Interview with.. Jói Kjartans

Photos by Jói Kjartans

Jói Kjartans is a 28 year old Icelandic photographer who goes through rolls of film like Tony Montana went through product. He spends practically every moment he can shooting whatever catches his eye and he has an uncanny ability to capture the essential spirit of his subjects, all of whom he tends to shoot in moments of transition. He studied graphic design at The Iceland Academy of the Arts but has been taking photographs since he was 12 years old. He is fascinated by colors and only uses film cameras to capture them. In 2008 and 2009 he lived in New York where he assisted Icelandic fashion photographer Magnus Unnar. Joi has held five solo exhibitions in Reykjavik and participated in shows in Chicago and Paris. He has shot for magazines such as Vice, Neon, Nylon and Dazed & Confused.

Can you tell us something about you?
I’m a 28 year old graphic designer who has always been interested in photography. I’m self taught in a way, I’ve always been an avid reader of fashion magazines such as The Face, Dazed & I-D and I read every photography book I get my hands on. My involvment with photography has been kind of strange, I got an digital camera when I was 15 years old, in 1997 and took pictures at my schools events and parties. This continued until I was at art school and I bought a film camera at the Portabello market in London. When I got the first film back from the developers there was no turning back. Since then I’ve shot over 2000 films, mostly snapshots of people and places in Reykjavík and abroad. I’ve also done some portraits and fashion shoots and intend to do more in the near future.

Where do you live and work now?
I live and work in Reykjavík, Iceland. I was born and raised here and I intend to die here, but in the meantime I want to travel the world as much as I can and collect memories and take pictures. At the end of summer I will move to Oslo, Norway to work with whatever and hopefully discover some new and interesting perspectives.

How did you start taking pictures? Usually there is always the old story of the boy who finds his grandfather’s camera, did that happen to you as well or not?
That’s exactly it! When my grandmother and grandfather passed away when I was 12 yeas old I inherited an old Polaroid camera from them that was still working. I got it in a big white bag and I remember how excited I was, because I had never tried such a machine. That was my first camera and in retrospect I’m very grateful to have started shooting photographs on such a soulful camera. It inspired me to take pictures for the first time in my life. I also remember trying to be funny when labeling the pictures and still today words are also a big part of me. My grandfather was an abstract painter and my grandmother was an book-translator who spoke seven languages, so I guess the Polaroid camera kind of joined them both for me in that little machine.

Have you thought right away to follow the existing trends in photography or has it been a need to look for different styles and themes that have motivated you?
I have always gone my own way and taken pictures of things that I like. I don’t care about trends or fashions. I just have this overwhelming desire to take pictures of things and show them to people. And if people actually like my picture of a pile of garbage cans then that’s just all dandy! But they don’t have to like it. They just have to see it. I also have a few rules. I don’t photoshop my pictures. Never. And I always try to use the viewfinder. What I hate about modern digital cameras is their lack of a viewfinder. It’s like taking a picture with your hand, not your eyes.

Where your inspiration comes from?
I look at books and magazines. And I always carry a camera with me. This forces me to always have my eyes open. I have always been inspired by the moment rather than something too posed. The old masters Henri Cartier-Bresson and Jacques Henri Lartigue have taught me alot about the decisive moments. William Eggleston and Stephen Shore inspired me to use color and travel to widen my perspectives. Juergen Teller, Wolfgang Tillmans and Walter Pfeiffer fascinated me with their german discipline and unconventional ventures into fashion photography. Of allt the talented jerks in New York I specially love Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson and Magnus Unnar and their endless search for interesting moments within prearranged settings.

In a portrait, what is important for you?
The contact with the subject is most important. If I want the subject to smile, I want it to smile to me but not the camera. I’m a very shy person so the camera works as a buffer in the relationship with the subject. It also opens doors I would never go through otherwise. Many portrait photographers use 70mm lenses or something and shoot from afar, to give people space. But I like to use 28mm or 35mm lenses and stay up close. I don’t want the subject to forget they are being photographed, I want to catch them and I want to catch them quickly. Most people dislike being photographed and I feel that it shows at the end of a long shoot. Therefor I try to keep it quick and focused.

