Kalle Gustafsson is a Swedish director and photographer. A master of the atmospheric cinematic moment, Gustafsson is represented by Skarp Agent and shoots both print and motion for an advertising client list that includes Paul Smith, Gant, Tod´s, Orient Express, Hackett and editorial clients GQ, Marie Claire, Mr. Porter, and Monocle among others.
Gustafsson was shooting retro before Mad Men was on the air and is as comfortable recreating stolen moments that evoke a 60′s Italian film as he is staging cinematic stories out of a 50′s American drama and contemporary fashion. Across all his visual styles, the candid moment is elevated to art with a langorous, fluid elegance and a natural grace. And intelligence. Visual references and formal skills are used as vehicles for this natural ability and his models appear relaxed and organically beautiful.
I’m often drawn to photographers who are truly artists first and commercial artists second. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when Kalle responded to my image request list (that included an equal number of advertising and personal images) with a beautiful selection of almost exclusively personal work and a description of what it means to him to be an artist – that he is deeply passionate about his film and photography work and struggles to continually create something new that hasn’t been done before. In the end, he humored me with a few of my favorite commissioned photos. But please take the time after reading to go to his site and see his full portfolio of personal and commercial print and motion work.
Endearingly nice and enthusiastic, he was a pleasure to work with. I’m so pleased to feature his work and an interview on POP. Big thank you to Kalle!
POP: What is your background, where did you grow up, and when did you first know you would be a photographer?
I grew up in Lund. It’s a small rural town in the South of Sweden. I was put through music schools reflecting my parents favourite instruments; drums, piano and saxophone – in that order. Attention isn’t really my cup of tea so playing an instrument never stuck with me. I turned out a jock hanging that hung out with hippies I wish were snowboard/skate pros. My dad was having a travel agency so I ended up going to the alps several times a year doing snowboard pics with friends. And as my family was traveling family I got to see a lot. A Swiss bell tower ended up my first photographic subject during a family trip down there. In retrospect it might’ve been the sheer joy of getting the chance to legitimately direct my kid brother around that got me hooked though… In the end my mom got really upset I’d used up all the film she’d bought for the trip.
POP: What were your early creative interests?
Like all kids I enjoyed the odd draw and doodle. Later I got to see Caravaggio and da Vinci in Florence which my family visited several times a year and painting became something very dear to me. Florence also opened up a new window towards the magic of light for me. I was very much into painting, architecture and oil painting before I came across photography. I later built a dark room and found that that really was the tool for me.
POP: What was your process for finding your style?
I did everything. Weddings, newspaper jobs, pure artistic photography, travel pics… you name it. It was all about being open-minded towards new experiences and techniques. In photography there’s almost always a client to satisfy, so knowing people and pictures is a handy thing. I later assisted a Swedish photographer for 18 months followed by six months of backpacking from Mexico to Rio and then a spell of proper freelance missions that led to me having my own website. I filled it with previous test-work and a ton of fresh travel photographs I’d taken that year during my trip from Mexico to Rio. For me it was traveling and for others it turned out fashion and commercial, so the jobs came calling.
I had spent three years in Paris where I studied photography and French and after that two years in Sydney where I studied at a film Academy. Paris taught me that fashion was an easier tool for me than the rest. I did not know when I moved to Paris what kind of photography I was aimed for and therefore I tried it all. Sydney taught me I did not want to be a director funny enough, but a D.O.P.. After several years I understood that telling stores was more interesting and so I did.
POP: Did you develop your style or did your photos have a retro feeling from the beginning?
The way I shoot is just what I think is a nice representation of the world. It’s not set in stone and my style might change over night. Whether my photos had a retro feel from the get go, both yea and no. I have my techniques on the set and also depending on location, styling etc.
POP: Your work has a very relaxed, natural style without sacrificing classic formal considerations, beauty and high production values. What is your philosophy or approach?
I like telling stories by putting them as closely as photographically possible to the theme’s authenticity. For this I use downsized teams, simple ideas, little and natural light. The key for me is making everyone a part of the production family. We’re all there as a team doing our hobby professionally so without fun there will be frustration.
It’s a very complex discussion. I tend to focus on the big picture of work and avoid being bogged down by too much contemplation – I prefer moving forward.
POP: Your stills have a cinematic quality, moments in a narrative. They are evocative of the more realistic European filmmaking. Do you work from a ‘story?’
I try to always work from a story. I’m going to get as realistic and close to the story as the business is ready for me to be. With a push and a shove I think we’ll see a change in commercial photography. I hope so!
POP: What specifically from older eras captures your attention?
I used to rummage through my parents and grandparents old cardboard boxes full of clothes stuffed in our attic. I could go through old family photographs for hours on end. There’s just an invincible magic about times past and gone. Not because they were better but because they’re constituted by these static fragments of film. And these moments were for real. All we get is a glance and the same goes for fashion photography.
POP: You seem to have mastered the pared down, retro simplicity that allows the relationship between the subjects or the viewer and the subject or the subject and themselves to be the focus. It’s this quality of ‘relationship’ that is so compelling. Did you work at this or did it come intuitively for you?
With what I’ve told you so far I’d say yes it did come very naturally for me. Relationships are so difficult and there is no right or wrong. They are just so interesting, wonderful, terrifying, complicated and fun to work with.
