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Northern Silence

In his book Northern Silence, the Norwegian photographer Cato Lein paints a portrait of deep, untamed Finnmark, a region in Northern Norway. This personal project was carried out over a period of twenty-five years.

Northern Silence is an intimate record of the great North: it carries the breath of a wild, inhospitable land, swept by the blizzards that have shaped the landscape and chiseled the bodies. 

The name Finnmark encapsulates the mythology of Norway’s far north, at the edge of the Barents Sea, the tip of the Russian tundra, and far reaches of the Gulf Stream. Born in the fishing village of Båtsfjord, on the Varanger peninsula, in the very heart of Finnmark, photographer Cato Lein is the region’s native.

He spent twenty-five years photographing it, from the mid-1980s to 2012. It was only recently that Lein, who has now been based in Sweden for many years, decided to assemble his images into a book. 

Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein

“Each person is photographed with dignity”

“[He] was at first unconvinced by his contribution as a photographer. The pile of postcard shots imposed a kind of silence in him—a fear of having lost touch with the spirit of the place,” Sophie Allgårdh explains in the book’s preface. 

Lein then decided to return to his land, to meet the inhabitants, to survey the Sámi region of Finnmark, which was totally unknown to him. He went back to his old photos and had them carefully printed in one of the few darkrooms still available in Stockholm

What emerged were powerful black-and-white portraits covered with a certain patina: faces of men and women, their skin smooth or crisscrossed by deep wrinkles, a gaze that catches your eye. 

Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein

“Cato’s photographs always capture a specific moment. He approaches each person with care and respect. He gets up close and personal. Each person is photographed with dignity, openness, intimacy, and simplicity,” comments Swedish photographer Knut Koivisto. “The viewer can almost touch the subjects and say hello. [The photos are] like his name: short, eye-catching, with a gentle touch. Cato Lein.”

“This is where I feel at home” 

The photographer depicts the eerie beauty the expanses of the reindeer kingdom. The imagery is far from the idyllic picture popularized by travel guides. The fragile wooden houses are caught in a storm of snow and ice, the gusts make you shiver, the mountains crush you. And yet you keep coming back. 

The Norwegian singer of Sami origin, Mari Boine, testifies to the visceral attachment to this land that “outsiders” have called Finnmark. The land of the Finns, that is, the land of the Sámi. 

Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein

“To is, this is Sápmi. I grew up here. So did Cato. We both carry with us the beauty and power of this landscape, the faces, the people, the stories. His photographs resonate with me. I’ve spent most of my life here. I’ve traveled a lot and seen a lot of the world. I really enjoyed it all, and I still do. But I love this place, and this is where I feel at home.” 

These far-away landscapes have not been spared climatic troubles. “The landscape of Finnmark is not the same as it was when Cato Lein was growing up,” notes Allgårdh. “Over the past fifty years, it has become warmer, and the tundra is on the verge of disappearing. The granite mountains stripped of their past are now overgrown with moss, and Arctic birch trees have been replaced by taller trees.”

On his travels, Cato Lein kept his films pressed against his chest to protect the gelatin from freezing. The prints are sometimes imperfect, bear the marks of the development process, which makes them only more powerful: Northern Silence is a labor of love of the eye and the heart. 

Cato Lein, Northern Silence, André Frère Editions, €39. Limited edition accompanied by a signed 21×15 cm fine art) pigment print on Hanemühle paper, €120.

Northern Silence © Cato Lein
Northern Silence © Cato Lein

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