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The Search for the “Unknown Photographer"


"Knowing more about these “unknown photographers” who took the pictures that are used as source material in our national historiography open up for new stories, add nuance to well-known stories, and help expand the field."

Tone Svinningen

Kari Berggrav, Civil Air Defense. Inauguration of shelters in Günerhagen, January 1940. Collection of Arbeiderbevegelsens arkiv og bibliotek (the Labor Movement's archive and library)

By Tone Svinningen

My search for the photographer Kari Berggrav began with a statement in the book Elisabeth Meyer: Rapporter fra verden 1920–1950 (Elisabeth Meyer: Reports from the world 1920–1950). Elisabeth Meyer was for a long while a well-known name with a somewhat unknown role in the history of Norwegian photography. She was recognized by her contemporaries as a news photographer and journalist, but from her death in 1968 and until her archives were handed over to Preus Museum in 2000, she was on the verge of being forgotten.

The statement that piqued my curiosity was a reference to how “Kari Berggrav (1911–1996), employed at Arbeiderbladet from the 1930s on, may be called Norway’s first female press photographer”. If this statement was correct, why hasn’t she been mentioned in reference works on the history of Norwegian media, press, or photography? To be sure, press photographers as a professional group are often treated superficially, with the same figures tending to recur in reference works on Norwegian media history, if they are mentioned at all.

To recognize a pioneer

The source of this claim was a presentation of Kari Berggrav in the National Library’s registry of Norwegian photographers and photographic collections. The search began. I still hadn’t seen a single picture credited to her. My motivation was to shed light on a pioneer from the incipient beginnings of press photography in the 1930s. She was evidently well enough known to be cited as the country’s first female press photographer, yet so obscure that no one I asked had any information about her, and that no reference work mentioned her. Not even the two-volume history of Arbeiderbladet mentioned her, and the author of this history, Bjørn Bjørnsen, confirms that her name was completely unknown to him.


New questions

Rather than satisfying my curiosity, the article in the National Library’s registry raised several new questions. Its primary source was Peter E. Palmquist’s article “Resources for Second World War Women Photographers” from 1994, which is available at Preus Museum’s library. It turns out that all the articles about Berggrav in the main registries in this field (e.g. KulturNav, Lokalhistoriewiki, and Digitaltmuseum) are near-verbatim translations of Palmquist’s article. Even the glaringly obvious mistake that the Norwegian government evacuated on 1 March 1940 has been translated and reproduced (Norway was invaded by Nazi Germany first on 9 April 1940, and the government was evacuated on 7 June). These websites are in their turn used as sources, and the content therein is perceived to be factual.

Spread from the magazine MiniCam Photography October 1943


Palmquist’s sources are two articles in the American photography journals Popular Photography and Minicam Photography, both from 1943. The articles in these two journals, which I was able to buy on eBay, gave me many answers and several new leads – not least that the source of the claim that Kari Berggrav was Norway’s first female press photographer was none other than Berggrav herself!


Spread from the magazine Popular Photography June 1943


In addition, the journals allowed me for the first time to see a selection of Berggrav’s pictures both from the military campaign against the Nazi invasion in spring 1940, and from her job as a photographer at the Norwegian embassy in Washington, DC, when she lived in exile in the United States. I used these pictures to track down her pictures in the Norwegian news agency NTB’s war archives at the National Archives in Oslo. The main problem is that extremely few pictures are credited in this archive, as is the case with most other archives of photographs from newspapers and journals.


Kari Berggrav, The result of the German air attack on Narvik, 1 June 1940. NTBs War Archive in the National Archive


Kari Berggrav, Norwegian artillery on the Narvik front May 1940. NTB's War Archive in the National Archive

According to Berggrav, only 200 of the around 600 pictures she says she took of the invasion of Norway were saved. The rest went missing during the escape to the United States. By reviewing the correspondence between the Norwegian information offices in London and Stockholm and the Norwegian legation in Finland, I managed to obtain the names of places where she took pictures. The correspondence also provides information about the number of pictures she submitted to the information offices, which in turn intended them to be used for propaganda purposes to aid Norway internationally. In addition, other peoples’ memoirs from the Norwegian Campaign have placed her at specific places at specific points in time and have by and large corroborated her own recollections. (I am still trying to confirm certain curious events she referred to in interviews.)

Information loss

Many of the pictures in NTB’s war archives have now been digitized in the National Archives’ digital photo database.  By going through the physical material on the National Archives, I have discovered that a lot of the information has been lost in the digitization process.  An example is the envelopes that the pictures were glued to. In several pictures the initials “KB” were written in pencil, sometimes with a question mark. Who wrote these initials? Are these Kari Berggrav’s pictures as marked by someone who was familiar with them? Was this done during the war, that is to say close in time after the pictures were taken? If I know that she was in fact at a given location, can I then surmise that she is most likely the photographer of a picture from there? Or if I know for certain that she took a given picture, that there are several other pictures from the same event at this location, and that these pictures seem to belong to a series, can I then surmise that she has taken them all?


Envelope with the initials K.B from NTB's War Archive in the National Archive


Another pioneer emerges: Alma Braathen

In my quest to find Berggrav’s pictures in NTB’s war archives, I came across pictures taken by the Swedish (and half-Norwegian) journalist Alma Braathen, who also took photographs during her assignments. Among other things, she covered the Narvik Front in Northern Norway in spring 1940 for the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. Her pictures are among the few to be credited in the war archives. But it does not apply to all her pictures, and the credits are not always attached to the digital file.


