Norwegian self-taught photographer Anders Beer Wilse (1865-1949) immigrated to America in 1884 and worked as a railroad engineer and cartographer from Minnesota to Washington. Norway’s most famous photographer left behind a cultural treasure consisting of more than 200,000 documented photographs of his life’s work.
What Wilse observed, he wanted his countrymen to enjoy as well – from poor fishermen to royals. He has played an important role in the shaping of Norway’s national self-image. He was born in Flekkefjord, Vest-Agder and raised in Kragerø, Telemark. Having received his technical degree, he immigrated to America in 1884 and lived in Seattle from 1892 to 1900, where he in 1897 established his own photographic business.
Expeditions in Montana included photographing Grasshopper Glacier, containing billions of entombed locusts, and the discovery of Mount Wilse.
On a return visit home to Norway aboard the emigrant ship Geyser in 1888, which collided with the Thingvalla and sank, he nearly drowned.
The Wilse family returned to Norway around 1900, where he became a world-class photographer.
Long before the ‘selfie’ became a term, people associated with the press knew what a “Wilse” was. Already in the 1920s the meaning was cemented: it was a photograph stretching itself towards technical and compositional perfection.
Wilse left a legacy of early photographs documenting this period of unprecedented growth and change in Seattle’s history, including views of the Alaskan Gold Rush of 1896 – 1899, but he is perhaps most famous for documenting Norway’s landscape and its natural and urban life. He also worked as a photographer for many major Norwegian companies – among them Norsk Hydro.
Today, six institutions manage various parts of Wilse’s formidable life work. The photo material was in 2014 incorporated in Norway’s documentary heritage, which is a part of the UNESCO’s Memory of the World register.
Anders Beer Wilse died 83 years old 20 February 1949.
Those who did not get the pleasure to meet him, will, in his two books, Life of a Young Norwegian Pioneer (1936) and Norwegian Men and their Country (1943), receive an unpolished view of him as a man and a lively commentary to his life’s work: A national anthem in pictures.
Feature image (on top) The SDkøyen Line, Oslo 1940
The Beauty of Norway From Behind a Camera, written by Tor Kjolberg