Niklas Alm – It’s Still Life
There’s a six hour difference between Toronto and Sweden, so when I rang Niklas Alm after crawling out of bed at the ungodly hour of 8 am, he had already been in the studio working on his latest project for a few hours. “A creative project,” he said, and I could almost hear the smile in his voice, the sound of the crew moving around the set in the background.
Alm’s photographic speciality is still life – these incredibly dynamic and sometimes surreal images that pop with colour. He’s applied this vision to personal work and ad campaigns, even to portraits and magazine editorials. And every shot is distinct, stamped with his unique artistic fingerprint. I wanted to know what makes him tick.
Funnily enough, even though Alm demonstrated a talent behind the camera early on – “We had a dark room in my parents house when I grew up so I started exploring with photography pretty young, around 10 or 11.” – he studied journalism. Writing isn’t really that far a cry from taking photos, it’s all documentation, just in different mediums. But we always turn back to our first loves, and working for a magazine interviewing other photographers he started considering turning that hobby of his into a career, eventually giving up the pen (or, more likely, laptop) for the lens.
“I like to shoot people, but I think the reason I’m drawn more to still life probably, I’m very picky with light and details,” Alm answered when I asked why he chose to focus on product photography. “Still life is always still, so I have more control than if the thing I’m shooting is moving.”
I’d hazard that a photographer with his creative eye and a signature style that could rival Uncle Terry is looking at a pretty lucrative career, too.
Speaking of that signature – the vibrant colours and the vision – I was curious about his process. There’s only so many ways you can take a photo of say, a water bottle or a shoe. How do you contort oddly shaped items into a cube that seems to float, or where do you get the idea to plant dishes in an origami forest?
“The creative process comes from a lot of different things, I think,” he said. “When I get an assignment, or when I’m sitting and thinking of ideas, I can be really focused. I have a small seed and then I think it through, over and over again. I’m always inspired by set design, so I look at a lot on set design and in store windows. All these things are art installations, good for inspiration.”
I was told once, to be a good photographer you have to pay attention to your light and shadows, and from conception to completion, it seems the most important variable for an Alm image is lighting – “I start with overall lighting of the scene to get the shadows and the feeling of the image, then maybe make special lights for the products to make them look as good as possible.”
“I shot for a water brand where we had the water bottles standing in a forest with landscape in the background. In that case I shot probably 50 pictures. First I was out in the forest shooting different landscape pictures and rocks, stuff like that, then I put the images together.
“But I always try to build the set design for real if its not impossible. For example, in this water case, there was no possibility of finding or making that set, so I had to do it in the computer, but normally I do it for real with a set designer so I can see the image already when I’m shooting.”
And he actually does have a hand in building those sets, even if it’s just to tell a designer exactly what he’s looking for. “It’s good to have another input, and they also have talent that I don’t. But I like set design myself, so I’m always there putting my hands on it.”
For the cube shot of sporting equipment that looks pressed together, Alm came up with the simple solution of using a glass aquarium. For the Mateus brand, he worked with a set designer he uses often and they created an origami forest. That one, I think, is one of his favourites.
On the day of the interview, he was working on a shoot for a fashion magazine and experimenting with transparent papers. “It’s hard to explain,” he said, describing the texture of the paper that diffused the light for a softer effect. “Right now I have the diffusion paper as a background. We made branches and flowers and leaves out of paper and placed them behind the diffusion paper, so you get shadow and see some detail of the flowers and branches.”
It’s the challenge that keeps him going, and he tries to top himself with every new project. The next logical step would be film, and I asked if he had considered making the jump to moving pictures, he’s been getting requests. Now that he’s got a new camera with film function, he’ll probably be making the the move this year – smaller projects at first, “so I can feel in control of the media,” he said.
While it’s obvious Alm has found his niche in the market, I couldn’t help but wonder if he ever yearned for the glory days of journalism. Would he still be humping for magazines?
“I would be doing something creative but I’m not sure it would be journalism,” he said. “Probably more of a writer, I think, making up my own stories. Making up stories is more for me than writing stories for other people.
“When I started photography I think I did a handful of work where I tried to write and shoot at the same time, but I found that I couldn’t focus on both well enough, so I decided to not do anymore work that way. I didn’t write anything, I just stopped. I like the pictures.
“I think I’ve found my calling.”