"The county of Nordland is one of the most stunning places on earth. On the one hand you have vast expanses of mountains and on the other you have rugged and spectacular coastlines. The landscape here is raw, unforgiving yet staggeringly beautiful."
British photographer Dan Mariner.
Dan Mariner: Nordland through a British Lens
Dan Mariner, a British photographer based in the far north of Norway, has become internationally known for his photographic depictions of the people and culture of Nordland. In 2024, the city of Bodø, where Dan is based, will become the European Capital of Culture. British Council spoke to him about being part of constructing the visual identity for the occasion, the surrounding region’s developing urban landscape and his education as a creative professional.
Where are you based in Nordland and how long have you lived in Norway?
I moved to Norway four years ago and have been living in Bodø and working as a freelance photographer both nationally and internationally. Alongside my photographic practice I co-own NOUA, an institution for photography as contemporary art, with my Norwegian partner and fellow photographer Marianne Bjørnmyr. NOUA is located in the city centre, inside one of the cities oldest culture houses where the space has been converted into a studio and large exhibition space. Although it stands primarily as an arena for the dissemination of photography, it also houses our analogue and digital darkrooms, print rooms and a framing workshop. In essence, everything we need to successfully work in a city outside of the metropolis.
Have you seen the city change a lot since moving there?
Bodø is developing at a staggering rate, with new apartment complexes, restaurants, hotels and culture concepts appearing on an almost monthly basis. Since the building of the Stormen Library and Culture House there has been a real sense of momentum in the city. It is an interesting place architecturally and historically: Bodø was almost completely destroyed in World War Two with much of the traditional Norwegian architecture lost. Thereafter, the city was hastily rebuilt with a lot of effort put into functionality over aesthetics. It’s now an odd mix of older buildings and rapidly erected concrete structures. While this means that it is not the world’s prettiest location, it gives it an opportunity for positive gentrification and creative utilisation of existing buildings.
Where did you train?
My upbringing was nomadic and that was reflected in my education. After being home-schooled until the age of ten, I attended the South Devon Rudolf Steiner school before completing a high school diploma in America. After returning to the UK, I went on to study multimedia at Exeter College, and finally went on to complete a BA in Documentary Photography at the renowned Newport University in South Wales.
Why did you move out to Norway?
Having met my Norwegian partner Marianne whilst living in London, we began to plan our future together. The UK is a difficult place for young artists and creatives to develop professionally and we soon realised that the ambitions we had and have would be nearly impossible to realise whilst living there. Coupled with the very real the possibility of Brexit on the horizon we thought the time was right to make the move away. Norway was an obvious choice due to its progressively democratic and socially focused way of life as well as its world-leading financial support for artists and creatives. We weighted up whether we wanted to stay with big city living or to choose a city outside of the metropolis. As such, we weighed up Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim as they have very strong and established cultural sectors. Marianne is from Bodø and when we went to visit her parents after we left London we were instantly struck by the area’s development and the sense of possibility around the city. It was soon after that we decided to take the plunge and make Bodø our base.
What is the surrounding landscape and city like, and do you find it conducive to your work?
In my opinion, the county of Nordland is one of the most stunning places on earth. On the one hand you have vast expanses of mountains and on the other you have rugged and spectacular coastlines. The landscape here is raw, unforgiving yet staggeringly beautiful, with arctic light conditions bringing their own individual character through each season. In terms of the city of Bodø, we use the term ‘Urban Arctic’ when describing it. The city is small and compact with all the amenities and feel of a larger city. From excellent regional and national air, rail, boat links to cafes, restaurants, galleries and music venues. One of the unique selling points of the city is that nature is so close by, you can be on top of a mountain in the morning and 60 minutes later you can be sitting in a cafe or restaurant in the bustling city centre. When Bodø was awarded the honour of being the European Capital of Culture for 2024 it cemented our belief that if we all work together collectively, we can be part of making a vibrant and exciting city in a unique part of the world. When it comes to my own work, I try to keep a global approach. But of course, one is influenced by one's surroundings and I have had many exciting opportunities to make work up here that I wouldn't necessarily get if I still lived in London.
