An interview with photographer Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson
Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson is one of Iceland’s best photographers, acclaimed for his unique pictures of Iceland and Icelanders. I sat down with him in his studio in downtown Reykjavík. It’s beginning to smell of autumn and the leaves are starting to shiver on their branches, never forgetting their cruel fate. But forget the leaves, remember the photographs.
Why, I ask Sigurgeir, did you start taking photos?
“It started as a hobby in school,” Sigurgeir says, “I was taking pictures of my friends. I was a drummer in a band and later a manager. I was asked to take some photos for an album cover and I kind of started a career as a rock photographer.”
Sigurgeir went on in the world of photography and studied, first in Iceland, then in Stockholm and later in San Diego. He was one of the local pioneers of commercial photography and worked in advertising for many years, he says. “In Iceland you have to be very versatile, you can’t focus on just one kind of photography. When I was working for the advertising business I had to take photos of food, cars, fashion—everything. We were very ambitious, if the project was taking photos of a can of beans, we would do everything we could to make it good.”
When he’s not pleasing a customer, however, Sigurgeir says he has more freedom to do what he feels is right. “Things won’t turn out well if you’re always chasing other people’s taste,” he says.
While he is no longer a rock photographer, there is a certain music in his photos. He explains: “There is music in the photos, but I don’t always choose what music it is. Different kinds of music can control where I stop my car and go out to take photos. I think Mahler was composing his Fifth Symphony when his publisher approached him, wanting to talk about the landscape around him. Mahler answered briefly that he could find all this landscape in his music.”
Lost in Iceland
Sigurgeir is best known for his landscape photography today. His book ‘Landscapes,’ published in 1998, was a breakthrough in local landscape photography.
“At first I thought landscape photography was cheap, I looked down on that kind of photography,” Sigurgeir says. He was nevertheless commissioned, mostly because of his advertising experience, to take photos for a calendar for one of Iceland’s biggest firms. He did that for nine years, and that’s when his passion for Icelandic landscape was born.
Following ‘Landscapes,’ he published his most famous book, ‘Lost In Iceland,’ which radically changed the way Iceland was promoted abroad. “It was unheard of to promote Iceland with a dark photo full of rain! I think I’m getting closer to the experience of tourists visiting Iceland. We must not get over-touristic. People come to Iceland to get to know themselves through Iceland and the circumstances are often challenging.”
Sigurgeir says this experience is changing. “I remember when I first came to Dettifoss waterfall. You had to walk narrow paths to get close to it and it somehow helped you experience the greatness. It’s a different experience now when you drive a paved road all the way down,” he says.
“I have travelled a lot and one thing that makes Iceland so special is that you don’t have to drive for hours before you see the next spectacular place. It has a special dimension, a unique horizon and diversity you learn to appreciate when you travel in parts of the world.”
This is a quality that he says we must not lose. “Icelandic tourism is quite greedy at the moment. I can’t imagine the experience of travelling around Iceland in a bus for ten days listening to a guide talking all day in the speakers, telling you how Iceland is. You don’t have to tell people anything about Iceland. Iceland is an experience that happens. The less you know about Iceland, the more powerful the experience is.”
Who are Icelanders?
In 2004, Sigurgeir teamed up with writer Unnur Jökulsdóttir to make the wonderful portrait book, ‘Icelanders.’ In this book, Sigurgeir and Unnur documented lives and opinions of Icelanders all around Iceland.
“Many people were surprised that we were going around Iceland taking photographs and interviewing people that they thought were odd,” Sigurgeir says. “We didn’t find the people odd; they were really close to nature and maybe a little eccentric. It was remarkable, the strong opinions that many of the people we met had. They weren’t holding their thoughts back.”
“This was a book that was quite a surprise for many people, including our publishers,” Sigurgeir says and smiles. Originally 4000 copies of the book were printed, but 25,000 copies have since been sold.
It’s A Small World
Most recently, Sigurgeir published a book he calls ‘Iceland—A Small World,’ which is quite literally small. In fact, it fits easily in your pocket. He came up with the title after visiting Disney World and hearing the “It’s A Small World” song.
And in some ways, he says, Iceland is like being in another world, like Disney World in another dimension. “This is how I experience Iceland. I think Iceland is a world of its own. You can see so many elements in this small world,” he says.
“I tried to fill the book with photos to match what I was thinking. It was when I found this photo of a house in Hofsós, a house my wife told me to photograph, that everything clicked. It’s a happy and unusual photo that shows independent people, two families living in one house, and they don’t imitate each other; they keep their own style. This photo fits the title perfectly, as it could be a doll-house.”
You could say that the book has grown though, because Sigurgeir has since then also published a larger version. “I must admit that I wanted to see the photos in a bigger book,” Sigurgeir says. “It has come as a surprise that many people actually buy both versions.”
Back to the studio. It is in an old house in the centre of Reykjavík. The walls show some of the highlights from Sigurgeir’s career. We talk about the photographer’s point of view.
“A photo freezes the moment, stops the time, and all of a sudden you have taken the picture out of a bigger context,” Sigurgeir says. “No photo is really true. You just see what the photographer wanted you to see. There is a photo by Diane Arbus of a little boy with a hand grenade in his hands and he’s terrified. I have seen all twelve photos from this sequence and the other photos don’t say anything, they’re lifeless. There is just this one photo that shows this deep feeling that is so magnificently powerful.”