Nils Jorgensen photographs celebrities for a living. When he’s not out photographing the rich and famous, he sizes-up the rest of the world, taking pictures of us as we are, out there, in the streets of London. No tinsel, no light rigs, no limos.
Simply, Nils creates some of the best “moment-based” street photography I’ve ever seen. And he’s been doing it for years. (Ask him how many undeveloped rolls of Tri-X he has hanging around from his film days.)
I remember first coming across Nils’ photographs after a particularly poor day of my own. And in looking at his work, I was struck by how each frame quietly said, “be patient” and “persevere”. His pictures are like payoffs from an insurance policy on looking.
If the world of Nils’ photographs is a place most only see out of the corner of their eyes, it’s also a place where the impossible is the norm. Whether you’re a photographer or a landscaper, you can’t help but turn your head when you hear someone describe the impossible. And Nils Jorgensen’s photographs do just that (and more) with an enviable consistency.
2point8 (in bold) is glad Nils had the time to discuss his work and working methods.
Q: When you think about your own pictures, what makes them successful? Is it a particular energy that you get from looking at them, a hit? Do they feel hot to the touch? How many particular elements need to be speaking in a photo for you to feel like you’ve captured something that’s potentially engaging to a viewer?
A: I’ve no idea what makes a photograph work. I might like one photograph for a particular reason, and another for other reasons. A photo doesn’t have to have a predetermined number of elements in it before I like it. But it’s important to communicate something, to tell a story, even if it is only short or simple. One of my Flickr contacts Ole IsÃ¸-Nielsen kindly complimented me on my work saying that my photos “manage to generate some kind of narrative, which evolves after looking at the images for some time”. I do recall the times in the darkroom when I held a new, still wet print in my hands, and looked at the image large for the first time, and saying to myself, yes that works. This was a strong moment. It’s a little different now with computers, where you can blow up and view large many, mostly bad, photos within seconds. I do not regret this, it’s just different.
Q: Can you talk a bit about how your professional photo work complements or conflicts with your pursuits on the street?
A: I sometimes find it difficult to keep my personal work going alongside my professional work. There is a conflict of between the two worlds. Professionally I work much faster, meeting deadlines and clients’ needs and so forth. So there is less time to take a more quiet, reflective and personal view. But in a way, I have found that this ‘conflict’ can be constructive. For example, it takes one’s mind off problems in either camp, for a short period of time. After a week shooting celebrities, it’s nice to come back to my street photography. And equally it’s nice to go back to work after too much street photography. But I sometimes feel like my mind is split into two halves.
Q: London. What makes it a particularly good (or bad) city to photograph on the street?
A: I’m sure it’s true to say that every major city provides it’s own unique opportunities for street photography. But I have lived and worked mostly in London. And London is a wonderful place to photograph in and has certainly been source of great inspiration, even if I may not always have been aware it. In an article for See Saw Magazine, Sophie Howarth writes about the ‘Onto The Streets’ exhibition (now on tour in Greece), and she describes London as “a vibrant metropolis rather than an elegant city, functional but not coherent”, which I think is a very good description.
Q: I’ve mentioned elsewhere here (or at least I thought I did) that there are two strong and particular streams in street photography: the Sander/Arbus/conversation side and the H.C.Bresson/Winogrand/candid side. Can you talk a bit about how you ended-up on the moment-based Winogrand side? Have you done much conversation-based portrait work, or is it always candids?
A: Getting involved and talking to people is simply not the way I like to work, nor has it ever occurred to me to do so. It is not in my nature to approach people unless forced to for some reason. It could be that early on I was too embarrassed to approach people, and have simply kept working like that ever since. But the truth is I don’t really want to disturb the flow of life around me. I much prefer waiting and hoping for something to happen. It’s also much simpler. For me the whole point of photography is not to interfere with what is happening, or might be about to happen. It could be more interesting than what I might have in mind anyway. If nothing happens, that’s just too bad.
Q: Why street photography? It takes a lot of time, it’s potentially troublesome, and sometimes people yell at you. Are the rewards worth it?
A: It is a question I have never contemplated too much. It is just something I do. Of course, it’s relatively easy to get started. To start, all you have to do is wander around aimlessly, with a camera. This bit comes naturally to me, and I have no urge to be more constructive with my time. But of course, as you say, it takes a lot of time, and you can wander the streets all day and maybe not have anything to show for it. So that aspect is much less easy. To create an image which remains strong year after year is extraordinarily difficult. The images which remain good over the years become precious to you, as you cannot easily go out and get a few more. Then there are the doldrums, from which one cannot believe one will ever come out of. It can all change in one quick moment. And one may think one can artificially speed things up, (and naturally it helps not to sit at home all day), but in the end there is nothing you can do, except wait and wander. For me an image is just as likely to come to you by just waiting for it to arrive, rather than to go searching for it.
Q: In looking at your pictures in the last year, I’ve been struck by their consistent sense of humor. Did you come to take pictures because you wanted to capture these fleeting, (often funny) moments, or for altogether other reasons?
A: Yes, I like taking photographs with humour. And I like the reaction from people when they see them too, so maybe this is in part a motivating factor. To affect someone positively in this way is nice. But otherwise I am not sure of the reasons for these photos. I saw Elliot Erwitt’s work early on in my life, and loved it, but I was never aware of myself setting off to emulate him. For example, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go out and ‘look for funny photos’. Anyway this mostly results in failure for me, and being depressed when nothing happens. So better just not to think about it too much and just keep taking photos of anything that comes along. True, this leads to a lot of bad photos, but it also leads to an exploring attitude which I quite like. It can be quite surprising what happens, the way things look, when photographed. So if in doubt, take a photograph. My main aim maybe is mostly just to try to take a better photo than the last one. I collect images, in the same way some people like collecting stamps, I suppose. It’s the same thing really. Humorous photos are difficult to do. Bob Dylan said, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”.
“Chain” was taken near where I live, in Wimbledon, London, a woman peering through a square hole of a locked gate, which has been chained shut. It’s a simple scene, but one which becomes strange when photographed. It is this last ingredient which fascinates me. The transformation of a random and meaningless events into new meaning. I sometimes take many photos of a scene, hundreds even. At other times it can be no more than a couple of frames, as was the case here. The woman didn’t stay for long so I coudn’t explore different compositions.
“Kicking Statue” was taken at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I had already taken several photographs of the man looking at the small white square on the wall. He was facing away from me with his hat in his hands, when he dropped the hat, and leant to pick it up, and I was ready to pounce. Taken some twenty years ago, with a Leica M2, on Tri-X. I lived through film days some considerable time, and loved B/W film. But the digital era arrived and has been such a wonderful thing. Even now, after using it for some six or seven years, I can hardly contain my excitement. The most important thing is the image, and it matters less to me on what medium it was taken. And digital has enabled a whole new generation of photographers, myself included, to more easily explore colour in the same way that they did B/W.
“Maddog”, came about because the dog was being thrown sticks to fetch. A stick landed in the bush and the dog leapt up to get it. Again a simple image, which came about through a simple course of events, and a good example of how an image can come out of nowhere. This aspect, as I’ve mentioned, has always intrigued me, how you can make an arresting image out of a simple and unimportant event, close to home.