In few places does folklore seem so readily reflected in the natural world as in Norway. The country has roughly the same population as Denmark, its neighbor to the south; but Norway is eight times Denmark’s size. Denmark is flat and easily livable, divided into a trim patchwork quilt of agriculture and garden. Norway is all mountain, rock, dale, and fjord. Glance out the window of a mountain cabin, or take a stroll through a patch of rocky forest, and even in this modern day you quickly understand the presence of earthy, dark creatures such as trolls, dwarves, and nøkken (a water spirit that takes the form of a beautiful white horse, plays tame to entice a human to approach; then dashes off with them to its dark-bottomed pool and drags them under unless they call out its true name). Once in a snowy winter wood, I saw an evergreen leaning forward, cloaked in white. I had to look thrice to make sure I hadn’t just seen a pale wizard striding off into the early dusk.
Many (including myself) go to Norway during the winter for ski vacations. I highly recommend the summer as well, for hiking and climbing. Withdrawing from the populous valleys up hairpin roads to some little cabin or other, the hum of the built world drops away quickly. Electricity, cars, machines, trains, chatter, traffic — all are exchanged for that sharp, airy quiet found at higher altitudes. To this day many of the cabins, originating as lodging for travelers crossing the mountains or as simple dwellings for mountain farms used during the summer, lack running water and electricity and offer only outhouses for bathrooms. Yet they are not without particular luxuries. Here, one can walk out in the morning to a stream babbling over mossy rocks, water clear and cold and clean enough to drink, then walk back in, light a wood-fire, and cook some of that same water for coffee.
Post-coffee, I strap on my boots, sling camera and knapsack over my shoulder, and wander out. Most things cease to matter but the quiet joy of climbing over rock and boulder, crossing high-altitude moors of low-creeping brush and bracken, crossing banks of snow that last well into August, following crooked trails ever upwards, and fording shallow streams. Here too, the water is sweet and drinkable, pouring over colorful pebbles. Occasionally frogs go whisking by, long-legged travelers in the slipstream.
With me I have my Nikon D5200, a camera released in 2012 and five years old by the time I take it into the Norwegian mountains for the trip that inspired this writing — it’s eight years old by now, a veritable granddaddy in the world of digital cameras. Yet I still consider it a highly capable balance of size, weight, and ability. For years it was my only camera, and I did just about everything — landscape, street, and portrait work — with the AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G (another truly capable Nikon offering you can get for peanuts these days). I even shot a documentary film with this setup, and I still think the images are some of the best I’ve gotten on digital. Though I haven’t used that Nikon for a couple years (it gave out on the way to a different documentary shoot) I still miss it and think about picking up another one.
One day on a solo hike, I caught sight of a hill protruding from the landscape. It was nowhere near the path. Atop it stood an angular boulder decorated by a cluster of trees growing right out of the stone. It seemed just the spot to eat a sandwich. As I struck out toward it, I felt I was on a minor sort of archetypal quest in the Jungian tradition. The terrain challenged me. I had to find or invent each step. Creeks and gullies lurked beneath the ground cover. A larger stream cutting through the mountainside kept me occupied for half an hour as I worked my way up and down slippery rocks, searching for a safe crossing. Arriving at last, I flung myself down happily to unpack my lunch, only to be interrupted by a sudden squall sweeping in. I sheltered under the trees until the sun returned. Creeping back out, I drank in the smell of fresh rainfall on warm stone. To my amazement and delight, a rainbow coalesced suddenly in the near distance, lucid arc rising against the green.
There is one other companion from the civilized world one may meet in these high places. Herds of sheep are turned loose every summer to roam and graze. They wear bells, which tinkle softly across the mountainside like a greeting from a fairytale. Most of them are curious, but shy. They’ll allow a certain proximity but come too close and they dart away, plump woolly bodies on skinny yet surprisingly agile legs. After the initial scramble they invariably stop and turn to observe you again, a cluster of goofy and innocent faces. One notable exception was a crowd of sheep that discovered me on a gravel road one morning on the way to a trailhead. They pursued me all the way up, bells ringing earnestly, until I confused them by wading across a stream. Only here did they concede perplexed defeat, staring after me from the far shore as I climbed slowly away.
As I worked my way up, I turned over a question in my mind. Why bring a camera up here? I couldn’t help asking myself if I was spoiling or altering the moment by photographing it; if I was in some way cheating myself out of a “purer” experience by bringing along this little digital engine of mirror-and-sensor. Inevitably I had to ask myself: Why am I photographing at all?
Slowly I worked through landscape both inner and outer, gradually achieving that delicious exhaustion brought on by hours of steady exertion. I paused to photograph a strange formation of stone, looked down at my Nikon, and realized that I was being silly. Of course it wasn’t “spoiling” anything — there was too much love in it for that. Since the day I first got a Nikon D40x at twenty years old, I’ve been on a journey of listening, learning to see, and finding a voice that might not have been the same without a camera as companion.
Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” In the moment, I don’t always understand why I take a photograph. I just have to trust the intuitive sense of now being the right time to click. Later, looking through the images, I can start digging deeper into an understanding of what the place or the experience was to me. This is why it’s such a good idea to revisit one’s work repeatedly. Once the stirred-up silt of the moment — of being and observing and acting and photographing — has settled, one may begin to find a red thread, a story, even just a phrase or a riff. Photographs that at first glance appeared to have nothing may have quite a lot to say after all.
I was born in Norway but my family moved away when I was very little, and though I’ve returned many times on holiday and once for school, I’ve only lived there cumulatively about three years. Once I started photographing it, I didn’t really think about why (beyond the breathtaking landscapes, which is not in itself a bad reason) until years later. This is one of the values of photography I find most precious: that it can be a profound act of memory, of not just presence but active presence, of not just receiving life but actively receiving it, opening one’s shutter — and at the same time oneself — to let in the light.
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