Neutrality as Strategy

photographer Knut Steinar Bøe
written by Øivind Storm Bjerke

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Knut Steinar Bøe has a capacity for photographing subjects in a way that allows the subject matter apparently to speak for itself. He disregards the aspects of a subject that are con­ventionally considered beautiful, ugly, sublime, exciting or fun and is partial to everything we tend to overlook. The first impression is of images that primarily tend to describe in a way that seems withdrawn and neutral. The ideal of a neutral description is, however, not an indication of a lack of commitment, but rather a strategic manoeuver that allows for as many aspects as possible of a subject to be expressed, before initi­ating an interpretation. This invokes a slow consumption of images, contrary to the dominant attitude where thousands of images are consumed daily at a rapid speed.


Bøe uses the unrivalled ability of the photographic technique to give an exact description of any illuminated surface. An ability that lures us into believing that reality equals everything that can be photographed. A feature of the photograph as a technique that has led some people to conclude that modern man no longer relates to reality as matter but as images – photographic images.


Bøe’s photographs challenge this postmodern atti­tude to images. While a tendency among photographers related to postmodernism in the 1970s and 80s has been to push themselves in front of the camera regardless of the subject, or stage the subject in a manner that says more about the artist’s concept than what is actually present before the camera when recorded, Bøe has chosen a subtler strategy. His more or less discrete interventions and manipulations when recording an image disrupt the descriptive mood without rejecting it. In his case, the viewer’s first impression is the certainty that the photographer is concerned that the items in the picture get the opportunity to speak as much as possible for themselves. As we keep looking, an awareness gradually grows of the presence of the photographer’s mind. We are not surprised that in the end the conclusion is that these images are shaped and marked by the photographer to a degree one would hardly guess from a quick glance at them.


When it comes to photographing architecture and urban spaces this involves attention to spatial form as well as surface qualities, and the image has probably more in common with sculpture than tra­ditional two-dimensional art. The most remarkable of his photographs reveal a mind with a keen sensitivity to the lines, volumes, masses, contrasts and gradation of light and shadow effects, and not least for a firm composition which in most of his works creates a strong visual gestalt. In this respect, his photographs belong to a tradition in art emphasizing formal qualities, a tradition that has long been out of favour.


Most of his pictures have Oslo as a motif. Few cities in Europe have undergone such dramatic changes since the 1980s as this city. As a result of the wealth that came from oil revenues the centre of Oslo has changed from a sleepy capital, characterized by the slow and continuous evolution from the beginning of the 1800s into a medium-sized city by the 1970s, when the city made a tremendous leap in evolution and a modern high-tech building industry erected a scramble of new buildings, each one screaming for attention. In this situation, Bøe turns his camera to anonymous architecture, roads and open places, the parts of the urban structure where ordinary people live in places that increasingly make up the new architecture’s backyard, and he gives them a loving, understanding and linge­ring glance.


Bøe does not seem interested in the spec­ta­cular. He has ra­rely photographed monuments that attract our attention by having acquired iconic status. His domains are daily settings without any particular status. Bøe is a completely diffe­rent breed from the photographers who look to portray the new buildings as if they have already become iconic works, bringing out the most spectacular and sexy aspects of contemporary archi­tecture, as if architectural photography was a branch of ce­lebrity photography and the fashion industry.


Even when photographing subjects that have attracted a great deal of public attention and have become landmarks, like the new ope­ra house in Oslo, he is able to reduce awareness of the buil­ding’s celebrity status by emphasizing the environment and refocusing our attention on small details such as blocks of concre­te in the foreground. At other times, a familiar view is ‘disturbed’ by a flock of birds fluttering by. A completely diffe­rent strategy is to create a break in a surface by taking two photographic records and adding them together in panoramic-like images, but without the continuity of the depiction of space as contiguous, on the contrary accentuating the break between the two records through an almost brutal cut in the pic­ture plane. The identification of the labour that results in the finished picture through discrete and almost hidden traces that reveal the process behind the finished image is characteristic of his photographs.


Bøe creates images that create food for thought and consist of many aspects and many layers. These are photographs that require the viewer, in order to enjoy looking at them, to be prepared to invest time and attention in the images.