Yes, Defenders of the Faith — the fun, fascinating, frequently hilarious, strangely touching new book from celebrated True Norwegian Black Metal music photographer Peter Beste — is, as billed, a collection of battle vest portraiture. (“Often referred to as the Kutten — German for monk’s robe — the battle vest serves a multitude of purposes,” the accompanying press release notes, “as a musical CV, a badge of authenticity, a creative practice of identity, and a fashion statement.”) But the lush tome is just as much a ground-level, fly on the wall exploration of, as Beste aptly puts it in our interview below, the “energy, passion and camaraderie of heavy metal culture” that gave rise to it.
Oh, and Defenders also further establishes its bona fides with a soundtrack courtesy Aura Noir and Black Magic, the latter of which you can stream exclusively right before diving into our aforementioned conversation with Beste. Preorder the book — out September 27 — from Sacred Bones right here.
So Defenders of the Faith is a very different beast than the equally excellent True Norwegian Black Metal — obviously they’re all willing subjects, but the latter are determined to project a specific, potent image and vibe while the former are content to be more casually captured, warts and all. Can you talk to me a little bit about how the experiences differed for you, both as an artist and just an ordinary person floating in these milieus?
In addition to portraying battle vests as cultural artifacts, my intention with Defenders was to capture the energy, passion and camaraderie of heavy metal culture. In a world of overly posed, sterile imagery that floods our feeds on a daily basis, I am attempting to take a step back and capture powerful natural and genuine moments within the context of Heavy Metal.
My experience in Norway was completely different. I was young and fresh out of college when I traveled to a foreign country in hopes of documenting a scene that is known for rejecting outsiders. My goal was to get an authentic portrait of the key people involved with black metal in Norway. This took many repeat trips to build the relationships and gain the trust of my subjects.
At what point did you realize that battle-vests-as-artifacts might make an intriguing and potent counterpoint to the candid metaldom photos?
My original idea for this book was to make an entire book of vests on their own as almost a still life photography project. After some time doing this, I realized that giving a human dimension to the project would be a good idea, so I decided to balance the still life vests with portraits and candid moments of the maniacs who make them.
It’s interesting — the focus and separation creates a kind of museum effect. Did you end the project with a deeper appreciate for the Kutten than at the outset?
Absolutely. I have spent countless hours appreciating and studying some of the more complex vests, and during the four years I’ve been working on this book I’ve also been working on several different vests of my own with the patches I collected as a child along with the newer ones I’ve acquired while working on this book. It’s become a late night meditative hobby for the last few years.
Can you tell me a little bit about your own heavy metal journey?
I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, and discovered heavy metal from Headbanger’s Ball when I was nine or ten. I became obsessed with the Big Four as well as the more hair metal side of things in the mid- to late-eighties. At that age, my exposure to metal was limited to MTV, the metal mags at the grocery store, or whatever my local suburban music store carried.
And how about photography? How did you catch that bug?
I started borrowing my mom’s old cheap camera in the mid-nineties in high school to photograph my friends and the punk/hardcore scene that I was into at the time. My intention wasn’t really artistic at first, it was more about documenting the people and places. A couple years later I took my first photography course in college and I was hooked!
You’re known as a photographer who deftly documents music scenes. Is that what you always hoped to do with your photography? Or is that a niche you evolved into?
I’m interested in documenting compelling subcultures that exist on the edge of society. I’m very much drawn to musical subcultures, but not exclusively.
Did doing the Scandinavian Danseband culture and Houston Rap books after Black Metal give you new tools to bring to Defenders?
Working on those two vastly different projects helped me to get out of my comfort zone and grow as a photographer. They brought me into new worlds and forced me to try to get to the heart of two cultures that I previously had no connection to, and was considered an outsider amongst.
So…Biff Byford of Saxon wrote a wonderful introduction — that’s a big fish to land and he didn’t phone it in.
Biff is a legend and I’m so happy that he agreed. The publisher contacted him and showed him the book and he gave us a great intro with no hassle.
Appropriately, Defenders also comes with a top-shelf soundtrack. You’ve got Aura Noir and Black Magic providing tracks. How important was that to you?
I love having a musical component to the books I release. It helps with the immersive experience and also gives fans some special collectors items.
Black Magic is one of my favorite bands and is criminally underrated, in my opinion. It was a great honor to release one of their songs with the classic Aura Noir, who have been good friends of mine since my early days traveling to Norway.
What’s next? Are there any other aspects of heavy metal you might document in the future?
I have several projects in the works — one about UFO culture and a few others that I’m keeping under wraps for the moment.