Interview with Joel Tjintjelaar (March 2015)

Joel Tjintjelaar

Joel Tjintjelaar

Ⓒ Copyright Joel Tjintjelaar and reproduced with kind permission.

Joel is an award winning Dutch fine art photographer currently best known for his stunning architectural work. The majority of his published works are long exposures, mostly taken with a tilt-shift lens (his favourite lens), converted to black and white and then taken well beyond what the camera is capable of to realise his vision. His control of light is masterful.

It's a privilege to bring this interview to you and I'd like to thank Joel for the time and consideration I know he has given this.

I've included just a few examples of his work but you'll find many more in the gallery on his website (link at the end of the interview).

1) Why are you a photographer?

I guess to me it’s the only way I can express myself in a way I find essential and liberating at this moment. Creativity and the ability to express oneself is an essential need to give meaning to one’s life. I guess I do this because I need to give meaning to my life.

2) What did you do before being a professional photographer?

I was trained as a criminal lawyer but I wasn’t so much into the more practical and business side of criminal law, but I found the philosophy behind criminal law and why people not only need rewards but also punishments, far more interesting. Because of this I decided to do something different at some point and I went into the world of IT. I’ve stayed there for around 18 years as an expert in testing and decided to quit the corporate rat race last year September. It was time to really start living and do the things I love to do for the rest of my life. And now I’m a professional photographer who travels the world to teach workshops, shoot photographs in beautiful locations, and do some commissioned work that I like.

3) How did you get into the business of pro photography?

Because I loved photography and creating, I was quite good at it and I got to travel the world. So why not make it a professional activity? What could be better to get paid for what you love to do? Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t become a photographer to make money, but because I loved it and because I needed it in my life. And because I was passionate about it, it showed in my work and I could make money with it.

4) How did you initially expect to earn the majority of your income; through print sales, or stock photography, or training/workshops, etc.?

Let me first start off by saying that I never considered print sales to be the majority of my income. When I first started to think about making money with photography I tried doing that by selling prints. That was the first thing that came to mind. But after trying that for a few years and I only sold a few prints I knew that this is not the way to make money in photography. Yes there are artists who make a lot of money with selling prints but they’re largely artists from before the digital Social Media era. People like Michael Kenna for example were already a household name in the world of exclusive galleries and that’s the only way to really sell prints. Not through the Internet. In this day and age in which everyone takes photos and is a self proclaimed artist (including myself) it is almost impossible to get a foot in the door of galleries. Stock photography is something I don’t give serious attention to: stock agencies want to make a lot of money at the expense of artists. In my case the majority of my income comes from the real life and online workshops and mentorships I do, the sales from book and videos and also from the sales of the Formatt-Hitech filters with my name on it. This makes up for the base of my income. Apart from that I get to do the occasional commissioned project for the automotive industry for example. These are very lucrative but happen very rarely. But if I do get one, then basically I don’t have to work for the rest of the year. And at the moment of writing this I am happy to say that I’ve started selling prints again but not through online galleries but by being represented by a gallery in New York and Las Vegas. Again, that’s the only way to seriously sell prints.

5) Did the reality of your commercial success meet your expectations or did you achieve that success unexpectedly?

I had no expectations at all, I never aspired to be a professional photographer. It all happened unexpectedly. I don’t think in art you should aspire to be a professional artist. You just do what you love and express yourself in the way you feel comfortable with and then sometimes unexpected things can happen.

6) What has been the highlight of your career so far?

