brilliantly freaky photographs of young adulthood by torbjørn rødland
Ahead of his new show in Berlin, the Norwegian photographer discusses his love of odd couples and the symbolism of young adulthood.
The Cut, Torbjørn Rødland, 2016
Bodybuilders. Cinnamon buns. Polka-dot pajamas. There is no real way of predicting what Los Angeles-based photographer Torbjørn Rødland will capture next.
The Norwegian artist’s work has the air of commercial photography created with a twisted lens. There are all the markings of what makes a sellable photo — high-quality camera work, good-looking models, balanced light, and a crisp focus — but Rødland goes beneath the surface. He makes eerie, quixotic images that seem intended to freak us out, to keep us mulling over unanswered questions.
His forthcoming exhibition “Back in Touch,” which opens at the C/O Berlin Photography Museum on December 9, showcases images made during the past five years of Rødland’s two-decade-long career. There will be 25 photos on display and each one is a mini mystery.
When I ask if his photos are intended to be a kind of puzzle, Rødland has a peculiar answer: “It’s a puzzle but not a typical puzzle because, usually, there is only one solution in mind,” he says over the phone from his home in Laurel Canyon.
Given that Rødland, who is 47, shoots many (though not exclusively) young models, I wonder if the title of the exhibition, Back in Touch, suggests a return to the zeitgeist after a period of feeling detached.
“‘Back in Touch’ means being in touch again after being less connected,” he explains. “Our whole vocabulary is so influenced by commercial and lifestyle photography, but instead of going the critical, post-modern route of discovering how empty this language is and how ridiculous this iconography is, I’m trying to use it to find something of value.”
Rødland adds, “I’m using this language to get back in touch with something more human or more in line with our hopes, our fears, and our paranoia.”
The exhibition began with two gallery shows of Rødland’s work this summer, one at Air de Paris in Paris, and the other at Nils Staerk in Copenhagen. Ann-Christin Bertrand, the curator of C/O Berlin, hand-picked a number of photos from both shows, including pieces from Rødland’s subtly chilling series Wordless: photographs of young millennials having their heads held by a pair of disembodied older hands.
“This exhibition has been curated into a youth-focused show,” he says. “It’s interesting to see someone else’s preferences.” There is a photo of disposable cameras scattered across a floor, a shot of pink platform heels, and an image of a young woman getting the strap of her G-string cut by a pair of scissors.
Rødland excels at creating unsettling contrasts — like in his photo Stockings, Jeans and Carpeted Stairs, in which a bodybuilder holds the foot of a woman wearing fishnet stockings.
“I find it fruitful to let these contrasts come together,” he says. “They need each other.”
It’s in these juxtapositions that questions arise. “When it comes to having more than one person in the frame, it’s more fruitful if there is an odd couple, a difference in age, size or ethnicity that addresses something larger at play, rather than the coupling of people in commercial photography where people are more similar,” Rødland says. “I want juxtapositions to make sense emotionally; on a deeper level or intuitive level — I don’t want to be random.”
Rødland also creates tension by combining surgical coldness with sensuality, as in Goldene Tränen, an image of a sandy-haired model seemingly crying tears of honey.
His subjects are often friends of friends, sometimes models found through agencies, and occasionally people he meets online or at openings. “I’m drawn to certain archetypes, people who can represent something bigger than themselves,” he explains.
Over the decades, Rødland has continued to experiment. His isn’t a formulaic process of finding the “right” photo, even after shooting for 25 years. He has resisted the idea of being known for one thing.
“Some artists find their formula and produce that for the market, that’s one way of being successful,” he says. “That repeatable quality is what every collector wants. But I feel like I try something different all the time.”
As a result, his photos often remain mysterious even to their creator. It’s only the morning after a shoot that Rødland begins to understand his often otherworldly images. “I sleep on it, and I think about how I see it with my inner eye when I wake up in the morning,” he explains. “When I make a photo and hang it on the wall, I like to try to figure it out.”
Following over a decade spent in Oslo, Rødland has been based in Los Angeles for the past seven years. Most of the photos in this exhibition were made in L.A. and there’s a clear change from his earlier work, which often seems to possess a kind of Norwegian chill.
“Los Angeles is all about hiding,” says Rødland. “We all isolate ourselves to make celebrities feel normal in their hiding. We’re in cars and houses most of the day.” But his current work also has a sunny quality, and sometimes a beachy backdrop. The image From Eden No. 2 captures a model in a sun-dappled L.A. front yard; Birthday Shoes glows with the soft light of his former studio in West Hollywood, before he relocated to Burbank.
Rødland hasn’t chased celebrities, however. “I turn down a lot of celebrity portraits because I’m not interested that,” he explains. “It’s distracting.”
But he did once photograph Paris Hilton, for Purple magazine. He asked Hilton to wear no makeup to the shoot, which was much less makeup than she was used to. “She demanded a lot more to continue,” he recalls.
By a strange coincidence, Rødland now lives in Hilton’s former apartment.
It was the first place the heiress moved to after leaving her parents’ home at 20, and it became a backdrop for her years as a fledgling reality star on The Simple Life.
Fittingly, the images in Rødland’s Berlin exhibition also capture imperfect moments of growing up, and the unruly spirit of youth culture. “When it comes to young adults, it’s a symbolically rich period of possibilities,” he says. “It’s an evolutionary process that shows how people change into more empathetic and complex characters with layers. In photography, I can show the beginning of that process, or someone who has failed at it. There seems to be a more positive view of youth than old age.”
“Back in Touch” is on display at the C/O Berlin Photography Museum from December 9, 2017 to March 11, 2018.