Vintage Christmas

It’s shining bright in quiet little villages…

Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American

Since I live in a region of the country that is hot and humid, one can understand why I enjoy looking at winter photographs. And because I am interested in early photography, the work of foremost Norwegian photographer, Anders Beer Wilse, is always a treat to view. Wilse was born in 1865 in Flekkefjord and raised in Kragerø on the east coast of Norway between Larvik and Arendal in Telemark County. I once stopped in Arendal and ate fiskekaker by the water when I visited the region on my way to Tonstad, not far from Flekke­fjord, to do research on another Norwegian photographer, Ole S. Leeland. 

My interest in Wilse’s work led me to the book, Anders Beer Wilse Photography: Life of a Young Norwegian Pioneer, published by Astri My Astri Publishing in 2015. This bilingual edition of Wilse’s writings deals mainly with his time in the United States. He arrived in 1884 and worked for the U.S. Geological Survey before opening a photography store in Seattle in 1897. In addition to the Pacific Northwest, he worked in Yellowstone, captured the Alaskan Gold Rush, interacted with Native Americans in Montana, and observed railway surveying along Puget Sound and the Great Northern line in the Cascade Mountains. He also documented a reindeer herd brought to Seattle in 1898 on the way to Alaska to aid gold miners. About 100 Norwegian Samí came to care for the herd while it was housed in Woodland Park. His photographs of Seattle were used to promote land development in the region and to entice new settlers. Then, around 1900, he and his family moved to Norway where he opened a store in Christiania in 1901. He was a prolific photographer and traveled extensively in Norway, both on and off assignment. He photographed not only nature but also people at work and play, including workers in the fishing industry in Lofoten. His business was a resounding success. He also acquired the entire archive of Axel Lindahl, who had photographed Norway in the 1880s and 1890s.

Wilse became one of Norway’s most famous photographers, working until his death in 1949. Today, the University of Washington Libraries’ Special Collections owns about 100 of his photographs. In 2015, to celebrate his work, the Norwegian postal service issued four stamps in his honor, including a souvenir sheet with an image of a group of young women from Setesdal wearing bunads on the way to church in 1934, and a set of three stamps depicting, respectively, three fishermen of Lofoten in 1910, each holding a large cod, the landscape of Kyrkja mountain in Lom in 1933, and a view toward Vår Frelsers Church on the Oslo avenue Grensen in 1924.

More recently, I became interested in a book published just before last Christmas, Det lyser i stille grender: Fotograf Wilses forunderlige livsverk, with text by Håvard Mossige, published by Vigmostad Bjørke (www.vigmostadbjorke.no). The images in the book relate to Christmas, winter sports, occupations, and other winter themes. Even though I cannot read the Norwegian text, I can make out enough that the images are a delight to view. And once in a while I am treated to an image like Santa Claus in his sleigh drinking a Coca-Cola. Also, I learned from the book that Wilse’s images made up the motifs on a series of 5-øre stamps in 1914. Until that time, heads of state were the principal motif on Norwegian stamps. These vernacular photographs teach us so much about life and the lifestyle of the time. If you are interested in the history of Norway or the history of photography in Norway, then this book should interest you. I know that Mossige is working on a second volume for this upcoming Christmas, and I believe the first volume will be reissued as well. 

[Editor’s note: Vigmostad Bjørke has, in fact, published a follow-up collection by Mossige this year, called Nu tænder moder alle lys.]

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.

This article originally appeared in the November 15, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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