A visit to a school in Stockholm, Sweden that teaches alternative photography in a leisurely manner.
Biskops-Arnö is a Nordic school and one of the few places in the world that run courses in alternative photographic processes fulltime. Malin Fabbri, editor of AlternativePhotography.com visits photography teacher Lars Mellberg, at the school a sunny spring day.
Peacefulness, thoughtfulness and lust are the keys to my teaching method
says Lars when I meet him. They are also fitting words to describe the island the school is situated on. Peacefulness characterizes the surroundings where teachers and personnel enjoy a strolling in the sunshine. A group of students appear lost in thought as they sleepily ruminate over their lunches with their feet resting comfortably on old wooden benches.
And in this still environment it feels like the whole world has taken a break to breathe in the sensuous fragrance of nature. When I approach the school on the narrow dirt road that leads out over lake Mälaren to the island the sunshine plays on the ripples. It is incredibly beautiful.
Biskops-Arnö is situated 65 kilometres west of Stockholm. The school logo, an old craft masters sign, was actually discovered on the island. It was cut into brick in the 12th century. Around 1320 a small stronghold was built and archbishops made themselves at home until 1520 and the famous Swedish King Gustav Vasa can be found amongst later occupants. The main building is from 1731 and was used as accommodation for generals, the Royal Lifeguard and horses. The old buildings are still well preserved. Both the bishops kitchen and the gothic halls are in frequent use for socialising and if you want a closer look, you can book a guided tour.
The education and activities at the school are run by Stiftelsen Nordens Biskops-Arnö set up in 1956 by the Svenska Föreningen Norden, the Swedish Organisation Nordic, created to run cultural and educational activities with a Nordic perspective. There is also a branch in Chile where students work with film and radio. The branch is aimed at Scandinavians, preferably with Latin-American roots.
On our walk around the school we pass principal Ingegerd Lusensky’s office. A couple of blue plastic boxes sit on the floor, filled to the brim with applications for the autumn course. At present only 12 students are accepted of the 50 applicants.
We are very happy that there are so many applications for our course
says Ingegerd. "It Head of the course Lasse Mellberg enlists the help of previous students to asses all of the applications and pick the 12-14 students that will be accepted for next term." The quality of the applications is high, and it is tough work to choose next years’ crop.
It is image and not photography we teach here
says Lars and it is the same criteria that is considered in the selection process. If the portfolio has something to tell it is valued much higher than the quality of the print.
Students are primarily Swedish, but in the past a couple of foreign students have found their way onto the course. Lars was also a student at Biskops-Arnö in 1975 and has lived on and off the island for the past 10 years.
The school has its own economy and control of their own budget, but like all other public education in Sweden is paid for by the Swedish government. The students are taught for free, but have to pay for lodging and food. For financial help they can apply for state benefits and loans.
The school’s principles are built on good public citizen education and the students come here to work in a creative environment. When we view the work in progress I ask Lars what will happen with the work after the course. He looks surprised.
This is a non-commercial environment where we work with the language of the image. We are not interested in whether a picture is sold or not. It is the content of the image that is important
In the workshop Carolina Hanson is busy rubbing pigments into a plate for a copper photogravure and Julia Kinnbo is cutting pigment paper for another.
Lars is fascinated by metals and feels that copper photogravure adds something to the image. It is not just a process. Lars collected Evert Janssons images of mineworkers in copper photogravure and printed a small edition of En annan historia (Another History). That is perhaps why copper photogravure is one of the processes the students are working with. It can take up to a month to make an image. The time between the beginning and the end of the process is very important. "But we work a lot and experiment. Have you tried toning cyanotypes with bark from an oak tree?" asks Lars and nods towards a couple of trees that tower between the school buildings.
The students also experiment with Gum bichromate. But, Lars says that the gum arabic, used to set the image in, is both hard to get hold of and expensive. He adds that he has found a solution that he claims contains the purest form of gum. Segaråttor, a type of wine gum. "An excellent alternative" he adds happily. And it’s cheap.
We stroll up the hill to the teachers accommodation where Lars lives to look at jazz photographs from the beginning of his career when he worked as a commercial photographer. He also shows me a study of wooden houses in Estonia that may be exhibited some time, but then again, maybe not. "We’ll see".
After yet another visit to the workshop we say goodbye on what is perhaps one of the most beautiful schoolyards in the world. When I jump into the car and speed off back to town I cast an eye in the rear-view mirror and see Lars wave before he slowly turns and stroll up towards the workshop.
For more information on courses:
Address: Nordens Folkhögskola Biskops-Arnö, 746 93 Bålsta, Sweden
Telephone: 0046 – 171 522 60