by Dewi Lewis August 17, 2020

Looking Back #001

An occasional series about our backlist titles. 

The Brothers | Elin Høyland

Covid and lockdown have given me the chance to look back at many of the books we’ve published over the years. Often when I look again at a book I haven’t seen for a while I feel as excited by the work as I did the very first time. This is certainly the case with Elin Høyland’s The Brothers
I first met Elin at the Portfolio Review sessions at Arles in 2009. Elin showed me a range of work but what really struck me was a series about two brothers living in an isolated part of rural Norway. Over the following two years we worked together on the book, which was published in May 2011 with an essay by Gerry Badger. The book sold well, particularly in Norway, and so the following year we did a reprint of which we still have a small number of copies. 
The Brothers is not a story on the grand scale, it is a small detail of life. But it is deeply moving in the way it portrays the warmth of the relationship between the brothers. It’s also clear that the experience of being photographed by Elin was something that they responded to and enjoyed.  
Though Mathias and Harald Ramen look like twins there was actually a five year age difference. They had lived all their lives together outside a small village, Vågå, in central Norway, in a small wooden house they had built themselves. Neither brother had much of an education. “Dreams, yes, we had them, you know. But we didn’t have the money to make them all happen,” said Mathias.
They made a living from their small farm and from chopping wood. Day followed day in a predictable routine. They would eat breakfast, read their local newspaper, and then they were off outside for most of the day. According to Harald they spent their days chopping wood, carrying wood and burning wood.

Once a week they would take the school bus to go shopping at the Co-op in the nearby small town of Vågå. Other than that they spent almost all their lives in the same place. Mathias had worked for two months as a carpenter in Oslo in 1964 but didn’t like it and moved back home. Harald had spent one night in a hotel in Lillehammer, a town a couple of hours away. He would say that it was the worst night of his life. 
For me, the fascination of the project was in the images taken at home. There were also photographs of their shopping trips and of one of the brothers when he had been hospitalised, but these felt less central to their story and were edited out. Elin and I decided to focus on their home, the small details of their lives that reflected the complexity and depth of their relationship. 
Neither Mathias or Harald had ever had married or even had a girlfriend. They shared a bedroom in which each had a single bed. An embroidered picture hung over Mathias’ bed with the inscription Nobody measures up to father and mother’.

Each brother had a radio and a pair of binoculars in the bedroom. They didn’t have a TV, although they had borrowed one in the 1960s to try it out. They gave it back – it took up too much of their time. 
Despite the simplicity of their lives Mathias still believed that things were constantly changing. “I guess it ends up with us having an inside toilet with running water,” he would say, picking up his binoculars to check out the collection of tractors in the distance. 

Elin first met the Ramen brothers in 2001 and photographed them over over many months and several visits. Harald died the following year, from an asthma attack while shovelling snow in conditions of –20°C. Mathias continued to live on his own in the house and Elin returned several times to photograph him. He died in 2007.

Dewi Lewis
Dewi Lewis


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