In 2024 Bodø will be the Capital of Culture. What’s been your involvement?
My main involvement was helping to make the visual material for the Bodø2024 application, working alongside a design agency to put together imagery for the main application, branded material, website and social media. I had the pleasure of travelling around Nordland County over a six-month period, meeting and photographing people and organisations that are already heavily contributing to the cultural development of the county. It was an incredible experience for me personally as I not only got to visit some wonderful places, but I also gained a really strong understanding of the diverse initiatives that make up the cultural scene in Nordland.
Creating this visual archive was an important part in the success of the application for it showcased the vast size of the region and the diverse, forward-thinking attitude to arts and culture that we have in Nordland. Imagery is a powerful tool that can be used to convey so much emotion and expression, so when we combined the visuals and video with the branding and written aspect of the application it strengthened the whole project.
When you take photographs in Norway and of the Nordland region, what are you looking for?
It depends on the assignment or project; visual ideas change drastically if you are shooting for a travel article as opposed to a food piece. I would say the light conditions dominate my planning: every season brings its own unique light that can be used to create a certain look in an image or story. The landscapes are spectacular here, too. Hence, if one can work this into a story, then the imagery will be very strong. For me, my favourite places to look are around the coastal areas during towards evening; something special happens when light conditions and nature are perfectly aligned.
Can you describe the arts-scene in Nordland in 5 words?
The art scene is Nordland is small yet growing all the time as highly educated creatives decide to return home after their education in more established cities in Norway and Europe. There are very few art institutions in the region but the ones that are here like the North Norwegian Artist Center, Lofoten International Art festival and the North Norwegian Art Museum all operate at a very high level. The words I would pick to describe the art scene in Nordland would be: Emerging, Diverse, Experimental, Transitional and Inclusive.
Why is the culinary scene so interesting in the area?
Geography plays a major part in the culinary explosion in the region (and the Nordics in general) but I think that the main reason for the success is the Scandinavian mentality of keeping traditions close to the heart and focus of what is made and using locally sourced and grown produce. We have an abundance of natural resources here, from fresh fish and wild meats to locally grown vegetables and foraged ingredients. When the skills of a of highly trained and experienced chef are combined with exciting local produce, the result will always be dynamic. Perhaps another aspect of the interesting culinary development here is the fact that rental prices are cheaper than in a major city and the possibilities this provides to someone who wants to start a restaurant concept are huge. One can create a truly unique culinary experience and with that increase the possibility of honing a tourist destination.
Travel during the last year or so has been very difficult. Do you think that this has been a good or a bad thing for artists and creative professionals?
Speaking with my colleagues around Europe and Norway it has been a mixed bag. Of course individual experiences vary a lot as the lack of travel possibilities and lockdown restrictions have meant a loss of income and opportunities. I know that many artists have used this time as an opportunity to focus hard on producing art and creative projects, so I think we will have an explosion of new artwork once the world opens back up. That’s an exciting prospect.
Personally, it has been tough as travelling is a huge part of my work as a photographer when working for international magazines. The lack of physical contact with my family has been a challenge, too. On the flip side, the enforced period of stillness has been quite enjoyable, I have been forced to slow down and work with fewer projects at one time and not live out of a suitcase. Suddenly I have found time to finish smaller projects, upgrade the studio, renovate our house and enjoy life at a slower pace. These are all the things that normally sit on an ever growing ‘to do’ list.
I think that many artists and creatives have taken it in their stride as the industry is well versed in uncertainty and instability. The creative sector has embraced the situation and found innovative ways to survive as they have always traditionally done so. As we enter the third industrial revolution and traditional industries are already experiencing major upheaval and structural change, the global pandemic has solidified our understanding that the creative and digital sectors will be leading the way in the future.