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This article is Copyright 2005, James Morrissey, and may not, in part or in whole, be reproduced in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author. The images in this article are the property of Bjorn Rorslett and have been licensed to James Morrissey and the NWP Photo Forum for the purpose of this interview.
Part I: About Bjorn Rorslett
Eye of Evil (IR) (c) Bjorn Rorslett
Editor's Note: A link is at the end of the page if you wish to learn more about Dr. Bjorn Rorslett and his techniques in Ultraviolet and Infrared photography.
JM: Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
BR: I was born in Stockholm, Sweden, July 11, 1946. My mother was Swedish. She married my father, a Norwegian, who had fled from Nazi-occupied Norway in the early years of World War II. We returned to Norway in 1947 and settled near Oslo. Eventually I had two brothers and a sister.
JM: What was your family like growing up?
BR: My father, a teacher of English by education, was a devoted Socialist and had strong political commitments. He was Subeditor and later appointed Editor of a major national news and feature magazine. The magazine, unprecedented for its time, ran copiously illustrated articles. Politics aside, it was quite similar to LIFE, but on a smaller scale of course. So, he always had photographs to be engrossed in and did a number of photojournalistic assignments himself. Some of his enthusiasm might have spilled over to me. He did several articles on the Eastern Bloc and travelled quite a lot in Eastern European countries in connection with these articles, so he got branded as a Communist sympathizer. In the heated paranoid political climate of the McCarthy influenced 1950's, he and with him the entire family, suffered from this.
I attended Elementary School at this time and suddenly had to defend myself from harsh attacks from pupils, teachers, and other parents. All of this made me aware of the importance of getting factual insights into a given issue, drawing one's own conclusions, and then be willing to represent and defend a belief or attitude, nothwithstanding its lack of popularity. The political frenzy of that decade may well have destroyed our family's relationship to many people and adversely impacted our social life, but I for one was taught to be independent, strong, and mature from this political tragedy. It also put me firmly and permanently on the left-wing side of Norwegian politics.
During adolescence I became increasingly and deeply engaged with biological and enviromental subjects, meandering between astronomy, chemistry, rocket science, ecology, geology, and mathemathics, before I finally decided I wanted to be a botanist. This occured at an age of 15 years and set a life-long direction for my professional activities.
JM: What does your family look like now?
BR: My father died abruptly in 1981, and the family broke up shortly afterwards. Probably we were too strong natured, too individualistic to function properly as a group when his cohesive influence disappeared. Perhaps it was like the Balkan countries when Tito died leading to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Well, anyway we avoided family wars and later became friends again, when time had mellowed the break-up.
I was married by then and had a daughter and a son. My son, from birth, developed severe asthma and allergic reactions. I spent years with him in hospitals during the 1980's. A few years later, I was inflicted with the same syndromes myself. All of this strained my own marriage and I was divorced in 1993. My former wife died a few years later and I now try to do my best to keep my little family afloat.
Spring Stars (UV) (c) Bjorn Rorslett
JM: When did you begin to take photographs?
BR: My father had a deep interest in photography himself. He gave me a Contax II rangefinder, a [piece of] WWII loot obtained by him from a German officer, when I was about 12 years old. I had that camera for a good many years afterwards. I can still remember how my father and I rearranged our kitchen to provide us with a workable darkroom. This had a certain flair of suspense and mystery about it because we had to do this at night hours, when the rest of the family was asleep. Watching my prints appear in the developing bath was but a fulfilment of all this suspense.
As a young and poor student, I won a large sum of money in the nation's lottery in the mid 1960's, and accordingly, availed myself of the opportunity to purchase a complete line-up of several new-fangled Nikon F bodies with motor drives and sundry lenses. My co-students were green with envy, of course, but I for one didn't pay attention to this because I started to spend all my spare time, and more, outdoors shooting mainly biological subjects. After all, at that time my main interest was botany. It was to record botanical subjects that all my precious new gear was pressed into service. I soon realized that despite all my sophisticated equipment, nothing of photographic value emerged unless I personally got involved in my subjects. Getting the technological foundation to make perfectly exposed photographs was easy, but amounted to nothing on its own. I simply had to commit myself, to express feelings about what I was undertaking.
JM: Have you had the same ability to share your photographic knowledge with your children that your father did with you?
