Sølve Sundsbø’s New Show Celebrates the Work of a Visionary Photographer

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Elena in GaultierNuméro #91, Shot November 2007

As an exhibition in Milan showcases the Norwegian photographer’s extraordinary work, he talks to AnOther about escapism versus reality, and Instagram

In the hallowed halls of Palazzo Reale – the centuries-old former royal palace and now cultural institution in Milan – sits the innovative photography and film work of Sølve Sundsbø. The fashion photographer’s solo exhibition, Beyond the Still Image, comprises a series of installations in the Prince’s Apartments, designed to immerse visitors in his fantastical world. “It is an old institutional building, so you’re not allowed to put a screw in the wall or do anything like that,” Sundsbø explains over the phone in London, having just returned from the exhibition’s opening weekend at the Photo Vogue Festival. “We’ve done installations in several rooms and it’s quite immersive. That’s what I wanted – I wanted to make it different to how you would see it on your phone or your laptop. I wanted it to feel like there was something you had to go there to experience.”

Beyond the Still Image compiles photography and film from the Norwegian photographer’s 20-year career in fashion photography (Sundsbø came to London in 1994 – and has been based here since – to study photography, and spent three and a half years assisting Nick Knight). Defined by a boundary-pushing, extraordinary style and early adoption of new technologies (he was 3D scanning for Dazed & Confused in the late 90s), Sundsbø’s output is ever-invigorating and ahead of its time.

His film work is presented in varying forms throughout the exhibition: in one room what plays on a screen angled at 45 degrees is reflected in a mirrored floor; in another space the captivating (and Emmy Award-winning) shorts 14 Actors Acting play alongside each other on large screens; and another room allows visitors to watch a film from different angles via a circular screen. “The contrast between the modern installations and the grand old building kind of added a bit of value to it for me,” the photographer says. Beyond the Still Image became an opportunity to revisit the wealth of film that he has produced over his career. Otherworldly and somewhat frenetic, his oeuvre becomes a kind of exercise for the imagination. Film is an extension of photography for Sundsbø; there’s a dialogue between the two forms, and common to both is the role of the viewer and their imagination in completing the narrative.

“I look at stills as a moment: the viewer has to fill in the story ahead and the story after,” he says. “You believe in what you see because it’s a photograph, then your brain starts filling in what’s happened leading up to that photograph and where it goes after, if it’s a strong image. You imagine, who is this character? Where did this character come from? Who is he or she? What do they do? The kind of films that I do are just an extension of that – they’re not films that try to tell a story. You just get a little glimpse of it; it’s not a one word thing, it’s probably more like a sentence or two sentences. It’s not a full poem, but a little hint of a story that you then have to make up yourself.”

The act of looking at work by Sundsbø forms a unique sort of collaboration, with which the idea of escapism goes hand in hand. The image-maker believes that “all fashion photography is escapism” to varying degrees, whether or not it presents as a version of reality, because of its aspiration. “What is often proposed to us as reality, obviously isn’t. There isn’t, in fashion photography especially, a lot of reality – you might see beautiful young people in an everyday scenario in a $3,500 jacket. That’s not reality – or at least it’s not reality in my world – and I think that’s just a different form of escapism in a way.”

As such, Sundsbø’s work – whether viewed on screens or the pages of a magazine – is energetic and transportative. His practice has become about the novel and the unexpected, rather than elevating the everyday with added glamour. “I have four kids – I wake up in the morning, I do the school run, I pack lunches, I do all that stuff, and my life is, I would say, quite normal,” he explains. “When I go to work I want to let my imagination lead me, I want to try to find poetry in whatever I’m working on there and then, and try to imbue that picture with feelings that I find in music or in paintings or in books. I want to create characters that I would love to meet, not characters that I meet. I’m very curious, so I’m quite often exploring and I think that quite often leads to some kind of escapism.” There is a sense of movement that often comes into play too, in his still photographs and films alike; Sundsbø calls this a “nervous energy”, which ultimately translates to something people want to engage with.

And engage they do. The image-maker’s Instagram account, which is run by his studio, consists only of his film work, be that clips made from editorial shoots, advertising campaigns or the aforementioned Actors Acting, one of his most visceral offerings. On a platform saturated with images, sharing only film becomes a way of highlighting the synergy between the two forms, and “using [Instagram] consciously instead of sort of being along for the ride”.

As for how he finds himself influenced, Sundsbø places as much importance on forgetting as remembering the things he finds interesting. “You are the sum of the parts you take in, and I do read a lot and look a lot. But I think inside of all that the hardest part is to try to forget all the influences, to forget the history, in order to make up your own mind and find your own path,” he says. “Today you’re constantly being bombarded by pictures and you tend to end up in one bubble whether you like it or not, and then that bubble tends to be one that you get influenced by – whether it’s, again, politically or visually or in any way shape or form. I’m influenced by everyone but I’m trying not to be.” The vibrant intricacies of Sundsbø’s work – from the slow-motion close-up of a tropical bird’s flying wings to the burning car backdrop to Spring/Summer 2017’s rebellious women – reflect a wealth of knowledge and interest, distilled in an idiosyncratic, compelling way.

Sølve Sundsbø: Beyond the Still Image, curated by Alessia Glaviano and Michael Van Horne, is at the Palazzo Reale, Milan, until December 15, 2018.