan, Cohen, Miles Davis, Dinah Washington, Jan Johansson, BB King, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison… Also Daniel Norgren, a wonderful Swedish musician that needs more attention. He does a lot of touring in smaller towns in US.
When it comes to books, I mostly read novels, preferably classics, and non-fiction books about science, history, biographies. Never a detective story, prefer to see them on film. Love the short stories by Alice Munro.
How do you think the current coronavirus crisis will affect your ability to practise your photography? What are the implications for making a living as a professional photographer?
It has affected me in such a way that a bigger assignment (stills-photographer on a feature film) has been postponed. Thankfully I have my scholarship, so now I have time for my own projects.
The big challenge for a professional photographer is that nobody wants to pay for the job anymore. Fortunately, however, I have customers who do not belong to that category. Image agencies that were previously important for income sell almost nothing today and I have completely stopped taking that kind of picture. As an example I can mention that in the nineties I earned hundreds of thousands kr a year from a single photo agency. Today I get less than 1000 kr/year for the pictures that are in their archives. Today I spend much more time on my own projects, making books and selling prints.
What do you know now that you most wish you'd known before you started?
Je ne regrette rien! Just kidding. I wish I had attended one of the photography schools that existed in the 70-80s and that shaped a generation of photographers that I appreciate today. But luckily, I got to know some of them and I really appreciate that. I am so happy and grateful that I have been be able to live on my photography since the 1980s. It would have been much tougher to start today.
Thanks very much, Jan