Hard to say. I mean when I was first published in one of the biggest magazines in the world I thought that was the highlight of my photographic career. Then BMW bought my photos and I was asked to be the main character in the world wide launch and campaign of the Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro2 and I won 1st and 2nd prizes at the IPA 4 times in 5 years. And I did major commissioned work for clients in the German Automotive industry and I created video tutorials and wrote a book with Julia Anna Gospodarou, a book that is considered by so many people to be one of the best books on B&W photography in the digital era and even of the last 40 years. And now I’m going to exhibit my work in a gallery in New York City and Las Vegas. And in between an ND filter kit with my name on it has seen the light of day and is also a best seller. I don’t know what the real highlight is but come to think of it, I think the highlight is that I was in the position last year to quit my daytime job that I had for 16 years to pursue photography full-time and be my own boss. That has always been my dream: not to be a professional photographer but to be someone who can do what he loves to do, without a boss to whom I need to report or who decides what I do, travel the world and even make money with it. That was my highlight and probably that will always be my highlight, even if the unlikely chance will occur that my prints will be sold for millions of dollars. Being free and do what you want and do what you passionately love and on top being paid for it, is everyone’s dream.

7) What do you think of social media as a tool for your business? How much should we, as amateur or professional photographers, care about social media?

I think Social Media is an important tool for business and it’s not something to be taken lightly. Around 6 years ago the way to get exposure was to be published in a real magazine. These days if I get published in a magazine the response on it is close to zero, but if I do an interview on a well known blog and I share the link on my Social Media then the response is far higher and the indirect effects on for example sales of videos or book are very noticeable. I estimate that 80% of my success is based on the Social media I use. If you use social media then make sure you think carefully about an approach how to reach your audience. Don’t just sell a product, no one is interested in that, but try to sell who you are.

8) How do you personally handle the volumes of 'noise' in the social media landscape?

I simply ignore them. It’s something you have to live with and the best thing is to keep your eye open for everything. Sometimes you can find something interesting in all the ‘noise’.

9) You cite Cole Thompson as having an influence on your work but what other photographers or artists do you admire and why?

Yes Cole Thompson is one of the artists I admire and there are many others. But not only in the world of photography. To name a few names from the world of photography who influenced me: the great portrait photographers like Irving Penn and Yousuf Karsh. But also artists like Arnold Newman, Jean Loup Sieff, Helmut Newton, Ralph Gibson, Nick Brandt and Edward Weston. Outside of the world of photography I always loved architecture, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid are my heroes in architecture. Furthermore I love the great Dutch Masters of the Golden Age like Rembrandt and Frans Hals. I love Caravaggio's and Michaelangelo’s work. They are a massive inspiration and what many photographers don’t realise is that you can learn more from art forms like painting and sculpture that exist for thousands of years than from the art of photography itself, that exists for less than 200 years. It’s a very young art form: we have yet so much to learn from other disciplines.

10) Do you keep an eye on emerging photographers and, if so, do you see them as potential competition or always as another positive influence?

I always keep an eye on other photographers and other artists as well. I would be very shortsighted if I only looked at other photographers to be inspired and to evolve myself, so I let myself be inspired by other art disciplines as well. To be honest, when I just started making name as a photographer I also saw them as competition. And that had a very negative effect on my development because it is a ridiculous attitude for any artist to let your art be ruled by how others see the world and express that in their art. Art should be the inevitable expression of an internalised view on the world we live in, not the result of competitive impulses. Of course looking at other artists can help you go through an artistic drought, it can help you in building your own artistic vision on the world, but it should never lead you.

11) In either case, do they help keep you fresh?

See my answer above, yes they can help keep you fresh, but again, they should never be determining your own artistic vision.

12) You talk about having a vision in some of your training material and your website is BWVISION, of course, but do you always have a vision for the look you want to achieve before you press the shutter button? Does it have to be black and white to achieve the vision?

In the beginning, I had nothing. Just a camera and the passion to do something with that and shoot photos. Then something that resembled a vision came to me and I became better, I even won awards and got published. I didn’t have a real vision back then, just a glimpse of it. Now, at present day, having won many awards, being published many times, having done some fantastic commissioned work, being represented by galleries in NYC and Vegas, and again having improved on my work, I still only have a glimpse of a vision. Vision is not something static and fixed. It’s dynamic and ever evolving, just like the person who represents it evolves physically and mentally, just like the world he lives in evolves on so many levels. I wonder what vision I will have in a few years, maybe then I’ll be happy with it. I hope not. As for does it have to be black and white: most of the times yes, because that’s how I can effectively express myself. But sometimes I do some things in colour. Not because I dislike colour, it’s just that with the limitation of tonal values in B&W, I have this feeling my artistic expression has less limitations.

