Island Dreams and Swedish Nudity

Jun 5, 2018 11:10AM

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Ingmar Bergman, a fact that is unlikely to go unnoticed as there will be Bergman-themed weeks and ambitious projects at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, which was the famed director’s home in theatre for many years. Despite the oceans of time that have gone by and the vast social changes that have occurred since he made Persona, Wild Strawberries, and The Virgin Spring, it’s as though he never left the scene. His significance for Sweden’s international image, and for Sweden’s own sense of identity in relation to concepts like the archipelago, solitude, beauty, and pain, simply cannot be overstated. We are still living in the shadow of his influence. Did Bergman create this himself, or did he simply possess an amazing ability to capture and summarise it in his aesthetics and idiom, aided along the way by his photographer and aesthetic twin soul, Sven Nyqvist? This is a likely train of thought in an encounter with the pictures in this exhibition with the renown Swedish photographer Mikael Jansson, interviewed by Paulina Solkolow.

Like Ingmar Bergman, Mikael Jansson has made significant contributions to our time’s canon of images, and has greatly influenced our views on the ideals and dreams of society during his career of more than 40 years. Although, it should be mentioned, he’s done so in a far more reclusive way. Unlike the older icon, who was a fixture of public life, Jansson rarely appears at bustling social events frequented by models. The similarities are all about other things: refusal to compromise, perfectionism, and steadfastly remaining true to one’s vision, with one’s sights set on the non-verbal aspects of the darkness. And, of course, the Swedish archipelago.

Daria, the Archipelago Series started out as a loosely defined assignment for Andy Warhol’s Interview, a magazine featuring photography and stories. It was for an issue published in 2014, themed “The Photographer’s Issue,” and Mikael Jansson decided that this would be the time for him to make a reality of an idea for a project, which he’d been saving for the right occasion. This was it!

The archipelago has always been a source of inspiration for me. There’s something there that is a part of me. I have a very close bond with nature. I love spending time on my desert island, with no electricity or running water. You fish, you go naked. That’s the kind of feeling I was going for here. You could actually say that these photos are self-portraits, in a way.

Mikael Jansson
Daria, The Archipelago series # 14 , 2014

Mikael Jansson grew up in a working-class family in Stockholm. His dad was a butcher. But nature entered the picture early on, thanks to his dad’s passion for boats. His summers were filled with boating adventures, often based out of Gålö (“I’ve spent more time in the archipelago than in the city”). For this reason, Daria, the Archipelago Series is a project he cares especially about. The person in the pictures is Ukrainian-Canadian super model Daria Werbowy, a face that has lived nine lives, and set new standards for what makes a face iconic, much like Kate Moss did.

I wanted to do this with Daria, who I’ve worked with a great deal. She had never been to the Stockholm archipelago before, but she has spent a lot of time at sea, including once crossing the Atlantic on a sailing boat. But that’s not all. There’s something special about her. To me, she’s not a model, she has something else, something more personal, that I found significant. It’s hard to explain why you’re drawn to certain people. Maybe it’s just that people who really want to be models tend to become a certain kind of models, while people who have other, more important, things going on in their lives have something more. It’s a character.

The story in Interview also featured interviews with the various photographers who had contributed the pictures. Mikael Jansson chose to be interviewed by his model. Their conversation revolved around another typical Swedish phenomenon, which is also a strong subtheme of the series: natural nudity. In one of the pictures, she is reclining on a boat, holding a magazine in front of her with an ad for the ground-breaking 1967 film I Am Curious (Yellow) (Jag är nyfiken – en film i gult), in which director Vilgot Sjöman and actress Lena Nyman travelled around Sweden interviewing people and asking them about their views on society, injustices, and non-violence. Olof Palme, who would later become Sweden’s Prime Minister, was among those interviewed. This film has come to be equated with the leftist ideals and sexual liberation of the 1960s,  and the nude scenes with Lena Nyman and Börje Ahlstedt, which stirred up controversy at the time, are the most famous sequences in the film.

