Knut Skjærven is a Norwegian photographer and researcher living in Copenhagen but often found working in Berlin.
Having spent time with Knut talking all things photographic, the thing that comes across ‘loud and clear’ is his passion for learning from the golden era of street photography and his acute awareness of the compositional and psychological principles underpinning visual intelligence. I recently caught up with Knut ahead of a visit to Berlin.
For me, this photograph reminds me of the Cartier-Bresson photograph, “Un Dimanche Sur les Bords de Marne”, 1938 .
In it we see strict rules of composition taking the eye from its landing place (for me, the man with the white shirt in the foreground) on a journey through the layers that make up this image. What is interesting is that each layer has its own resting place: the foreground with the two people in conversation, the second layer with the woman’s head framed within a white rectangle and finally the third layer with the central couple sitting on the wall. Each group of people is isolated, allowing us to rhythmically hop across the photograph from one group to another. That said, one does not need to analyse the photograph to appreciate it. It just works.
As you well know, Cartier-Bresson (HCB) stuck to the ‘classic guidelines’ all of his life. The hallmark of many of his photographs is a rhythm, beauty and harmony created by great compositional skill.
So here’s the question: It’s rare to see this kind of rhythm and harmony in today’s forms of street photography. Why do you think that is? Do you think ‘street photography’ has lost its way?
Knut Skjærven – This is a very good question. Do I think that street photography has lost its way? No not necessarily. By the way, let me complement you on the reading of this photograph. You do that much better than I do.
Was there ever anything called “street photography” in general terms? I don’t think so. I know we often refer to Henri Cartier – Bresson (1908 – 2004), Robert Frank (1924 ), Walker Evans (1903 – 1975), and others as street photographers but they would hardly have accepted such a label themselves.
The term “street photography” comes later in time and is probably there for popular reasons. It is not a protected label and anyone can use it.
The way I come around this by using a normative definition for street photography.
To me “street photography” means a type of photographs that a) are taken in public areas; b) are not staged or posed; c) have human beings in a contextual setting as their bearing element. Add to that that pre- and post editing are minimal.
You will find others have divergent views on what is called street photography.
Tony Cearns – Well, to me it’s obvious from looking deeply at your work that you have spent much time studying the photographs of Cartier-Bresson. Which Cartier-Bresson photographs best show his genius and why?
Knut Skjærven – That is well observed but I actually never spent that much time on Cartier-Bresson. I think, however, I have got the gist of what he is trying to do. That makes things easier. The gist is his basic concept.
In my opinion, HCB’s photographs are as good as they come within the genre and they are an excellent starting point for any beginning street photographer. I consider myself a beginner in the field. I have only been at it since 2010. To me that is a short time. I hope I have lots experience to come.
I guess you could describe, HCB, as a genius if you with that term refer to the fact that he was an innovator. That he was. He brought photography off the tripod and vitalized photography as a new and “handheld art form” with his small Leica.
He was one of the first to do this and his timing was excellent meeting the demands of the new picture magazines springing up in Europe and The States. Luck was on his side as he clearly acknowledge.
Not only itching but definitely also decisive. Shows you what street photography can be when it is on its very best.
Tony Cearns – You have come up with your own conceptual framework for ‘decoding’ photographs based on ideas from Rudolf Arnheim (1904 – 2007), Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) and others. Your early articles about photography discussed these ideas at length, as well as the wider contexts of philosophy and perception. More recently, however, you seem to have been silent in these matters, and I get the impression that you no longer see the value in these debates, preferring to let the photographs ‘do the talking’.
Am I right? Why is this the case?
Knut Skjærven – Yes, you are partly right but only partly. It is true they I don’t verbally talk that much anymore.
There are two reasons for this.
First of all I did the brief and often simple articles as reminders to myself. I had knowledge about visual communication that I was about to forget. So I reminded myself in brief blog posts. That started already in 2007 before I knew there was something called street photography.
Secondly, there was never much debate in any of it. I guess that is the fate you have to get used to operating on social media where you meet a wide variety of people.
