Johannes Hjorth

If you haven’t heard the name, you’ve seen the photos. Johannes Hjorth has shot some of the ADC’s biggest and best posters in the last year as well as offering his photography services free of charge to students who share in his interest in creating innovative and diverse shoots. Born and raised in Stockholm, Johannes continued his studies in developmental neuroscience in Amsterdam until a postdoctoral opportunity arose in Cambridge in mid-2011. Splitting his time between studying and photography, Johannes became the university’s unofficial resident photographer, frequenting theatre show shoots and the Facebook timelines of Cambridge students. Now back in Sweden, Johannes explains why he wishes he’d entered the theatre scene in Cambridge as soon as he arrived, which his favourite college is and why he’s so sad to leave.

How did you get into photography initially?
I had been interested in photography since I first started using the family camera as a kid. I started photographing using a film camera, and later moved on to digital. The photos I took while growing up were mostly of my friends and family and our dog! There were a few occasions when I went out with the sole purpose of photographing, for example on one cold winter night I went out with a borrowed tripod and stood freezing knee-deep in snow to try and capture long exposure photos of cars driving by, their head lights making trails on the photos. In Amsterdam I did the odd photoshoot with some of my colleagues, and one of the photos ended up on the cover of the British Neuroscience Association’s magazine, but it was not until I came to Cambridge that things really took off.

Why photography in Cambridge?
In Amsterdam I had been working in a large lab, but in Cambridge our group was quite small, so to meet new people I joined Phocus (the photography society). During my second year in Cambridge I helped organise events for Phocus, and also joined the PdOC committee where I became the official photographer. Fast-forward to 2014, and there was a request for a photographer for the opera Don Giovanni on the Phocus mailing list. I had started my photoblog the same year, and was more actively looking for things to photograph, so I emailed a link to my blog and offered to come and photograph their dress rehearsal. About two weeks later there was another request on the email list to photograph the dress rehearsal of Thing with Feathers at the ADC. After doing that I was hooked.

What has your relationship been like with the students of Cambridge?
I remember the first dress rehearsal I did at the ADC Theatre. I didn’t know or speak to anyone; I simply stood in front of the stage and took photos while they performed. Afterwards, I think the director or producer thanked me and asked when the photos would be ready. Over time I got to know the people at the theatre much better, which has made it a very rewarding experience. I have made many friends, and I hope to keep in touch with them.

Why did you decide to move back to Sweden?
The short answer is that my research contract ended. When I first moved abroad my intention was always to move back to Stockholm afterwards, but over the years it became less certain. In the end I did move back home, mostly because I have my family back here in Stockholm. If there had been another year on my contract then I would have loved to stay on! After my postdoc contract ended in April I stayed for two more months in Cambridge before moving back to Stockholm. During that time I photographed pretty much daily.

What will you miss most about Cambridge?
It is the people that make Cambridge what it is, and I will miss them the most. I liked all the little everyday adventures that we had. My biggest inspiration comes from the people I photograph; being immersed in the theatre society means there are both driven and creative people around you.

Whether in Stockholm or Cambridge, what is the most important part of a photo?
Every photo needs a subject, something that catches your attention and you want to capture in return. With theatre I try to anticipate what will happen and frame the photo to best capture the subject, preferably with some context to make the viewer see what I saw. I go through the photos and only keep a fraction of the ones I took. It is interesting to go back and look through old photos and see how my choice of “good photos” has changed. I have become less concerned with having everything sharp and in focus, and some photos that I previously rejected are now my favourites.

Sometimes you incorporate special effects into your photos - how much do you believe these can add?
Some photos are all about the effect, while in other cases it’s more subtle and the effect only enhances the photo. For example, you can switch the coordinate system from cartesian to polar, and create a mini-planet of a panorama, or you can photoshop out a person, leaving only their shoes and shadows. Those are examples of effect-driven photos. It is more subtle if you adjust contrast or colours to draw attention to a certain part of the photo, or if you clean up some wires or lights in the background. Finally you can use the effects as a crutch - you have a photo that failed, and you just play around with it to see what you can make. For instance, you might have a really busy photo of some acrobats, where they are lost against all the branches in the background, but by desaturating the background you make the colourful acrobats pop out.

So what’s been your favourite shoot?
This is a really tricky question, there have been a lot in the last year. My favourite location shoot was probably King’s College Chapel roof. I had been trying to get up there for a few years and had almost given up hope. But when Emily Newton and I were talking about possible locations for the poster photoshoot for BARE I suggested the chapel roof, and I have no idea how she did it, but she managed to find a fellow to take us up there.

Another favourite was the Seven Sins, partly because of how it evolved throughout the photoshoot. When we started out it was just me and Bethan Davidson, but we bumped into Flo Best and Will Bishop on the way, and our small band grew. While playing around with light and costumes, Flo suggested we should do the seven sins. It took an embarrassingly long time just to enumerate them, but then we made a plan, and even sent a runner to buy some candy and pastries for the gluttony photo. One of the things I really like about the photoshoots is the creative process, especially when everyone gets involved and we start to build on each other’s ideas.

People can find all of these shoots on your website which you treat as a diary - are you going to continue posting?
Absolutely. Before 2014 I photographed a few times each month. When I started my blog I tried to do at least one thing each week. I am finding new things to photograph in Stockholm, but I am also returning to Cambridge for short visits to photograph. I hope to make several trips during the next two years while I still know people there. My next visit is at the end of October.

Sepia or black and white?
Black and white

Outside or inside shoot?
Would a derelict building without a roof count as indoors or outdoors?

Cambridge or Stockholm?
Cambridge

Favourite college?
People - Homerton. Architecture - St John’s.

In front of the lens or behind it?
Behind the lens, but it is good to step in front of it once in a while.

Visit Johannes’s blog to keep up with his travels and work at: https://photo.johanneshjorth.se/

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