Right out of college, Peter Beste spent eight years earning the trust and friendship of the black-metal population, and the result is True Norwegian Black Metal, a welcome addition to outsider awareness of a captivating, reclusive underground responsible for some of the most extreme music of the twentieth century.
It may seem like a new photography book about Norwegian black metal might be a bit behind the times, given the international attention the scene drew several years ago. But in light of the intense nature of the subject matter, it’s maybe best in this case that the photography book followed the more scholarly, historical account, Lords of Chaos: Without previous journalistic context, the world of Norwegian black metal, depicted as it is in Beste’s book in a mixture of grotesque aesthetics and intimate portraiture, might have seemed just too damn weird (not that there’s a helluva lot you can do to make it seem normal).
Lords of Chaos already dispelled the idea that black metal was nothing like a shock-value Halloween lark but a rich, multifaceted cultural monad unto itself, but it still adhered to a kind of jocular “this rules” tone appropriate for a dedicated fanzine (with chapters called "Mayhem in the Dead Zone" and "Welcome to Hell"). Given the sheer poetic intensity of the genre’s vocabulary , that’s difficult to avoid or lament. Beste’s photos, on the other hand, don’t feel like they’re flirting with doom at all. They present human life in naked form, even when it’s covered in metal spikes and crow-black paint.
There are occasionally mildly comic elements in these depictions of black-metal adherents in their daily lives — like going on a nature walk in spike bracelets and a leather vest or cruising around spooking local mothers with unholy grimaces — their ultimate impact is not that they merely juxtapose the grandiose postures of living myth with more quotidian demands. More specifically, the artistic force here lies in situating subjects in their milieu, among objects, like the bathroom sink with corpse-paint stained rags, but also in landscapes, on the gorgeously desolate Norwegian terrain, the haunted primordial forests, the sublime expanses of ice.
The book explores a variety of emotional facets that belong to any band of outsiders: anti-establishment defiance, fastidious devotion, silent, stoic despair. In this way the subculture seems less like a freak-show and more like something with origins and traditions. It’s as much born from thoughtful, lonely walks in the forest as it is from punishing-loud concerts drowned in stage blood and flanked by pig’s heads.
Much has been written about black metal’s war against Norway’s state-established church, and against Christianity in general, and the photos in the appendix of burned churches, most strikingly that of a priest surveying a charred ruin of ancient wood, underscore the moral ambiguities and reprehensible temptations of the subculture. There’s also a long and sordid back history of various black-metallers gruesomely killing either themselves or someone else. Art that takes such a scene with clearly heinous elements has the effect of destabilizing our sense of moral judgment, which is simultaneously a great risk and reward. We’re asked to look again at this world with new eyes.
An essentially political liberal view would gain from such a book the confirmation that differences are only surface, and that humanity is a tent of virtually infinite size that can learn to understand and accept an unfathomably diverse multitude of experiences and beliefs (except for the part about church-burning and murder). However, the real thrust of Beste’s images is that they disrupt this: No matter how close you get, there still is just no understanding some people, either because you can’t find a common dialect or, more likely in this case, because they don’t want to be understood.
This kind of ineluctable gap, this rift in understanding, shouldn’t be pronounced in the name of pessimism or pragmatism; it should be celebrated. Taken together, there is among these photographs a striking, dynamic balance between poignant intimacy and stubbornly mute, elitist withdrawal. Although the marvel of Beste’s work results in part from the access and trust he was able to gain, and although his reportage is certainly a humanizing portrait, his contribution really lies in offering glimpses into a world that doesn’t want to be absorbed by the maw of global culture.
The literary citations that occasionally appear alongside the images speak often of a deadly light, a blinding light, of being “consumed by fire.” Photography is another kind of blinding light, because what it casts light on, it conceals at the same time. The back cover image of a scowling, black-clad individual walking away from a church is a powerful example of this. Thus, photography, even and especially in the case of unprecedented access to a reticent subject, is not simply about bringing to light the dazzlingly manifold details of the concrete world. The rescue mission that photography is charged with has as its goal the redemption of the profane world by way of destruction, by tearing moments out of their context and leaving the viewer to judge.
This is not a book strictly meant for record collectors — it won’t tell you which Bathory album is the best. What it will show you, without judgment or fascination, is the quiet lives of demons, dark lords and other lone wolves who live outside the realm of tamed men, dreaming of endless night, glacial eternity and furious annihilation.