Maja Daniels’ newest book, Elf Dalia, is a deeply intriguing enigma. The storylines throughout the work seem to float, the protagonists shapeshift, and the interlaced archival images contribute to the construction of an entirely new history. The book describes Älvdalen, a Swedish valley where an ancient version of the Vikings’ Old Norse is spoken. The survival of the language, called Elfdalian, seems to allude to the town’s isolation. But the images in the book provide a rich and complicated characterization of Älvdalen’s relationship to the outside world, which is certainly not one of seclusion.
Daniels photographed in Älvdalen from 2012-2017, during which she discovered the work of Tenn Lars Persson, a photographer and collector of local history and mystical lore prevalent in Älvdalen who lived from 1878 to 1938. When Daniels came across his images in a local archive, she was transfixed, and felt an intense connection to his peculiar vernacular work. Tenn Lars Persson’s images are woven throughout the book, sometimes alongside Daniels’, offering a skewed and compelling record of a mysterious place.
Fictionalized and poetic projects of place have a deep history in photography, but what makes Elf Dalia stand starkly against the backdrop of similarly pseudo-anthropological work is the book’s refusal to be overtly mythologizing—it’s self-aware, but without irony. There are images in the book where one can even see the Kodak-printed backing of Daniels’ light-leaked film—there is little pretence for Älvdalen’s reality.
Dylan Hausthor: I would love to know more about the process of photographing for Elf Dalia. Do you have roots in Älvdalen? Do you speak Elfdalian?
Maja Daniels: Älvdalen is a piece of what I call home. A large part of my youth was spent there, in a small cabin by the river that became my permanent residence in 2016 when I entered a more intense stage of making this work, engaging with the mysteries surrounding the language Elfdalian, which is the native language of my grandparents. The language has been kept alive despite the community’s lack of isolation (and the neighboring communities’ inability to understand it), which makes it very mysterious for linguists. But the language also represents a personal mystery for me, as I was never taught how to speak it because of its stigma, which haunts previous generations.
DH: Can you tell me a bit more about the history of the language, and its close bond with its place, Älvdalen?
MD: Älvdalen has a rich local history, and Elfdalian has preserved its links to Old Norse. This is something that has fascinated and perplexed linguists and historians for years. Älvdalen is also the place where the Swedish witch-hunts kicked off in 1668, when 19 girls and one man were accused of performing witchcraft. They were all found guilty and were executed—beheaded and then burned. The first girl who was accused of being a witch was Gertrud from Älvdalen. She was accused of walking on water.
Historical events highlight a strong local resistance in Älvdalen (the “witch-hunts” were the result of the Swedish state attempting to control its smaller communities through the authority of the church), and the language clearly played a significant part in this resistance. When I thought about how resistance is often misrepresented in the history books, I was inspired to begin this work. However, it should not be read as an attempt to depict a place or community at a specific point in time. The way I have chosen to work is mainly influenced by my own fantasies and desires in relation to this history, as well as including my own thoughts about what a language does to a place and how it affects a community.
DH: How did you encounter the work of Tenn Lars Persson, and why did you decide to include some of his work in this project?
MD: As I began working in the region, I came across the archive of photographs made by “Tenn Lars” Göran Lars Albert Persson, and was amazed by it. The Local Heritage Foundation in Älvdalen takes care of what he left behind, which is almost 5000 glass plates, along with photographs he made in the early 1900s.
Tenn Lars was interested in what can be described as natural magic—knowledge around astrology and alchemy, but also the occult, such as the hidden power of plants, animals and stones. Despite only five years in school, he also taught himself to become an electrician, optician, inventor, photographer and scientist. In many ways, he was a wizard of his time. He brought electricity to Älvdalen, and would invite locals to attend lectures in his workshop, where he would demonstrate how certain things worked, speaking about the solar system and the magnetic power of the moon. He crafted his lenses and cameras himself. He also constructed a telescope in order to study and photograph the moon.
Tenn Lars’ work gives us a glimpse into Älvdalian life in the early 1900s, but more importantly, it gives us remarkable insight into his own rumination and interests. His images depict his relationship to mystery and the unknown—both in terms of superstition and myth, but also in relation to the moon and to science. Persson’s work evokes a strong sense of wonder and mystery, which are the very same notions that compelled me to start making work in the region. I felt a deep connection to his images, and an urge to initiate a dialogue with them in order to reinforce the unique and mysterious eccentricity that pushed me to start making work in Älvdalen, and to create a distinct non-linear, timeless space within the work.
DH: What did your daily life look like while you were making this work?
