by Cosmo Lee

By now, the images are iconic. Frost breathes fire in a cave; King ov Hell glowers next to a blood-red building; Nattefrost wields an inverted cross (see above). Peter Beste‘s black metal photography has penetrated popular culture enough so that it’s lost some of its shock value. It’s still striking, though. Those who saw the photos on the Internet likely paused for a minute, then moved on. But a hefty 14.5″ x 11.5″ x 1″ book demands time. Now these images stand still, regarding us as warily as we do them. Beste captured them with simple means, mostly a 35mm camera. Though his shots are skilled, his greatest accomplishment is getting them in the first place. Persuading grown men to don corpsepaint and nail-studded wristbands in broad daylight is no mean feat.

This photo collection is called True Norwegian Black Metal (Vice Books, 208 pages). Perhaps Beste realized that only his photos, which start in 2002, would not live up to that name. Thus, he’s rounded up collaborators. Writer/editor Johan Kugelberg contributes historical context and curatorial direction. “Tara G. Warrior” adds a detailed, three-page timeline of black metal. Most importantly, Jon “Metalion” Kristiansen writes a lengthy history of his Slayer ‘zine and Mayhem’s beginnings. It mentions Beste only in passing; Metalion says, “He has inspired me to pick up the camera. I hope to do a book myself.”

Though Beste serves up a visual feast – shots of Gorgoroth’s infamous 2004 gig in Krakow are particularly satisfying – text is the best part of True Norwegian Black Metal. Following Beste’s photos are pages and covers from old Slayer ‘zines. (The upcoming Slayer compilation on Ian Christe’s Bazillion Points imprint is major cause for celebration.) There’s something urgent and gripping about reading about something as it happens. (A letter by Euronymous regarding Dead’s suicide is especially chilling.) Old photos – not Beste’s, of course – of Mayhem & co. make up in primal intensity what they lack in technical prowess. Also included is contemporary press coverage of the murders and church burnings. Metal journalism back then was just as empty and sensationalistic as it is today.

More than any other metal subgenre, black metal has struggled with image. True Norwegian Black Metal cleverly incorporates various portrayals of black metal, thus preempting attacks of bias. Ultimately, it’s up to one to make of it what one will. Ironically, it would also make a great Christmas present.

LA exhibit flyer

I recently viewed the Los Angeles exhibit of True Norwegian Black Metal, at Zune LA. Yes, that Zune, as in Microsoft. It’s a flexible space that functions as an office, a nightclub, and, in this case, an art gallery. When I visited it, all three uses were on display. Laptops littered the place like some hip architecture studio. People wove in and out, carrying materials for a party that night. The exhibit was upstairs in a single room. Techno music streamed softly from speakers, while large TV screens incongruously showed MTV videos. (Fall Out Boy and Gwen Stefani were on at the time.) Hung on bright white walls were large prints of Beste’s photographs. They lacked placards, though a piece of paper provided a simple index.

Seeing these images for the third time (after the Internet and the book), I was well used to them. But despite the inappropriate setting, their power remained undiminished. This was the closest to life-size I’d ever see them, free of browser restrictions and page divisions. The inappropriate setting only cast these images in greater relief. (The fake snow machine in the adjacent indoor courtyard seemed particularly apt.) A corpsepaint and leather-clad Abbath walking in verdant woods was both risible and touching. My favorite image was of Kvitrafn in the streets of Bergen, as a passing lady eyes his get-up. Despite his inclusion in a camera lens, he’s still a misfit.

Amazon (regular edition)
Peter Beste (deluxe editions)