BR: I have tried, yes, and wish that whatever interest I've instilled that it may someday come to fruition. However, they both have chosen to follow different courses in their lives and so it must be.
JM: What was your photographic education like?
BR: I did a few courses in scientific photography when I studied at the University of Oslo, otherwise, I'm entirely self-taught.
JM: Who are/were your photographic influences?
BR: The Nordic countries have had a long tradition in fostering excellent nature photographers, and I'm of course influenced by all of them. Much of Nordic nature photography deals with light, in particular, the soft and fading light found in the long periods of dusk and dawn during summer, or the half-light during winter. The penchant for blue, moody images runs through the very blood veins of all Nordic people.
Besides the Nordic photographers, too many to list here, I also have been deeply emotionally touched by many European, some American and Japanese photographers. Again there are so many that name-dropping seems out of order, but if only a few should be mentioned, I'd like to draw attention to Jacob Holdt and his "American Pictures," which simply is incredible. Bill Brandt and Duane Michaels need not my attention, although they have gotten it. Ansel Adams won't get it. And so it goes.
JM: I agree with you about Jacob Holdt. The man is a spectacular artist. I have an autographed copy of American Pictures from a tour he made to the States in the early 1990s. It is interesting to me that you site him as an influence, yet American Pictures is not about nature photography as we normally see it - but human nature.
BR: In order to understand Nature, we should gain insight into our own species and its specifics. The importance of "American Pictures" is that it showed the difference between what we *think* should exist, and what is beneath the surface, if only we open our eyes to reality. Still, it is not about despair and disgrace, but about hope, dignity and passion.
Echo Trap (IR) (c) Bjorn Rorslett
JM: Is photography a first profession for you, or did you come here via a different route?
BR: It is not a first profession, but the logical fruition of all areas of importance to me coming together as an entirety. I studied biology, computer science, statistics, chemistry, and geology at the University of Oslo, Norway, and continued after some years when I scraped along as a free-lance computer programmer, to do my Ph.D. in Environmental Impact Assessment at the University of Lund, Sweden. While I finalized my Ph.D., I had already begun working as a researcher at Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) in Oslo, dealing mainly with underwater light climates, aquatic macrophytes and limnological botany with emphasis on enviromental impact studies. I held that position for more than twenty years and ended my career there as a Senior Research Scientist in 2001, when I retired to concentrate full-time on Photography. However, I also did part-time Nature Photography while working at NIVA and had signed up with Samfoto, a major stock agency in Oslo. Sales through Samfoto had picked up very well when I retired from my scientific daytime job, so I felt quite confident with regards to the future. During the 1990's I had run a number of workshops for budding nature photographers, and because of my early commitment to digital photography and being trained as a computer programmer, I had a head start on other fellow photographers and was able to set up workshops for the coming digital era.
JM: Besides nature photography, what other types of photographic work have you done?
BR: I've tried most, but it is photography in nature which I constantly return to and feel comfortable with.
JM: How and when did you become interested in IR and UV photography? What is it about these forms of the art that interest you?
BR: IR photography initially was one useful tool for my earlier environmental studies. I did a lot of aerial IR surveillance in the first years, on missions flown with small aircrafts. Eventually we moved on to commercial IR surveillance and multispectral imaging from satellites, both of which at that time were very exotic and cutting-edge approaches. This was partly because you could have the images from a computer tape instead of film, and partly due to the fact that this kind of imaging recorded patterns of the subject invisible to the human eye.
In conjunction with the aerial surveillance stuff, I initiated long-term monitoring studes on aquatic biology using underwater stereo photography. We designed and built our own devices for the task, and again, this approach was considered quite exotic.
I became interested in UV photography in 1991, after reading several papers on bees and their different spectral range of visual perception. Accordingly, I purchased a UV-Nikkor lens and UV flash, and set out to master the technological difficulties of this field of photography. Later on, when I went fully digital in 1999, I realised that I had an instrument to my disposal which could convey seemingly disparate spectral bands into a unified visual expression. So, during the last years, I have not made a distinction between UV and IR for my own work, as they both have the "invisible" feature in common. Sometimes the one, sometimes the other approach is beneficial for a given photographic task.
