The doctor’s waiting room

Erlend Hem About the author
Artikkel

Kåre Kivijärvi (1938 – 91) has been called Norway’s first photographic artist and became a legend in his own lifetime. One of his most powerful works is a picture taken in the waiting room of the Porsanger district medical officer.

Kåre Kivijärvi took four photos in the doctor’s waiting room. Shown here are frame nos. 18, 20 and 21 on his film roll. These have rarely been published previously, while no. 19 (next page) has achieved near-iconic status. It has been shown on a number of occasions through the years, including at a major photographic exhibition at the National Library in Oslo in 2011 (7). The pictures are reproduced by kind permission of Samuel Kivijärvi © Kåre Kivijärvi / BONO 2015

Kivijärvi took this photograph on a reporting mission in April 1970. It was published in the Finnmark Dagblad daily newspaper the following month (1). The picture centres on the doctor Arne Clemens (1910 – 1985), who at the time was concluding his long-standing work in this municipality.

Arne Clemens’ medical career can be divided into three phases. After gaining his medical degree in 1941, he went through a number of brief employment periods (2, 3). In 1947 he was appointed district medical officer in Kistrand, later Porsanger municipality, where he continued to work for more than 20 years. In 1970, at the age of 60 years, he was appointed district medical officer in Andebu. In some ways he had gone full circle. Clemens originally hailed from Larvik and had now returned to his home county (4). He retired in 1977.

Kivijärvi’s photo feature from 1970 states that Clemens was about to enter a somewhat less hectic position as district medical officer. «He feels sadness about leaving Lakselv, but the workload has become excessive for a man of his age, alone in this post» (1).

The photograph

The picture of the Porsanger district medical officer is in many ways a classic press photo, but has some additional qualities and references that set it apart (5). In it, we can see the district medical officer as an authority figure in the local community, a man who may make the difference between life and death. Moreover, the picture can hardly be said to be a neutral representation of this commanding man (5).

The art historian Eli Høydalsnes (1960 – 2003) sees the photograph as referencing latent culturally-based conflicts in a region where Kven, Sámi and Norwegian communities live in a tightly knit coexistence (6): «The doctor in his white coat and with a cigarette in his hand passes through the waiting room, where two elderly women are sitting to each side of the door leading to the doctor’s surgery, waiting for his attention. There is an element of tension and unease in the doctor’s facial expression and body language. The two women supplement the representation of the doctor in terms of motif and composition – as small, static characters at the edges of the room, one slightly hunched and in dark clothing, the other with a more confident bearing and in light-coloured clothes. The women make no contact with each other; they both focus their interest on the photo’s main character» (6). I do not interpret the character of the doctor as expressing the same amount of tension and unease as does Høydalsnes, although Kivijärvi’s photos in general have been described as concrete, yet open-ended narratives that invite numerous interpretations. This openness in his works may be related to the respect that he shows for his motifs (7).

The photograph is known under a variety of titles: Porsanger community care centre, April 1970; The district medical officer, Porsanger 1970 and The doctor’s waiting room (7).

Two elderly women are waiting for the Porsanger district medical officer. The doctor has his right hand in the pocket of his white coat. In his left hand he is holding a lit cigarette © Kåre Kivijärvi / BONO 2015

The photographer

Kåre Kivijärvi was born in Hammerfest in 1938. He is known as Norway’s first photographic artist, and in 1971 one of his works was accepted for the annual National Art Exhibition as its first ever photograph. His characteristic style is black-and-white photography, and it was for this that he earned artistic recognition (8). Kivijärvi worked periodically as a photojournalist, and for his reporting he chose topics that he found interesting in terms of their potential imagery (9). Many of his most famous works were originally published as feature articles in newspapers or weeklies (9). His pictures would often operate on the intersection between photojournalism and art (5). His photographs are considered to be among the most important Norwegian works of art of the 20th century.

Kivijärvi was a Kven, could speak Finnish and lived for many years in Finland. Having lived the life of a bohemian artist in Oslo and Helsinki, Kivijärvi returned to Hammerfest where he wrote and photographed for the Finnmark Dagblad daily newspaper during the years 1967 – 70. Some of the photographs from this period, including The doctor’s waiting room, have been described as his greatest works of art (7). He produced a number of major feature reports from Finnmark county, focusing on the living conditions of the local people in an age characterised by modernisation and depopulation. The photographs that he chose to exhibit as works of art from this period appear as documentaries, with people as their main motifs (9).

By the early 1970s he had already ceased to engage in artistic photography (8). His final years were marked by illness, and he died in 1991 at the age of only 53 years.

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