I am not complaining though because one the first things that happened when I started, Barebones Communication, in 2007, was that I was approached by a person at University of Florida with a question of they could use my models for their PhD students. That was affirming for my little project.
Also: my interest is photography and not theory of photography. I don’t see many folks around who combines academic disciplines will photography. Often one takes preference above the other. In my case I wanted photography to take preference over theory. Besides making street photography is much more demanding than writing about it. Who wants easy.
That said, I haven’t completely stopped talking about photography. In fact I do it every time I post a picture. But the language is now visual and not verbal.
Tony Cearns – Here is one of your photographs that I very much admire:
In your articles you talk at length about “itching” images, that is, images with an ‘x-factor”. It’s not enough that the composition is good, or that the street photographer’s point of view is interesting. These are necessary, to be sure, but not sufficient. They also need to have an ‘itching factor’.
Tell us what an itching image does that a non-itching image doesn’t do. Is it different to a ‘decisive moment’?
Knut Skjærven – Yes, there is a significant difference between what I call itching Images and the so-called Decisive Moments.
Goes like this: All Decisive Moments are Itching Images but not all Itching Images are Decisive Moments.
Trying to do Itching Images are training for sharpening my visual senses. Learning to see, to be brief. There are Itching Tools in my toolbox that I often put to practise. Add luck on a sunny day, sails set right and you might end up with a Decisive Moment.
There is a severe misunderstanding that every time you press the shutter you end up with a Decisive Moment. That is not so.
You need to make a distinction between moments as chronos and moments as kairos. That distinction is paramount for street photography.
Chronos follows the clock and makes every click of the shutter a decisive moment. In kairos you accept only those moments that makes a difference photographically.
Good photographs can make a difference but mostly they do not.
I am not talking about difference with a capital D but difference in your own life as a way of progress and refinement. As a way of doing things good enough.
Tony Cearns – If there was to be one only ‘Skjærven Photograph’ to be remembered, which one would you like it to be and why?
Knut Skjærven – Haha. Do I have to answer this? I like many of my photograph maybe because I not that critical about them. I do this for passion and for myself and not for anyone else.
If I should pick one that answer many of my photographic prayers it must be the photograph I took wandering the streets of the gallery area in Berlin some years ago. Late at night crossing the street from one gallery to another.
I enjoy it for the simple reason that everything fits and I would want it in no other way. I know it is full of technical faults. The light was difficult to handle.
It is not a complicated photograph but it is complex. Look for a moment at the amount of details that goes into it. No one can control this amount of elements in a casual photograph so luck must be there and gives you a helping hand.
To me it illustrated the challenges and also the enjoyment of street photography. You have to be somewhat of a magician and at the best of moments be able to hold a huge number of balls in the air at the same time. And make a controlled and coordinated landing of all of them.
You cannot, at least I cannot, accomplish that without a little help from my friends.
Tony Cearns – Are there any modern Street Photographers whose photographs you admire? If so, who and why? (If none, why none?)
Knut Skjærven – what you mean with modern. HCB, Frank and the old school of street photographers seem to be more modern than much I see today. I have no particular idols but pick up experience from many corners. Not only from photography. I enjoy visiting galleries and to follow people around. Everything I have been set up for me and I can concentrate on installing the living in the dead.
I don’t follow street photography that closely to be honest I would much rather go my own way.
That is probably not very visible since I do what I call small coin photography. Not the big bills. I don’t look for big drama. I enjoy small drama.
The European trend doing humanistic photography suits me fine and I recognize that Europe is where I want to shoot.
I enjoy photographers like Burri, Godelka, Brand and the best British photographers because they show a sense of humour which I find important as a narrative element.
Humour is for me a way of arresting people. It is a good Itching Tool. You can get a good laugh along the way too. I hope that humour is visible in at least some of the thing I do.
If you with modern suggest “still living” I don’t follow any “modern” street photographer.
Tony Cearns – Much of your work has been taken in Berlin. Tell us why this is so?
Knut Skjærven – To make a long story short I came to Berlin for the first time in 2007 planning a street meet for Contax G users.
