On a farm somewhere in Norway, two elderly women spend the last days of their eventful lives. And 30 years after their death, a visitor discovers a mysterious box in a barn. Labeled “Private,” the box contains some incredible images that shed new light on a photographic team who were way ahead of their time.
Marie Høeg was born in Langesund, Norway, on April 15, 1866. As a young woman, she studied photography and finished her apprenticeship in 1890. The newly qualified photographer then traveled to Finland where she found work taking photos in various towns. And while there, she met a woman with whom she would forge a lifelong bond.
Bolette Berg was five years Høeg’s junior, and she shared her passion for photography. Back in the 1890s, it was one of the few professions that women were free to pursue. And because many thought that operating a camera required a certain artistic talent, it was also deemed a respectable activity for young females like Høeg and Berg.
In 1895, the two women left Finland for Horten, a town in the south of Norway. There, they set up their own studio under the name Berg & Høeg. And over time, the pair built up a reputation as photographers, snapping portraits as well as scenic pictures of Horten and the nearby area.
In fact, Høeg and Berg were able to make a good living from flogging their photographs. But for Høeg, the business wasn’t just about pursuing her own independent career. She was also a vocal proponent of women’s rights, and often used their studio to host meetings for feminist activists.
With the Norwegian Navy’s main shipyard located close by, business in Horten was booming. In fact, Høeg and Borg ran their studio successfully for eight years. Then in 1903, they moved to Kristiania, the city that would later become the Norwegian capital of Oslo.
In Kristiania, Høeg and Berg continued their business as photographers, creating postcards of the city. They also established their own publishing company too, and they were able to use it to further Høeg’s crusade for equal rights. In fact, among the books they published was Norske Kvinder, a three-volume history of women in Norway.
Høeg and Berg spent their latter years together on a farm, thought to have been somewhere near Oslo. Berg died in 1944, with Høeg following five years later. And it seemed as if that would be the end of their story – until a chance discovery some three decades later turned everything on its head.
In the 1980s, an unnamed individual was searching through the possessions that had been left at Høeg and Berg’s farm. Tucked away in the building, they found a box ominously labeled “private.” But when they looked inside, they discovered something incredible that would catapult these turn-of-the-century photographers back into the limelight.
Inside the box was a collection of glass negatives. Of course, it wasn’t unusual for photographers to retain some private images within their archives. However, once developed these images revealed a shocking truth.
The glass negatives contained photographs that Høeg and Berg had never released to the public – and it was easy to see why. In the images, the two photographers, as well as some unknown companions, take on a series of characters and poses that fly in the face of the accepted gender roles of their time.
The photographs mainly feature Høeg, who was known to be the more outgoing of the pair. Plus, with her short, cropped hair, she was able to slip easily into the role of a man. And in one image, she even dons a fake mustache to complete the transformation.
Some of the photographs show Høeg wearing typically male outfits, such as a full suit complete with waistcoat and pocket watch. Others depict the photographer posing alongside some unidentified male friends. But in keeping with the project’s gender-bending style, the men are clad in women’s dresses and skirts.
For most of the photographs, it seems that Berg was happy to remain behind the camera, snapping images of Høeg and the others. However, at times Høeg managed to coax her friend into the shots, and she is seen posing and dressing with a similar masculine air.
Interestingly, however, Høeg and Berg’s images didn’t just play with the idea of dressing up as different genders. In fact, some of the photographs display a much more subtle take on the same theme. By dressing in traditionally female clothing while engaging in typically male pursuits such as smoking and playing cards, the two women created images that would have been considered very subversive at the time.
In other photographs, Høeg and Berg courted controversy of a different kind. Bravely, they snapped several images showing Høeg in various states of undress. One even shows her her posing in her underwear with a hunting knife. Given the conservative attitude towards women at the time, such photographs would likely have been seen as shocking.
In fact, women did not win the right to vote in Norwegian national elections until 1913. The decision was the result of a long battle fought by people like Høeg and her contemporaries. And so in this light, Høeg and Berg’s private photographs can be seen as symbolic of the wider struggle for women’s rights.
Experts believe that Høeg and Berg took these photographs in order to express their frustration at the oppression of women in Norway at the time. Moreover, they are thought to form part of a wider movement of feminist photography, reflecting the attitudes in Europe and America at the turn of the 20th century.
Today, the photographs are widely known throughout Norway and Sweden and are beginning to receive international acclaim. In fact, the Oslo-based arts collective FRANK created an entire exhibition inspired by one photograph of Høeg smoking in her underclothes. And as they toured the world with their project, they introduced audiences in Los Angeles and New York to the two women’s fascinating work.
Altogether, some 440 glass negatives were recovered from Høeg and Berg’s barn. They are currently on display in Horten’s Preus Museum, a facility dedicated to documenting the history of photography. For the modern viewer, they represent a fascinating insight into a time when women had to fight for the freedom to express themselves.