“Anja and Me”: an interview with the artist/photographer Anja Niemi

(Find the interview on Book Woman latest issue, N°16).

Anja Niemi is represented exclusively by The Little Black Gallery. For all available prints & books visit www.thelittleblackgallery.com

She is Norwegian and considered one of the most intriguing artists of today. In her photographs the characters become the protagonists of an almost always tragi-comic story. But the truth is that the person in the photograph is always the same one, it is her, Anja Niemi, photographer, subject and director of every one of her pictures. Because Anja can only work on her own.

Anja Niemi in three words.

I am very determined, concentrated on the appearance of things and, in a certain sense, a magician.

You are the photographer, director, and subject of your photographs. Where did your desire to work alone come from?

I feel more comfortable like that. I get too inhibited when there are other people round me. I am more relaxed when I’m alone on a set.

Good reason why you’re called a “one-man band”.

You can go crazy doing everything at the same time. You feel a little like you’re playing four instruments at the same time. There are times when I would like to ask for a little help, but I know the result would not be the one I want.

How would you describe your work?

They are stories translated into pictures, with a touch of the dark and a touch of humour.

What do you want to say through your photographs?

I like to amuse, perhaps by lightening the pressure and trying to play with defects. All my characters have some fault in their otherwise too perfect appearance.

In your opinion what is the relationship between a woman and her inner self?

I think women are rather hard on themselves. We try and live up to our expectations, which in fact are set a little too high, but I think that goes for everyone, not just women.

Where does your inspiration come from?

From things, words, people, clothes, films, the choreography of dances, from ourselves. You can find inspiration everywhere!

When did you realise that photography, but in particular this kind of photography, would become your profession?

I have always liked telling stories, but I have never been good with words. When I realised that I could do that through pictures, I never looked back. Twenty years have passed since I first began and I have never thought of stopping. Taking photos is all that I know.

How long does it take you to create the right set?

It depends, it can take hours in the same way it can take days.

So far you have had four one man shows. Is there one you are more proud of than the others?

The Darlene & Me series is my favourite for the moment; it was an incredible journey. I will never forget all that time spent alone right in the middle of the Californian desert.

Are you working on something new at present?

I am just finishing a new series of photographs called The Woman Who Never Existed. I took the pictures this summer in Italy and now here in my studio I am adding the “missing pieces”. It is a story inspired by the words of the pioneering Italian actress Eleonora Duse. She hardly ever gave interviews but one day she said rather magnificently to a very insistent American journalist “Away from the stage I don’t exist”. After having read her words the story came by itself, in that very instant, a woman who only exists in front of her audience, but if no-one is looking, she disappears.

The Little Black Gallery presented your latest book Short Stories published by Jane & Jeremy. What exactly are the stories you want to tell in this book?

The book came with the show of the same name in London. It contains seven of the stories and 50 of the polaroids on show at the exhibition. The stories start off in the same way, all inspired by pre-owned objects. Rhinestone lashes, a police booking sheet with fingerprints, a Russian gun holster and six 1940s dolls with loose limbs, all led to a character and a chapter in the collection of tragicomic tales.

In this last series you said you wanted to focus on “Something that would have been slow to produce but that would require time to observe”. What do you mean?

You need time to take polaroids, it’s a slow process, you have to measure the light, wait for the polaroid to develop, then take another and wait again. It simply takes a lot of time. But I love this aspect. And even though they are very small I like to treat them in the same way I would any other of my photographs. In some way their size has made it even more satisfying for me to spend my time on them. I even gave up digital photography for a year to devote my time just on them. Of the 140 in the exhibition we only chose a few to publish on line and once the exhibition ended I took them all off. From the start my intention was to make them exist in all their splendour during the exhibition and then bring them back to life forever in the book.

Why should people buy this book?

Jane & Jeremy have published some wonderful books and I am so honoured that they have published one for me too. Most of all I wanted it to be a pleasure to touch and keep and they were able to achieve that with its design, the paper and the binding. All the books are signed and numbered in a limited edition of 100. There is also a small print at the back.

Where are you going to be for the next few months?

I will be in Oslo to finish my project and then in London again to start a new one. The Woman Who Never Existed will be shown first at Photo San Francisco in January where I will also be. In the following months we will take the exhibition round Europe, including Milan, Oslo, Paris and London.

What are your hobbies and interests outside photography?

I like going to the Oslo Opera house to see the ballets, they are the perfect mix of theatre, costume, music and scenography. I feel like I’m in heaven there!

Valentina Uzzo