Interview with Joel Tjintjelaar

Joel Tjintjelaar is a black and white photographer, author, and educator who teaches workshops on black and white and fine art photography, architectural photography and long exposure photography, around the world.

Joel uses digital SLR and Medium Format cameras, and analog 4×5 large format cameras, without favouring one over the other. Born in Jakarta and moved to the Netherlands as a young boy, Joel calls the world his home, not so much the country he lives in.

Having aspired for the more artistic professions like architecture, music and writing from an early age, Joel ended up studying Criminal law and working in the IT for many years to make a living. This, however, could never suppress his needs for creative expression, and photography was his preferred way of meeting those needs.

For Joel photography didn’t stop by just clicking the shutter. That was just a necessary part of an approach to photography and art that also encompasses a specific way of black and white post processing in the digital darkroom. He developed his own signature method of post-processing that has been adopted by many of his students and followers around the world, to not only create beauty but also communicate emotions.

His love for writing is reflected in the many tutorials and essays he wrote on photography and how art can be created with that medium.

Joel is also the co-author with Julia Anna Gospodarou of the 424 pages eBook From Basics to Fine Art – Black and White Photography – architecture and beyond released in 2014.

Interview

LEMAG: Dear Joel, thank you for finding time to speak to us, much appreciated.

It is undeniable that your innovative approach to monochrome long exposure photography has changed the way in which many people perceive their surroundings, be it man-made or natural environment. It no longer suffice to pop a 10-stop filter in from of the lens and simply fire away. It has been a bit of a fascinating journey to follow the development of your long exposure technique and see how its popularity spreads – and at the same time see the changes in your own oeuvre. You have now thousands of followers and a great deal of them uses your technique to create their own long exposure architecture images, very often with excellent result. Were you in any way surprised by this popularity?

Joel Tjintjelaar: I need to make a correction. I surely wasn’t the first to use long exposurein monochrome photography, there were so many before me. And therefore I would argue that I changed the way many people perceive their surrounding. People like Michael Kenna, Alexey Titarenko, Michael Levin and David Burdeny to name but a few, were there long before me, influencing in a decisive way how the world of B&W landscape photography looks like these days. I wasn’t even the first to do this with man-made structures, a handful of other photographers, Marc Koegel and Kevin Kwok for example, did that before me as well. But what I think I contributed to when it comes to long exposure photography is to educate people about long exposure photography and how to be more effective at it, openly and freely, and with doing that, opening up the way for many other people to use this once elusive technique, when I arguably published one of the very first free tutorials on long exposure photography in 2009. And what I think I contributed more is to popularize the genre of long exposure B&W architectural photography specifically by picking up what others before me explored and left for me, and then giving it a look that attracted many people. I think that and giving away my methods and technique, both in-camera and in post, to a larger audience, was one of my more important contributions.

So after making this correction, the answers I give in the subsequent questions should be related to that aspect specifically. But to answer your question: yes I was surprised initially because I could never have known it would reach such popularity and I think a large part of that popularity has to do with me sharing knowledge on how to create photos like I did.

LEMAG: What about the images coming from various people become repetitive? Did you not fear that? After all it was your vision, which the world at large bought into ecstatically (we witness this every day with hundreds of images mimicking your achievement being posted daily on photography pages and blogs), but great many of them only blindly follow what you have already achieved and there is very little sign of someone taking your ideas further and developing them into a new quality, at least for now.

Joel Tjintjelaar: I never feared that, but I never expected it would become so ubiquitous. When it comes to fine-art B&W architecture, I don’t agree that there’s little sign of others taking existing ideas further. There are not many, you’re right about that, but I have to mention that especially Julia Anna Gospodarou gave architectural photography another personal voice and developed her own unique ideas. Also she has been copied many times and she did influence me too by her own personal views on architecture and the way she gave it a larger theoretical and philosophical context and how she presented it. It is only fair and respectful to also give credit to her when we talk about B&W fine-art architectural photography and the popularity it has received in recent years. But I don’t fear emulation, what I fear is disrespect and denying the shoulders you once stood on and the brains you once picked from.

