Maria Lax creates colorful frames in the dark of the night

“I’m fascinated by light and its lack,” says Finnish photographer Maria Lax of the duality of light that characterizes her multicolored night shots. It’s an ongoing project, though night rise has secured her a regional prize at the 2021 Fujifilm GFX Challenge. She wasted some of her precious time talking to us about the ideas behind it and how living in the Arctic Circle over many years has given her a deeper understanding of the darkness.

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For photographers like me who grew up in big cities, seeing stars at night is a rarity. There are only two deep sky locations I live in and the best is a three hour drive away. Sometimes I think it would be more exciting to take a trip to see the northern lights in Iceland or maybe star gazing in Finland. Just last month I learned that Central African Republic is one of the countries least affected by light pollution. This kind of darkness makes it suitable for night sky photography. Growing up in Finland, Maria Lax would no doubt have witnessed some stunning images of constellations in the sky. But for her latest series, she chose a different path to capture the darkness beneath and around us all. By adding a handful of vibrant colors, night rise offers an alternative perspective on the world around us in the dark. And she hopes to continue this project for years to come.

The indispensable photo equipment from Maria Lax

Mary told us:

The Phoblographer: Congratulations on the Fujifilm GFX Regional Grant Award Maria. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into photography.

Maria Lax: Thanks! I’m originally from a small town in Northern Finland, right on the Arctic Circle – but have lived in London for 11 years. I got into photography by accident. I have a degree in International Politics and Strategy with a concentration in Conflict Management and I always thought my career would be in the Army. However, through many twists and turns, I ended up in film and eventually photography.

The Photographer: Had the idea for night rise do you come from your experiences with long winter nights at home in Finland?

Maria Lax: The project started in Mexico in the summer of 2021 in collaboration with my good friend Cecilia Gonzalez Barragan who is a very talented lighting designer. We chatted during lockdown and wanted to do something connected to the natural environment. I am endlessly fascinated by light and its absence – how shapes and sounds become a mere suggestion at night and our imagination fills in the rest. In many ways, darkness frees us to explore the unknown. So yes, I think growing up in the Arctic Circle, where there is a tremendous lack of light in winter, had an impact on me and why I love the dark

The Phoblograph: We are mostly used to seeing black and dark blue nights. What gave you the idea to add some bright colors to this project?

Maria Lax: I’m glad you brought that up. For us, the night is indeed often seen through shades of blue. Where the bright colors and particularly red and pink come into play is that the human eye is actually not that well equipped to see red wavelengths, we prefer cool tones and white light. However, the downside of white and blue light is that it has a huge negative impact on wildlife and nature as it disrupts many signals from the natural world. This knowledge along with reds and pinks being a bit more unusual at night and my love for these colors were the reasons I chose specific color schemes.

The Phoblographer: When choosing locations for this series, which locations didn’t make the final list and why?

Maria Lax: This is an ongoing project that will hopefully last for years, so I hope to explore many different locations and features in the future – nothing is impossible!

I work with everything and everyone. My longest lasting workhorse camera has been the Canon 5D Mk3m with the 24-70mm 2.8 lens and I also own the Panasonic s1r. I love the Hasselblad H1 and recently I carry an Olympus XA with me everywhere.

The Phoblographer: It’s quite a varied visual series. What emotions determined the choice of subjects and setting?

Maria Lax: It is primarily driven by curiosity: What feelings does the night evoke in us and why? I love to immerse myself in the dark and let my imagination run wild – it can be an intense experience absorbing the sounds and atmosphere of the place while I’m pretty much blinded by the lack of light. Then I react to that by starting to reinvent the places by adding light and color to them.

The Phoblographer: The stories you heard as a kid about the supernatural elements of nature: Did they inspire the look and feel of night rise?

Maria Lax: I am always fascinated by the supernatural and our beliefs. I think what we believe in, what we love and what we fear can say so much about us as people and the current climate. Remember that in challenging times, supernatural experiences become more common and that’s something that’s very interesting – and supernatural and spiritual experiences often connected to nature, maybe it’s part of our desire to be part of something bigger . So all of that is also an inspiration for Night Rising.

Because I’ve worked in film and as a cinematographer, I can get involved with cameras, but in the end I can always say that whatever you give me, I’ll make it work.

The Phoblographer: Some of these shots have a cinematic feel to them. Any favorite movies of yours that inspired the look of some frames?

Maria Lax: I love Jurassic Park, Gattaca, Kurosawa and the Moomins. I’m also heavily influenced by painters like Henri Rousseau, Tove Jansson and Francis Bacon, among others – so I think my work is a mix of all these elements rather than any specific film, and each project brings them into different shapes and forms appearance forms.

The Phoblographer: In contrast to most of your commercial work where you are used to shooting with lots of light. Does photographing the mystery of darkness offer a refreshing escape from everyday life?

Maria Lax: Night shots are very meditative and transformative. I’m pretty lonely and I find nature very calming, so it’s the perfect environment for me and I just find it tremendously inspiring. But other than that I don’t like shooting in busy urban environments, I find it quite scary and unsettling. I like to be in nature and forests are my retreat.

Where I get super geeky is with lighting – it’s my first love and my comfort zone. I love pushing the boundaries of what you can do with lighting and experimenting with all kinds of different lights. I actually always use continuous light.

The Phoblographer: Even after thousands of years of evolution, we cannot escape the darkness. Why would you say people are still afraid of the dark?

Maria Lax: I believe it’s because we feel vulnerable and small and at night we realize we are a tiny part of a larger system that we don’t fully understand and can’t control. As we are unable to rely on our sight and lose the control we so desperately crave, I think we are forced to turn inward. Our own minds can be the scariest place of all, and I think that’s where fear comes from.

All pictures by Maria Lax. Used with permission. Visit her website, Instagram and Twitter Pages to discover more of her work. You can also order her latest book.

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