A Project Long Time in Coming

There is a valley. The mouth of the valley opens up right into the city. You can step straight from the urban settlement into Mother Nature. And vice versa. The name is Isdalen—Valley of Ice. And the city is Bergen, Norway—my city.

Ever since childhood, I have been drawn to the valley. There is something enigmatic about Isdalen. I have always felt it wasn’t typical Norwegian. More like the Swiss Alps, with its deep bottom, steep walls and ragged peaks surrounding the valley. If you have ever read Heidi, a children’s fiction from the 19th century by the Swiss author Johanna Spyri, then you get an idea.

My first photograph of Isdalen dates back to April 1978. Over the next many years, I have photographed in the valley, on and off and very inconsistently. However, after finishing the photojournalism and photo documentary program at International Center of Photography in New York in ‘90, and upon returning to Bergen, I made Isdalen a personal project of mine. However, after the intensity of photographing in New York, starting to photograph nature in Isdalen became more like an anticlimax.

I got some stories about Isdalen published in papers and magazine, but the project never really went anywhere.

Much later, I realized that my fascination with Isdalen, was much related to a handful of ruins of old farms that once were a community deep in the valley. As I wander around the centuries-old ruins of the farms, I get filled with a sense of belonging and tranquillity—as if I have returned home. I feel in myself the toil that those who ran the farms must have felt. I feel the exhaustion, the stoutness, but also the spirit and the glow that emerges from living so close to nature.

Today, Isdalen is a favourite hiking area for inhabitants of Bergen. But for centuries up until WWII, Isdalen was a vibrant but small and poor farming community with four farms living off the crops of the land and what the lush nature in the valley could yield.

In the spring of 2015, I started a new project photographing Isdalen, but now with the focus on the traces of this once vital community and the feelings it invokes in me. This time, though, I realized that the right expression would be by use of the facets of triptychs.

It is these feelings I tried to describe above, from which my photo project materializes. The aim of the photo project is not to create a tangible and unambiguous expression, but to inspire the viewers to uncover their own experiences in the encounter with the farm ruins and their surroundings. Through my photos.

So far, I have completed seven triptychs. In addition, and over the last few years, I have photographed and processed enough single images to be able to put together another ten triptychs.

Let me add that I have always been fascinated by those places where once people lived. There is something almost magical about the remnants of once thriving cultures, whether urban communities such as Machu Picchu or small farms such as the ones in Isdalen. I am struck by awe, thinking about how their lives were. How did they go about their everyday chores? How did they think about their future? Were they happy? Or was life a struggle? And then I think about present day’s cultures. How will they look like for future generations if what we know today would then be abandoned? What would the remnants tell about our lives?

These are some images captured from my first project period, after returning from New York:

63 thoughts on “A Project Long Time in Coming

  1. Wonderful post. Heidi was a favorite book in my childhood.
    Also, in my childhood, I grew up in a rural area in New England.
    A pond and a dense woods were part of the playground of my youth.
    Though it’s now fully altered because of suburban growth,
    what you describe as your emotional reaction to Isdalen
    is how I feel when I think of the woods and pond – as they were years ago.
    Your writing really captures what you are describing.
    Thanks Otto for an enjoyable and evocative post.

  2. As Humans we share common things regardless, where we are from, like been a child, and looking at things we were familiar since early age, and see them changed, and nostalgic remembering the old days, or the opposite, find them still untouched by time, which in my opinion it’s even better, or at least for the sake of the nice memories from our past.
    Good post Otto. 🙂

  3. Great images and post. I would also be fascinated by the valley and remnants of past farmers.

    Hope to see some more of your images from Isdalen.

    I think we’ve all read Heidi when we were young (in the western world at least). I watched the current film of Heidi a couple of times in the last year or so. It must be a few years old as the actor who plays the Grandfather is much older now – I think he’s French or maybe Russian sounding name and definitely don’t know the name of child playing Heidi, but the whole isolated mountain lifestyle it portrays is utterly charming.

    1. In my childhood, most kids knew about Heidi, but I wasn’t sure how well known the book was around the world. Thanks for the feedback, Vicki. And, yes, most likely I will post more images from the project in the future. 🙂

  4. Beautiful, Otto. After so many years of hiking and photographing this lovely place, you are a part of this wondrous valley and I can certainly understand your fascination. I read all the Heidi books when I was young. I’m so glad you gave that reference, as I could immediately sense the serenity and charm. I, too, am drawn to places where I know there have been previous civilizations and I enjoy musing about the life once lived. Thee triptych with the ghostly figure.is really special, Otto.

  5. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into this countryside. I loved Heidi as a child! Your photos are beautiful Otto and your words too paint a picture filled with fascinating history.

  6. Your past running through your present, Otto, and maybe with more time now to carry this project forward. The results are beautiful, but I especially like the sense of place in looking down at the city and the river. 🙂 🙂 Good to have a meaningful project.

  7. A very impressive environement and so close to the city ! Who doesn’t know the story of Heide 😉 Lot of succes with your photo project about Isdalen.

