From Iceland — The Decisive Moment

The Decisive Moment

Published July 11, 2012

Ari Sigvaldason is a doting admirer of ugly duckling Reykjavík

The Decisive Moment
Photo by
Alísa Kalyanova

Ari Sigvaldason is a doting admirer of ugly duckling Reykjavík

Ari Sigvaldason has the relaxed, unhurried sense about him of someone who decides his own working hours. As the owner of Fótógrafí—the only fine photography gallery of its kind in downtown Reykjavík—Ari is in the relatively rare position of making a living, for the most part, off his art.

But Ari is also in the unique position of being a doting, resident street photographer to Reykjavík—scouring the city’s public spaces, alleys and back gardens with the wanderlust of a Romantic poet.

In his shop on Skólavörðustígur—originally opened in 2007 at a slightly larger venue down the same street—Ari sells his photographs alongside those of fellow local legends Jóhannes Frank, Friðþjófur Helgason, Stígur Steinþórsson and Gunnar V. Andrésson, among others.

“I often get people in [the shop] who say that they think Reykjavík is kind of cool,” Ari says. “They find it funny, running into the same people again and again. And for a weekend trip I think it’s ideal—you’re able to see the entire city in three days. But for me, that’s just a challenge. I’ve been taking pictures of people in Reykjavík for the past twenty years or so. And I walk around every day and try to imagine that I’m in a foreign city, try to check out all the back-streets and gardens—to never walk the same way twice. And I’m always finding something new.”


The most recent product of Ari’s unabated curiosity is ‘Shot in Reykjavík,’ a book of his black and white photography shot between the years 1987–1991 and 2004–2012. The book is a reflection of what Ari does best: recording the city’s impromptu moments, moods and faces—resulting in a collection of photographs which, although imbued with the distinct spirit of his city-muse, are often hard to locate in time.

“In black-and-white, you see no difference,” Ari says. “When you take the colour away, it becomes timeless. It can be whenever. Unless you see something that is clearly not in use anymore, like a car. But if it’s just people, then everything is still the same. There is no basic difference.”

“I have always been sort of half-invisible,” Ari continues. “I try to capture people without their noticing and putting up a face. I always have my camera with me, whether I’m at the dentist or out walking or at the mall. In my photographs there is nothing that is staged or arranged, there is just what happened naturally. Most of them are from 101, because I am there the most, but they can just as well be taken at the bar as at the daycare. And anywhere there in between.”

The book blends some of Ari’s personal favourite and best-selling photographs, something that, after five years of selling his prints, he knows a little something about.

“I have very little tolerance for photographs that just hang around years on end without selling,” Ari says. “It’s interesting that portrait photographs don’t really sell. There’s something about not wanting to have faces of strangers up on the wall, people are very shy about that. Which I think is strange, but it seems that if it’s not pop-stars or relatives, people don’t want pictures of them on the wall.”


But though Ari’s photographs may capture Reykjavík with a certain degree of timelessness, there are some things, like the city’s commercial landscape, which have in fact changed.

“It’s a different reality now,” Ari says. Five years ago, when he opened his shop, Ari says, he was selling prints for three to ten times the prices he is selling at now.

“Before the crash people bought much more expensive photos, and it was mostly Icelanders,” Ari says. “Back then we were selling photographs for many hundreds of thousand króna. So I had to change course, it was either that or quit.”

The change in course meant selling smaller prints, and selling them for cheaper, alongside gift items like postcards and photography books—now including Ari’s. One of the biggest unanticipated changes post-crash, however, had to do with the shop’s reliance on tourism, as Ari estimates that as much as 80% of the customers who frequent his shop today are non-locals, the exact opposite, he says, of how it was the year he opened—the folkloric year 2007.

Although his livelihood depends on patrons with foreign currency, Ari’s is not a tourist shop—a label he adamantly resists.

“I’m careful to have certain rules,” Ari says, “because there are so many stores in Iceland that are full of puffins and wool sweaters and ash in bottles. So I decided that there would be nothing in here which was reminiscent of a volcanic eruption or anything like that. No puffins. Nothing tourist-y. I try to have the store a little bit scruffy, maybe not too staged. I want this to be a little bit different.”


Instead, Ari’s shop has a vintage feel, with second-hand furniture, old LPs for sale and analogue cameras littering the shop—one even serving as a door-stop.

“The beauty of it is the freedom,” Ari says. “I am somehow never stressed; I just do this on my own terms. And if I have to do something today, it just says ‘closed today,’ or ‘opens at 17:00.’ To me that is incredibly rewarding, because I worked for so long doing shift-work: working from 08:00 until 20:00, always stressed out about everything. It’s just so much freedom to be able to decide yourself what you’re going to do today. Good for the nervous system. And the temper. It’s sort of a dream job, in that way.”

“And anyway, I would much rather sell more for cheaper. It means my photos exist all around the world. It’s pointless to take photos if they are just going to be stuck in the drawer.”  

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