Interview with Cato Lein: Poetry in Black and White Photographs

Cato Lein is a Swedish photographer born in Båtsfjord, Norway, not far from where the Russian Tundra ends. Author of intense, original, and sometimes even disturbing images, he is a master of BW photography.

What defines his art is the belief in artistic freedom and the power to surprise viewers with a different, personal, yet neutral approach to the art of portraiture. When looking at Cato’s black and white portraits, Ted Grant’s words spring to my mind:

When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls! [Ted Grant, Canadian photographer and photojournalist]

Cato Lein’s work portrays authors and artists from around the world, but also unique narratives of seemingly forgotten landscapes.

His portraiture is pure poetry. His craft – testing the limits of the possible. 

Cato Lein Portrait taken by Knut Koivisto
Cato Lein. Photo Credits: Knut Koivisto

To be a Photographer is like being a Pianist. You have to practice every day. [Cato Lein]

G.M. Could you please tell us about your first encounter with photography? What made you start as a photographer?

C.L. It was when I moved to Stockholm, and saw the great American photographers Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Diana Arbus on exhibition – The Essence of Black& White Photography.

John Fosse photo by Cato Lein
John Fosse, Author and Playwriter, 2015 © Cato Lein

G.M. You have taken portraits of people from different corners of the world. How do you interact with your subjects? Is language ever a barrier?

C.L. It should be a barrier, but I never had that problem. I have a Camera and they understand.

portrait of Madalina Ghitescu by Cato Lein
Madalina Ghitescu, Romanian Actress © Cato Lein

G.M. How do you choose the location for your projects? Is there anything that fascinates you about Eastern Europe?

C.L. I never like seasons on the pictures, I try to keep it neutral. Eastern Europe has a great history (Architecture, Streets) to fill in the background. Also a nostalgic touch that is gone a long way back.  In “Western Europe” everything is so clean and mainstream…

photo by Cato Lein at Centrum for fotografi
Stockholm © Cato Lein

I´m not a Teknik Photographer. More emotional and on intuition.  [Cato Lein]

G.M. What camera gear do you currently use? Do you take with you any additional equipment on a shooting day?

C.L. I use two analogue cameras. Nikon. Digital: Fujifilm x-pro1. Never flash.

G.M. How much time do you spend on retouching your shots? How important is post-processing in your work?

C.L. When I do the Photoshoot, and see the situation we are in, I can see what kind of Atmosphere I will work for in the retouching after. I work very easily in Photoshop. I´m not a Teknik Photographer. I am more emotional and on intuition.

the singer photo by cato lein
The Singer © Cato Lein

G.M. Where do you find inspiration? Could you name a few photographers that you consider influential for your style?

C.L. I love Japanese Photography. Yutaka Takanashi, Takuma Nakahira and Daido Moriyama, to name a few.

portrait of Katarina Wennstam by Cato Lein
Katarina Wennstam, Author © Cato Lein

G.M. How would you define your photography in three words?

C.L. Intuition, Heart, and Curiosity.

G.M. If you could start again as a photographer is there anything you would do differently? Are there any sectors you’d like to explore more?

C.L. No! I work the same way as when I started, and I´m still proud of those first ones.

In the Alley, Marseille © Cato Lein
In the Alley, Marseille © Cato Lein

G.M. If it weren’t for photography, what else would you do?

C.L. I had so many jobs and education before Photography – Bricklayer, Offset-printer and Hospital worker.

G.M. Any words of wisdom for photography enthusiasts at the beginning of their journey?

C.L. To be a Photographer is like being a Pianist. You have to practice every day. 

The Northern Silence Project by Cato Lein
Batsfjord, The Northern Silence Project © Cato Lein

G.M. Can you tell us a bit about your future projects?

C.L. I am happy to be finished with my long-time project that I started in 1984 – “The Northern Silence”. I will have an Exhibition in Katowice, Poland with those pictures, hopefully, a book as well. I will also have an exhibition in Stockholm next year with my Poland story “Black Soil”. I hope I will finish my 5 different projects next year.

Needless to say, Cato Lein is one of the portrait photographers out there that I admire the most. I wish to thank him for the wonderful opportunity of gaining more insights into his work.

Black Soil, Katowice, Poland by Cato Lein
“Black Soil” Project, Katowice, Poland © Cato Lein

Discover more of Cato’s work on his official website, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Disclaimer: this interview has been proofread and slightly edited for style purposes. All images featured in this post belong to Cato Lein and are protected by copyright. Exception makes Cato’s portrait taken by Knut Koivisto.

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