Grant Willing: Svart MetallJuly 31, 2009
Grant Willing’s ongoing photographic series Svart Metall is a meditation on the ineffable qualities of an unsubtle musical subculture. “Svart Metall” is Swedish for black metal, and if you want to know more about that let me Google that for you. Though its sonic qualities are challenging even for some metalheads, its Nordic atmospherics and paganistic themes are arguably evocative for a diverse range of artists.
Grant created this body of work as his thesis at Parsons, and won “Best in Show” in the 2009 Photography Thesis Exhibition. He published it in an edition of 1000, also entitled Svart Metall, available through his site and Photo-Eye. The photographs are allusive of the themes black metal culture treats, and presented in a surprisingly informal way—printed on bleached newsprint stock (something of a trend? See Alec Soth’s The Last Days of W). On this ephemeral paper, the photographs retain a stately quality but gain a more disorienting sense.
Distinctive aesthetic expressions of metal are of interest on this blog, of course. But I also saw a (loose) parallel in how this American artist interprets visual genres forged in northern Europe and the original dissemination of the music itself, which spawned numerous stateside Black Metal bands. Overall I wanted to know more about the motivations and process behind this fascinating body of work. I emailed Grant before he made a trip to Sweden and Norway to continue this series.
How did the project begin?
I was kind of stuck working on another project, Grand County [also viewable on Grant’s site] and felt like I needed to take a break from that. I had an idea for a while to do a project on Black Metal or something related to Norse Mythology, Paganism, Satanism, the Occult, etc. etc. I’d been kind of secretly fascinated with this stuff since high school and felt like it was time to do an “artistic investigation” into this.
I started actually working on the series when I took a trip in 2008 to Pennsylvania. I think I just had all of these ideas for different images coming through my head at that time and began shooting in that type of style and mindset.
I am interested in how relatively nonrepresentational and atmospheric the work is—which is of course consistent with a lot of the work that has appeared on black metal packaging. But it’s 180 degrees from, say, Peter Beste’s work [as seen in his book True Norwegian Black Metal].
I really like Peter Beste’s work and think its great how he does these intense studies into subcultures that have such a sense of awe or mystery surrounding them. But yes, like you said, my work is totally different. I feel like his work is kind of the front-end of black meta—the performances of the musicians, how they want to look in front of the camera, carefully crafted situations, etc. My work is kind of like the back-end—what is behind the music.
Are you interested in Black Metal in all aspects, or just this aesthetic vector? That is, are you a fan who wanted to artistically explore this world, or is this new to you?
Like I said before, the series is a result of a long time interest in this kind of music and its ideologies. I’ve been listening to Metal for as long as I can remember, but when I started listening to Black Metal it was the first time it really interested me so much more than just the sound itself—the culture and history behind the music are what interest me most I think.
This was your Parsons thesis—and congrats on the award and fellowship. It was well received at school then? Who was your advisor? Any resistance to the project academically?
My advisor/professor for the past year at Parsons was Carrie Levy. She was incredibly helpful and gave me the best insight to my work that I received at school. Initially there was a small amount of resistance to the work mainly because we weren’t sure I was going to arrive at a resolved point in the work by the time I graduated. But this series developed a lot more quickly than some of my past work, I think because it’s something I had been thinking about for a long time and a subject I was already obsessed with.
How do you see this work tying into the larger metal-oriented art scene, from the fine-art, Banks Violette end of the spectrum to designer/musicians like Stephen O’Malley and Aaron Turner? Or do you see your work as its own thing?
I definitely gained inspiration from those artists, especially Banks Violette, but I think my work differs in the actual subject matter I’m looking at. I think for the most part these other artists are making work that directly references metal genres, but my work is referencing more what is referencing the music itself. I’m using Black Metal as an umbrella term in a sense, as a way to group together these different ideas, such as Paganism, Satanism, Norse mythology, etc. into a concise body of work. When taken out of the context of Black Metal, Paganism and Satanism alone are fairly different from one another, but they are grouped together in the sense that they provoke a similar mental image and are “occult.”
Curious that you are continuing the project in Sweden and Norway—were any of the photos from the first part of Svart Metall shot there? I’d guess not all of them—if any of them—were taken in Scandinavian countries.
None of the photos in the series have been taken in Scandinavia so far (with the two exceptions of the found images “Fortun” and “Mannduad”). I started working on the project in western Pennsylvania—the first image of the series, “Untitled (Moon)” was one of the first images made for Svart Metall. Almost half of the images were taken in the mountains of Colorado. The rest were taken in New York and Québec.
For that matter, since the project eschews a considerable amount of literalism anyway, why is it important to actually go Nordic with the next part of the project—or any of it?
I think its important to visit these areas, Norway especially, in order to bring a sort of change to the work and have almost a fresh start again. It’s also undeniably something I want to do regardless of the work I make there—but my main objective is to see these places that have sparked what is essentially behind or responsible for provoking the rise of Black Metal, its culture, etc.
How do you plan a trip like this, how do you do location scouting ahead of time? Do you know what you are looking for, or do you go more instinctively?
I’ve only planned this trip so far in that I’ve booked train tickets to a few different places in Sweden and Norway. But mostly I’m going on instinct and off of some research I’ve done. It’s similar to the way I would shoot in the US: I choose an area based on the connotations it has or my impressions of it and use those ideas to find something in that place. So in a way I have ideas in my mind that I’m looking for, but they’re not necessarily location specific.
You are still working on Svart Metall; what are your ultimate plans for the project?
My ultimate plans right now are to keep transforming the series into an even more personalized look at black metal. It’s a really general desire, but I don’t want to pin down too much where I want it to go, I think it works best when it evolves naturally. I have a few ideas in mind of where it could go in terms of presentation, etc. but I’m hoping those ideas will also change over the course of the next year or so.