Witch kind of relationship do you have with your subject when you shoot?
It depends on what the subject is. If it’s a sitting I try to get to know the subject a little beforehand. If I’m shooting in Reykjavík, it is most likely that I will know the subject or that it will know me since the place isn’t that big. I tend to get people to smile pretty easily, since I smile alot myself. I’m also quite tall, around 192cm, and when shooting people I want to shoot them at eye level. This forces me to put myself in the most ridiculous poses which make people laugh. I don’t mind looking like an idiot if it gives me a good picture!

According to you, fashion photography can be taken the old way or the digital format is predominantly the way to do it nowadays with no way back?
I sure hope there will be a way back. I only want to shoot film but economicly that is getting harder and harder. Magazines and customers in general are reluctant to pay for developing these days. Digital has taken over but sadly that doesn’t seem to have lower the price of films and developing at all. My experience is that when shooting digital I shoot 1000 pictures each shoot and always intend to go through them and edit but for me that’s a very hard process when you have over 50 pictures of almost the same motif. With film I only have 36 pictures each film which forces me to focus a little bit more on editing through the viewfinder, rather than the day after in front of a computer with an stomach ulcer and a deadline hanging over my head.

What does it mean for you now “Streetphotography”?
Basicly everybody is doing streetphotography these days with all this hipstamatic and instagram and whatnot going on in their phones. But for me that is a form of film blasphemy. Shooting pictures with a phone and imitating the look of film is sort of like fake orgasm. It looks right but feels wrong! I love street photography and the work of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, specially because of their talent and abilty to make the mundane look overly exciting. I want to be able to do mix that element with the momental spontaniety of Cartier-Bresson and Henri Lartigue, and their reflection on humans interacting with their surroundings.

Do you think it’s important to follow a school to learn how to shoot?
I studied graphic design but at school I took some photography courses. I learnt to develop and blow up pictures in color but never in black and white, which I think is kind of funny. In Iceland we don’t have a university that teaches photography so I was sort of forced to teach myself. I don’t know anything about F-stops and all that stuff, I just use auto-focus cameras with a flash, preferably as small as possible, when on the road. For professional shoots I use a little bit more advanced equipment but still all-auto. In Iceland people usually go abroad to study photography but I haven’t been interested in that up until now. Ryan McGinley studied graphic design and Stephen Shore didn’t study at all, so I think the need of school is arbitrary. Every individual should choose what suits them best. I want to be able to mix photography with graphic design, so I intend to get a mastes in Art Direction or something magazine related in the near future, instead of getting another B.A. degree.

What’s the photo you want to take and you never did?
I wish I had taken Juergen Tellers portrait of William Eggleston sitting at a big piano in a Memphis parking lot. Such a beautiful picture. I once came in contact with Eggleston’s assistant, Christian Patterson which is also a very good photographer and deserves credit for archiving alot of Egglestons work, and publishing it at I wanted to go to Memphis but I decided to go to New York instead to assist Magnus Unnar, since he’s Icelandic and his style is closer to mine. But had I gone to Memphis, taking this picture would have been my magnum opus.

What’s your photo-mission?
My photo-mission is to try to develop further and study more, by myself and from others. I want to continue shooting film even though it means I’ll have to travel to the world’s end to shoot the last ones. Film has more soul and until I find a digital camera that can translate that soul I’m going to stick to it. Some might say I’m stuck in the past, but to me the past always comes back and becomes part of the future, over and over again. Kind of a catch-22 thing. The archives of the future are not going to be gigantic hard drives. We need something more solid than that. People will descover that screens are not the future. Paper, print and film will always be part of our lives. It isn’t enough for us too look, we need the touch as well.

What’s your last project that are you working on ?
I went to the Roskilde Music Festival in Denmark in the beginning of July and stayed there for a week. I’ve been a part of a project called Live Project ( where we shoot videos and photographs at events like the Reykjavík Fashion Festival and post them live on the websites right away. Roskilde invited us to be the official broadcaster of the festival this year. As an experiment with this medium (and trying to overcome my own film snobbery) I also had an solo exhibition at the Reykjavík Museum of Photography. I sent them 50 of the best pictures each day which were printed and hung up at the museum each day. The title of the exhibition is Almost Live and will be up until August 24th.

There are in these recent years a lot of emerging photographer (or something like that). In your opinion, if you have to give a tip to be different.. what are you going to think about?
I would suggest that people look for inspiration outside of photography. That should work for all creatives. Follow your instincts and don’t try to imitate others. If you follow your heart and your eye and shoot endlessly your personality and style is bound to shine through! And stay positive!

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