13) Was it a gradual process to reach the distinctive style you are known for or did something click suddenly for you, either artistically or technically?

It was a gradual process before I knew what I wanted to express and how. I was always drawn by drama, by contrasts in light, by emotive scenes and not only in photography, but generally. I knew I had to do something with shadows for example. That’s something that I’ve always been drawn to in my life. The mystery of shadows, of darkness. But I didn’t know how to apply that in a logical way in my photos in the beginning. I had no clue, I just wanted to make nice pictures. But after I’ve shot and created a number of pretty photos, I started to get bored and thought: is this it? Just create pretty pictures? So at some point I started to look inside instead of only outside and dug deep what inspired me, what motivated me. And now I’m at a point that I can translate some of my passions, some of my motivations to a photograph. But I’m not there yet, there’s so much more to explore. It is a gradual process and sometimes it clicks suddenly, after years of trying!

14) Your style has changed recently, perhaps partly through the increased use of luminosity masks. This is speeding up your workflow but was that the main driver for introducing them to your workflow?

Speeding up my workflow was one of the drivers. Together with the need to control every aspect in my photographs. I thought that with my iSGM method I could control every aspect in my photos but I couldn’t. I missed some control on very subtle parts in my photos that I wanted to control rigorously. And I found that by including the luminosity masks in my workflow I can control every element in my workflow. And that it helped speeding up my process, was a nice bonus!

15) What else influences changes in your style?

My mood. The way life, love and this world I live in, is affecting my emotional being. Only that influences my style.

16) Do you ever feel confined by being so well known for a particular style? If so, how do you handle that frustration?

No, never. I do what I love and if I want to do something else in photography, then I’ll just do it. I don’t plan to confine myself to a style, to success or public opinion. The fact that I create architectural images right now was my free choice. If I stop doing that, it will be because I don’t like doing architecture anymore. And if I do something else, let’s say portraiture, then that will also be a free choice.

17) Is the post processing more important than the image you capture?

I think they’re equally important. In the post processing phase I like to change those things that a camera can’t record the way I envisioned it, simply because the camera doesn’t have the technological qualities to record it. A camera can’t see the same depth that the human eye can see, a camera doesn’t have the same dynamic range as the human eye, it doesn’t come close. I like to change things like that in post processing, but I’m always limited to the subject matter and composition that I’ve captured with my camera. Those things, I won’t change and at the same time I need those things, because they form the base of my artistic expression. Compare it with a very specific piece of marble that Michelangelo cut from a rock to use as the base for his final sculpture. He chose a very specific piece of marble, not another similar one, no just that one piece he chose from the quarry. He couldn’t have worked with another piece of marble because his final sculpture as he envisioned it, couldn’t be seen in another piece. The same for photography: I can’t process anything if I don’t see it in the original RAW image.

18) I'm not going to ask you about your workflow as you generously offer a wealth of material that goes into detail on that but what would you say is the single most important aspect of the post-processing workflow for you?

The fact that what my camera can’t capture, I can create. That what my camera can’t see, I can see and express that in my photo. The most important aspect therefore is that my post-processing workflow enables me to create a photograph that expresses a part of what I saw and felt, not what the camera saw and never felt.

19) What gives you the most satisfaction in the creative process?

If what I had in mind has taken a life of its own on print. If what I had felt can be visualised.

20) Do you ever abandon work part the way through the process if you're not satisfied with it and, if so, do you always go back and complete it or do you have abandoned work still incomplete from years ago?

Yes I still have some work that is incomplete simply because at some point it didn’t visualise what I wanted to express and in a few occasions also because it was technically too complex to complete it within a reasonable amount of time. I will go back to the latter because I’ve now found a faster and more elegant solution for all the technical issues I had.

21) What feeds your passion? When was the last time you felt truly inspired?

Daily life and other art like music, good books and movies and people who have the ability to inspire.

