Christopher Makos and Paul Solberg began working together over a decade ago as a collaborative duo known as the Hilton Brothers. Finding that they were both drawn to similar subject matter when they were out in a foreign, beautiful location, they began to shoot the same subjects, almost as a joke. As Solberg remembers, “It started with unconscious playing together. We would be driving upstate New York, and I noticed we had the same instinct to stop the car at the same places so that we could take photographs. That had never happened to me before.”
Back in the studio, looking at the printed results, it was fascinating for them to see where their sensibilities merged and diverged. The idea of identity, of who took which picture, and why the difference was discernible led them to begin a series of diptychs, where they would photograph separate objects and bring them together in one print: one plus one equals a third new artwork.
As Makos observes, “We began to consider the collaboration using models like Gilbert & George and Pierre et Gilles. You don’t relinquish your ego; instead you focus on the space where two egos can have the same conversation. We could see how our images worked together and created a dialogue. I wanted to be somewhere else, not as Christopher Makos and Paul Solberg. We decided to fabricate an identity: The Hilton Brothers.”
Solberg adds, “It’s a reference to the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, the Siamese Twins; there’s a Broadway show about them now. It was also a reference to the banality of reality television, which had just begun at that time. The creation of the Hilton Brothers was a completely natural response to being on the road together, and going to Egypt, Vietnam, Italy, and Spain. We had been working so closely, we decided to put our stories together.”
Makos recalls, “Sweden came about because of a show of my work, ‘Altered Images’ was on exhibit at Fotografiska, the Swedish Museum of Photography. We met Magnus Lindbergh, the head of VisitSweden, the tourist board. We talked to him and became friends, and talked about a project on photographs of Sweden that documented the places the Stieg Larsson had written about. VisitSweden was in agreement that there as a place for a book for both the actual and armchair visitor to Sweden—one that combined our iconic photographs with the prominent locations and themes in the Larsson books.”
The result was Tattoos Hornets Fire: The Millennium Sweden (Glitterati Incorporated), which presents a pictorial dimension to the Sweden of Stieg Larsson’s luminous Millennium trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. The stirring photography in Tattoos Hornets Fire offers witness not only to the unseen locales described in the novels but also provides an ambiance of this beautiful, intriguing, and widely mysterious country.
As the book reveals, the city of Stockholm, also known as the “Venice of the North”, is a modern European city with trend-conscious and, at times, trend-setting inhabitants. Stockholm is a city of contrasts: Always on the move and yet relaxed. Completely urban and yet with surprising hidden enclaves reminiscent of a small town. Buildings with historic splendor reflect abundance and affluence as well as structures that remind of times of hardship long left behind.
The density of a big city and the omnipresent surfaces of water, the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälar, penetrating the city and visible everywhere, thereby giving any observer or passerby the possibility of being enticed by its limitless mobility and depth. And there is the Northern light, a unique way the sun lights up the city and the countryside: bright during the never-ending days of summer, helped by the bright white snow to illuminate the winter months, mellow during the autumn, and misty pastel-colored in the spring.
As Christopher Makos reveals, “The book is organized to flow from the beginning with the overall tourist view of the city; moving then to a view of the city as it might be viewed and experienced through the eyes of Stieg Larsson and his characters; and finally, an emergence from the storyteller’s view, to one that would be undertaken by an actual Stockholmer visiting his or her hometown.”
Indeed, Tattoos Hornets Fire allowed Solberg to come full circle, in his own way. As he writes in the book’s introduction, “Being Scandi-American I endured years of Nordic hymns and white cookies and fish soaked in lye. I was raised in an environment with a high level of misplaced nostalgia for anything Scandinavian. Although I grew a strong antenna for travel in my youth, the thought of another cold dark place, similar to where I had been raised, didn’t pull me in…. In 2010, the opportunity came up for my own maiden voyage.
“Makos and Solberg go to Sweden. From the moment we stepped foot on our first SAS flight, any Nordic nostalgia couldn’t compete with reality, which was fresh and new and unexpected. Soon after settling into our seats and the first course of elaborate breads was served, a keyboard rolls out from a head of the plane into the business class cabin. The crew, on their second costume change, gathered around to sing, ‘I am what I am’ to two sets blushing America newlyweds. It was SAS’s ‘Love is in the Air’ flight, the first same sex wedding celebration on any commercial flight. A big white cake was rolled out, as businessmen and families alike sang along as endearments were exchanged. It became a part of strangers. It was one of those things that to try and describe it sounds corny and ridiculous, but it caused an entire cabin of strangers to connect on this most inspired flight. Talk about united airlines. After three astounding trips to Sweden in one year, looking back at that first flight, I realize that experience is most emblematic of Swedish culture.”
Makos observes, “One of the biggest little-known treasures of the world is Sweden; and one of the most important little-known treasures of Sweden is its people. The weather may be what makes all the difference: it appears to be one nation in the bright and extended sunlight days of summer and an altogether different one in the cold, dark, winter months. Nature leads the way for all of us, but especially in Sweden. It takes a strong kind of person to make it through those long winter nights. The people of Sweden are honest and real. The book was designed to begin and end in color, and the middle become black and white. When you go to Sweden, you enter a color world when the summer comes, and they enjoy a wonderful sense of color.”
Solberg notes, “There are many faces of Sweden, depending on the season, and depending on the island. Tattoos Hornets Fire focuses mainly on a darker, moodier Sweden, particularly the two hours when the sun sets and the blue light floats through the streets as the long evening begins…. Like any interesting journey, in the shooting of this book we had our map but were occasionally distracted by the lighter side of Stockholm, a town of hood hair-cuts and sincere eye contact. The lighter-brighter Stockholm is as much the ‘real Stockholm’ as the darker story we tell in this book.
“Stockholm is unique in that the cityscape is virtually untouched by way, rare to most European capitals. So you have this beautifully northern ‘gingerbread’ skyline. But once deeper into town, if armed with appropriate curiosity, you find a place of subcultures and eccentricities and playful cuisine, unique to Stockholm.
“For a small country has been experimenting a lot over the past twenty, thirty years. I remember driving through Stockholm recognizing it as one of the best dressed cities. The people are very fashion forward. They don’t look to Paris. There is a great sense of personal style.”
Christopher Makos and Paul Solberg