We talked a fair deal about nudity, and how it’s actually natural, rather than some sexual proposition. It’s just natural! Daria is from Canada, and their views on these things differ a lot from places like the US, too.

Mikael Jansson
Daria, The Archipelago series # 22, 2014

In the interview, Werbowy states that she felt relaxed during the shooting of these pictures from the archipelago, in many of which she appears nude or barely dressed. “You regard women in a way that I think they appreciate. It’s completely different from almost all other nude portraits of women. Your perspective is much more romantic and respectful. It comes from a good place,” she concludes, and one has to assume that the place she is referring to is the socially aware state of innocence that Sweden embodied so strongly during this time.

It’s true: we’ve grown up in the presence of a natural nudity that’s uncommon in the rest of the world. We’ve always run around in the nude in the countryside, and that’s a good thing.  

He doesn’t mind the Bergman reference at all; having seen all of his films, he relates to them, and willingly admits that they have influenced him.  

Everything about them. Everything from the tension in the films, to the melancholy nature that might well be a part of the Swedish genetic makeup. Also, a similar view of beauty, which always carries a degree of melancholy with it–a darkness, or weightiness. It’s there, in my pictures, just as it is in his films.

We begin to talk about beauty. After all, Mikael Jansson is one of the most respected fashion and portrait photographers in the world. What are his views and attitudes on this concept, which reflects so many aspects of history, culture, subculture, and variations. A long pause follows, after which he offers this response:

I don’t plan beauty, and I can’t really say where it comes from. When I first started out, I was interested in nature and in birds. But something happened when I came across David Bowie. His styling represented a new phase in my own conception of beauty.

Mikael Jansson
Daria, The Archipelago series # 3 , 2014

This was in the very beginning of the 70s, when he made the Ziggy Stardust album. Today, it can be hard to appreciate what a subversive shift Bowie sparked off when he went onstage and turned every previous notion of sex appeal, charisma, and fashion on its head. This was an apparition in platform shoes, a sparkly leotard, an angry red mullet, and heavy makeup, who rejected stereotypical male ideals and female ideals alike.Bergman, and Bowie. If one were to attempt to chart Mikael Jansson, if this seemed like an important thing to do, the Janssonian continent is probably in their vicinity. This applies in particular to the series Daria, the Archipelago Series. This untouched nature, with its broken coastline leading straight into the icy sea, is paired with a defiant look from an androgynous model who could just as well have been Mikael Jansson himself.

Four years have passed since this adventure in the archipelago, which certainly won’t be his last. The world is Mikael Jansson’s workplace today, as it has been throughout his incredibly long career. But for the moment, he’s in Stockholm finishing a project that’s as far removed from Swedish nature, youthful innocence, and rock and roll as you can get. This project involves taking photos of 100 or so Swedish holocaust survivors, who are all between the ages of 90 and 100. The scope of the project has expanded, and the exhibition will also include films when it opens later this year.

This has had an enormous influence on me, and I could never have dreamed of the extent of its impact on my life. Minimal black and white portraits in natural light. I took pictures of so many fantastic beauties! They are so beautiful, and their passion for life really stuck with me. How is that even possible? They still have that sparkle in their eyes, like they know.

Daria, The Archipelago Series in the White Gallery at CFHILL. Photo: Magnus Mårding

Mikael Jansson was born in Stockholm in 1958, and has been working with all the big magazines, super models, and fashion brands since the early 80s. After working as an assistant to the legendary photographer Carl Johan Rönn, he got in touch with one of the greatest-ever fashion photographers, Richard Avedon (1923–2004), and took up a position as his assistant in New York. One of his most talked-about projects is Speed of Life, in which he followed Formula 1 drivers around at their races, a privilege he is the only photographer ever to have been granted. These works were exhibited at Kulturhuset in 2007 (and at CFHILL in 2017). The project he’s currently working on, where he documents and interviews Swedish holocaust survivors, is also set to be exhibited at Kulturhuset later this year, in a show curated by Moderna Museet’s director Daniel Birnbaum.