MD: While making this work, I spent three years living in a small cabin by the river. Making the transition from London to a life that is so immersed in the elements, and witnessing the seasons change in such a direct manner, affected my way of thinking about time. I wanted that feeling to be present in the process of making photographs. I started playing around with the act of photographing, using extremely long exposures, inviting the elements (mainly light by under- and over-exposing images, as well as wind) to impact the final images. I also allowed light-leaks to affect the exposed images, letting go of some of the control, but also creating a symbolic parallel between the fragility of a photographic negative and a language that is at the brink of disappearing. I tend to use nature in a more metaphorical way to express emotions of mystery, wonder or loss.
DH: How did working with the medium in this way affect your perception of and relationship to photography?
MD: Thinking about the materiality of photography and how to incorporate time and the elements into my pieces reinforced my connection to the work of Tenn Lars. The way that he was interested in natural magic and how he approached it—mixing astrology, scientific experimentations with electricity and photography, as well as engaging with the old myths—fascinated me. Suddenly it seemed absolutely logical to me that the gravity of the moon could have an impact on my life in the same way that it used to play an important part in people’s everyday lives, as well as in witchcraft. It was common knowledge that tasks such as fishing or chopping wood would have different results depending on how the moon was positioned in relation to Earth.
Photography is an ideal medium for asking questions and engaging with mysteries. The limited amount of information that we are given forces an active engagement—of our imagination, personal experiences, etc.—in order to fill in the blanks. My discovery of Tenn Lars’ work happened while I was in the process of considering how to engage with the photographic medium in ways that could open up new thoughts. And so to “activate” parts of Tenn Lars’ archive—to place it in a new context—seemed like a very interesting strategy to explore.
DH: Even though your images were made in entirely different time periods, your photographs are woven together with Tenn Lars Persson’s in a way that makes it feel like a true collaboration—it seems like you have similar points of view. Do you identify with him as an artist and documentarian?
MD: Yes, I really do. It was because of the connection I felt to Tenn Lars and his work that allowed for the work to take this shape. I was not simply inspired or moved by his work—the connection I felt went further. I needed to enter into some sort of conversation with it.
“Photography is an ideal medium for asking questions and engaging with mysteries. The limited amount of information that we are given forces an active engagement—of our imagination, personal experiences, etc.—in order to fill in the blanks.”
Also, the inclusion of the archival images in the book serve the purpose of preventing the work from being read as a documentary-based piece. Despite the focus on one community and its local history, this is not an observation of one place at a specific point in time. This is a very personal narration based on imagination, emotion and desire.
When I give these archival images a new context, I am restaging the act of looking at them, and I find it provides an interesting way of reinforcing both presence and absence, making different layers of meaning and allowing the viewer to employ their own imagination in relation to ideas about the past and what an archive should do.
DH: What was the process of putting a book together like for this work? How did it feel compared to preparing it for a wall?
MD: I have always thought of Elf Dalia as a book. Because of my attempt to create a conversation between the works of Tenn Lars and my own within a specific performative space (things happening in the sequence) or scope of time, the intimate viewing that a book provides is crucial. It also expanded into an exhibition, but I see that as an extension of the book. I spent a long time working on the image selection and sequencing. Tenn Lars left behind an archive of almost 5000 glass plates, and I spent years photographing, so I had a lot of material to go through. When I had something finalized, I gathered some courage and went to see Michael Mack with my dummy.
DH: I’m so glad you did. One of the most compelling things about this project is how the historical and the contemporary are mixed together. You don’t shy away from including things in the images that put the work in a very specific time—like a 90s Volvo, bright blue boxer shorts, or a litany of Santa Claus masks. I wonder how you feel Älvdalen is connected to the outside world? Did you find it insulated?
MD: The initial mystery around the language still being spoken—despite the lack of isolation in the community—was what sparked my interest in making this work. Älvdalen is not and has never been isolated from the outside world. There is something else at play here that has made the language prevail. I find that fact thrilling, and it became my entry point into this work.
DH: You have spoken about being inspired by the contemporary struggle between modern living and tradition. How does this struggle manifest itself in Älvdalen?
MD: One of the key functions of including the archive within this body of work is to highlight connection—not just to a past, but also to a future. This is something the younger generations in Älvdalen are forced to confront, since they are directly responsible for the survival of their language today.
Tenn Lars was one of the founders of the Local Heritage Foundation that had the ambition to collect local knowledge, as well as protect the language, and this is work that is ongoing. Globalization and urbanization affect the Älvdalen youth who, despite a love for their hometown, struggle with the scant opportunities on offer, and who are often forced to leave the community in order to pursue their studies or to find jobs.
Similarly, when thinking about tradition or language, preservation is problematic, and is not such a straightforward concept, because as soon as something is preserved, it is also restricted from evolving. A language is a living, evolving thing that needs to evolve to be kept alive, and the same goes for tradition—it changes all the time. This creates a sort of complex tension that I find interesting and inspiring.
DH: Before we finish, I wonder if there is anything about Älvdalen that felt unphotographable?
MD: I don’t think so, when it comes to picturing abstract concepts I think the only limit is one’s imagination.