A Glimpse into Icelandic Photography: The Work of Gudmundur Ingólfsson

In retrospect, I can say that all my interactions with the island country of Iceland have in some way or another been facilitated by Gudmundur Ingolfsson. Knowing him first through his photographic exchange with my father, Wayne Gudmundson, allowed me to witness his penchant for jokes and storytelling, be amazed at his encyclopedic mind, and get to know Iceland in a more profound way, but looking into his photographic career, which spans some 40 years, offered a new perspective on his artistically rich life.

In retrospect, I can say that all my interactions with the island country of Iceland have in some way or another been facilitated by Gudmundur Ingolfsson. Knowing him first through his photographic exchange with my father, Wayne Gudmundson, allowed me to witness his penchant for jokes and storytelling, be amazed at his encyclopedic mind, and get to know Iceland in a more profound way, but looking into his photographic career, which spans some 40 years, offered a new perspective on his artistically rich life. Beginning as a student of Otto Steinert at the Folkwang College of Arts, Guðmundur went on to work commercially through his studio IMYND (image in Icelandic) and has specialized in culinary, architectural, and artistic performance photography, besides his personal work. Below we speak of the mix between commercial and personal, his photographic beginnings, and a look at photography in Iceland, all while visually showcasing Guðmundur’s personal work.

How did your experiences as a student of Otto Steinert’s help begin your photographic career?

I studied dentistry for two semesters and when I gave it up I needed to study something “respectable.” I simply couldn’t be an apprentice to a photographer in Reykjavik. There was this place in Germany that was the first, and maybe even the first place in Europe, where they taught photography on an academic level. This had already started 10-15 years earlier in the U.S., soon after the War. Steinert had started in Saarbrucken and he became a director of the school there and they gave him the title of professor. When he moved to Essen, there were better facilities and better finances. He also started a collection of photography for the city of Essen. He was originally a medical doctor, a dermatologist, who had given up medicine for photography. I simply wrote a letter to introduce myself and sent some pictures. Steinert, plus a committee at the school, decided if you were accepted or not.

Erosion, 1970

What did you send in your portfolio?

I had been photographing for at least 10 years by then. So I sent a selection of portraits of bricklayers and artistic views of sewage pipes, all very grainy using an Ilford film called HPS, like one of my heroes Bruce Davidson. I saw many of those application portfolios later, from people that have really made it a long way in photography and there was always something individualistic about those ones. What people are looking for in a portfolio like this is something original, something that comes from you. They always looked for something personal more than technical expertise.

Fjalla Church, North Dakota, 1994

What sort of things marked you being a student in 1968 Germany?

We didn’t know it then but generation 68 would later be considered special. In the fall of 1968 everyone was somehow involved because there was strike at almost every higher educational institute. The students were striking against the system, the establishment. Some of the old teachers became really sentimental about this because they felt they were being striked against personally. This was in a way very romantic and funny. You might join a revolutionary group like the Trotskyists or the Spartakists because there were good-looking girls in that group. People would run through the streets in a special way chanting “Ho Ho Ho Chi Min,” and some only had a vague idea who that was. This was a revolution in the making, but the goals were not very obvious. Very soon in 1969 people turned away from the political agenda to their studies and their careers, being the true egoists that the generation 68 are.

Catholic Basketball, 1989

Your work was recently included in the exhibit and book “The Selection: Icelandic Photography 1866-2009.” How do you feel about being in this “canon” of Icelandic of photography?

The curator’s original idea was to select a “soccer team” of 11 photographers. This can very much be disputed, especially the selection of the photographers who are deceased. He could easily have selected 20 photographers, or 25 even but there is also a space limit in a gallery, thus he chose seven deceased photographers and four living artists and from the living he only selected those born before 1958. It was entirely his idea and his selection.

View from the Kitchen Window, 1976

How do you describe your personal work?

My images are about the architecture, signs, graffiti, cars, people…

I’m inspired by curiosity. I ended up documenting Reykjavik a lot. It started in the 80s and I’m still doing it. The city is changing very quickly and I think there should be a few photographers that document the city. Each time they take a photo, the camera should be leveled and they should note the day and time, like a sort of surveillance. I’m not that exact with my work though. Almost every city is documented like that, but since no one is doing it in Reykjavik, I try to do so as my time allows. Our first real photographer Sigfús Eymundsson came to Reykjavik and started photographing in 1866. His photographs of the city center are such very important historical documents, besides being fantastic photographs. He was a true entrepreneur, a bookbinder, publisher-bookseller and a travel agent. As an agent for the Allen line he sold fairs to emigrants to America and also photographed this activity thoroughly. When documenting down town Reykjavík, I hope I am paying him a tribute. I sort of whisper to myself: “Hope you like this Mr. Eymundsson, wherever you are.”

Gimli Manitoba, 1994

How do you balance your personal and commercial work?

It’s nothing to do with balance – you make commercial work to make a living and you use as much of your personal time to make your personal work. That’s how it’s split up.

What kinds of commercial work have you done?

Well, it changes a lot. There have been years where I’ve photographed nothing but food or architecture. This past year and half I’ve been photographing artwork, both paintings and sculptures. I’m also doing pre-press work; I scan images, clean them, and adjust the colors and contrast. Artists, during the past 25 years, have made a lot of installations and performances, which are never properly documented. If an artist wants their work to be shown in the future, especially in a book, there need to be good still photographs. There are really no good quality stills of those 25 years because they mostly took the photographs themselves, on lousy cameras, with lousy technical knowledge, and on film that leaks color.

A Pink Summerhouse, 1999

How did you become specialized in photographing culinary creations? And what different techniques or processes does this specialty require of the photographer?

You need to be prepared for such assignments. You need good lighting equipment. Right now, it is fashionable to photograph food out of focus. I sometimes have the feeling, when I see modern food photography, it doesn’t really show what you’re going to get. It’s like the vision of a very shortsighted, hungry man. When I photographed food, and I haven’t done so for a number of years, you would see what you were going to get. I would photograph it precisely; you could see the texture.

What was the creative exchange between you and the chef?

There is usually a cook, a food stylist, and the photographer. The food stylist gets all the materials needed: the plates, the cutlery, the pots and pans, napkins, tablecloths etc. The stylist selects the mood and then the cook tries to prepare the food as precisely as possible to fit that mood. In many cases you have just one person doing both the styling and the cooking. Then the photographer takes care of the rest. I think one of the problems with modern food photography is that the client is trying to save on the food styling by showing only a tiny corner of the dish and wanting the rest far out of focus thus avoiding the meticulous preparation it takes to show the whole thing.

After the Crash, 11.08

And did you enjoy this work?

Yes, it was a good job for a hungry man. In the early days, they would make many things artificial and the food would be inedible, but the strobe lights made the process so fast that the food hadn’t even cooled off by the time we finished shooting.

Why did you stop?

I think I became out of fashion. I was not un-sharp enough. No, really it was because the look of the food photographs drifted another way.

Hverfisgata, 2009

How has Icelandic photography, as a trade or as an art, evolved since you began in the 1970s?

In the 60s there was about 12 photographers in Reykjavik and they were doing black and white only and serving people only on a personal level: taking passport photographs, or portraits mostly connected to festive occasions. They would do heavy manual retouching so you would look your best. That’s how it looked in 1968. This has totally changed: now everything is in color and shot digitally. Everyone is photoshopped until he looks like a piece of marzipan tart.

Interview by LG