Berlin seems to be a good place to meet for all. There are good prices too, not wanting to do things expensive. Compared to Copenhagen everything is half price.
That is one reason but it just so happened that I am familiar with phenomenology and the whole gestalt tradition. Much of this actually stems from Berliner milieus around Humboldt University.
When I started looking closer at that way of thinking and applied it to street photography I found the works of Rudolf Arnheim, which I indeed can relate to.
My street photographs, hopefully, expressed that kind of thinking.
This is visible for those you know what to look for. It is a low noise, fairly precise, descriptive and I hope also respectful approach. I like those ideas.
Besides Berlin is a hot city for everything art and photography. I go there as often as I can.
And these days Berlin is the power center of what is going on in Europe. Still being a very relaxed city to visit. The bookshops on photography are impressive for anyone from the starved northern countries. I spend hours in bookshops every time I visit.
As they say: Berlin is poor but sexy.
Tony Cearns – What is your current project? Tell us about it.
Knut Skjærven – More like this: What is my current but related projects. There are more than one.
I try to assemble a book consisting of street photography and brief texts complementing my approach to street photography. This project is already running. I call it On the Go: Workbook for New Street Agenda. I am preparing an updated version of that. But am in no hurry.
Secondly, I will continue with my documentation of The Europeans as well as I will continue with annual Street Meets and Workhops, which have been running since 2007.
The next Street Meet will be held in Berlin, September 9 – 11, 2016. The Street Meet 2017 will be held in my hometown Bergen, Norway, June 16 – 18, 2017.
These (sub) projects are continuations of what I already do. I don’t believe that any human being “can write more than one book during a lifetime”. So these projects are chapters in mine.
And I will seek good company. That could easily be most important project of them all. Even there I have been lucky.
Tony Cearns – What would your advice be to someone starting out in street photography?
Knut Skjærven – Advice, hmm.
Must be to do your very best. No reason to strive for mediocrity, is there?
Don’t think street photography comes without lots of training and good luck. Don’t treat it as a left hand activity or something you do while walking your dog.
After having been a celebrated photographer for 25 years, HCB, said that he still considers himself an amateur but no longer a dilettante.
Get away from dilettante.
Research will tell you that it takes 10.000 hours of training to reach a level of excellence. That means being on it every day for the next 10 years. I am about half way J.
Get to know the right people and stick with them. Forget the rest. Be sure to make your times interesting times.
And: Keep a sense of humour.
Don’t be too critical about what you show other people. That is part of the humour and without making mistakes you will learn nothing.
Easy as that.
Knut Skjærven’s biography
Knut Skjærven grew up in Bergen, Norway. After attending his first years at University of Bergen where he specialized in philosophical aesthetics he moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, to continue his studies in film, mass communication and visual communication. He holds an M.A. from University of Copenhagen and a B.A. from University of Bergen.
To support his studies he worked as a free-lance photographer and journalist for Norwegian newspapers. He later ran a column for the prestigious Danish newspaper, Børsen. He has written numerous articles and two books.
Knut Skjærven’s work is largely oriented around documentary and narrative photography. He has a special interest in street photography, which he says “is the most challenging there is”.
He defines street photography as having people as the main theme, being shot in public areas and untouched by human hand. Meaning not staged, not arranged and with only a minimum of pre- and postproduction.
He has been active in street photography since 2010 and has initiated and drives several blogs and social sites on visual communication and photography, street photography.
“I found that I had too many projects running and since last year I have a webgate as an entrance to all of it” he adds. See On Street Photography: New Street Agenda.
Since 2008 Knut Skjærven runs annual street photography summits: Street Meets. Since 2012 he also runs workshops and personal coach programs.
In 2014 he was interviewed by Financial Times. In 2015 he was selected as the only photographer to a huge educational project under Council of Europe. The project is Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters. The same year he was recommended for the HCB Award 2015.
Knut Skjærven can be contacted through his numerous sites or directly by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more biographical info see his profile on LinkedIn.
All images are courtesy of Knut Skjærven. Tony Cearns thanks Knut for generously giving his time and insights.