‘People Make Places Recognizable’

Photographer Eli Reinholdtsen tells the story behind one of her favorite pictures of Oslo.

By / July 2012

The first snow of winter came on a quiet evening in early December. I settled into the sofa to steal warmth from the fireplace and watch the flakes fall sleepily outside my window from a blanket of gray clouds.

Although my body was comfortable, my mind was not. Part of me wanted to go out to take pictures, like I had told a friend I planned to do after I heard the forecast. Another part of me reasoned it would be a long winter with endless opportunities for photographing in falling snow.

The longer I absorbed the heat, the more I reconsidered. That was until I turned on my computer and saw that my friend had posted an image of mine Twitter with a comment like “She’s out photographing RIGHT NOW! Can’t wait to see what she brings back!”

That did the trick. My procrastination turned to motivation. I got on my snow boots, gloves, scarf, hat, grabbed my umbrella and camera, then headed for the door of the apartment I share with friends.

Eli Reinholdtsen, 48, lives in Oslo, Norway.

It was just after 10 p.m. and a little below freezing when I took to the streets of my neighborhood, the fresh snow cushioning each new step. I moved slow at first, unsure where exactly to go and hoping the weather hadn’t sent everyone into hibernation. Soon, as I approached a nearby park, I noticed a couple walking their dog down the street. I rushed ahead to a barren street corner where I knew a street lamp could silhouette their bodies amid the falling stripes of snow.

About an hour later, growing tired from carrying an umbrella and walking in heavy snow, I decided to make one last stop before heading home. It was outside a building where I had lived during the 1990s with two friends. I had been back here a few times, and I knew where I wanted to stand and what angles I wanted to try out.

The night and the spot proved perfect, especially when I saw a man with a guitar on his back and a tram about to converge in the intersection. I picked a long shutter speed and panned the tram with my camera as it came and then zipped past. The resulting image highlights the falling snow against the lamps and blurs most of the background, while keeping the tram crisp and clear. The man is just that little extra. I was glad he walked into the picture and that you can follow his footsteps. If it had not been the first snowfall, you would not have seen his black steps marked on the clean white carpet because there would have been old snow underneath.

These shots are no coincidence. I collect locations and wait for the best weather. I have some that I think will work well in heavy rain or snow, and others in fog or on a plain dark evening. But even if I have the right backdrop on the right day, it is not of much value without people in the scene. That’s why you might find me walking down the same street twice in the span of 15 minutes. Or why I might run after someone off in the distance to get a closer shot.

People make places recognizable. Many of the comments on my pictures of winter say, “Anyone who has been in Oslo would know this scene.” Or, “This is typical Oslo.” We like pictures that we can put ourselves in, pictures that evoke a familiar memory or emotion. If my reality becomes their reality, then I know it’s a job well done, and the chapped lips and cold toes were worth it.


— as told to Brandon Hoops