It has always struck me as bizarre that humans, which can perceive just 50% of the sunlight incident to the surface of the Earth, still consider their vision to represent the "truth." Anything outside that narrow spectral band of 400 to 700 nm is either non-existing to the human mind, or is "false." Photography using the UV or IR domains are said to be manipulated, unreal, not true. Who are we to decide that? UV is 10% and IR is 40% of the radiation emitted by the Sun. Not seeing a thing is different from denying its existence. We get suntanned on the beach by UV rays, so we certainly are aware of that spectral band, thus, we should consider using these "invisble" rays for photography as being equally normal and main-stream as getting a suntan. Likewise with IR, we feel the warmth of the sun, so taking that experience a step further automatically results in IR photography. We will soon understand that the IR reflectivity of subjects does not correspond to what we see for ourselves, but since the patterns by and large are repeatable, we can often pre-visualize the IR rendition.
JM: Your photographic work takes on very strong themes. Particularly, it appears that you are looking to delve into things that are not naturally visible with our own eyes. Where does this come from?
BR: Basically, I think my scientific background and natural curiosity are the major factors. This leads me to consider nature photography as a two-way process, taking place between Nature and the observing photographer. The typical Western approach to Nature is that Nature exists for the benefit of us, and that it is ours to do with whatever pleases us when we are considering Nature and the environment. Let us always remember that Nature can do perfectly well without any human intervention, but not the other way around. That should put the matter in its proper perspective.
You need to open up your mind to listen to the inner voices of Nature, before you can communicate your emotional reaction to those messages. In my mind, I'm humbled and overwhelmed by Nature because I'm being told so much and I'm able only to understand a mere fraction of what I hear or perceive. I feel grateful because I'm allowed by Nature to experience and envision some of these secrets of the ambient world. Sometimes the things I'm shown are elusive, sometimes they are tangible, but in all aspects they are a reality which can be communicated to others. The visual language is mine and has been developing and consolidating throughout my photographic evolution, but the underlying messages are given to me. I only need to reach out and devote my attention to them.
Mountain Road(visible) (c) Bjorn Rorslett
JM: As you have mentioned earlier, you came into photography full time after having had a full career. Do you feel that it was emotionally fulfilling having done this work? Would you have waited so long to go into photography full time if you had to do it over again? Or, do you feel that this is a natural progression of your lifetime's work?
BR: While sticking to being a scientist may have shortened the length of my professional career as a photographer, my convoluted and complex life also has given me a deep insight into a multitude of aspects relating to Nature, human life, and the interaction between them. So, no, I wouldn't have done differently if the opportunity should exist. My life has clearly shaped me into the photographer I am today.
Venus - Morning Star by Day, Lover by Night (UV) (c) Bjorn Rorslett
JM: When you talk about your experience of photographing that which is unseen, you speak strongly about the humble experience you have being able to hear "Capital N" Nature - and your ability to understand only a portion of that which you are hearing. Can you talk about this more? Is your photographic direction an attempt to somehow understand a piece of 'Capital G' God or is it something different?
BR: I'm not a religious person by any definition of the concept. On the contrary, I consider myself an atheist. I don't believe in any gods. I don't think life as such has a deeper meaning, except for our species, as any other, is interacting with the ecosystem to play a minor part of the overall grand scheme of Nature. As a species, we certainly neither are unique nor instrumental in the well-being or future of Nature. No time did I feel this stronger than when I watched the Venus Passage in 2004. I had driven all night, like a madman, 300 km on poor roads, to get to a location where there was no cloud cover. I barely got time to set up my gear before the passage commenced. Watching the black dot inexorably marching across the face of the sun, knowing this was a planet the size of Earth, that it moved in its celestial circle without Man's influence and that all Earthly powers never could change the timing of this event was a relevation. With all our science and knowledge, we just could predict the time for the passage, but nothing else. So tiny and non-influential, really, is mankind in the great setting of the Universe. It was a very strong emotional experience. In fact, it was a pinnacle of anything I've ever encountered in Nature, and likely always will be so.
On Friday night, we are going to put up Section II of this three part interview. In Section II, we will discuss aspects of Bjorn's business, from Seminars to Stock Photography. Section III, which will be published on Monday night, will focus on Bjorn's thoughts on the environment and environmental activism.
If you would like to see more of Bjorn's work, please feel free to check out his website at: http://www.naturfotograf.com.
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