Interview with photographer Bertil Nilsson



7 minutes reading

Swedish photographer Bertil Nilsson has just released his first photography book, Undisclosed, a work on contemporary circus performers, which we previously reviewed in our books section.
GUP had the chance to sit down with Nilsson to discuss the inspiration behind the project, bookmaking, and why he chose to self-publish.

Undisclosed is a study of contemporary circus performers, free from clothes and colours and the known elaborate circus backgrounds, and instead shot mostly in working spaces. Where did the inspiration for this project come from?

I had been introduced to the contemporary circus in Sweden, and when I came to London I knew people that were going to the circus school here, so I ended up living with a couple of students. I was taking pictures of them in my spare time, and my first commission came from the circus, to take pictures of the performances and individual shots of the students.

I was seeing this world from a different perspective, with all the hard work and training that went into it, and I was fascinated. You have to start so young, and you have to work so hard, with constant pain and strain on your body. They’re so much at the mercy of their bodies. If you have an injury it can be really devastating. There’s a big risk that’s always hanging over you, where a serious injury can end your career from one day to the next. It’s quite extreme in a way.

It’s fascinating just to see that, but obviously their goal is for it to seem really effortless. It looks so easy when a professional does it, but you need so much strength and technique. Even if you have the strength and technique, making it look good - the gracefulness and smoothness - is exceptionally difficult.

The photos are all of a brilliant technical quality, in black and white. Why did you choose this medium, and how did you come to make the choices you did regarding the medium?

The project took place over 5 years, so I used lots of different cameras, and it’s a bit of a mix. At the beginning, I shot with medium format, and then later shot more with my 35mm digital. I wanted the flow of the shoot to be a bit more dynamic, so I could move around and keep up with them. The shoots weren’t very long, so I needed to be more flexible, and the 35mm allowed to me to work a lot faster.

When I started, I was shooting colour, as well, but there were so many factors that I couldn’t control when I was working with colour, for example there would be big blue mats in the training spaces. With black and white it just became more abstract, and it also tied into the idea that I was stripping everything away from the circus: the performance aspect of it, the stage, the costumes. Eventually, it became stripping away the colour aspect as well.

This is your first book of photography. Why did you decide to make a book of the project, as opposed to any of the other available media? What did you think the media could communicate about the project?

I wanted to make a book from the time that I started. It took longer than I thought from the beginning, but I wanted something physical. I wanted to have something more intimate, permanent.

I know lots of photographers want to make books, but one thing that shouldn’t be forgotten in that process, is the physical result: imagining how it’s going to work, thinking about the design, the materials, and the quality of that. It’s always a shame to see a great idea for a book poorly produced, poorly printed and poorly bound. Sure, great printing doesn’t make a great book, but it’s nice to see when all the aspects of the book are at the same level.

It’s not just about the pictures, it’s everything coming together. If you’re not interested in the physical object of it, then I don’t think you should make a book, you should think about making something else, like an exhibition or a digital book.

The quality of the book is truly exceptional; you made great choices in the physical object. It's also a self-published book. Why did you choose to publish that way? Did you try to go through the traditional publishing route as well? What benefits did that process have for you?

I didn’t decide on self-publishing in the beginning. I approached publishers, but I guess I didn’t know the publishing industry very well when I started. On one hand, you have the really big publishers, and some were interested, but they wanted to take on the naked aspect of it, and make it something erotic, which it was not. They wanted to have big, glossy, beautiful bodies, which it’s not about at all. On the other hand, you have the small publishers, and they don’t have a lot of funds to take risks on unknown people. I’m not established in the field at all. They’d want you to put a lot in and essentially you would be spending more money for the collaboration with a publisher than you would by doing it yourself.

When in that situation, I prefer to do something myself, because then, at least I learn something in the process and I know what I’m spending my money on. I think it depends on how much help you need with the technical and editorial sides of it. I felt like I could do as good a job, tying people into it that I could choose myself.

I was worried that viewers would see self-publishing as something to look down on, or as more of a vanity project, like I couldn’t get your book published the normal way, but it started to change when I met a woman, Jane Rolo at Book Works -- a charity in London that publishes artist books, but they also help artists publish their own books. She was very encouraging of self-publishing in itself as a viable outlet with lots of positive aspects; she really set that ball rolling, and introduced me to the printer who ended up printing the book. That was a watershed moment, because of her encouragement, and because she has so much experience in that sector.

It’s been a great experience, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way, I don’t think I could have handed it over to someone.

What were the limitations you encountered during the process of self-publishing?

The big thing that separates self-publishing from a publisher is distribution. You produce the same book, but it’s a question of how you get it out there. It’s difficult to be competitive in terms of pricing obviously, because you don’t have as large of volume, but I don’t think there’s anything in the process of making the book that limits you as a self-publisher.

Obviously you need to have the funds to self-publish. In a way, it’s good to put your own money behind it, because the financial pressure makes you take everything very seriously.

I’m not using a distributor or any sort of publicist or marketing to help, which was another conscious choice, because I wanted to learn the whole process from the inside. I guess I’m a bit of a control freak; I just love to know everything. Doing it by myself will take a lot longer, but it will be a much more rewarding process, and it might actually cover the costs of making the book in the end, which it wouldn’t at all, if I went through a distributor because they’d take a cut of the retail price.

Did you have to make any compromises in order to make the physical object of the book, as opposed to the ideal in your mind of what the perfect project would be?

No, this was the perfect project. There was definitely no compromise, and I got exactly what I wanted. Actually, it was much better than what I wanted to do, because at every stage, it just became better than what I expected it to be. I guess that’s the point of doing it yourself: you have control.

Learn more about Bertil Nilsson on his web site, read GUP’s book review, or buy the book.