Trips: A Norwegian Summer Stories

It’s strange to sit and write about a wonderful summer I spent in Norway last year on a break from my life in Ethiopia. Looking back on all the time (and freedom) we had to hike trails and explore mountains, is ironic when I am currently stuck in my hometown in California, on lockdown, and unable to return to my wife in Norway (thanks to that whole, worldwide pandemic fiasco). I had been thinking about the tension landscape photographers often feel of the pull to explore new locations versus the desire to stay consistent (or convenient) by returning to places familiar. 

Right now that seems a bit silly to discuss as many of us can’t go anywhere, not even the parks across the street. Regardless, I will press on, as we all must. So here’s to thinking back to last summer, with sunshine, fresh air, outdoors, misty forests, dewy clovers, and the sounds of rushing waters.

I find that a tension present in landscape photography is the desire to go someplace new and exotic versus returning and shooting a place that is familiar. In a new location, shooting can be sporadic and spontaneous, capturing what intrigues you then and there, driven by the profound inspiration and excitement that comes with being somewhere new. While returning to a place of familiarity slows you down, having invested time to learn the area intimately, you visualise the scenes you want to capture. You can search deeper and deeper upon each return to discover the unique and secret scenes that most would pass by. With the travel that my life and work demands, I often fall into the former category. This pushes me to use my medium format cameras more often than the 4x5. But being back in Balestrand over the summer of 2019, on well-traveled trails and in familiar forests, armed with my Intrepid 4x5 MK3, gave me the time and patience to hunt for the scenes I would normally not take the time to capture. 

Some of these compositions are scenes I have walked or run by many times with a mental note to return and photograph later. Others were found after taking an entire day to explore the mountain sides and venturing off-trail to unknown places.

I have been frequenting Balestrand for nearly 8 years, as it is the hometown of my wife (and yes, I am very aware of how quite lucky that makes me). No matter the season, there is always something to explore, especially when your father-in-law is a forest engineer and knows the place like the back of his hand! Some mountains I have topped several times, while others only once. Some trails we run on every day and others never set foot. But that is what made this summer different. This year having traveled quite a bit and never feeling like I had the opportunity to shoot large format, I decided this summer in Balestrand is the year I would put in the hours to finally break-in my Intrepid and use it the way I intended when buying it! 

Everything was set: darkroom, lenses, new tripod, new backpack, my @WandererPhotoGear dark cloth (plug), plenty of film holders and all of my @StonePhotoGear sleeves & lens wraps #notasponsor. Oh and film, lots of unused Ilford HP5 & FP4.

For the first foray out, I waited for a rainy day so I could catch the mist as it moved through the forest and washed over the mountains. I didn’t have to wait long since west Norway gets its fair share of rain. I found my way along a trail that is cut by several splitting streams. From here I followed the water up until reaching the stream bifurcation and headed off-trail down into a small canyon. Here at the waters edge and removed from the trail I found an incredible secret spot, ripe with compositions (and no flash flood danger). There is nothing more peaceful than going from the chaos of a densely populated, metropolitan city, to the peace of light rain and rushing water, devoid of human interaction. I came away from this newfound oasis with several medium format images and two 4x5 compositions. 

In modern photography, the concept of pre-visualisation is quite known and practiced (thanks to Ansel Adams and his books). Inspired by photographers like @caseymoore, ferns were always a subject that I had wanted to invest some time into shooting and had a few images in my head. Rather than finding a perfect fern and utilising studio light and a backdrop, etc. I wanted to try to find some beautiful ferns in the wild and photograph them on location. The image I had in mind was of an isolated fern within a patch of others. I spent hours searching and eventually found a few perfect spots to set up, out of the direct sun and with a naturally darkened background, without many distractions. This was more of an experiment, trying out different focal lengths, apertures, and film stocks. In the end I was satisfied that I actually was able to create a triptych of Ferns. There’s definitely room for improvement, but this is just the beginning in my fern study and From the Forest Floor series!

Whenever I went out planning to take a specific photo, I would often find myself drawn to a scene and distracted by a potential composition. I loved having the freedom to follow my whims and see what would happen. Knowing that I could return to the planned composition the next day, or day after made it possible for me to explore. Sometimes it would develop into a beautiful photograph and other times it wouldn’t pan out or even be worth exposing the film. Regardless, I always learned something about lighting, composition, framing, and the 4x5 process.

Eventually, when I did make it to those planned scenes, I found it surprisingly simple to compose the image and expose the photograph. I have no doubt that this was all thanks to my familiarity with the location, light, and scene as well as that time to pre-visualise the final image. Many of these walkway images are products of this process. 

In the end, I came away from this summer in Balestrand with my first real set of 4x5 landscape images that I was proud of. In reality, the first landscape photos I had taken on my Intrepid and on 4x5, without major issue. This trip was a catalyst in teaching me to slow down, and take time to learn the camera and process. There is no rush when it comes to large format. That is probably one of the biggest challenges when moving from any format up to 4x5 and beyond (which is why I love the versatility of medium format). However, there is such a sense of calm and peace when you find your rhythm and begin understanding your camera. You can come into a meditative flow as you, the camera, and the composition all seem to work together to create that final image. Spending time in these familiar forests and scenes taught me the necessity of slowing down. Something I hope to carry even when traveling or finding myself in a new, exciting location full of photographic potential.

I look forward to returning to these familiar spots over the years and bringing my Intrepid with me. Many of these compositions will be ones I return to often, to document their changes, both subtle and extreme. Yet, there will always be something new to discover, just around the next bend.

Corey Hart  |  Instagram.

The End.