Situated in central Sweden, isolated from the outside world by dense forests, rugged mountains and deep lakes, Älvdalen is a small town steeped in myth and mystery. Home to a small community of 2,000 people, it is the last stronghold of the ancient language of Elfdalian. Derived from Old Norse, Elfdalian is a North Germanic language that has a rich history dating back to the Middle Ages. Since that time, it has developed in relative isolation, and today is kept alive only by Älvdalen’s dwindling population.
The native language of her grandparents, photographer Maja Daniels was never herself taught to speak it due to “the stigma that haunted previous generations”. Spending much of her youth at their cabin by the river in Älvdalen, Maja has fond memories of her time there. Coupled with the mystery of a language that was never passed down to her, she was drawn back to the area out of curiosity, and a desire to know more.
“I moved from Sweden to Paris at 18 years old, where I lived for a while, before relocating to London. I had been living away from Sweden for 11 years when I made the decision to move back to my grandparents’ cabin to make this work,” she tells It’s Nice That. “It became my permanent residence in 2016 when I entered a more intense stage of research for the project. As I began immersing myself in it, I became interested in exploring the cultural value of a language and how the act of speaking reproduces a specific worldview. I wanted to engage with these notions visually as a way of creating a personal connection to the questions.”
Paying her way by teaching Swedish to asylum seekers just outside of Älvdalen, Maja invested all of her spare time into laying the groundwork for Elf Dalia. It was during this period of investigation that she came across the archive of a local legend: Tenn Lars Persson. “Tenn Lars, a photographer from the early 1900’s, spent a lot of time travelling around the local villages in and around Älvdalen, collecting stories about folklore, superstition, old spirits and other types of pagan, mythic and supernatural beliefs,” she says. “He was also a resident of Älvdalen and a self-taught electrician, optician, inventor, photographer and a scientist. In many ways, he was a wizard of his time.”
Also a proponent of natural magic that involved astrology, alchemy, the occult and the hidden power of plants, animals and stones, Tenn Lars’s work is both an extension of his interests and a documentation of his local community. Building his own cameras and photographic lenses, as well as a telescope to capture and study the moon, his oeuvre provides an insight into life in Älvdalen a century ago. “His images depict his relation to mystery and the unknown – both in terms of superstition and myth, but also in relation to the moon and science,” Maja tells us. “Tenn Lars’s sense of close community, photographed with a unique eccentricity, also evokes a strong feeling of wonder – the very same notions that attracted me to Älvdalen 100 years later.”
Fascinated by this archive of precious material, Maja decided to strengthen her connection with Tenn Lars’s work by interweaving it with her own. In an attempt to initiate a visual dialogue with these old photographs, she applied a new-found approach to her project that saw her engage with, and respond to her findings: ”One of the key functions of including the archive within this body of work is to highlight a 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.”
In doing so, and coupled with a response to her surroundings, Maja says she was encouraged to reconsider the photo as a physical object, and the form of the book that the series would eventually become. Now fully exposed to nature and the elements on a regular basis (walking through snow storms and washing in the cold river), her perspective on time changed:
“I realised time is everywhere: in the constant flow of the river, in the wind and in the changing seasons. Naturally, I wanted to allow for time to enter into the photographs as well. I started playing around with and thinking about the act of photographing, using extremely long exposures and inviting elements such as light to impact the final result. I under and overexposed images, and I would allow for light-leaks to affect the photographs, 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.”
When thinking about how to communicate her ideas through the medium of a book, the mixing of the content and the form became increasingly important to Maja. She chose to structure Elf Dalia in a way that presented the combination of Tenn Lars’s work with her own as a conversation; a few of her images becoming a sentence and a few of his images in turn responding. “Together they express something that is related to my own fantasies about what an ‘Elfdalian worldview’ might behold. I am engaging in a conversation with someone who (I believe) had similar intentions with his own work 100 years earlier.”
In an attempt to convey the concept of language as “a way of relating to what a “magical experience” could mean or be in the contemporary world”, Maja has chosen in this project to view magic as something less concerned with mysticism and the supernatural, and more about “an emotional relationship with place through notions of ancestry, folk beliefs and myths”. Marrying her own contemporary work with that of Tenn Lars’s, Maja says she has “carved out a timeless space whereby mystery, strange events and humour can co-exist, and where we can think of a ‘magical experience’ as creative expression – a sort of language.”
Elf Dalia is published by Mack Books.
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.