“It's like a fairytale coming alive in front of your eyes.” Images of winter magic from Europe’s frozen north

Northern Scandinavia has its admirers at all times of year. But in winter, it gains a mystique that brings cold-proof travellers flocking. Here, a local shares the spectacle – and eccentricities – of being a photographer north of the Arctic circle.

Photographs By Stian Klo
Published 19 Feb 2021, 12:18 GMT
The aurora borealis unfolds above the boreal forest in northern Finland. Photographer Stian Klo: “When it happens, and ...

The aurora borealis unfolds above the boreal forest in northern Finland. Photographer Stian Klo: “When it happens, and its fast, you forget about the -30 degrees Celsius and frozen fingers and toes.”

Photograph by Stian Klo

ICY fingers have been massaging the UK in recent weeks. Temperatures reached -23 degrees Celsius in Braemar, the coldest pocket of Scotland, on the 10th February – the lowest for 26 years. But even in the whitest season, there are elements of the northern winter our modest latitude and mild ocean current can’t compete with. For some, that’s a good thing; but for others, winter is the time when the landscape is at its best. And there are few locations in the world that demonstrate why quite as dramatically as northern Scandinavia. (Related: Britain's deep freeze in pictures.)

It’s a landscape at times so ethereal it has fed a concentrated mythology and lent itself to more than a few famous flights of fantasy. Norse legend, its literary sagas and more recently a slew of fantastical worlds – notably the realms of Arendelle from Disney’s Frozen, which opens as a musical in London this year – are all conjurings thick with the wintery mystique of the landscapes of Norway, Finland, Sweden and the mountainous island of the high Arctic, Svalbard. (The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)

Photographer Stian Klo, who was born in northern Norway and lives in Harstad on the northwestern coast, has made a career of capturing the landscapes of this wild fringe of the continent. Here, he talks about living – and working – through winter, including the period known as ‘polar night’, where the sun doesn’t rise for a month.

A lot of people dread the winter. Where you live and photograph, the darkness and cold is even more dramatic…

I'm 41 years old and it still baffles my mind. It simply doesn't make sense for your brain at first, not even after four decades. I've heard some compare winter to being addicted to something, and it being cut-off overnight. Not only are we deprived of sunlight, but also vitamin D – so you are constantly tired because your brain thinks its night-time. You hear of social and mental problems associated with the winter; I think it's one of those things you either love or hate.

(Read: It's cool to be cold: confessions of frigid weather fanatics.)

The lights of Reine, on Moskenesøya, in the Lofoten archipelago, with its backdrop of dramatic mountains. Stian Klo: “Reine is probably the crown jewel of Norwegian tourism in the last couple of years. No wonder really – talk about living close to nature. A spectacularly beautiful place.” 

Photograph by Stian Klo

A scene on the peak of Krokelvtinden, on the island of Senja. Stian Klo: “I've been frequenting this particular location for the last five years, but only had perfect "whiteout" conditions on this one day. Having been back several times, I knew exactly which tree I wanted to include in the frame. Less is more!”

Photograph by Stian Klo

“If you’re able to find the balance in this landscape, the result can capture the true soul of living up in the high Arctic. Winter is by far my most productive and motivating season to work in.”

Stian Klo

Personally, I love it for numerous reasons, but I'm one of those that prefer the cold! I am more relaxed, I sleep a lot better – that’s a nightmare during midnight sun [in summer] – and there's a feeling of tranquillity all around. It's almost like people slow down a few notches and go into cosy-mode, lighting up their fireplaces, playing outside in the snow and decorating their houses with what we call "polar night lights" - which basically means we begin Christmas decorations a bit early!

A lot of people reference Norway as a beacon when it comes to coping with winter. Do you think the winter as a mindset is rooted in the culture?

All the legends and sagas – history even – from this part of the world seems to have some sort of winter angle. I guess life up north is always associated with harsh winters, not only Scandinavia, but North America and Russia too. Personally, I think people in Alaska and Siberia, to mention just two places, have it much harder than us. Their winters are more stable and predictably cold, whilst ours can be milder – meaning we might get a few more raging winter storms and blizzards.

A cloud system circulates over a house in Fredvang, Lofoten. Stian Klo: “There are lots of abandoned houses in Lofoten, although this might be a summer house of sorts.”

Photograph by Stian Klo

An ice cave near Longyearbayen, on the Norway-governed archipelago of Svalbard – located at 78°N. Stian Klo: “this ice gave is inside a glacier. If you have claustrophobia, do not enter - it's dark, narrow, there are sudden creaky sounds, it's surprisingly warm. But it's a photographer's paradise!” 

Photograph by Stian Klo

A sunrise in Svalbard. Stian Klo: “Svalbard holds a special place in my heart. 60% of the landmass is covered by glaciers - so wintery scenes like this are not hard to find. This image was actually shot a few days after the midnight sun [a period when the sun doesn't set] returned in April.” 

Photograph by Stian Klo

We love this kind of weather though, so you'll never hear us complain about -40 degrees Celsius, snowed-in roads and whiteouts. It's awesome to live so close to the elements and see what Mother Earth throws at us. That said, I remember an Easter vacation a few years back; an insane winter storm hit us and all ferries were cancelled. This is normally not a problem because you can always drive around the fjords, but then both potential roads out were hit by avalanches, blocking our exit and even our access to the grocery store. That was 5 long days of mostly shovelling snow and watching the news! 

(Related: Spending winter in Earth's most isolated research stations.)

How much do the seasons change your perception of the place you live in? Does it feel like a different country?

Completely. Norway in summer, especially up north, is full of life, colourful and bright. The midnight sun goes on from late May till late July - meaning that there's sunlight 24/7, which again doesn't make sense to your brain. It wants to stay up and go about its things, but your body is screaming for sleep. 

Wildlife and the local flora thrives in this environment and the forests and mountains are full of it. It's like hitting a switch, and swoosh - every hillside, flower and tree bursts into life - a short-lived but vivid display of colours. But photographically, this period has always been my least favourite, mainly because of the odd working hours; you have to work at night and relax during daytime in order to utilise the soft and golden light when the sun is at the lowest above the horizon. Shooting during daytime is simply not possible – the sun is at its zenith and the shadows are horrible!

(Related: why seasonal effective disorder can happen in the summer, too.)

Photographically, what do you like about the darkness – and the behaviour of the sun in the weeks around it?

Winter is really challenging in terms of the cold and lack of ambient light, but when everything aligns you are treated with the most pristine snow-capped landscape. It's a vast, frozen canvas devoid of contrast – and if you are able to find the balance in this landscape, the result can be unique and capture the true soul of living up in the high Arctic. It is by far my most productive and motivating season to work in. The snow is creeping down from the mountaintops, everything is frozen and it's like a fairytale coming alive in front of your eyes. I find the landscape more powerful and monumental in the winter – almost brutally beautiful, if that's a way to describe it.

[When winter is coming] it feels like someone has pulled the plug and the light is just disappearing. Due to the fact that we are so far north, the angle of the earth to the sun means we are on the receiving end of the polar light, that very subtle and pinky-magenta hue. When you add that to the snow-capped landscape, with its blue-hour ambient light, you get this perfect colour palette. Add the moon, northern lights to the equation and you understand why we choose to live where we live. Having kids now myself, I feel the same 'magic' I felt when I was a kid - and I hope I can pass on my love for this and the experience with them. People up here consider ourselves, proudly so, as "Children of the Arctic". 

Stian Klo is a photographer based in Norway. Find out more about his work here.

Frozen: The Musical opens in London in 2021.  

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