In a world where editorial photo series and large billboards constantly ask you to buy into what they’re selling, Isabella Ståhl’s pictures simply invite you to connect – with the environment, its natural elements and the subjects within, man or beast. Having grown up in Scandinavia, the woods were her playground.
“It was my everyday life as a kid: we went on hikes, picked blueberries in the forest and went ice skating on the lakes in the winter. My friends and I used to spend hours in the woods playing. We went out after lunch and didn’t come back home until it was dark. Light has always played an important role in my photographs and might have something to do with Scandinavia, where the winters are long and dark and the summers humid and endlessly bright. When the summer finally comes I get obsessed with documenting everything, because I know the light will last for such a short period and soon it’ll go back to darkness.”
The people in her images tell stories, even if their faces are often concealed behind curtains of hair or an aura of light. The secrecy behind their unrevealed expressions and most prominent features, adds to the unwritten history and internal dialogue, rather than robbing the overall setting and sentiments of its meaning. This perspective is ever present in her 2015 photo series “Fading Haze”, where entire plots unravel behind barely recognizable silhouettes engulfed by sunny rays and the stark contrast of a bleeding finger against the cold walls beckons to question.
“Since I’m always surrounded by light and shadows I use what I have. I like to play with light, emphasize or hide subjects with different approaches to create a certain mood. Without light and sun there would be nothing left in this world and it’s important to remember that.”
You could say Isabella is a rebel in her own right. To her, photography should not be labeled by rules and technique, but by soul and feeling. This is an aspect of her professional self she quickly discovered upon moving to New York to continue her studies at the International Center of Photography in 2012.
“Studying at the ICP I was following their general program and wanted to switch to photojournalism at one point, but my head master wouldn’t let me; she said I was more of an artist. And I guess today I can understand what she meant. I have a way of doing things my way, and I don’t like rules. But I’m very versatile, and I enjoy every aspect of photography, whether it’s portraiture, landscape, travel or fashion. As long as I can be creative and do it my way.”
Having said that, Isabella may be reluctant to follow specific norms set out by an ever-evolving creative industry, but a perfectionist streak within her sets incredibly high standards.
“I’m almost always on my own when I shoot and I can’t really explain why the photos turn out the way they do. I shoot lots and lots and mostly the result is not pleasing enough and I never show it to anyone. I find it really hard to take good pictures. I have almost unnaturally high expectations for myself and sometimes that makes me feel pressured and limited. When I do capture a scene I feel attracted to I almost immediately know whether it’s going to turn out good or bad. It’s like I know what type of feeling I strive for but I can’t really express it in words, and I don’t know if I ever will be able to. I guess that’s the reason why I photograph instead of write.”
All of Isabella’s images have a calming, almost meditative effect on the viewer – especially her animal portraits. They exude gentleness and capture an exhilarating sense of freedom that is expressed through the animals’ movement and majestic, tree-lined backdrops or soothing light.
“I feel drawn to the sincerity and innocence in animals. I’ve always loved animals and don’t they say you should photograph what you love? Maybe animals express my own feelings in their actions and their way of being. Animals don’t scare me the way humans do. I can see more of myself in the animals I shoot rather than the people who pose for me. There are so many amazing creatures in this world and I really enjoy watching them. What humans do to nature and animals for their own satisfaction is horrible, and I feel like I want to celebrate our environment rather than focus on shooting people. At least for now.”
Isabella currently resides in Paris and although she reaps the benefits of a cosmopolitan city, it is not where she feels home. The concept of home has become warped in her many moves around the world. She is a nomad soul who best connects to her roots when treading the wooded lands of any country, though she has not yet found a place she feels can anchor her. For now, she has adopted the world as her playground and as for her photographs – a selection of them has found a home at the Humble Arts Foundation in New York amongst the 2016 Winter Pictures.