Ivar Kvaal


Ivar Kvaal, Untitled from Hessdalen, 2012


Photography is a cumulative art. A photographer’s intentions are difficult to discern from a single image. Standing in front of a Van Gogh canvas one can, within limits, know something of what Van Gogh was up to. But if you only saw a single Walker Evans, August Sander or Rineke Dijkstra, for example, you could describe the subject of the photograph precisely yet not know what the photographer was thinking. Of course there are those famous photojournalistic photographs of singular moments that clarify, or just as often obscure, the truth of a situation. But these images are about events not art. In order for a photographer to think, or more precisely, in order for the viewer to comprehend the thinking process of the photographer, more images are required.

Most artists work in series, it is a way to explore and finally exhaust a subject, material or process, of its possibilities. For the photographer, especially the conceptual photographer, seriality is the structure through which observation and idea are made cumulatively manifest. Alfred Steiglitz called his series of cloud pictures taken in the 1920s and 1930s Equivalents. They were ostensibly of the sky, yet they were for him, about something else. Steiglitz believed photography’s power of description could potentially tap into the realm of abstraction thus articulating photography’s paradoxical dance between concrete reality and esoteric realms.



Ivar Kvaal, Untitled from Hessdalen, 2012


In the second part of the 20th century, a handful of influential artist / photographers took up this paradox including Bernd and Hilla Becher whose typological studies of industrial era architecture inspired a new generation of German photographers including Thomas Struth, Andres Gursky and Thomas Ruff.  In the United States, Lewis Baltz’s deceptively simple black and white photographs of the construction of strip malls, suburban developments and industrial parks proved how photographs could, with the most economic of means, imply the profound transformation of the American West, with all its implicit romantic associations, from a dramatic and unregulated landscape to one of banal and unimaginative utilitarian use.

Ivar Kvaal began his photographic studies with a desire to follow in the footsteps of such iconic mid-century photographers as Robert Capa and Henri Cartier Bresson. Both of these men employed the 35 mm camera as an animated extension to a restless and voracious vision. Capa famously said ‘If your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough’ and Cartier Bresson coined the term ‘Decisive Moment’ to describe the harmonic convergence of narrative and formal elements in a photograph. Their memorable images and personal bravado created a seductive model of a world travelling photographic observer. But somewhere along the line, Kvaal became intrigued with the possibilities of a quieter, less peripatetic practice.

Avoiding spectacle, Kvaal has developed a photographic approach in which careful observation of the everyday can be deeply revelatory. Replacing the quick response of  ‘point and shoot’, Kvaal’s photographs embody the crucial difference between ‘taking’ a photograph and ‘making’ a photograph. His images are careful constructions, at once both concrete and esoteric.



Ivar Kvaal, Untitled from Hessdalen, 2012


But in the hands of a nimble thinker, the resulting images need not be stiff or ponderous. Kvaal’s project Hessdalen is a meditation on the human desire to experience the otherworldly while simultaneously playfully implicating photography in its contradictory roles in mystification and evidence.  Hessdalen Valley in central Norway is the site of decades of inexplicable displays of light.  Once a thriving mining community, it has now become one of those forlorn frontiers where the mysterious and the desperate coincide to produce a new culture of wonder and paranoia.  Kvaal does not try to prove or disprove the various theories that attempt to explain the phenomena.  As if to provide atmosphere to Kvaal’s documents, a few images of the ephemeral float within his sequence of portraits of witnesses and believers and the technological and handmade tools that spring from an environment that exists somewhere between logic and delusion.



Ivar Kvaal, Untitled from Tethered to the Pole Star, 2010


Tethered to a Pole Star is another of Kvaal’s projects exploring a very different peripheral world that exists next to and within conventional Norwegian society. Tethered is an austere and intimate document of indigenous Scandinavians, the Sami or ‘Laplanders’, a name that the Sami people consider a pejorative.  Kvaal’s careful and elegant photographs present sublime landscapes and lonely gas stations glowing in the night, Sami people in traditional dress and Christian altars carved in ice, running shoes hidden in tall grass and the ethereal Aurora Borealis snaking over a frozen tundra. The title of the project refers to the Sami belief in a sacred link between the Pole Star (Polaris or the North Star) and the health of the people.  This link props up the celestial dome and when broken, the stars will rain upon the earth bringing an end to life.  Photography may be a relatively modern medium yet Kvaal is able to create a visual bond between the ancient and the contemporary, the concrete and they mythological.

