Helene Schmitz’s landscape photos are stunning but also a cautionary tale

The Copper Mine © Helene Schmitz

At first glance, one is struck by the allure and grandeur of Swedish artist and photographer Helene Schmitz’s landscape photographs in her “Dreamland” exhibit, which is showing at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, DC.

Indeed, it’s easy to get lost in the beautiful symmetry of the forest scenes and the sweeping views. But look deeper and you see that the images document the complicated relationship between humans and nature, including the devastating impact of industrialization on the environment and the scarring of the physical landscape.

The award-winning photographer’s work has been featured in multiple shows worldwide and has been published in several books, most recently Thinking Like a Mountain in (2018), which examined the exploitation of natural resources in Sweden and Iceland, and Borderlands (2017), a collection of photos that show the power of nature to fill in the spaces that man leaves behind.

Currently, her work is featured in a solo exhibit at House of Sweden in Washington, DC. The exhibit runs through the end of the year. The House of Sweden is also projecting her work nightly onto its facade through June as part of the fourth annual Focus on the Story International Photo Festival.

Schmitz took time recently to discuss her craft, philosophy and approach to her work with Mike Lee of Focus on the Story.

“Dreamland” an exhibit of Helene Schmitz’s work is at the House of Sweden in Washington, DC through the end of the year. As part of the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival, the Embassy of Sweden is hosting a virtual talk with her on June 17 where she’ll discuss how photography can impact the discussion on climate change.

Mike Lee: Tell us a little about your background, where you came from, what influenced you while growing up.

Helene Schmitz: As a child I often spent time in the forest. Riding and playing with other children. So, at an early age I felt a close attachment to elements of nature. I also read a lot and my father’s parents were art lovers.

ML: What was it that sparked your interest in photography?

HS: I think it was that I had many thoughts on time and impermanence of being as a child and adolescent. It was something with photography in relation to time and death that sparked my profound interest in photography.

I started photographing as a teenager and I knew that I wanted to become a photographer when I was nineteen years old.

Turnings of Fire © Helene Schmitz

ML: In your work, you often document the fragility of the human presence and the overwhelming power of nature to eventually reclaim its space once people passed on. What is it that you see in the places that inspire to make the choices you make?

HS: Many of my projects are about something getting invaded, or a situation beyond control. I am also interested in transitions when something familiar changes into something uncanny.

ML: What was the one series that you felt that “this is it—this is what I want to do.”

HS: Oh, that I have felt for many of my series, and after while, I have had a wish to move on to something else.

ML: There is a word that is used in current times to describe choice and action in human behavior—agency. Do you think that this word may also apply to nature; that it does have agency in its power to reenter a place vacated by humans?

HS: I don’t think the sand in the Namibian desert has an agency, but Kudzu might have an agency (see Michel Pollans work on plants, The Botany of Desire)

Winter Forest © Helene Schmitz

ML: Was there ever a scene you photographed that surprised you when you came across it? Tell us about that experience.

HS: Well, that happens. But before I do a trip, I do a lot of research so oftentimes I have already seen what I am going to photograph.

One thing I have seen that I didn’t expect to see was a goldmine in the Surinam rainforest. It was a place not easily accessible and to see the men working in the mud in an extreme heat with the air buzzing with insects — I will never forget.

ML: Do you have a particular piece that defines who you are; in that it shows your presence in the work—not necessarily what is your best photograph (or series), but exposes the most about yourself?

HS: The Highway View from Kudzu Project.

ML: What was the most physically challenging series you worked on?

HS: The most difficult was The Sunken Garden series in Suriname in Latin America. I also did a book when being there. The tropical climate and the humid heat definitely made it the most challenging.

ML: What drew you to the mountains, and the presence of industrial activity in Thinking Like a Mountain? Could you tell us more about how the impact of industrialization in the area who photographed has had on the landscape, and the ways with which you documented it?

HS: I have photographed two major industries in Sweden, forestry and mining. After having done a lot of traveling, I wanted to turn my eyes on how we, in Sweden, have exploited our natural resources and also how the climate change has interfered with the use of contemporary industrial forestry.

ML: Some of your most stunning work is of the kudzu, which is a part of the landscape where I grew up with in the American South. Do you feel that this was a more extreme example of nature reclaiming its space?

HS: I don’t see Kudzu Project as nature reclaiming space. Kudzu was imported to the US from Japan, and it was planted along roads and railroads. It’s an example of globalization and infrastructure. But it’s also an example of a situation beyond human control and that interests me.

HS: What projects are you planning in the future?

ML: I am continuing with the mines and forestry in Sweden, and I have started on a sea project, meaning the defenses humankind will have to construct in order to protect ourselves from rising sea levels.

The Gold Mine © Helene Schmitz

ML: Some of your most stunning work is of the kudzu, which is a part of the landscape where I grew up with in the American South. Do you feel that this was a more extreme example of nature reclaiming its space?

HS: I don’t see Kudzu Project as nature reclaiming space. Kudzu was imported to the US from Japan, and it was planted along roads and railroads. It’s an example of globalization and infrastructure. But it’s also an example of a situation beyond human control and that interests me.

HS: What projects are you planning in the future?

ML: I am continuing with the mines and forestry in Sweden, and I have started on a sea project, meaning the defenses humankind will have to construct in order to protect ourselves from rising sea levels.

To see more of Helene Schmitz’s work, visit her website.

Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.

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