Interview with Dan Skjæveland on 33 Suspensions

Dan Skjæveland is a Norwegian artist living in Trondheim. He recently published his first monograph with Nearest Truth Editions. I spoke to Dan about his way into photography, his process and the making of his book 33 Suspensions.

ASX: Let’s talk about your beginnings. How did you come to photography?

Dan Skjæveland: I came to photography quite late, despite my father having his own camera store and lab. I never took an interest in photography as a teenager, and even formulated an idea of not wanting to engage with photography at all. I thought that the camera would take me out of the action and authenticity of the moment, and also didn’t see the value of documenting what I was doing, so I never carried a camera.

Later on, I got hired by my dad to work in the shop, as he saw that I had an interest in sales. Part of my job meant learning how to operate cameras. I played around with them and got excited. When I took my first walk with an old camera, I was surprised how making pictures seemed to align with my personality. At that time I would be making movies together with friends, and it would take months between projects. You were so dependent on other people to scratch that itch. The idea of going out with the camera and being able to engage with it directly by yourself really spoke to me.

ASX: Did you take any formal studies in photography?

DS: No, I am self-taught. I ran into some health issues during my time at the shop and realized the fragility of life. How quickly things can turn around. I took the money I had put aside for an apartment, and decided to spend the next couple of years diving into photography. I traveled, and spent time in Paris, where you could say I did my own studies.

ASX: What photography were you looking at then? Did you engage with photobooks?

DS: That first year, before quitting my job, I told myself that I would avoid looking at any pictures at all. I thought that they might have a negative impact on how I saw things, and that they would encourage a certain copying. I was quite strict in the beginning, and explored more the technical side of the medium.

Later I saw some photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson which really blew the field open. Like him I would take black and white pictures of people and situations in the streets, and it was the French photographers that first inspired me relocating to Paris. A bit later I discovered Garry Winogrand. I didn’t understand what he was doing at first, but when I returned to his pictures after a while, I was completely blown away. Winogrand had a huge impact on how I view photography.

ASX: How did you come from an approach that is more oriented towards a tradition of street photography, with protagonists like Winogrand shooting in often highly dynamic situations, to the still life oriented pictures that we now find in your book 33 Suspensions?

DS: It happened after going through another round of health issues that limited my movements. I found myself unable to walk freely for a couple of years, and during that period I had to reevaluate my relationship to photography — how to engage with it, or whether to engage with it at all. I bought a small point and shoot camera to photograph around the apartment and, simultaneously, began to study pictures that didn’t have any people in them. I was trying to understand why photographers would approach these often mundane subject matters. I remember one photo by Henry Wessel: Buena Vista, Colorado, 1973. It shows a phone booth by the side of a road. I couldn’t at first fathom what it was about. Why this specific phone booth? I scanned the whole image area and then I looked at the trailer in the background and how the lines of it intercepted into the phone booth. I realized the relationship between these elements, thinking, “Of course, that’s what he saw!” Whether I was right or not was irrelevant. I felt like I had cracked a code. With that revelation the photography of Lee Friedlander really opened up for me as well, which helped take my work in a new direction. These people were important for understanding image space, and how all the elements of a photograph contribute to the illusion of meaning.

In terms of my approach, I have largely been interested in the individual image, leading me to avoid adhering to concepts of style. I try to treat each image as its own expression and then have faith that, in the end, I and the audience will be able to connect things. Even if the images can be quite different in terms of framing, subject matter, texture. The way I photograph is quite undramatic — often facing the object at a rather straight angle. And the subject matter may seem to be banal. Some have called them snapshots — something I disagree with.

ASX: I don’t think they are snapshots. Your way of framing is very considered. Even when there is a lot of chaos inside the frame, the whole picture is balanced.

DS: I try to bring a high level of attention to the subject, and I put a lot of care into the framing. It’s essential.

ASX: You published the book Bill Dane Pictures …it’s not pretty with the work and words of the American artist Bill Dane. How did working with him influence your own picture making?

DS: Bill opened my mind to other ways of looking at and thinking about photography. He spoke about photographs as pictures and not specifically as photography. I guess it’s just semantics, but this allowed me to step out of photography somewhat and look at my work more as pictures. This created an impulse for experimentation. Suddenly, I allowed myself to crop images, disregard pixels and play with textures, producing something that would more resemble a painting. Context was another thing we talked about.

ASX: The photographs in your new book show urban spaces, often interiors. There is a sense of abandonment running through the work. Traces of people. Marks that ask to be interpreted. Where did you make the pictures? And over what period of time?

