What could be More Ordinary
An interview with Einar Falur Ingólfsson
I guess these works grew out of periods of homesickness when I was studying photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. The photographs may also own something to nostalgic memories of my adolescent years in Gardabaer where I grew up. This is no revaluation of my childhood, however, but rather an ode to the past. Even though I'm only in my late thirties, I feel it is invigorating to look back every once in a while.
People often ask me with amazement: "Is it possible to take pictures in Gardabaer?" Of course, this series is a natural continuation of what I have been doing, photographing the most ordinary things I can find in our environment. And what could be more ordinary than Gardabaer — this peaceful suburb in the outskirts of Reykjavik?
Are you being sentimental?
No at all, but some people claim these pictures to be more emotionally charged than my previous work. I'm nonetheless very emotionally connected to those places you see in the pictures.
What happened in these places?
Ívar looks at one of the pictures and says: "This was the Elves Pond where we used to ice-skate. I don't know anything else about this little pond except that it was gone when I took the picture. I don't know how we managed to ice-skate there, it's such a tiny spot"
"This picture shows the path between the streets of Smaraflöt and Stekkjarflöt. According to our childhood beliefs a sailor from the Faeroe Islands was buried there and this place was haunted", says Ívar and laughs.
I don't have much else to say about these pictures, I hope they can stand as independent works of art. I'm not trying to capture something that occurred in those places, although the images may trigger off people's memories. People reacted in all kinds of ways to those pictures during the exhibition. One woman told me: "This is like looking out of your window." She was perhaps referring to the full frame which reminded her of a window-frame. A pious old man attached religious connotations to the triptychs. And yet others noticed that the photographs are sharper than our normal eyesight, but they are made from 4'' x 5" negatives.
For me the panorama effect is a photo-historical citation because the earliest panorama pictures were done with this technique; several pictures were taken from a single viewpoint and then lined up to make one piece. This method has lately come back into vogue.
Some photographers have asked me why I don't just buy myself a panorama camera, but I think that this method captures more accurately how the eye pieces a panoramic view together; the eye accumulates the scenes one by one although we may be aware of the entire visual field. Besides, panorama cameras are expensive and I would not get the same result, the limitations are much greater. I always work full frame and can therefore add as many pictures as I want later in the process. Moreover, the pictures would loose quality if they were made from a single negative and I would have to have them enlarged by others to get this size. It has always been important for me to do all the work myself.
Do you regard these pictures as documentary work?
Almost all photographs become documents sooner or later. Good documentary photography is still very undervalued in Iceland and it is sad how little role it plays today. Whole suburbs are built without any attempt being made to document it on behalf of the city or the state. I doubt that Grafarvogur, the most recent suburb in Reykjavik, has systematically been documented, or that the municipal authorities have any intention of recording the future of Geldingarnes, the next chapter to Reykjavik. But as I said, I do not regard my pictures from Gardabaer as documentary photographs. The only reason I took them was that I felt like doing it.
Icelandic photographers have not embraced our environment in this manner. How would you describe your aesthetics?
I'm searching for simplicity and the most mundane of things, this charming ordinary aspect of life that one senses in everything. After I had been studying for some time in San Francisco, an Icelandic photographer told me that my pictures had become boring. I thought about that for some time — what is a boring photograph? — and I have still not come up with an answer. Perhaps one can find similarities in contemporary music. Many find contemporary music extremely boring and turn off the radio or switch to another channel as soon as they hear it. But you must be patient if you want to learn how to appreciate it. The same holds true about contemporary fine art photography; it demands that you to slow down and look at it differently than movies, magazines or newspapers.
Can we speak of Icelandic photography as a tradition?
Most Icelandic photographers are very ignorant about the history of their medium, both as regards their own tradition and international movements. It amazes me how easily Icelandic photographers are forgotten. When I was taking my first steps as a photographer, Gunnar Hannesson was a big name. Nobody seems to remember him now. Older photographers like Páll Jónsson, Egill H. Arnórsson and many others are almost entirely forgotten. It is strange how easily those who work with this medium are forgotten — the medium that is supposed to fix our memory! One might draw the conclusion that there were no master photographers to be found in Iceland since the museums never display them. Jón Kaldal is probably the only household name in the field. People usually associate pioneer photographer Sigfús Eymundsson with a bookstore in Reykjavik that bears his name rathe than his works, but to me he is one of the best photographers Iceland has ever produced.
There is no place in Iceland were you can see photographic portraits, and yet the photograph is the main portrait medium of the twentieth century. Names like Ólafur Magnússon, Sigríður Zoega and Pétur Brynjólfsson have long since passed into oblivion, but all of them were great portrait artists. Some of the historical museums, such as the National Museum, have collected photographs and deserve to be praised for that. The art museums on the other hand have almost totally ignored the medium, and hardly ever purchase works by contemporary photographers. A few photographs by Magnús Ólafsson and Pétur Brynjólfsson used to be registered at the National Gallery, but when the museum moved to its present location the works were left behind for the National Museum.
Photo books are rarely published in this land of bibliophiles, as Icelanders would like to see themselves, with the exception of landscape photography. This genre is nurtured by the tourist industry and driven by the prospect of quick and easy profit.
You received a six month stipend from the Icelandic State Fund for Artists in 1996. Did that change anything?
I managed to put up this show that is based on pictures taken between 1992-93, and did another show last year in connection with the presidential campaign of 1996. It also helped me to concentrate on a big project I have been working on for a long time, which is documenting various stores in Iceland. Sales-wise this didn't of course change anything. The oil pollution in Icelandic art is still overwhelming. On top of that, Icelandic critics and art historians seem to have very little knowledge about the history of photography, or interest in it for that matters, which is probably unique in the western world.
(The daily newspaper Morgunbladid, April 30, 1997. Transl. HS)