Through the tunnel

About the Author | Thomas Örn Karlsson started out as a nature and landscape photographer but gradually evolved towards the realm of horror and fantasy. Recent exhibitions include #MEMORYLANE, in which levitation art is combined with music (by Anders Rane), and “Out of this world”, a collaboration with writers Martin Simonson and Raúl Montero, which was presented, together with a lecture, at Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm in August 2017. Thomas currently works as ambassador for Olympus.

Interviewer | Martin Simonson

What do you think about the relationship between nature and fantasy or horror?

Thomas Örn Karlsson (TÖK) | I think the people in general are bit lost in technology like television, internet, video games, you name it. So my personal approach to fantasy/horror in nature is to explore the physical world as a big and sometimes scary playground, almost like a script I’m allowed to mess around with, using my camera. The reason I choose to explore darker themes is simply that we often get ready-made versions of reality served up to us, and I prefer to upset certain notions about what is beautiful and picturesque and take people out of their comfort zone.

Isn’t beauty opposed to horror?

TÖK | I think the old cliché that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder is actually true – where one person sees something ugly, another finds it attractive, both on a gut-level and intellectually. That goes for pictures of monsters emerging from open graves, too.

Is the theme of horror and fantasy well received in the world of photography?

TÖK | It’s a very small part of the world of photography. However, I notice that a growing number of photo reviewers appreciate my pictures and more and more commissions and exhibition bookings keep dropping in, so I guess people need a bit more weird horror in their lives.

What is the advantage of photography in this respect, compared to other media, like literature or music or film?

TÖK | The advantage, and the challenge, of photography is that you need to say it all in only one shot. In literature you can build up the momentum of a scene in sometimes a few lines and sometimes a few pages, and in both music and film, you also work with a cumulative effect in mind, carefully preparing the audience for what is to come. In photography you have one frame to create atmosphere, and sometimes even to wrap up an entire story.

How does it work when you illustrate texts? Is it a long way to go from the written word to the image? What is the creative process like?

TÖK | Of course, the first thing is to read the text carefully to get the feel of it. As an illustrator you need to think in terms of the essence of the story, boil it down to the basics and arrive at what you perceive to be the core quality of the intended experience, and the key moments. In this respect it’s obviously it’s an advantage to be able to communicate with the writer, if he or she is still alive and available, that is. In the case of the classics, you need to do a bit of research. After choosing the key moments, you translate them visually in your head and then you recreate that image. You’ll never be able to capture it exactly, of course, but that’s more or less the process. Sometimes during a shooting session, new elements enter the scene spontaneously. If you’re working outdoors, which is frequently my case, it could be the shifting light that suddenly sets off something unexpectedly, or even the sound of a bird, or the wind in the trees, that make you realize something new about the scene. Then you must be prepared to accept or reject them. Gut feeling is key here, I believe.

What makes a photo special, in your opinion?

TÖK | I think when you manage to break some basic rules in photography and still get away with it. For example, in the world of photography it´s a big no-no to put characters in the center of the picture, but I do it a lot more often lately, building up scenes from the center and outwards instead of the other way around. General rules have always annoyed me, in life as well as in art, and I guess I’m a bit of a rebel struggling against them… However, I guess one rule of thumb I agree with is that you need to master the rules in order to be ready to break them, and create your own signum.

What are your inspirations?

TÖK | I watch a lot of horror movies and read a lot of horror novels, and in my youth fantasy literature and films were my main inspiration. If I was asked to name a few, I suppose Stephen King, Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and Fjodor Dostojevskij come to mind. In photography, the black and white pictures of the English war photographer Don Mccullin and the mountain sceneries of Ansel Adams have been important for me aesthetically.

Tell us something about your ongoing projects.

TÖK | I have several projects going on right now. In the first place, a project called Air, Land, Water that I’m doing with two other photographers (Staffan Lundgren and Fredrik Blomqvist). It’s an environmental project featuring pure nature photos of ten big rivers in Sweden. I’m also preparing a pretty eclectic art exhibition with four other artists (painter and voice duo Angle & Dawn, music producer Anders Rane and writer Martin Simonson) which is a sequel to the art exhibition #MEMORYLANE. On this occasion we work together to create a Gothicized atmosphere with levitated art and horror motifs accompanied by music and Gothic horror narratives. Anders is recording in a church to get the exact right sound and Martin provides a general narrative framework. It’ll be a serious challenge to stage this, but it’s a really exciting project.