Some Kind of Heavenly Fire in frame inframe documentary photography finland maria lax contemporary setenta books publisher open doors gallery kalel koven uk ufo project cinematographic mood light storytelling

Interview Maria Lax

In a few words, what « Some Kind of heavenly fire » is about?
Some Kind of Heavenly Fire is about UFO sightings in my remote home town in Northern Finland that happened in the 1960s. Strange lights would light up forests and follow people’s homes in the middle of the night. The narrative of the book is an amalgamation of photography, family archive, and newspaper cuttings, that shines a light on this tiny town with a big secret.

With this series you look back on your childhood places in Finland, can you tell me what triggered this desire? the origin of this project?
I had lived abroad for quite a long time at the time I started work on this project, and I had a desire to connect a bit more with where I came from and my family history. I happened to find a book my grandad wrote about the UFO sightings when he was working as a journalist in my home town in the 1960s and was immediately hooked on the strange stories – but because he already had dementia at the time, I wasn’t able to ask him more information. That drove me to seek out the people he wrote about in his book, and I literally drove up and knocked on their door, asking if I could chat with them just like my grandad had. And that was the start of the project.

« …everything I shot for this project was very much all of my film influences mixed. »

From the moment you felt the need to do this work in Finland in the region where you grew up what was your organization? Did you do some visual research? did you have a style in mind? or did you go on location directly according to your feelings?
I didn’t do huge amounts of visual research because the references were so ingrained in my brain; my favorite films are Jurassic Park and Gattaca, I love Twin Peaks and 1970’s horror films so everything I shot for this project was very much all of my film influences mixed. It was sort of the vocabulary I was most familiar with. When I started I didn’t think the images would necessarily end up being seen by many people, so I was able to enjoy shooting images that I loved, without having any pressure – which was great.

There’s a strange atmosphere in your photos that fits with the initial idea. How did you manage to find this rendering, this coherence of color tonality? Did you quickly find your visual style or did you try different styles?
I found my style for this by experimenting when I was shooting and following what felt right. It’s a lot of long exposure and in-camera effects. I can’t remember who said it to me but the advice I follow with everything I do from lighting to editing the book is “push it creatively until you get freaked out that it’s too wild, then take it down a notch.”

« I was already editing the project as I was shooting, experimenting with what worked for the story, and what didn’t »

How was the production period of your series? Did you have a plan, rituals, habits or was it all random?
I spent a lot of time talking to people, reading and researching the subject and other similar cases, writing texts for myself about the project, and so on. I approached it almost like I would do when writing a script and working on a film. I knew the locations very well, so that was quite easy to know when the best time to shoot them was and where I would go. But for a long time I would head out most evenings and nights, or first thing in the morning when the weather was suited for the project. In a lot of ways, I was already editing the project as I was shooting, experimenting with what worked for the story, and what didn’t – and developing the style that way. The last time I went back to Finland to try and shoot more was last August (2019) but I didn’t find anything new to add so I knew the project was finished. From then on, it was a question of organizing the photos and seeing what the gaps were, where to add archive or family album photos to make the story complete.

Your approach is interesting, very personal, conceptual, where the narration goes through the atmospheres. Can you tell me more about this editing work?
When we actually started editing the book, I had distanced myself from the project enough so that cutting images out wasn’t painful – there wasn’t much of “kill your darlings” but it was more of a challenge to see potential in images that I perhaps didn’t like as much as others working on the book did.

I asked Jan Hillman to come on board as a designer, and he conveniently enough is a good friend but also a film editor. As we sequenced the book, we talked about it like we were making a film about someone driving through this strange town at night, so that dictated a lot of the choices we made. When talking about image order we also kept going “how well is this shot going to cut with this one” and “how can we cut to this part”. This was my first book so it was easier to speak in a language that made sense to us both.

Because I had looked at the images for so long, I was worried that I was too stuck in my ways. I didn’t want to micromanage everything so I asked Jan to do versions however he wanted and to go totally crazy with creative choices if he wanted (and some of the versions of the book are truly psychedelic). That was very useful and some of those choices he did are in the final book.

« I enjoy being quite solitary and independent so walking around shooting pictures at night was just really lovely. »

You have a cinematography background this work was supposed to be a film why did you finally choose photography?
It was just something that happened throughout the process. After I had been shooting these images for a year or so, it just clicked that this was my preferred way of storytelling – perhaps it suits my personality, I enjoy being quite solitary and independent so walking around shooting pictures at night was just really lovely. But I haven’t completely left films yet, perhaps there will be a project in the future…

let’s talk about the book, how could you find a publisher? Did you take a long time to find one? How was your collaboration with Setanta books?
I was very lucky because the whole process was very straight forward and easy. I had spoken to other publishers but Open Doors Gallery introduced me to Keith at Setanta Books, we grabbed a pint, told Keith about a few ideas I had and this one was the one he liked the most – as did I. So I showed him the images and he said, let’s make a book. And so we moved ahead, and at quite a fast pace too, actually.

I had worked on the project for so long, I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted the book to look like, how the cover should be including typography and colors, as well as the size of the book. Keith was very supportive and was really pushing me to be as experimental as possible, and together we agreed it shouldn’t be a huge glossy coffee table book but a small, journal-like book, almost like a scrapbook – something that’s a bit of a secret. I didn’t have a dummy before at all, and we actually never made one – my friend and designer Jan Hillman made a very good PDF of the book based on what I had told him, including mock-up of the tipped-in bits with how the tape would look like that we based everything on. I am incredibly grateful to Setanta that they gave so much trust and creative freedom for me to make the book how I wanted it to make. That is very rare.

« I really wanted to have variety and feel so that the reader could physically experience the book too. »

For the choice of format, paper, etc. how did it go? did you get a result close to what you wanted or did you have to compromise?
I wanted the paper to be recycled, that was one important thing, and secondly, I wanted it to have a texture and a slightly aged feel – so it needed to be off-white uncoated paper. In addition to the main paper, I wanted to have a newspaper-like feel for one of the tip-ins used in the book, and some glossy, heavier paper for the other tip-ins. I really wanted to have variety and feel so that the reader could physically experience the book too. Newspaper material was the biggest compromise, it wasn’t possible to do it as thin as I would’ve liked because of the cost and method. Because the majority of the book was uncoated, it posed a few challenges (it was best suited for black and white images whereas mine are colorful and high contrast) but I am very happy with the result.

Your top 5 photobooks?
Phyllis Galembo – Maske
The Blast Furnace – Ian MacDonald
Esko Mannikko – Female Pike
Howling Winds – Vasantha Yogananthan
Katherine Avenue – Larry Sultan

Interview by Kalel Koven

Photographer’s Links: WebsiteInstagramFacebook
photo book ‘Some Kind Of Heavenly Fire’ is now available published by Setanta Books.