It was a warm, unusually sunny, August morning in Bergen as we made our way from the hotel to the historic Bryggen district and its characteristic wooden houses that have stood guard over Bergen’s old wharf since the 14th century (give or take a few fires). In fact, we had apparently scheduled our visit to Norway at the perfect time, as the week before the city was submerged in the usual late-summer rains blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean.
This was a particularly busy morning. We weaved our jet-lagged bodies through the sights and smells of the local fish market, taking quick, hungered glances at the throngs of people sinking their carnivorous teeth into a breakfast of fresh ocean fish. With coffee in hand, and hungered mouths properly salivating, we approached our destination. Galleri Fjalar. Our guide for this day is the subject of this very installement of our column… Bergen photographer, Mathis Backe.
Galleri Fjalar, for those that don’t know, is owned and curated by infamous Bergen artist and musician, Kristian Epsedel. You might know him by his more familiar name, Gaahl (Gaahl’s Wyrd, ex-Gorgoroth).
Ascending the charming and colorful steps to the gallery, we were greeted at the top by the immediately-arresting figure that is Gaahl, and his instantly-likeable life partner, who were already well into their first (maybe second?) bottle of red.
After some time spent in good conversation, aided by the aforementioned vin and some delicious local pastries, Mathis, a good friend to Gaahl and the gallery, proceeded to show us around the gallery. Tucked in the corner, away from Gaahl’s beautifully haunting canvasses that align the gallery walls, was a small room with prints that showcase the beauty and darkness of both the Norwegian landscape and the black metal artists who tread said lands. This is the work of our amiable guide, Mathis.
Let us assure you, from experience, that it’s far too easy to become completely bewitched by Norway, especially when one has spent time in the company of locals such as Mathis and Gaahl. At every turn of the head one is either greeted with a friendly, smiling (sometimes corpse-painted) face or a spectacular vista of epic proportions.
Like the towering mountains and majestic, writhing fjords, the Nordic people are similarly magnificient – both in stature and personality. They exude a quiet-yet-deafening confidence, a stillness and mystery absolutely befitting the solitude and vastness of the lands they trek each and every day.
It’s not a very well known fact outside of Norway that most Norwegians prefer to walk in the shadows, careful not to cast too much light onto themselves. In fact, they have a term for this: Janteloven. The law of Jante (as it is also known), is a set of social codes that help to explain why Norwegians act as humble as they do, and why the people of Norway frown upon bragging or bringing attention to themselves. In this regard, there is a bit of work getting to the core of guys like Mathis… digging deep in an effort see what makes them tick.
With a bit of good old fashioned, unashamed North American begging, we were able to convince Mathis to give us a peek into his world, as fleeting as that glance might be.
Hailing from Bergen, Mathis is the genius behind Yggdrasil Photo. It’s Mathis‘ work, behind the camera, that has brought to life some of the most prolific Norwegian black metal artists. His vast portfolio comprises both portrait and live work of such bands and figures as Gaahl (Gaahl’s Wyrd, ex-Gorgorth), Hoest (Taake), Abbath, Helheim, Emperor, Enslaved, to name just a few.
There is a uniqueness to Mathis‘ work; an all-consuming darkess that seems to swallow his subjects whole. Take, as an example, his portrait work of Gaahl. These stunning vignettes highlight the complexeties – both the darkness and light – of this infamous black metal legend that few have ever captured.
Even when Mathis isn’t steeped in the world of Norwegian black metal, his eye for capturing beauty is ever-pervasive. Surrounded, as he is in his hometown of Bergen, with an endless stream of natural wonders, Mathis has captured some stunning examples of Norwegian scenery and landmarks.
Perhaps familiar to our readers is this unhallowed shot of Fantoft Stave Church, the very same church that one Varg Vikernes of Burzum is suspected of burning down (he was found not guilty by a jury of his peers).
So, with our day at the gallery coming to a close, we were invited by both Gaahl and Mathis to join them for some drinks at a local pub. Walking in, we were greeted by even more familiar faces of the local Bergen black metal contingent. With drinks poured, and spirits high, it was at this time that we posed some questions to our most gracious and humble guide, Mathis…
On the origins of his art…
Music and art, especially photography, has always been a big part of my life. So, when I got a chance to combine them it was amazing. Bergen is a small city where everyone in the scene knows one another. When I started working closely with Helheim, I got involved with more bands and artists. Also, my father did a lot of photography. Growing up, I was always fascinated by it. I remember looking in books and magazines from a very early age.
On what makes Norway so goddamn special…
Well I think people here are much better at backing each other up and helping one another, from what I hear of other cities. Maybe that helps to push people to the max of their abilities. I am lucky enough to live in a city where I have nature more or less on my doorstep. I can choose betweeen forest and hills on one side or the sea on the other. This is something I will never take for granted. Taking a short hike, or even a short drive to get away from the sounds of the city, is very precious to me and affects me a lot.
On the uniqueness of his work…
I have to say it varies, but I always strive for dark and different portraits, if you know what I mean. I love nature also, but it is more of a shoot-as-you-go thing. As for the uniqueness, I only try to do my own thing and not copy other styles. Hopefully I manage to do that. The musicians I work with have become friends, so it is quite easy to work with them. On stage I usually know where and how they will move, so I can plan a little bit where to get the capture I want. I photograph dark music so it should be dark photos, right
To see more examples of Mathis‘ work, head over to his official Yggdrasil Photography page.
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