Today for our series “Getting to know you…” we interview Lars Rolfsted Mortensen, an architect and photographer based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the author of In Search Of Habitat.
Why Photography? A small introduction to your journey.
First, I became an architect. Architects learn a lot about creating 'inclusive cities', 'habitable spaces' etc. A lot of good intentions, a lot of old, worn clichés and a lot of poorly founded 'truths'. Despite the sympathetic intentions, a lot of ground was simply not covered, and crucial questions about the urban condition were never asked.
For me it all started with China. 10 years ago I had my first, long journey in China, and prior to leaving I had begun to get into 'City of Darkness' by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot and the first release of Michael Wolf's images from 'Architecture of Density'. I was mesmerized. The images presented a vast scale, hypnotic repetition and, at the same time, a huge variety of forms. Equally important, these depictions of Hong Kong showed the full-blown antithesis to my architectural upbringing. This was literally The Dark Side of architecture (as I had learnt to practice it, at least), and I was hooked.
I quickly began to get more involved with photography, since it proved a great tool to explore some of these urban conditions and urban questions, that I found urgent and at the same time absent in my education.
In 2007 I travelled in China again, and this time my journey focused entirely on photography, trying to uncover relationships between rural minority settlements and rapidly developing urban areas. I made a small, self-published book from that journey. It was not very good, but it was a very important part of my learning process. Since 2009 I have been shooting large format, which has greatly increased my focus and attention to how I construct images.
How do you choose your project themes?
The themes of my projects largely takes their cue from what I stated above. I am interested in uncovering overlooked parts of the urban realm, particularly architectural subjects that are ambiguous or whose value and meaning are somehow contested. Of course ‘everything has already been photographed’, but hopefully my work can contribute to an on-going, evolving interpretation of these marginal places. I am currently working on a project on infrastructure, where I literally photograph the spaces and structures containing and transporting everyday raw materials – gas, water, cars etc. Some of those places, for instance fresh water reservoirs designed to contain water and hence not be seen by anyone, can be truly magical cathedrals. I guess that is really what triggers my urge to photograph – this potentiality for showing unseen or underrepresented subjects in all their glory. Of course that requires a lot from the image, too. Another project idea I cannot get out of my head is to photograph generic office high-rises in a very strict and comparable manner – as a typology. I think it would allow these common, nondescript buildings to be seen in a new light, but again it all boils down to the quality and precision of the photographs.
My series In Search of Habitat came into being from a very open (and slightly vague) idea about exploring the fringes of rapidly expanding cities in India. This kind of work had already been done a million times, especially in China and other parts of South-East Asia. So, for my work to have any kind of relevance in this substantial genre of photography, my series had to gain both some sort of specificity from the particular context and deliver a somewhat personal take on that context. I wasn’t too aware of these things while shooting in India. These thoughts surfaced during my (way too long) selection and sequencing process. I shouldn’t be the judge of how well I succeeded in this regard, but from my own perspective, the series presents a number of connected and contradictory phenomena, that are widespread in urban areas in India. As such, I think I succeeded in creating a visual narrative that explores the theme. However, it all comes down to the individual images, their sequence and the precision with which they deliver their content.
So, to sum up, I think my themes are becoming more – and maybe too – conceptual, and probably less open and explorative. I guess that might be a major pitfall for me! Gotta look into it…
Tell us an interesting story that happened in the process of making In Search of Habitat.
I’ll give you three short ones… My wooden view camera was stolen on a train journey from Varanasi to Hyderabad. I wonder what the thief figured it was that he had gotten his hands on. At that point, I had three weeks of travels left and I had not yet been to Mumbai (which forms an important part of my book). It was quite difficult to dig up a large format camera of a decent quality with such a short notice, but I certainly got to visit some obscure camera stores in my pursuit. I finally got hold of an old Linhof Color from a local Mumbai photographer. Very odd camera, but it did the job. And thankfully, my wife had brought all my exposed negatives back to Denmark a few days prior to the theft, so I only lost an absolute minimum of work.
While working on my book, I stumbled upon Swiss photographer Georg Aerni’s series Promising Bay. I almost couldn’t believe what I saw – we had literally been standing in the exact same spots in Mumbai, pointing our cameras in almost the same direction. Had it been only one shot, I would not have been so surprised, but we are talking 5-6 more or less identical shots from diverse locations in Mumbai, which is an absolutely huge city. There was no way that either of us could have known of each other’s work, since we both went in 2010 (probably only a few months in between). His work was first made public in 2011 and mine in 2013. I edited out most of my ‘doubles’, but my image from Chandivali, Mumbai (plate 38 in my book) is shot in the exact same location as his Sakinaka shot.
Finally, if you look very closely at the cover image of my book, you will see a pair of hands cast into the upper right corner of the concrete façade that forms the centre of the image. A very subtle, personal touch to that building. Personally, I did not notice it before scrutinizing the 4000dpi drum scan. In huge prints the tiny hands show up clearly.
What is your biggest challenge as a photographer?
I need to practice a lot more. Even though I feel quite confident as a photographer, there is a lot of ground I have not covered. But at the same time, that is precisely what is so enticing.
What is the best advice you've received as a photographer.
Wouter Stelwagen introduced me to Bernd and Hilla Becher in 2007. They have obviously influenced me a lot. To begin with it was the simple mantra of shooting straight in overcast weather and isolating my subjects. During my Ph.D. fellowship I delved deeper into their practice, method and oeuvre. Their patience and the meticulous care with which they constructed their images were really unique. They really, really knew how to translate reality into photographs.
In Search of Habitat by Lars Rolfsted Mortensen was published in 2015 in a limited edition of 600 copies.