  8. Lovely post, really enjoyed reading this! I especially liked how you had described the aura of the places where once people lived. Great work! 🙂

  9. I like triptychs too. I think they can enhance the story much tighter than few pictures shown singly. I also think it is not easy to find images that convey the similar message closer together as well. To me in particular, the process of making one once you found the right images is not straight forward. I only tried to make them once 🙂

    1. It takes a lot of trial and error to find three images that fit together as a triptych, but when they do, it’s a strong form of expression. And yes, a triptych may tell more facets of a story than a single image.

  10. I find your tryptichs very evocative, Otto, and hope you will share more in due course,….. like you, I have always been fascinated by those places where once people lived. I remember the first time, when I was about 6, I think, on a walk with my parents, and we came across some abandoned miner’s cottages….

  11. Beautiful area and seems very rich in history. It is interesting that you are using triptychs. When I visited Venice way back in the 70’s while looking for Titian’s tomb at the Frari Church is a triptych painted in 1485 by Giovanni Bellini that looks totally 3D when viewed in person. Possibly the most incredible pieces of art I have ever seen and was the first time I had seen a triptych. I believe triptych presentations can be quite impressive.

  12. A wonderful and worthwhile project, Otto, and we all know you’ll do it proud. They’re fine photos, and I love the ghostly or imagined figures. I grew up near a rural area, with abandoned farms, that were re-forested by the government, starting in the 1930’s. The farms weren’t ancient, the oldest dating to the 1790’s, but the 19th c. farmers left miles of stone walls, most of them painstakingly stacked and not tumbled down, as well as foundations, etc. Sometimes on a walk, your boot will scrape over a piece of iron or ceramics, an old bottle, or the decayed remnants of a stump fence, and it will remind you that some families were farming there for over a century, before erosion and the Depression drove them away. Sad to see the immense amount of labor the farmers invested to clear the land, and build houses and barns, only to have it all disintegrate, but I’m happy to see the land recovering, wildlife returning, and clear streams.

    1. I agree it’s sad to see all that labour fading away. It’s the same here in Isdalen as you describe you rural area, with great stone walls still standing and representing all the work past generation have put into their now abandoned community.

  13. I love this, Otto. And while all three photos are captivating… I am especially drawn to, and moved by, the image of the bare trees and the river. Beautiful!
    XO Donna

  14. Ahhh…we were in Norway a year ago last June to visit family. We didn’t get to Bergren, but some of our family came down to visit us while we stayed with cousins in the southern part of Norway. Beautiful, beautiful country.

  15. While I was reading your description of Isdalen, its history and the sense of belonging and tranquility you experience there, I found myself thinking about your visits to Cuba, and the family you’ve spent time with there. It seems as though a thread connects those two very different places: different in geography and history, though not in human interest.

    I love imagining Heidi there. When I was a child, that was a favorite book. For some months after reading it, I insisted on drinking my milk from a bowl, just as Heidi did at her grandfather’s mountain hut. I was blessed with a mother who allowed it, and a grandfather who made me a three-legged stool to sit on while I drank.

    1. How interesting that you connect my Isdalen project with my Cuba project. I haven’t even pondered the thought. But it makes sense, and maybe somehow I need to find a way to merge the two projects in the future. Seems like Heidi have had a major impact on many of us. 🙂 Thank you for the comment, Linda.

  16. Un bellissimo progetto, è un luogo veramente fantastico, sembra magico. Leggere la tua descrizione, la storia di Isdalen è stato emozionante. Grazie caro Otto.
    Saluti, Patrizia

  17. almost seems like a mythical land, Otto… the stuff of stories passed down, you know? amazing, thank you for taking me there xoxoxoxox

  18. Isdalen provides an excellent subject for your project. It has character and layers of interest. You have an affinity for the location that has matured over time. To express your feeling response through your creative skills is a challenge you are clearly enjoying. Thank you for sharing those feelings.

  19. Oh, I love this scenery, your connection with it and this project! Triptychs are something I was just discussing with a painter who is doing 3 small related paintings and it’s something on my own ‘ideas list’. I love how you are putting them together and plan on a series of ten. It sure looks like a magical place!!!

      1. Well maybe that’s why I haven’t even started … just on the ‘want to do’ list with only a couple done in the past. Diptychs can be fun too. I’ve seen two photographers collaborating when given the same subject.

  20. What a super project Otto. I can see why you are drawn there .. It’s wonderful to be able to slip into the past .. and imagine life as it was. The last imagine is special! Thanks for sharing

  21. I missed this post before. It’s interesting to read about your attachment to this place and how you grew to understand what it is that draws you, after a long time. It takes a while to see these things sometimes! Age helps, I think. The first triptych really sets the stage and conveys such a strong sense of being in that place. I like the ghost-like figures. The second triptych makes me want to explore those ruins. 🙂 The other photos help me understand the relationship of the valley to the city. Thank you, Otto!

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