DS: I made the work in fifteen cities or so, over the course of six years. When I am photographing in a city, I am not trying to convey something about that specific place. Initially, I titled my work based on the locations where I took the photos, but lately I have been moving away from this. Knowing that this will effect how other people read the images, I need to ask myself what the reference adds or detracts from the experience. How it influences meaning. Ultimately, I don’t see it as my role to define the meaning of this work. This is hopefully not interpreted as a way of abdicating responsibility. I believe in a collective reading, and I’m interested in hearing how people interpret my work because it helps me understand not just what I’m seeing but also, by extension, what I’m doing. Simply because I do rely so much on unresolved feelings and intuition. Avoiding the pre-defined. So someone in the audience might have more descriptive words for what it is I do. Or a clearer idea of visual patterns, rhythms, and what things may mean, so I welcome that.

ASX: The idea of reduction is palpable in the book. There are no overviews, the framing is very tight. The color palette is muted — a grey with overtones of yellow, brown, green, blue. Context is omitted. Oftentimes to an extent that I am not really sure what I am looking at. Yet, the photos never become abstractions. They show very concrete objects with their material qualities. A feeling of unease emanates from these found still lifes. It may be achieved by the subject matter and the decisive absence of people. I also feel it comes from a particular openness of your photos, an openness to interpretation that is enhanced through the editing. I want to say, it comes from the suspension of meaning. 

Can you tell me how the theme of suspension came about? What was the editing process like?

DS: The book was developed as part of the Nearest Truth workshop program with Brad Feuerhelm. At first I didn’t think I’d be making a publication, and just wanted to learn more about the photobook. I always had this thought that I would wait until I am 40 to make a book. I wanted the work to be mature enough, so that I could produce something that I would be happy with much later on as well. Still, Brad and I began to look at some work of mine, and at some point Brad said: you got a bunch of suspensions here.

ASX: There is a lot of stuff in the air: hanging clothes, textiles in general, cables, ventilation systems that are ripped out of the ceiling. But also, strangely, two pairs of naked legs.

DS: Yes. Brad threw out the expression “26 Suspensions“, and I think something clicked in both of us. On that same day we agreed on doing this book together.

ASX: He was referring to Ed Ruscha’s book 26 Gasoline Stations, that has 26 pictures of Gasoline stations in it.

DS: I have a certain appreciation for the dead pan. I am not opposed to poetic titles, but I wanted to give the images themselves more space and present them as seemingly nothing else beyond x-amount of Suspensions. I like “American Monuments“, and “Self Portraits”. These simple titles are attractive to me, and I don’t see them as detracting from the complexities of the work. And of course there is the reference to Ed Ruscha. We grappled with how explicit to make it, and opted to change the number of images.

We thought of literal suspensions on the one hand, and on the other we followed the idea of photography as suspended movement or suspended time. My task was to go into my archive and look for images that could relate to these ideas. When you decide to run with the idea that you are showing a certain number of images of an object or scene, you have a concept that can provide you with quite a bit of liberty in terms of how you order the images. Yet we were very clear about maintaining a certain tonality and colour palette to ensure cohesiveness among photos taken years apart. Repetition of certain elements was also important for the sequence, as well as the question of when to introduce the traces of people, where you would see more of actual bodies, either through a photograph on a wall or through legs hanging in the air.

We wanted the reader to get a feeling of what to expect from the next image and then be surprised by something quite different. A visual break. For instance, the image of the stacked papers. They fill the whole frame. Suddenly you are very up close. It is a fine line. That image should surprise you, but still feel coherent with the rest.

ASX: Another example is the motif of the laundry. I see cleaned shirts wrapped in transparencies to protect them from dust. I think of the bodies that had worn these clothes. I think of white collar work. I form an idea of the laundry as a counterpoint to the dirt and abandonment in other images. It is a place where order and tidiness are upheld. I still place a strange photo of some pant legs into that context, when later these pants are echoed by the picture with the suspended naked legs of actual human bodies — suddenly I am thrown off my path, a rift opens. The meaning I was inventing, is shaken up again.

Destabilization is also achieved through the multi-layering in your pictures. You often shoot through windows. You present a look inside with a reflection of the outside on top. The tightly layered spaces lack a vantage point, and it’s difficult to position myself as the viewer.

DS: In many ways I would understand my work to be about photographic seeing. You are able to see in a way that your eye wouldn’t normally allow you to do. Normally you have to choose if you are focusing on what’s inside a window or the glass itself. The medium of photography allows you to look beyond and at the window. Into the back and at the front. You can have different elements in focus at the same time.

