Some Kind of Heavenly Fire. Interview with photographer Maria Lax

Maria Lax is a very talented Finnish photographer who has recently released a photography book called Some Kind of Heavenly Fire. The book has a fascinating subtext tying into mysteries and secrets.

Below is my interview with Maria. Thanks for taking the time!

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Photo: Maria Lax

Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!

I’m a London based photographer originally from a small town in Northern Finland. In my work I blend reality and fantasy, and tend to add a tinge of nostalgia in everything I photograph. 

You studied cinematography at London Film School. Which cinematographers do you find the most inspiring and interesting?

Ah, that’s a tough question. I’m a huge fan of Hoyte van Hoytema, Kate Arizmendi and one of my all time favorites must be Rob Hardy. Whatever he shoots, always looks perfect for the story yet has it’s own unique and recognizable style. 

Is there any one specific film that has cinematography that you find particularly interesting?

I really enjoy Embrace of the Serpent, and the bold choice to shoot the film mainly in black and white. The Amazon is usually a synonym for intense greens and bright colours, so I found that watching the film set in the jungle in black and white is hugely powerful. It is a beautiful, mesmerising film. 

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When you’re creating a new photograph, what comes first, a theme or a visual idea? Or are you even able to make such a distinction?

I tend to approach my projects like I would making a film. For long term projects I do quite a bit of background research, reading, going to locations and speaking to people and so on. Then I will write a synopsis or some sort of an outline for the project, setting out the storyline and the goal for the photos. I find that all this helps whilst I shoot the images because I have something that I can refer back to if I feel like I’m getting lost with the visuals or get a bit bored of the work – that can happen when you work on something for a long time. For commercial projects and smaller projects, the background research is not usually quite as heavy but I still shot list carefully, do a lighting plan and plan as much as possible so when I am on the shoot, I can just focus on being in the moment. 

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Photo: Maria Lax

What kinds of themes do you explore with your work? Is there any one specific “pervasive” theme that cuts through all your work?

In my work I try to blend fiction and fact so that I find the emotional truth of each subject. I’m hugely interested in folklore, myths and stories passed on from generation to another, and supernatural events. But also, I moved around a lot as a kid so I suppose there is always an element of exploring the themes of loneliness, but also the concept of belonging and home. I think photographers are often outsiders and I find that about my work too; often it is being on the outside looking in. 

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Photo: Maria Lax

What kind of gear do you shoot with? Do you have a favorite camera model?

Currently I own a range of 35mm and medium format film cameras, a Panasonic Lumix S1R and a Canon 5D mk3. However, I don’t massively care about the latest camera models with highest resolution or best dynamic range, but I will always pick a camera based on what is best for the project and it could be anything from an iPhone to medium format. 

Your use of light in your photos is mesmerizing. How do you light your photographs? How much post-production work do you do on the pictures? 

I like to work with continuous lighting and usually plan it carefully. I use a huge range of gels and also sometimes filters on my camera. But that’s these days – when I was working on Some Kind of Heavenly Fire I was utilising small battery operated lights for extra kick, and used a lot of long exposure so that I could get the most out of available light sources. I was working by myself in remote and often freezing cold locations so doing complicated setups would’ve been very difficult. In terms of post production, it’s the part that I enjoy the least. I don’t like to spend time looking at my laptop for longer than necessary so I try to shoot images as close to the final look as I can, and do most of my effects in-camera. 

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Photo: Maria Lax

Your book, Some Kind of Heavenly Fire, is an interesting photographic “mystery” of sorts. Can you tell us a bit about your book? How did it come about? 

I’m from a small town in Northern Finland that’s surrounded by a vast, sparsely populated wilderness. Most pass through the town on their way someplace else, without ever knowing it was a hotspot for UFO sightings in the 1960’s. I didn’t know about this myself but I stumbled upon a book a few years back that my granddad had written about the subject in the 1970’s. By the time I discovered the book he was already suffering from dementia and was unable to answer any of the questions I had – so I went looking for the answers. I went knocking on the door of the people who were featured in the book, and what I found were incredible stories. So my book is an exploration of the supernatural sightings, history of the town and my own family history using my own photography, newspaper cuttings and family archive.

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What are your future plans?

A lot of my plans, like those for the rest of the world got put on hold because of the current covid-situation; but I am hoping to start shooting my next book in the few coming weeks. It has a connection to Finland but this time it will be a very different story and setting to Some Kind of Heavenly Fire. Aside from that, I am hoping to shoot more interesting commercial projects and develop as a photographer. And perhaps there is a film project on the cards too… 

Where can people keep up with your work?

You can find me on instagram – @maria_lax_ , and also on my website although that doesn’t get updated nearly as regularly as it should… 

And finally, my regular questions.

Your top 3 films?

Jurassic Park, Being John Malkovich, Gattaca, Embrace of the Serpent. (I know that’s 4 but I couldn’t cut any of those out!) 

Your top 3 books?

Not so much a top 3 because it changes very often. I mainly read non-fiction and because I studied conflict resolution before moving into arts, it’s usually a very current affairs and history heavy what is on my bedside table at any given time! Recent books that made an impression were A Private War, about Marie Colvin, The Forever War by Dexter Filkins and Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling. 

Your top 3 albums?

Paul Simon’s Graceland has been with me since I was a child, and as we moved from one country and place to another it was the soundtrack of home – wherever home was at any given time. I’m a huge Nick Cave & Warren Ellis fan, so could be anything from them but perhaps The Assassination of Jesse James soundtrack has been with me the most when I’ve been driving around photographing locations at night. And what I listen to a lot currently is Ethiopiques 21, amazing music by Emahoy TseguĂ©-Maryam Guèbrou. 

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