Norwegian photographer Maiken Bull has a way of allowing her emotions to color her images. And these emotions are not a subtle undertow. No, there’s much being said in these photos. With their dark colors, and even darker atmosphere, Bull admits that these could be loud articulations of Maiken’s soul or subconscious. But perhaps they speak of Norway’s dark weather, of its sunless white and ghostly chills, or maybe they’re simply hectic thoughts. Yet whatever’s motivating her, it’s working. These are portraits that are uniquely beautiful.
Some — like the one above — can even harbor the slightest hint of menace. (If you don’t feel it, click on the image of Maiken, see it larger. Then find those pale-sad eyes. It should hit you like the city going dark.) But don’t let my characterizations fool you, Maiken is capable of glamour and sunshine brilliance. It’s just that from somewhere deep within the outward beauty, something unhinges just noticeably enough to force you to re-think what you felt.
In this interview, Bull talks about Maiken’s melancholic images, explains how she got into photography, and reveals how Maiken personalizes her images.
Your portraiture is very evocative and unique. How did you get your start taking portraits? How would you describe your work?
Thank you so much, I love to hear that my work is unique, because that’s kind of what I aim for when I shoot. I would describe my work as extremely personal. I tend to put my soul into my images and even when I don’t try to, I can see that I do subconsciously. I like to use a dark, mysterious tone in my images. I actually tried to do a bright and happy shoot for an assignment I had and my teacher told me that she liked the dark and melancholic tone in them. That kind of made me realize I just have to continue with what I’m already doing, because apparently that’s what I’m good at.
I like that much of your portraiture subverts standard poses and tone. Instead of studio lights and smiling faces, you prefer natural light and hidden glances. Why do you think you prefer shooting portraits in this manner?
I have never been a fan of studio lights, I don’t feel comfortable with them and I feel I can’t get the natural feeling I like in images when I shoot in a studio. But I do take pictures in the studio, just to get the knowledge so I have the opportunity to know how to do it if I would need it in the future. Having grown up in the forest, I think it’s just natural for me to bring my subjects outside, and I feel they act more natural that way too. You have all the space you need; you can make your subjects move around, you have so many more opportunities than when you’re locked in a small room with a white background. But I have to say I love to look at studio portraits, I just think there are few who are really good at it. I would like to have Sølve Sundsbø’s abilities; he is an amazing photographer and does a lot of studio portraits!
When setting up a portrait, what goes into your planning? Are you into mood boards and the like?
That depends what kind of mood I’m in and what kind of image I am going to shoot. I have started to use mood boards more, especially when I’m working with makeup artists and stylists. Sometimes I love to use mood boards, because it lets me plan everything and helps me know what to do. But even if I bring a mood board, I usually end up being impulsive and do whatever drives me at the time, because that is the way I am most used to working. I love to do spontaneous shoots.
Many of your subjects successfully convey the emotions your images hold. What is your approach to directing your subjects?
That is an incredibly difficult question, because I am not sure myself. I think I am good at telling my subjects what I want them to do. And if I can’t explain, I will try to show either the expression or pose myself. It is important to always communicate what you want them to do.
One of my favorite photos is of a woman levitating on a road between some trees. Could you please explain how this image was completed from start to finish? It’s a fascinating image.
That is actually a self-portrait I took a while back. I went to this amazing location close to where I live. I brought a tripod, a wireless shutter release and a stool. The image consists of 3 exposures put together. One of just the alley without anything in the frame. And two of me sitting on the stool; one where I like the hair, and one where I liked how my legs looked. So I put all this together in Photoshop, and probably spent about 2 hours just being super accurate. I used the image without me in it to mask out the stool I sat on.
Your portraits also feature skillful post-processing. I like your use of mirrored effects. Could you give us a quick breakdown of how you edit photos to maximize their impact?
Again I like to be spontaneous and a lot of my editing in Photoshop is happening as I sit there just testing adjustment layers. The mirrored effect is sometimes made when I use the Gradient Map and set this to reverse and masking out half of the image. Or just duplicating the image and put them next to each other, and flip one of them. Other than that I basically use curves and levels to set the colors and contrast.
You also like to travel. Many of your photographs of the US are great. I love the desert ones especially. How do you approach these travel/landscape photos? What usually catches your eye?
Actually a lot of those images are taken while driving, through the window, and many of them are also taken with my iPhone. I love road trips, and traveling and exploring is one of my biggest inspirations. I love open spaces and tend to notice that, and also trees and weird clouds especially fascinate me. And America is perfect for that kind of photography. It is such a beautiful country with so much beautiful nature to explore.
Your photography seems very personal. It’s as if your feelings are imparted on them. What advice would you give to other photographers hoping to experiment and personalize their own photos?
I think what I have done is to start with taking a lot of self-portraits, and by that I mean a LOT! Many of them I haven’t even published. And I think this may have had an impact on the images I take of models. I tend to shoot according to my emotions and how I feel at the time, and usually I shoot if I’m having a bad day, especially if I shoot self-portraits. That way I can express exactly what I am going through. I take inspiration from what affects me emotionally, like music, videos, nature, travel etc.. I think you just have to feel when you shoot, not think too much. I think that’s what separates a good image from a bad one, if you can feel the presence of the photographer in the image.