Out of the ordinary

Photography duo Aorta—Marco Grizelj and Kristian Krän—turn flea-market bargains into high-concept set dressing that has agencies and magazines lining up at the door. The pair open their studio in Gothenburg, Sweden, for a look behind the scenes at their otherworldly creations and the partnership that has led them to commercial success.

WRITTEN BY ADRIAN HATWELL

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WE ALL HAVE little worlds inside us. As children we inhabit them frequently, as adults we forget them. But those fortunate enough to grow up with their imaginations intact often make a decent living reminding the rest of us what still lurks within. Marco Grizelj and Kristian Krän, the duo behind Swedish photography studio Aorta, have engineered a career around bringing their surreal ideas to life in meticulously constructed fantasies that have advertising agencies lining up at the door.

The pair perfected their style shooting fashion editorials where they plunge viewers into dreamlike landscapes that threaten to pivot into nightmare at any second. Models pose unsteadily amidst alien foliage, shrink or grow out of proportion with the set, and find themselves in cracked-mirror domestic, public, and institutional settings.

The imagery is bold, bright, and disquieting. It is also produced with a lavishness that seems to cry out expense—an illusion cast by the photographers’ preference for time, attention, and cleverness over budget-straining excess. Building phantasmagorical sets on a real-life scale is costly, so instead they create sets in miniature, which are shot separately from the models. This gives the pair weeks to perfect an imaginary world before beginning the often-rushed and stressful single-day talent shoot.

“We collect references and do mood boards, then we go shopping for stuff in flea markets and all different sorts of shops,” explains Grizelj. “We find all kinds of little things that we think are interesting and would fit into this world.”

Once the elements are gathered, the photographers assemble the mini-set—a task that is time-intensive but fun, they say. Each set is shot in layers, with images stacked in Photoshop to ensure every element is in sharp focus, lest the miniature ruse be given away.

The division of labour between the pair is an informally equal affair.

“We are not the guys that move around with a camera in our hand and improvise,” says Krän.

“We take turns behind the camera,” adds Grizelj. “It can happen that one of us has better personal chemistry with a model, for example, and then that person maybe is more behind the camera, and the other one is more taking care of the lighting and taking care of the technical stuff and giving comments to the guy photographing.”

Working in medium format, Aorta has recently enjoyed the ability to mix flash with ambient light thanks to the Hasselblad H5D-50c, with its CMOS sensor freeing the photographers from the format’s native ISO restriction. Where once they had to shoot separate plates in order to incorporate ambient light, combining it all in Photoshop later, they are now able to capture everything in a single shot.

A RECENT ASSIGNMENT for the British edition of Wired magazine saw the pair take their set-building technique on the road for the first time. Commissioned to apply their vision to Noma, one of the world’s best restaurants, the pair were working with a level of uncertainty bordering on the gameshow-ish. They had no idea which dishes Noma would prepare for them, and so had to load up for every world-building contingency. “We really packed our car to the brim with lots of crates of many, many different things,” recalls Grizelj.

“We had a lot of minerals and feathers and balls; everything you can imagine,” adds Krän.

Their over-preparation paid off when dinner was served—chocolate-covered Finnish reindeer moss with pine salt, grilled and glazed wild Danish duck, egg yolk-marinated baby corn—and the food proved a brilliant match for their surreal leanings. Each photograph counterbalances sensual appeal with bracing strangeness.

Completing just three images took them from 9am to 8pm.

“Sometimes when you see the result, it looks like it could have been done in an hour,” muses Grizelj. “Everything is more complicated than you think it is.”

But it’s not something their client is worried about; Wired also had Aorta shoot documentary images of the restaurant in action for the same issue of the magazine, and has already commissioned them to shoot an upcoming bicycle race in France.

PHOTOGRAPHY TEAMS AREN’T a common occurrence—but Grizelj and Krän never had a strong allegiance to convention. Their tightknit partnership goes back to 1995, when the pair met at the University of Gothenburg and began to collaborate in photography class. When the time came to shoot their final exhibition for school, which saw them photographing plaster death masks in museums throughout Europe, their fate was sealed.

“We travelled through Europe for six weeks, and slept in a minivan the whole time,” recalls Grizelj with a chuckle. “So that sort of things glues people together.”

The glue has held fast over several decades, as Aorta has grown from a shared name for two graduates without a shred of industry experience, to a commercial brand highly sought-after throughout Europe. Their client list includes advertising gigs for Panasonic, Ikea, Harvey Nichols, and Absolute Vodka, and editorial assignments for publications such as Time, GQ and Elle.

Clear communication born from a shared vision is their secret to working harmoniously. “We have the same references and we agree well,” explains Krän. “If one of us has an idea we try it; if it doesn’t work out, we just keep on going. And we try to keep ourselves updated: If I see a movie I really like I recommend it to Marco, and he sees it too.”

It’s a connection that goes deeper than cinematic preferences. The pair are so in sync that, throughout our chat, one would often finish the other’s thought, or deliver the other’s punchline.

“We are not so interested in fame,” says Krän. “We are not really big in Instagram, or anything like that. It’s only the pictures for us. I think it would be different if…”

“If we had big egos,” concludes Grizelj, as both share a knowing laugh.

While the pair make creative partnerships seem simple, they are well aware of how rare their connection is. In the early days of Aorta, the brand was conceived as an umbrella for an expanding collective; in the midst of transitioning from students to professionals, they invited a number of graphic designers and other creatives to join them. But it turned out that effective communication was not an easy thing to teach, and the others went their separate ways, cementing Aorta’s membership of two.

BREAKING THROUGH FROM photography students to commercial darlings—without compromising their vision—required one thing: an agent. But the search for representation wasn’t easy in the early days of Aorta, as the pair discovered the frustrating catch- 22 of agencies that only accepted photographers with clients, while clients only hired photographers through agencies.

“There are so few agents who really trust their own opinion about something,” says Grizelj. “If they see a photographer they feel they believe in, they don’t care about whether the photographer already has clients or not. They like what they see and they sign the photographer. Those are quite rare, but we found one.”

Even so, the first eight years of business were hard going, and it wasn’t until the mid- 2000s that they reached financial stability. Now, however, their success has reached a point where they can be snowed under by agency work, especially with increasingly frequent requests to produce treatments ahead of a project.

“It’s especially irritating if they ask three or four different photographers to make treatments,” explains Krän. “Sometimes they even know you’re not going to get the job but they still want the treatment, so they can suck out the information. It takes a lot of time—if you have a lot of these jobs going on it can feel like the only thing you do is write treatments.”

As well as avoiding time-wasters, goals for the future include attracting fewer but bigger jobs, and they hope a long-overdue foray into the realm of social media will assist on that front. The endgame is to find more time for personal projects, both for artistic gratification and because this is the work, rather than past advertising campaigns, that catches the attention of creatives and agencies.

And while finding time for personal work has been a struggle, securing funding for art projects in Sweden has proved just as frustrating. The pair has experienced a certain prejudice by funders against those already engaged in commercial work. “To get a grant you have to be a starving artist, working as a mailman or in a factory and doing art in your spare time. If you earn your living through advertising you won’t get anything.”

But it’s a safe bet that they’ll find a way to make the situation work. Having recently been tapped as ambassadors for Hasselblad, the duo have been given free rein on a project in partnership with the iconic brand. They’re tight-lipped on the details, but the prospect of seeing these otherworldly explorers let loose with the full resources of Hasselblad at their disposal is entrancing.

Article originally appeared in Pro Photographer April-May 2016