This is the story of an art project that began with three words, typed into Google: grannies, Norway, photographer.
It was 2011, and the Finnish artist Riitta Ikonen was dreaming up a new proposal related to Nordic folk tales. While studying at school in Brighton, England, Ikonen had developed a friendship with a Norwegian student who had a particularly animated relationship with the natural world.
“I would go and visit her in Norway, and she would talk to the rocks and the mountains,” said Ikonen, who speaks in a melodic accent. “I thought, ‘hold on a minute, I’m from Finland, so I obviously appreciate my lakes and bogs and mountains. But I don’t really talk to my mushrooms and blueberries. So what’s happening here?'”
Imagining that this intimacy had roots in Nordic lore, and that the country’s elderly population would be closest to those traditions, Ikonen began to conceive of a project involving Norwegian senior citizens. She would need a collaborator to take photos, so she dropped the appropriate search terms into her browser, and discovered the work of Karoline Hjorth, a photographer whose book of portraits, “Mormormonologene” (2011), is a celebration of Norwegian grandmothers.
Edda, pictured here dressed “like an ethereal oracle” among steaming Icelandic hot springs. A national myth claims that hot springs birds representing the souls of the dead dive into the rising bubbles. Credit: Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen
Photographers Ikonen and Hjorth transformed Astrid, a Norwegian bridge player, into Huldra, a menacing but seductive figure from Nordic folk tales characterized by her long hair. Credit: Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen
The 60 or so portraits range from the folkloric to the whimsical, poetic, and fantastical. In one image, we see Salme, a friend of Ikonen’s late grandmother. The artist duo pictured her wearing a baroque headdress composed of decadent puffs of small white flora. Ikonen and Hjorth consider their subjects collaborators, and in their book, each of them receives a short text to accompany their image. In this case, we are informed that “Salme is placid yet tough, just like the cottongrass growing in the many bogs around her.”
Agnes, who according to the book is the oldest Norwegian woman to have ever completed a parachute jump (twice, in fact, at the age of 85 and then again, at 90), is pictured standing on a stark black rock face at the edge of the sea; she wears an armature on her head made of sinuous, tendril-like twigs, dramatically swept to one side. “She’s personifying the North Wind,” said Ikonen.
Astrid, an enthusiastic bridge player from Norway, is reimagined as the “semi-menacing forest maiden” Huldra, from Nordic folk tales, who is distinguished by her long locks of hair. Ikonen and Hjorth accomplished her transformation into the seductive creature by giving her a thick mane composed of giant arms of rhubarb taken from Astrid’s arboretum. (She was eager to get rid of the bushels of rhubarb; during the shoot Ikonen offered them to passing joggers, who gratefully ran off with the jumbo fronds.)
The project is not limited to women; the book also features portraits of elderly men, like Velkkari, who is shown sporting proud blooms of cow parsley from his chest, and Mr. Maruyama, an ikebana flower arranger from Japan who wears a halo of fukinoto, an edible spring vegetable that grows in abundance near his home in Sanjo, in Niigata prefecture.
The photographers used rhubarb from Astrid’s arboretum to mimic hair, which they then passed off to joggers. Credit: Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen
For Ikonen and Hjorth, recruiting their collaborator-performers can take a certain amount of moxie, and sometimes even requires a covert reconnaissance mission of sorts.
“We might be in Paris, and you might be at an opera soiree evening and there might be an old lady dancing, the last person on the dance floor,” said Ikonen. “And you just think: Who is this fascinating person I have to meet? You approach them and ask them, ‘Who are you and what are you doing tomorrow?'”
Ikonen isn’t speaking hypothetically. A similarly auspicious encounter with an opera singer named Marie-Ange led to a shoot the following day, in which she is pictured at the edge of a lake, wearing a theatrical bustle made of weeping willow branches.
The name of the project — taken from a folk tale about a dog that lives beneath a bridge and has eyes as big as plates — is something of an emblem of the curiosity that guides these interactions. “We ask them, ‘What has happened in your life and how do you make sense of your surroundings?’ ” said Ikonen. “We enter with open eyes. They dictate what happens in the shoot. It’s kind of like an adventure club.”
Often, subjects are photographed in places that hold special significance for them — at a favorite rock or beach.
Other times, Ikonen and Hjorth pick the place for its natural beauty or mystical quality. Asked whether the photographs are more about the humans or the environment, Ikonen paused to consider.
“I think they might be, interestingly, about how there might not be a difference between the two,” she said. “It’s very nice when after the shoot you ask, ‘How do you feel?’ Sometimes the answer is just: heavy or wet or cold. But occasionally it is: ‘I’ve never looked at my surroundings like this. I really feel part of where I am right now.'”
Ikonen and Hjorth consider the elderly citizens in their photos collaborators as well as subjects. They are often photographed at locations that hold special significance for them. Credit: Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen
The duo shoots with an analog camera, which means the process can be slow and physically challenging. It often entails something of a bonding experience with the elements. “The person might be sitting in a bog, dressed as a bog, for three or four hours,” said Ikonen. “It’s quite rare that we would go to a bog or field and spend that amount of time being quiet and focusing just on being.”
Indeed, even when their faces are semi-hidden (or entirely obscured by a sprouting costume of moss or branches), the elderly subjects convey a certain stillness, peace of mind, or vulnerability.
Edda, for instance, is pictured amid steaming Icelandic hot springs that bubble up between two tectonic plates.
She is dressed like an ethereal oracle in an aerodynamic cloak of hay. There’s a national myth about a breed of hot spring birds that dive into the bubbles, Ikonen said. According to folklore, they represent souls of the dead. And during her shoot, Edda described having seen relatives at these hot springs that were not quite from this world.
This image of opera singer Marie-Ange was captured quite spontaneously when the photographers asked if she would be available to shoot the next day after a chance encounter. Credit: Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen
Ikonen acknowledges that the photographs suggest a poetic allusion to the afterlife, of a return to nature. “Maybe it’s the fantasy of being in nature, some fleeting moment in the idealistic brain of the human where you could be one with nature,” she said. Yet at its heart, the project is one that’s profoundly life-affirming, both in its portrayal of the elderly and of our environment.
In a 2015 photo from the series, Jakob, a fisherman from the southwest coast of Greenland, is pictured wrapped head to toe in ice, lying on his side and embedded among a bank of snow-capped stones as though ready to drift out to sea. Jakob has spent his whole life surrounded by and observing the conditions of ice. But in recent years he has witnessed it melting at greater speed, tides rising higher and reindeer migrating in larger numbers.
“We are not the masters of the weather,” Jakob reflected during his portrait session. “You have to live life to the max because of the conditions in our land — this is life, so we enjoy it.”