Protecting and preserving nature and culture: photographer Hilding Mickelsson in Hälsingland

sun over a snowy landscape

Having grown up in the Swedish province Hälsingland, the photographer Hilding Mickelsson spent his life documenting the region’s rich cultural and natural heritage. In his work, we see how landscapes and the built environment change gradually in the 20th century.

His photographs capture the strong connection of the artist to his home region and his mission to preserve and promote its heritage.

The 20th century transformed rural Sweden. Economic development and agricultural politics changed daily life. People started working in industries, farms grew bigger and artificial fertilisers began to have an increasing impact on the environment.

In the 1950s and 1960s, awareness of environmental or climate issues was not common at all –  especially in small villages, where farmers were dependent on growing revenues.

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However, farmer’s son Hilding Mickelsson spoke up. He engaged in discussions in newspapers about local factories polluting the water. His early active engagement for the environment created tensions in his hometown. However, his most important medium was not his words – it was his photographs.

Hilding Mickelsson, born in 1919 in Ollas, Sweden, had a close relationship to his home region Hälsingland his whole life. His father, a hunter, took him out into the forest regularly from the age of three and taught him how to mimic birds. Mickelsson later said: ‘You are never lonely in the forest. There’s always something new to learn or something you’ve never seen before.’ 

He began taking photographs in 1934, the start of a lifelong passion and career.

Hälsingland is the common theme in his more than 150,000 photographs. He captures how he perceives his environment: holistically. He does not separate or favour the material over the intangible, nor nature over culture.

When you look at his images of hundreds of historical farmhouses, the hälsingegårdar, you could get the impression that he sought to document them. He systematically explored the region’s villages by bicycle, talked to the people living there, and even moved furniture to explore hidden relics of the richly decorated wooden walls that are typical for the region. 

His photographs are in many cases the only evidence left about these Hälsingemålningar, examples for a specific style of painting. Hilding Mickelsson had a specific perspective, an artistic gaze that lifts his photographs above merely documenting.

His mission was not only to document the traditional arts and craft. In the 1960s, many of these historical buildings were torn down as people wanted modern houses. They wanted to exchange the old and traditional for the practical and new. 

By taking photographs of the farmhouses and their rich interiors, Mickelsson wanted to preserve them and raise awareness for the value of Hälsingland’s heritage and built environment. He travelled Sweden to show others the specific techniques and patterns – also to persuade the people back home of the importance of preserving what they perceived as worthless.

How important his relationship and his knowledge about his home region are for his artistic work becomes evident in one of the recurring topics: birds.

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He would leave in the morning with his camera, and vanish into the woods for days or weeks, waiting for the right moment to capture the beauty of these birds. He could mimic them so well that they let him come closer than usual. As he says, ‘it takes 90% patience and 10% camera skills’.

Two of his most famous works focus on owls. LIFE magazine featured ‘The great grey owl attacks’ on its front cover in the 1960s. Hilding Mickelsson took it when he and a friend were ringing birds in the forest. The circumstances were quite dangerous, as the owl wanted to protect her chicks. Another famous photo series has two small protagonists: a small owl and a kitten, growing up together in his family’s yard.

His family was an important part of his work, enabling him to follow his passion as he did. His wife Adéle especially supported him wherever she could. Their son Olle described their partnership later: ‘Without her, my father could have never been the person he was.’

Hilding Mickelsson was more than a photographer.

He perceived his environment, both culture and nature, as a whole and transformed it into art. ‘Art means learning to really see’, as he described it. He raised awareness for the specific value of the built environment and art in Hälsingland through his photographs, travels and books.

Furthermore, he saw common ground in nature and culture, the immaterial practices and material relics. Due to his close connection to his home region, he was aware of the changes and warned of negative impacts, no matter what consequences it had for himself. 

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Known as ‘Camera Mickel’ to his friends, Mickelsson took one of his last photographs in 1999, three years before his death. It depicts a rainbow over his red farmhouse in Hälsingland, with the forest in the background – nature and culture combined. 

By Larissa Borck, Swedish National Heritage Board

This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.

Feature image: Rengsjö, Hälsingland, Hilding Mickelsson. Hälsinglands Museum, CC BY-NC

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