The Norse Bjergtrold

Aleksander Austad

"…just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has the nakedness of the world before the first man—or of the cindered planet after the last."
— Fosco Maraini (1912 – 2004)

Photography for me simply started as a way of documenting the places I was visiting and chronicling the mountain experience. With time, however, I became even more fascinated with the interplay of light, weather oddities and the landscape and this expanded my emotional connection to high places. I realized that photography allowed me to observe nature more closely. Looking at the wilderness through the camera lens made me more aware of my surroundings, and my observations became more deliberate. Soon this magnified way of observing the natural environment became indistinguishable from living life as I had known it.

I also realized that with enough intention, a photograph has the power to affect people who weren't there and who had no previous history with the location. The ability to freeze a moment in time, and the challenge of conveying the meaning of that moment to others, remains a very appealing part of photography for me. It amazes me how very different types of wild spaces can shake up similar emotions in folks living on opposite sides of the world; how, as photographers, we have the potential to make an impact on others through an arrangement of colors and shapes, and how a single frame can come incredibly close to letting someone experience snow or the unbelievable colors flashing across the Arctic sky in some meaningful way, without actually being there in person to witness these phenomena.

Growing up in the city, but having lived in close proximity to mountain wilderness, it has become increasingly apparent to me that humans have become disconnected from the natural environment, from where we originated eons ago. We have, essentially, walked away from nature. From this emerges a new sense of purpose for me: the possibility to invite people to go back to the wilderness through my images and to be reminded of what the natural world adds to one's life. I have no doubt that reconnecting with nature is a big part of solving our common world issues. And by extension, I feel I can play a role in preserving these paradisiacal places so that this crucial connection will remain strong for generations to come.

Oddly, it is not the work of other photographers that inspired me to pick up a (Canon) camera. That interest came later as I got curious about how fellow artists went about documenting their own experiences, and as I developed a fascination for remote places, particularly the backcountry of the Scandes, or 'Nordryggen' (name coined in 2013).

I find tremendous inspiration in the work of those who travelled through these mountains well before me. Beyond photography, I draw plenty of inspiration from the early mountaineers of the Norwegian Mountains: the likes of William Cecil Slingsby, or Cecil, as he was generally known, Kristian Magdalon Bing, Baltazar Mathias Keilhau and Christian Peder Bianco Boeck. I find it unfathomable when I contemplate how much these pioneers accomplished given the odds they faced back then, let alone their antiquated gear.

In terms of photographic influences, I have found the dedication and passion of pioneers Vittorio Sella and Brad Washburn, Jr. to be admirable and their work—utterly fascinating! Here in Scandinavia the nature paintings of Theodor Severin Kittelsen (as well as his illustrations of myths and legends, especially of trolls) keep me observing and exploring, and regularly stoke my desire to document the magic of our wild places. The black-and-white work of Ansel Adams reminds me to pay attention. Finally, the work of Galen Avery Rowell epitomizes not only what life in the mountains means to me, but has also inspired my personal approach to photography. In his work I discover a deep respect for the mountain environment, a keen eye for artistry and composition, and a spirit of exploration and adventure.

Mountain photography, especially in the backcountry and on mountaineering exploits, bears many challenges. For one, getting to locations may require considerable physical efforts. Mountain weather can also be at times harsh on one's gear, as well as on the photographer, both physically and psychologically. In the mountains, Mother Nature is unpredictable and can repeatedly deceive the bewildered photographer. The mountain environment also brings strictly technical challenges: the inadequacy of GND filters due to rugged skylines, the ubiquity of high-contrast scenes owing to the presence of snow, and the difficulty in conveying a sense of scale in a place where everything is so big, and occasionally dangerous.

The technical challenges involved in mountain photography aside, I have never been a gear junkie and have never sold and traded so much equipment that I could have opened my own camera store. I consider what's in the bag to be tools, sitting there alongside my harness or ice axe. I invest in quality gear to ensure I capture the highest-quality images, but beyond that, my passion is invested in what lies beyond the lens and not the lens itself.

For all the reasons listed above, I believe that beyond skills, physical/mental fitness and gear, one needs to have an adaptable approach in order to capture magical moments in our part of the world. As a consequence, a limited amount of planning goes into my photographs. I may head to a particular location at a time when I feel conditions will make for fine images, but everything else is decided on the spot. Most of the time I prefer to work with what I'm given.

My approach to photography can be divided into two parts. The first part consists of simply being aware and going about one's day with an image-maker's perspective, or eye, that constantly analyzes from a photographic standpoint. Each scene is examined for its potential as a photograph. This happens routinely, somewhat passively in the background, whether I am in the wilderness, running errands on Sørlandssenteret, or on holiday in some exotic location. Of course, it helps to be able to drop everything and pick up the camera if I consider the conditions to be suitable to photography. I am very thankful for the people around me who allow me my moments of spontaneity high up in the mountains.

The second part of my approach is determined on the scene and in the moment: background, foreground, lens, aperture, duration of exposure, and more. I believe the fickle nature of the mountain landscape, light and weather lend themselves better to this type of spontaneous photography. Of course, it helps to be very familiar with the mountains, but dynamic conditions, especially the summertime luxury of 24-hour light, with very long sunsets and sunrises, and just the brilliant dusk in between, call for a dynamic approach.

This way of working also allows one to be more in tune with the ever-changing environment and to appreciate the multitude of moods and 'trolsk-ness' found in the Scandinavia/European Arctic. Accepting that conditions may not always come together for a compelling image, and being able to enjoy my surroundings even if it means coming home without exceptionally or especially good photographs, are both important aspects of my approach. Things will quickly get frustrating for a photographer who is set on getting a specific image but is unable to enjoy a greyish sky or a pellet of hail. This is particularly true when photographing remote or hard-to-reach places, where one just does not have the luxury of returning to a location easily or frequently.

Moreover, what is for me the limiting factor in terms of what makes a strong image—composition—typically only comes together in the short term. I know that with enough persistence and time spent out in nature that the interplay of light, weather and a given subject will eventually work in my favour and lead to what I feel is a compelling result.

Gotta play the game, right?!