We encounter most photographs in an environment that gives us clues toward comprehension of photographic information. Newspapers, fashion magazines, and art galleries will most often provide captions or titles to accompany images, but more than the few words that dangle below or beside an image, it is the institutional context that guides us. In a museum we expect to see art, in a newspaper we expect to see journalistic images.  Whatever the intent of the photographer, it is the context that will most determine how the viewer understands the image. Taken out of context, photographs become free-floating signifiers, specific and enigmatic simultaneously. In this way photographs are inherently surreal objects, they are uncanny, familiar yet strange.

A case in point is Evidence the 1977 project by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel that culled photographs from the archives of police departments, corporations, scientific laboratories and other institutions that employed photography for its evidentiary power.  Evidence was an exercise in meaning or lack of meaning, in other words, how photographs become ciphers when loosed from their narrative and / or institutional contexts. Sultan and Mandel’s project was an early example of what later came to be broadly termed ‘postmodernism’, in that Evidence examined the language of photography and in doing so brought into question basic assumptions about how photographs represent the world and how we read those representations.



Ivar Kvaal, Untitled from Dvale, 2007


Kvaal’s series titled Dvale is an example of photography’s duality in that every image is precisely descriptive, each image a compendium of surfaces and textures most of which are recognizable in their functional form such as walls, wires, floors, lights, ladders, pallets, and tools. It is without question a construction site and we are viewing the process from the inside. Yet despite this immediate recognition we are challenged to determine the meaning of the photographs. It is this play between the denotative and the connotative that gives photography its unique presence among the arts. There is a sequence in Dvale but is there a story? There is no sense of a narrative arc or thematic closure; we do not, for example, finally view the building from the outside as a shining example of architectural splendor, instead we are left with a series of rooms in various stages of transformation, each image a proscenium of inscrutability.



Ivar Kvaal, Untitled from Dvale, 2007


Ivar Kvaal, Untitled from Dvale, 2007


Like scenes from an architectural Waiting for Godot, one photograph shows us a portable machine hanging in an otherwise-empty cubicle. Suspended over a dusty floor the machine is immobilized, it is a patient awaiting expert attention; it is helpless, funny and a little pathetic.  In another image a tower of ceiling tiles are stacked upon a pallet waiting to be inserted in their proper place.  In yet another a tall ladder stretches toward the angle of red pipe overhead.  In all of these photographs we are like audience members sitting in front of a proscenium crowded with props awaiting the play to begin.

There are no humans visible in these pictures, no electricians, engineers, or architects, no carpenters or micro-managing supervisors. There is a preponderance of wires, conduits that unspool from the ceiling, sprout out of walls, or curl on floor.  Wires of orange, green, blue and black remain unconnected; they are all potential, promising future conductivity with a power residing outside the frame. There is something metaphysical in the implication of invisible power, a power that creates, a power that provides, that is the source of all that is possible.

In imagining the Creation as described in the Christian bible, I think of dramatic gestures producing instantaneous manifestations of the divine on a grand scale; light emanating from darkness, earth being separated from the sky. In my imagination there is nothing austere about the process, it is a magnificent and messy affair as the chaotic coheres into structure. In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey he imagines metaphysical realms as cool and detached, clean and sanitized, a force beyond the human dimension, it is a technological image of God.

Dvale means to hibernate. Hibernation is a long, isolated sleep in which the body’s normal functions slow down to a fraction of the waking state. Hibernation is a liminal space between life and death, a space for waiting, a limbo, an antechamber of consciousness. The actual site of these photographs is at the Akershus University Hospital in Norway.  When describing this project to a doctor friend who is an ER physician at hospital in downtown Baltimore, she observed the irony of a hospital portrayed, even under construction, as a place of quietude, when her experience of a hospital is one of chaos and suffering. Kvaal’s hospital sleeps, or perhaps, is itself being gestated, preparing for the suffering of the world in the hope that it may be a site of relief and renewal.



Ivar Kvaal, Untitled from Dvale, 2007

This essay was commissioned by Petter Snare and Teknisk Industri (Oslo) for Ivar Kvaal: Dvale (forthcoming)