22) How do you ensure you continually grow as a photographer and artist?

I don’t think it’s possible to ensure that process. The only thing I can do is to continue being curious. For example: I am known as a long exposure photographer of architecture and seascapes but that doesn’t mean my interest is focused on that type of work only. I study photography in all its aspects and I do a lot of portrait and still life work as well, although I very rarely publish that. And I continue to do that in an even more extensive form. Besides that I also like to dive into the history of photography, the more theoretical side of photography and fine-art. But it doesn’t stop there. I’m interested in art in general. I’ve been studying a lot of paintings and did a lot of reading on it over the past 25 years and there’s no better way to improve your photography by studying the great masters of the past. Vermeer can teach you a lot about light and composition and perspective, Frans Hals and Rembrandt can teach you a lot on portraiture and also the art of group portraiture (I’m sure famous photographer Anton Corbijn who did a lot of album covers for bands like U2 and other artists, has been influenced by Frans Hals for his group shots - just look at the way his individual subjects interact with each other, just like in Frans Hals group portraiture paintings), Caravaggio shows what chiaroscuro is. So as long as you’re being curious and genuinely interested in art then you will also look outside your own genre and outside photography and you will see that art in general and the history of art can teach you a lot and will help you improve your photography and maybe even be innovative.

23) Do you think there is still a lot of the same journey to explore or do you think you might start looking for alternative creative paths soon?

I think there’s still a lot to explore in photography for me. But I’m moving more and more towards portraiture and will do less architecture. It’s something I always wanted to do and my first passion in photography. Apart from that I like to make music.

24) What are your ambitions or aspirations now?

I’ve always loved portraiture and perhaps especially the environmental portraiture from Arnold Newman. But apart from Newman, Yousuf Karsh, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon have created portraits that I aspire to create myself one day, hopefully in my own typical style. Which is the hardest part: to create something different than what I do now, architecture, and that my work can still be recognised as mine. That’s my ambition.

25) If you had to pick one image from your catalogue that makes a statement about you, which would it be and why?

I think I would pick my Salk Institute photograph with as subtitle, Feeding Water To The Ocean (http://galleries.bwvision.com/Categorie/Architecture/i-RrpN3cm/A). It’s with that photograph that I defined the architectural style that you still see in my photographs today and on top of that, it’s also with that photograph that I developed my B&W post processing style in concrete detail and my artistic vision on B&W photography in general.

26) What advice would you give aspiring fine art photographers who want to achieve commercial success?

Never aim for commercial success in the first place, aim to be happy with what you create with your camera. Make sure that what you photograph is something you like to photograph, make sure that when you start processing your photograph that it’s what you wanted to create. If you do what you love and you do it with passion, it will show in your work. If it will show in your work, commercial success is more likely than when you aim for commercial success in the first place and creating beautiful photographs is just a necessary part of that aim. It won’t work. Unless your name is Peter Lik:) In other words: Don’t pursue a career, don’t aim for success, don’t chase the money, follow your passion, do what you love and everything else will follow in larger numbers than when you chased it. You will never regret doing what you love, even if you failed badly, but you will always regret not doing what you loved.

27) How does Joel Tjintjelaar typically spend free time?

I have another passion besides photography: I love music, I love to play and make music myself. I’m a latin percussion player and have several instruments so I’ve been making a lot of music!

 

So there you have it. Insightful and inspiring thoughts from a man who has done so much to shape the world of fine art architectural photography. I look forward to watching Joel venture into portraiture and have no doubt he'll continue to bring his own compelling vision to the images he'll make.

If this is one of the first times you've come across Joel's work and would like to know more about his workflow, including his Speed Workflow, I highly recommend Joel's tutorials, available from his website.

And if you want to go deeper into the philosophy and practical aspects of fine art architectural and long exposure photography, check out the book that he mentioned above that he co-authored with Julia Anna Gospodarou: From Basics to Fine Art - B&W Photography - Architecture and Beyond

Joel's Website: www.bwvision.com

You can follow Joel on Facebook and on Flickr.

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