Exposing Hidden Light, Hidden Stories

By Jenny Carless

For an inquisitive photographer, Norway offers dramatic landscapes and unique social and geopolitical dynamics—something documentary and editorial photographer Dan Mariner is making the most of to advance his thriving career.

Having traveled extensively, Mariner now lives in the north Norwegian city of Bodø, 125 miles (200 km) inside the Arctic Circle. In such northern latitudes, the seasons are pronounced, so each time of year brings a different quality of light. 

“Norway provides an incredible arena in which to pursue my interest in landscapes,” Mariner says. “I’m drawn to the vast and visceral nature of the land and the changeability of the light conditions. With almost total darkness in winter and 24-hour sunlight in summer, you can imagine the unique conditions these scenarios present.”

Of course, one needs the skill and interests to work with these gifts. Mariner’s style—with his emphasis on landscape and portraiture—fits the bill on both counts.

“Editors tell me that they like my consistency, methodical approach, and understanding of natural light,” he says.

Surprisingly, Mariner didn’t pick up a camera until the age of 18.

“I only converted to this interest after studying media during my secondary education and discovering that I had a natural aptitude for it,” he says.

He describes his documentary photography course at the Magnum-affiliated Newport University in Wales as “a trial by fire.” “The feedback sessions were harsh and honest—hard to take at the time, but they gave me an invaluable skillset,” he says.  

In 2016, Mariner’s first major body of work, Drake’s Folly, received a good deal of exposure. Editors began to call, and he has worked as a freelance photographer ever since.

A Particular Point of View

Mariner’s interest in anthropology and society naturally focuses his work on people, places, and subjects that are sometimes hidden from view. For example, Drake’s Folly focused on a particular turning point in the oil and energy industry and its critical role in shaping our planet. Other projects also bring to light largely unseen lands and lifestyles.

The series Drake’s Folly focuses on the towns and landscape of Northern Pennsylvania, which enjoyed a brief oil boom in the 19th century. 

From his years of experience, Mariner offers several tips for anyone interested in pursuing a career in photography:

1. Stay true to yourself and your values as an image maker. Develop your own style and approach if you want to become recognized.

2. Get a camera setup that works for you and get to know it inside and out. Once you master the technical side of your practice, you don’t have to think about it in a high-pressure environment.

3. For documentary photography, you must master several elements to be successful:

  • Understanding the lighting conditions is crucial. The difference that a well-lit set of images makes to a project is invaluable.
  • Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone and engage not only with your subjects but also with people you need help from—such as with contacts and other arrangements.
  • Practice patience. You’ll always run into challenges; having the patience to reshoot and pursue a difficult subject is critical. 

Harsh landscapes are part of what appealed to Dan Mariner about Frontier Food, a recent assignment from Norwegian Airlines magazine.

Uncovering Hidden Stories

The relevance of Mariner’s advice is evident in his own work—such as his photos for a recent series, Frontier Food, commissioned by Norwegian Airlines magazine to document the high-end food scene on the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. The series illustrates the challenges chefs face—from simply operating in such a harsh environment to the logistics of gathering, preserving, and storing food (including seal, whale, eider duck, cod, trout, berries, mushrooms, reindeer, and moss).  

One of Mariner’s favorite images from this series is a photo of a dish of cheese and moss balls.

In this dish from the restaurant Huset, the cheese and moss are coated in ash, with charred leeks, served on a lump of coal from the mine next to the restaurant. 

“It encapsulates the essence of the landscapes of Svalbard and the ideology of the chefs using locally sourced ingredients,” Mariner says

Mariner’s tip about stepping out of one’s comfort zone is relevant to this project: He had to have around-the-clock protection—a guide with a rifle and a Siberian husky—from polar bears.

“Although we never saw any bears, we definitely felt we were being watched,” he says.

Another project, High North, Low Tension, is an ongoing personal series developed from Mariner’s fascination with the Norway-Russia dynamic.

“As tensions rise between Russia and NATO at a central political level, the locals are determined to hold onto a unique cross-border cooperation program that dates back to World War II, when the Soviet army drove out the Germans to liberate the town of Kirkenes,” Mariner explains. “In a time when the idea of open borders is in jeopardy and tighter controls are being implemented globally, I wanted to see how this special relationship is managing to survive.”

This series also demonstrates the importance of understanding light conditions.

“I took many of the images near midnight during the summer months—to take advantage of a very particular soft, warm light,” Mariner explains.  

The series High North, Low Tension is one of Mariner’s ongoing personal projects; it documents life and landscapes along the Norway-Russia border. The lower image, Mariner’s favorite of the series so far, sums up the vast nature of the Norwegian-Russian borderlands.

Key Workflow Elements

Mariner uses a combination of analog and digital equipment. For a documentary project, he typically uses a Toyo 5x4 Super field camera with Kodak Portra 400 film stock—switching between a 90mm Schneider Kreuznach lens for landscapes and a 210mm Schneider Kreuznach lens for portraiture.

For magazine assignments, he shoots digital, due to the time and financial constraints that come with the fast-paced nature of that work. His digital setup includes a Canon Eos 5DSR and a combination of fast prime Sigma Art lenses—usually 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.

“Although I shoot a combination of analog and digital formats, one element of my workflow stays constant: I’ve always used Adobe Creative Suite for all my editing,” he says.

Moving the Field Forward

Mariner may seek out subjects that are hidden from view, but when it comes to shedding light on the craft of photography, he gives it as much exposure and support as possible. In fact, he and his fiancée, fellow photographer Marianne Bjørnmyr, run a small photographic institution, Atelier NŌUA, in Bodø.

“It operates as an academic and social venue, acting as a meeting point for both national and international artists,” Mariner says.

The Norwegian Arts Council recently awarded NŌUA a €100,000 grant for the next three years.

You can find more of Dan Mariner’s work on his website , Instagram, and Adobe Stock, where he is a premium contributor.