It was 26 years ago that Sølve Sundsbø left the shores of his Norwegian homeland to live in the frenetic energy of London. Since then, his visionary images have appeared in Vogue, Love, i-D and The New York Times, as well as in many significant exhibitions around the globe. Here, he shares his journey into photography with 5'ELEVEN'' Magazine and tells us why his restless nature is at the core of his creativity.
Special thanks to Art + Commerce.
When we caught up with Sølve, he was with his family and about to board a flight back to Norway. A place for space and perhaps the exploration of some new ideas with some well-deserved downtime for such a prolific photographer.
In an industry constantly vying for our attention, Sølve’s work is effortlessly distinct, and his experimental eye leads us into undiscovered realms. Listed as one of The Business of Fashion’s Top 500, the definitive index of people shaping the global fashion industry, this desire to continuously evolve places Sølve at the vanguard of innovative editorials, and his outstanding works permeate fashion’s consciousness. His use of exploratory techniques like X-rays and 3D make him a true visionary in an industry that thrives on the ever-fleeting present. He attributes his heuristic approach to his inquisitive nature, as it drives him forward into new frontiers of image-making. “I’ve had several moments where I’ve had a feeling that I have created something that I have been incredibly proud of, where things have clicked into place and have ticked all the boxes. But every time, it hasn’t made me think, I want to pursue this for a long time, it’s always more like, how can I get this feeling again by doing something else.”
One such example was his film The Ever Changing Face of Beauty, produced for W magazine in 2012 with creative consultant Jerry Stafford. Inspired by surrealist art experimentation, it premiered at NYFW and exemplifies Sølve’s progressive approach. It attained global recognition and celebrated unity across genders and races long before they were so widely discussed or observed in fashion’s arena.
Many photographers starting on their journey and inspired by Sølve’s work might presume that a definitive voice is the key to success. In the early days of his career, Sølve had a similar assumption. Still, he quickly surmised that this wouldn’t be fulfilling. He explained that he thought it was imperative to find one voice to pursue and stick to for a long time when he started taking pictures. “But because I’m quite a restless person, and I’m inquisitive about things, it became clear to me very quickly that I wouldn’t find any happiness just pursuing one thing for a long time; it’s not my nature, it’s not my temperament.”
Though his works are often described as fantastical and otherworldly, Sølve doesn’t see his own photographic style in such a categorical way. “I’ve said before if I have a style, I have no style, that’s obviously a soundbite, but it’s quite true for me. I wouldn’t say style; I would say my work is searching, my work is exploring. I would say that describes it more than anything else.”
While Sølve pursues fantasy through some of his images, he maintains that his reality is somewhat in contrast, as his daily life without his lens is much simpler. “I have no ambition to live the life of a glossy magazine. That lifestyle is not very interesting to me; I mean, you have to be very devoted to living that lifestyle.”
Sølve maintains that while it’s easy to make a great image with a beautiful model and backdrop, it’s his imagination that’s the greatest source of inspiration. “I guess that my ideas are the most interesting things that I can explore rather than pursuing normality; I think it’s more interesting to seek the unexpected as it’s like you open up a window to something you haven’t seen before.”
That imagination manifests itself in the interplay of conventional methods and contemporary unchartered effects and makes the pieces utterly modern. Sølve cautions photographers not to rely too much on technology. Instead, he encourages them to nurture their fundamental ability to produce great work before becoming reliant on computerized manipulation. Much of his own work has been created through traditional techniques, such as his 2004 Numéro shoot with supermodel Karen Elson that has achieved icon status.
It wasn’t a particular person or photographer that motivated Sølve to begin his journey into photography. It was the Norwegian love of snow sports and his love of bands and their irreverent styles. “I was reading a lot of American and Swedish ski magazines, and I just thought they were great photographers, and snow is such an ideal canvas. So, I didn’t know that I wanted to become a photographer as such. Still, looking at these images, I knew that I was very interested in photography.”
As an ’80s teen, this, in alliance with the transformative age of gender-defying fashion, and music videos made a lasting impression. “I would go to many concerts as a teenager, and it was a time when it was possibly not OK to bring a camera inside in Norway, so it made it a bit interesting [laughs]. And it was a great time for music videos on MTV, and all the great directors, this new medium and my interest in ski photography made me pick up a camera.”
His admiration for British talents like Craig McDean and Nick Knight provided the genesis for his move to London. “I knew Craig through a friend in Norway, and he put Nick in contact with me, and that was it!” Under Knight’s mentorship, he began to explore and develop the spectrum of his ideas. He knew that he wanted to be a fashion photographer, and Knight encouraged him to be courageous in his work. “I wanted to do something where you could do all the things I’ve just talked about, where you can explore the fantastical, search, explore, surprise yourself and surprise others.”
Sølve’s arrival in mid-’90s London coincided with the Britpop and Cool Britannia phenomenon. As he told us, “It was an exciting time in London in the mid-’90s, you have an established sense of fashion in the sense of Savile Row, but here fashion has been used in a way to oppose the establishment rather than to become the establishment. So, it’s a lot more interesting to be here than anywhere else. It was a whole new time, and all the talent was here; it was quite a buzzing place to be. So where do you go if you want to go to fashion photography school? It was the UK in the ’90s.”
This is a piece's extract from Sølve Sundsbø's interview inside the Fall Winter 2021 Issue 7.