POP: There is generally a tension in your work, either graphic, between the subjects or between the viewer and the subject. Is this a conscious process?
Photography is about drama so I’m glad some people feel like this regarding my work. We have to capture the viewer’s eye and without including elements that connect with the viewer this becomes impossible. You have to go in directions that capture people’s interest just because of their uniqueness. This uniqueness or love for novelty never lasts long.
POP: How do you work with your models to get such natural moments from them?
Sometimes you need to lead people out of their comfort zone while some times you just need to ascertain and confirm their person as viable in the production. It’s important to have an open mind about these things. We’re all different. Often an inquiry to how the person would’ve gone about the scene in real life suffices to extract some degree of authenticity.
POP: What is most inspiring for your work?
That I don´t have a 9 to 5 job? Maybe that my office is on a new location every day, every week. I’m not really sure but I enjoy it very much.
It depends on your mood. Sometimes it can be getting a new job offer and sometimes it’s the location, sometimes it’s the vacation from work… You get the picture. I’m very glad I’ve chosen such a vivid workplace. Sometimes I would say music, another day I’d say a conversation between me and a friend. Life itself is another useful awnser. You get inspiration from so many different elements. I also love books, magazines, films. Leisure is also very good. (smile)
POP: Recent favorite film or location?
“After the Wedding” by Susanne Bier. Again, the realism she manages to present to us as viewers is amazing. It stabs you right in the heart. I listen to a lot to music right now and it feels so right. I get a lot if inspiration from that.
POP: Recent assignment which allowed you to really push your aesthetic or was a particularly rewarding collaboration?
We’re now in post-production for my latest short called Archipelago together with some friends. Two girls and a guy spend a Summer in the Swedish archipelago and voilà there’s a triangle of love and mischief. Hopefully we’ll be able to present to it viewers in a more interesting way than by simply uploading it to YouTube.
POP: What is the range of projects you are hired for?
It’s a wide range. I try to work less generally and harder on things with potential. It’s more rewarding for everyone concerned. A lot of work is commissioned on basis of my specific style. Being consequent in your pictures is the best way to get work because then the client knows what she’s gonna get. But in some cases they love what I do and have done, but they are scared to go all that way. It seams like a love and hate feeling. You want it but you know it can be wrong. Some clients and magazines give me all the freedom I want and need : )
POP: Do your US and European clients differ in their stylistic or conceptual direction?
Degrees of proper communication differs but between companies and not particularly continents. Working together with clients and art directors and all the people who like to get involved on the set is about finding a balance and finding a balance is about communication. Usually people agree on a common goal without having defined it properly – they just take for granted everyone else has the same picture in their heads. Not giving in to the comforts of agreeing for the sake of agreeing is number one for me.
POP: You shoot a lot of motion. Are you shooting yourself or hiring a DP and directing?
For commercial shoots I have a D.O.P. strongly directed under my ideas and view. And for editorials or my own movies it could be me filming or my assistants or some D.O.P´s work I really like. It varies. Depending on budget and availability I would say.
POP: In Europe, are the shoots that require still and motion shot over two days?
Oh yes! With a lot of clients we shoot for a week. The request of having film shot alongside is becoming more and more frequent. But more and more the clients have begun to realize that film needs to be taken more seriously and be given more time and money.
POP: How did your interest in film/motion develop? Did you study film?
As a kid we filmed ourselves skating and later in ground school we did this amazing film about all the teenagers in our town. It more or less reviewed all the rumours and it turned to be a really touchy area (as people didn’t mind telling us with their fists) but also a great film. Later I went to Sydney where I studied film and worked in cinema where a DOP gave me a lot of experience. I learnt then that I didn’t like film making. Too much people involved, I thought. I was the only one in the school not wanting to be a director and the school then punished that choice by putting me in a second section. I quit shortly after. I focused on photography but here I am now filming away. That’s life.
POP: Influential filmmakers?
I’m horrible at references and the response is such a cliché: I just shoot what I like myself.
Privately I prefer Hollywood blockbusters and I didn’t manage to get through the first episode of Mad Men. I always get: “You’ve got to love Mad Men with your style!” But I have never seen a whole episode. Embarrassing I know and they go “No way!” I was doing my thing three years prior to Mad Men so perhaps I’m just a bit fed up… who knows. I know a lot of really great film makers I love and they have their great bits and pieces: )
POP: Storia d’Amore is an 11-minute film. Was this made as a personal project?
Absolutely. For two years I’d been involved with an British commercial agency called The Vast and they let me do things my way for zero budget projects. Before Storia d’Amore I’d done a project on Iceland and when we went to Italy I felt strongly that I’d like to do some filming as well. And since I spend a lot of time in Italy as a teenager I wanted to shoot there and I wanted to do this simple love story. I got my to dear friends Hermes Holm and Alessandro Amidani to help me set up the shoot in Terracina and off we went with a great idea, two models, homemade dinners, a lot of laughters and a bunch of wine bottles.
POP: Dream assignment? What’s next?
I think that dreams are best lived right now so we’re doing pre-production on our next project simultaneously as we’re finishing post-production on Archipelago. I, and Hermes Holm, with whom I’ve done Storia, Archipelago and some work for Orient-Express, are going down to Greece to scout locations within a few days. The goal now is creating a great short with dialogue.