“I'm capturing an image because that moment is important”
What Steven asked Rikard Österlund, photographer and educator
And now for the second and final part of our two-part interview with creative duo Zara Carpenter and Rikard Österlund. In this part, we focus on Rikard and hear what brought him to Medway and kept him here, meeting Ralph Steadman, wet plate photography and how it connects to the history of the Medway Towns.
As usual, our Sunday interviews are paywalled about halfway through. There’s a lot to get stuck into for free readers, but if you want to keep going and support our work, please consider upgrading your subscription.
Where were you born?
Rikard: Norrköping, Sweden.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
Rikard: My mom worked as a nurse for all her working life. She would do morning shifts or late shifts as I was growing up. My dad worked in a few different jobs. When I was a kid he worked in a printers, screenprinting, and then later he started a company with my uncle providing care and support for people with both physical and mental disabilities.
How did you find school and university?
Rikard: I think I found it alright, there were subjects that I really loved when I got bit older. The creative stuff. I changed schools quite a few times because we moved a lot. That probably had some sort of impact on me. School wasn't like a really bad thing, but it wasn't like I loved every minute either.
What was your first full-time job?
Rikard: I worked in Burger King, Gothenburg. It was the first time that I moved away from home. I moved to the other side of Sweden to live near my girlfriend. It was a big Burger King in the middle of town, I did a lot of late-night shifts. It was pretty good socially. I’d work nights and weekends a lot. I learnt to deal with drunk people, which is pretty good. Ate a lot of fries. It took about three showers to get rid of the smell.
Is Burger King Sweden the same as the UK?
Rikard: Yeah, absolutely no difference whatsoever.
What brought you to the Medway Towns?
Rikard: I came to study photography at KIAD (Kent Institute of Art and Design, later the University of the Creative Arts). I moved from Sweden in 2001 after comparing and reading lots of different prospectuses for different universities, I realised that it was the best photography degree.
Why did you decide to come to university in England?
Rikard: It was twofold. Partly because I wanted to not be in Sweden. I thought would be great if I could go somewhere to get better at English. Maybe it would put me in better stead when I moved back to Sweden but also the more I started looking at it, there wasn't really that many opportunities in Sweden. Here it was a vocational degree, at least that's what it was on paper.
Zara: You also loved and were inspired by art photography and fashion. You did a lot of fashion.
Zara: Which was more here than there.
Rikard: I used to buy Dazed & Confused magazine and i-D magazine in Sweden from the international press places, and they were just so totally different from Swedish photography magazines. Swedish fashion photography, at least at that time, was pretty straight. If it was a fashion shoot, then it was obvious that was a picture of some clothes, whilst when we looked at an English fashion magazine it was creative and different. I was inspired. That was definitely part of why I wanted to study here.
What kept you in the Medway Towns when the degree was over?
Rikard: When I first came over, I visited six months or so before I started the course, and I remember walking down Chatham High Street and walking into Sounds Perfect, the record store. I thought ‘This is amazing, they have a great record store, I am sold.’ I didn't take the rest of Chatham into account. I did my degree for three years and when I graduated, I got offered a job teaching at the university, and very soon after that, I met Zara. It actually started out as a weird art collaboration pick-up line, because my work, when I was at uni, was very autobiographical and Zara’s poetry was also quite personal and confessional and open. That was a good way in.
How many years ago was that?
RIkard: 18. We didn't really collaborate on anything straight away. It's just become part and parcel of life now, always helping each other out.
Zara: Yeah, our practice is completely intertwined now.
Rikard: It’s strange to think that so much time has passed.
What is your official occupation?
Rikard: Photographer and educator.
What additional roles, paid or unpaid, do you do?
Rikard: I also do some book design and graphic design. I also manage the Billy Childish Archive.
Zara: You do the prints for Ralph Steadman.
Rikard: Yeah, I do the art prints, as a service.
Zara: And you are an artist.
Rikard: Well, a photographer mainly. Maybe photographic artist is more accurate because it is without fail photography related.
How did you first start working with Ralph Steadman?
Rikard: I was invited by the Rochester Independent College to judge an art competition that they had, where the winner would become the first…
Zara: Wasn’t it a grant award?
Rikard: Yeah, it became a scholarship named after Ralph Steadman. They asked me to be on the judging panel because they didn't have anyone who could judge the more digital contemporary photography-related artwork. I was quite nervous beforehand, but as soon as I met Ralph, his wife and daughter, we just really got on and had a lovely afternoon and a laugh. It was really nice to talk about the artwork and just continued after that.
Zara: We went over very shortly after. They said you should come over and do some portraits, and I was supposed to be assisting. I went over with you and then I spent the whole day with Ralph. He was playing his ukulele and singing and showing me all the things in the studio, and I basically left Rikard to his work photographing the prints.
Rikard: I was photographing Ralph again yesterday. Pretty much exactly the same thing we did 10 years ago.
What did you recently do as part of the Dickens Festival?
Rikard: I did some tintype portrait sessions, as well as a talk and demonstration about the early history of photography, and the wet plate process. On Saturday and Sunday, I had a temporary studio setup in the Guildhall Museum where people could pre-book a portrait sitting where I would make a tintype portrait. I talk the visitors through the making of the plate, the preparatory work, the chemistry, and then I would take a portrait of them with a large, bellowed camera, with a brass lens on, a dark cloth over my head to focus, that sort of thing.
Zara: Tell him about the lens.
Rikard: The lens that I used was actually from a local portrait studio. Probably from the 1890s. It is engraved on the brass ‘The London Photography Company’, but it’s specifically for the branches they had locally: ‘Maidstone & Sittingbourne’. Through some nerdery and research, I discovered they also had a branch in New Brompton. I’ve bought some of the cards and photographs they made there which may very well have been taken with that same lens.
Zara: What amazed me was we would take a portrait about every 20 minutes, and Rikard would do the demonstration every time because he wants people to see the process. Not just take their photo, and I think that’s a really generous thing to do. It’s what he loves.
You have a project about the history of photography in Medway. What can you tell us about that?
Rikard: A few years ago I did a small exhibition, as part of the Ebb & Flow Festival that was organised in the Chatham Intra area and I started researching the local photographic history, particularly in this stretch, because I do a lot of my wet plate photography in Hulkes Lane Darkroom & Studio. When I started researching it, I realised that there were countless photographers in this area all the way through the Victorian and Edwardian times. Apart from the photographic studios, there was also a lot of early photographic invention that actually came from people who at some point lived in Medway.
Zara: The Royal Engineers was one of the first photography schools.
Rikard: They have a fantastic archive. It's such a massive archive that they don’t have the resources to digitalise. It's a real mammoth task to look through. The inventor of the wet plate process would have, at some point, come here both to see local photographer Charles Deana who had a studio here, but also to take pictures of Rochester Castle, because he exhibited many photographs of Rochester.