Wisdom and Whimsy

These artists’ portraits draw out people’s connection with the natural world.

Posing for artists Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen, the dynamic Nordic duo behind the portrait photography project Eyes as Big as Plates, can be a unique — and often physically challenging — experience. It might involve spending several hours tummy-down on a hill covered in grasses and wildflowers. Or submerged in cold Tasmanian waters, giant ropes of bull kelp wrapped around your head. Or perhaps sitting on a rocky beach, your torso caked in clay and your galoshes submerged in a muddy puddle. But it almost certainly pays off: The resulting stunning images invite viewers to ponder their relationship to the natural world.

The portrait project was initially born of Ikonen’s interest in folklore. She wanted to investigate folktales in a coastal city in Norway and enlisted Hjorth — who had ample experience photographing grandmothers — in the effort. Reasoning that older people would be closer to these stories, the two set off to photograph older adults as mythical figures and natural phenomena (think: the north wind or marsh gas). But before long, the project evolved to explore broader themes around people’s connection with the world around them, and these days, they are increasingly photographing those engaged in addressing the climate emergency.

“We continued to interview people about their relationship with their surroundings, and started wondering what’s happening with people’s imagination,” Hjorth said in a 2020 TED Talk. “Can our relationship to nature really be explained so pragmatically, so entirely boringly, so that a rock is just a good old straightforward rock, and a lake is just a basic wet place, entirely separate from us?”

Each portrait in the ongoing series captures a person steeped in nearby nature, sometimes virtually camouflaged in their surroundings. The artists see every work as a collaboration with the person they are photographing. Their collaborators — whom they prefer to meet by chance at, say, a noodle bar or the pool — weigh in on where Hjorth should photograph them and what natural materials Ikonen should sculpt on them.

More Online: See more from this series at eyesasbigasplates.com

Since embarking on the collaboration in 2011, Hjorth and Ikonen have photographed some 150 people, including farmers, fishers, cosmologists, and opera singers, across more than a dozen countries. They relish, in particular, the opportunity to showcase their collaborators’ adventurous spirits. “We have the honor of working with some of the toughest and bravest and coolest people around and thoroughly enjoy how some of our works and portraits stomp on stereotypes about age, gender, and nationality,” Ikonen says.

Their works certainly do that, and more, capturing the strength and wisdom of their collaborators and the beauty of their surroundings, often with a sense of whimsy.

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