Car wrecks as an example

Braathen was at the same locations (or roughly the same locations?) at the same time as Berggrav, and several of their pictures seem almost near identical. Though this makes it harder to identify Berggrav’s pictures, this resemblance is intriguing. One example is a picture of a few destroyed cars. Berggrav took a picture of several wrecks along the roadside, with a man standing next to one of the wrecks. This picture was used in one of the reports about her in an American photography journal where she recounts a story related to the picture.

Alma Braathen, A car wreck on the road between Gratangen and Øyjord, ca 1940-1945. NTB's War Archive in the National Archive


Kari Berggrav, photograph and envelopes. NTB's War Archive in the National Archive

In the National Archives’ digital photo database I found a picture of the same wrecks, taken from a slightly different angle and with a slightly different cropping that does not include the aforementioned bystander. Can I surmise that Berggrav has taken both pictures? The picture is credited “unknown photographer”. It turns out that Braathen used the same picture on the front page of Dagens Nyheter, and its origin was confirmed by looking at the physical picture in the archive.

Berggrav's photos of the Norwegian Campaign in spring 1940

Thanks to the pictures published in the American journal, I have now been able to retrieve quite a few of her pictures from the Norwegian Campaign in spring 1940. Several of these pictures have been frequently used to illustrate the Second World War, but then at best credited “unknown photographer”. How can a photographer who is well-known among her contemporaries, and whose works are continually being used in the great national narrative on the Second World War, be omitted when the history is being written?

Kari Berggrav, Bombing of the shool house in Bjerkvik. From Narvik, 1940. NTB's War Archive in the National Archive


Kari Berggrav, The church in Molde burns after German air attack 30 April 1940. NTB's War Archive in the National Archive


Press photographers, media history and the lack of crediting

Press photographers have still not been studied as a professional group within media history. Without extensive research it is therefore hard to ascertain whether Berggrav was indeed the first female press photographer in Norway. The 1930s was the decade when the use of photography made its breakthrough in earnest in the Norwegian daily press. Which photographer provided which photographs to the press during this pioneering era is hard to determine, since photographers were rarely or never credited for their pictures, and few photographers were on a paper’s staff. Most of the larger provincial newspapers had agreements with local photographers who took news and feature pictures on commission in addition to their other photographic activities. In addition, all the newspapers bought material from news agencies. Other pictures were supplied to the press on an ad hoc basis by studio photographers and amateur photographers.


I have still not been able to determine Berggrav’s terms of employment at Arbeiderbladet in the 1930s. Only a few pictures are credited to her in the Norwegian Labour Movement Archives and Library in Oslo. A few news reports refer to “our photographer Kari Berggrav”. On other occasions from around the same time a report might simply state “our photographer”. Did the newspaper employ a number of different photographers they referred to as “our photographer”, and what was the threshold for being called “our”? I have found reports that refer to Berggrav as Arbeiderbladet’s “intrepid photographer” before the Second World War, but there are few traces of her in the archives.


Until the 1970s, photographs often went uncredited in Arbeiderbladet. This anonymization makes it harder to do research on the people who supplied the newspaper’s content.


Why does it feel important to shed light on the photographers who have been overlooked in the history of the field? Because knowing more about these “unknown photographers” who took the pictures that are used as source material in our national historiography open up for new stories, add nuance to well-known stories, and help expand the field. Besides, haven’t we been taught to “give credit where credit is due”?


Unknown photographer, portrait of Kari Berggrav working as a photographer in the UN, 1946. The Labour Movement's Arcive and Library



Berggrav, K. 1943. “Bedlam Unlimited”. Minicam Photography 8 (2): 24–29, 85.

Bjørnsen, B. 1986. Arbeiderbladet 100 år, 1884–1984. Vol. 2, Har du frihet og sommersol kjær? 1918–1984.Oslo: Tiden.

Erlandsen, R. 2000. Pas nu paa! Nu tar jeg fra Hullet! Om fotografiens første hundre år i Norge – 1839–1940. Våle: Inter-View.

Hambro, C.J. 1940. I Saw It Happen in Norway. New York: D. Appleton-Century.

Holm-Johnsen, H. 2013. “Elisabeth Meyer – et uvanlig liv”. In (H. Oulie red.) Elisabeth Meyer: Rapporter fra verden 1920–1950, 2013. Oslo: Press.

Kvaale, R. 1986. Kvinner i norsk presse gjennom 150 år. Oslo:Gyldendal.

Larsen, P., and Lien, S. 2007. Norsk fotohistorie: Frå daguerreotypi til digitalisering. Oslo: Samlaget.

Ottosen, R., ed. 2010. Norsk presses historie 1660–2010. Vol. 2, 1880–1945. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Palmquist, P.E. 1994. “Resources for Second World War Women Photographers”. In History of Photography 18 (3)  p. 247–255. doi:10.1080/03087298.1994.10442359.

Sherman, A., and Lautman, R. 1943. “Norway’s Camera Girl”. Popular Photography 12 (6): 30–31, 80–81.

Sivertsen, E. 1995. Norsk pressefotos: En kort historikk. Fredrikstad: Institutt for journalistikk.




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