ASX: I see it as a book on photography itself. The act of looking is reflected in several images. The windows, through which we see these empty interiors, are often covered with specks of dirt. The dirt draws attention to the otherwise transparent medium. The looking, that is invisible, is thereby made visible, I become conscious of it. Another motif are the blinds through which we are peeking, or that are shutting us out. One image shows black fingerprints on some nicotine stained blinds which is very evocative. It gives a sense of forbidden looking.

DS: I appreciate that you say that. I will often say that my work is about photography. Again, I try to be attentive to whether I am copping out by saying that. People might want to hear that there is more to the work, at least in terms of motivation. There is an exchange between William Eggleston and Phillip Prodger where Prodger is questioning his intentions. Prodger says, “People have written about your work that it really doesn’t matter what you photograph, that you treat everything the same. And they sometimes quote things that you’ve said, to the effect that everything is equal,” to which Eggleston basically agrees. Prodger continues “Is that true? Do you photograph a person the same way you photograph a parking lot?”. Eggleston’s response was: “I think so, absolutely.” The interviewer doesn’t seem to believe him and continues to prod him. I bring this up because when you tell people that your work is about photography, many want to prod you on that statement.

Many photographers say they don’t want to talk about their work. And that might just mean that they are not able to do so. In my case, I can only say that I hope to create images, where if you tried to describe them in words — their subject or their construction — the description would fall flat, compared to the actual image. You should see it as a visual thing. It’s not meant to replace words. It’s not meant to serve as an illustration of something. It is its own world that should be experienced as such. I am very aware that I am making images in the end.

I still don’t take pictures of friends or family or of what I am experiencing, and prefer to photograph in shorter bursts. When I go somewhere for ten days I drop most of my habits and allow my days to be all about seeing. I have to consciously activate that level of attention. If we were to walk down a street together and I had my camera in hand, either I would not be able to talk to you or I would not able to take pictures.

ASX: I don’t think that saying your images are about photography is a way of copping out. You are drawing attention to your particular form of paying attention. The photographer can show me many things that I may find interesting, but his real gift is his specific form of attention, of looking, of relating to the world that connects my mind to his. 

DS: The painter David Hockney spoke about the excitement that he experienced when seeing a painting of an owl by Picasso: “Today, I suppose, an artist might just stuff the bird and put it in a case: taxidermy. But Picasso’s owl is an account of a human being looking at an owl, which is a lot more interesting than a preserved specimen.” The idea of a human looking. I am sure I could find pleasure in working from archival images as well, but the excitement of being out in the world, really looking, trying to find something that you think has the potential to be transformed through photography. That’s how I want to continue to work. I could sit at home and have lots of ideas, but I prefer to look and respond. I believe that there is still merit in this type of work.

ASX: The book’s title 33 Suspensions suggests that the photograph itself is a suspension. You mentioned Cartier-Bresson. Photography in this vein of work is often thought of as an arrest of the flow of time, a cut through a movement. The idea of suspension suggests something different, something more ambiguous.

DS: Yes, I was just now visualizing how some images feel like they are frozen vertically. Whereas in these images of suspensions, time feels represented as something more on a horizontal plane. There is a certain stillness to it. It feels almost like you can return to it.

ASX: Is the stillness an effect of still objects? And does a photograph need it for you to deem it successful?

DS: I don’t think it’s necessarily related to the still objects. I have seen what one might describe as snapshots of objects where you can almost sense the movement of the photographer. Where you can’t sense stillness at all. Perhaps it’s a combination of framing, colour, and, again, the attentiveness to the frame that snapshots don’t seem to convey.

I don’t know if I am striving for stillness per se. I just try to let the images be what they are. Tim Carpenter said something on Instagram: that the book is somehow both beautiful and unnerving. Perhaps the stillness you’re referring to is a contributor here.

ASX: That rings true. The suspensions are not to be mistaken for the inertness of, let’s say, a stone. There is the question of a before and an after. An anticipation. Things may eventually collapse. Or be suspended indefinitely. This uncertainty characterizes the particular stillness of your pictures. It’s a stillness that is unsettling. 

The book ends with three dark images. White objects are floating in a black space. It ends on a somber note.

DS: Yes. Maybe this helps to emphasize the unease of the previous images, allowing you to see the pictures that came before in a different context and, as a result, with a slight shift in perceived content. Ideally the last images retroactively infuse the others with a certain mystery. 33 suspensions. Perhaps that’s all you expect to see when you first pick up the book. A random grouping of 33 images. However, through our work with the sequence we hopefully infuse the work with something beyond what you are initially promised.

Dan Skjæveland

33 Suspensions

Nearest Truth Editions, 2023

(All Rights Reserved. Text © Felix Lampe. Images © Dan Skjæveland.)

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