Hence I’m making name dropping a point in this interview. Not because any of the names I dropped here asked me to or to return any of them a favour so they can all drop my name too, I just don’t care about that and I don’t expect any of that. But only because they also deserve to be honoured and respected and I don’t have the illusion that I’m some once in a lifetime miracle. Because I’m not. If you’re allowing me space for this interview, then I would like to use it to suggest to start respecting each other more and wilfully not acknowledging your influences but blowing your own horn once you have a large following, is something I detest. And if you want to emulate my work, feel free to do so, it’s why I write tutorials and sell videos and books for. How you’re going to use your success after that, is a different story and it’s up to you what you do with it.

LEMAG: Yet, looking at your early work, it was not early clear that you will deploy such a popular technique, nor it was obvious that you would be focusing on architecture. What prompt you to move in this direction?

Joel Tjintjelaar: When it comes down to technique, then I don’t have a clear answer. It’s not that I wanted to develop a technique for the sake of doing so. Everything I do serves a specific practical purpose and back then I found that there was not a specific technique available that would consistently result in the type of photographs I had in mind, without leaving it to chance.

There was Photoshop obviously and you could dodge and burn, play with the various B&W options in PS like the colour sliders and then there was Silver Efex Pro, the predecessor of the extremely successful Silver Efex Pro2. But it was always a matter of trial and error, just try and see where you end up.

I like trials, but I don’t like errors so I had to develop a method and an underlying philosophy supporting that method, myself, to achieve more consistent results. So I did, and I’m still sticking to that method and right now I’ve come to the point that I have an elegant solution for every problem. Of course it needed to be more than just a solution, it needed to fit within the existing philosophy. All in all it was born out of a personal need. As for architecture, I had a love for architecture from a very young age and I always wanted to be an architect, but for various reasons I never fulfilled that path. So it wasn’t that surprising to somehow shoot architectural photographs at some point.

LEMAG: Who would you say was your biggest influencer?

Joel Tjintjelaar: The answer is more or less in line with what I said before about paying respect and giving credit where credit is due and naming just one big influencer isn’t in line with practical reality. And it would do injustice to all those people who have influenced me consciously and subconsciously if I don’t name them. Therefore, I have to do a lot of name-dropping here to do justice to who really influenced me. It’s easy to just name the big names in interviews, that everybody names, and ignore the rest, as if the smaller and lesser known names don’t really count and my artistic inspiration is directly derived from all the iconic masters in photography like Ansel Adams. While in fact, it’s all the unknown photographers who made me what I am, not the usual famous suspects. It surprises me too often see interviews of artists whose work is in the popular minimalistic style of MichaelLevin and David Burdeny for example and then claim that Ansel Adams is their biggest influence. Well, Adams wasn’t known for his minimalist stylised seascapes. Or an artist whose work is full of architecture and then for example names Michael Kenna and another iconic photographer who never photographed architecture. As if there’s some artistic vacuum between the great masters of photography and the artist being asked for his/ her influences. I’m sorry but that’s just arrogant and they’re giving themselves a place in photography history that reveals little self-knowledge and respect towards others. It’s as if singer Justin Bieber says that he’s influenced by Mozart, and Lady Gaga by Beethoven. I know many people will hate me for saying this, but I do not care. This egoistic and egotistic attitude has become the new normal in this age of the Internet, and I’m not going along with that and I know I made that mistake myself in the past. So I’m going to name quite a few people here, because they all influenced me and to correct for the mistakes I made in the past. I know I’m going to forget some, but that’s not deliberate. So here it is.

So, I’m not going to name the usual suspects, the big names like Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon or Michael Kenna. I’m a fan of their work, but they didn’t influence me as much as the photographers in the following list of names. Many of them are photographers most people won’t know, but I know them and they all influenced me more than any other big name you can think of.

I already mentioned Julia Anna Gospodarou. If there’s anyone who pushed me further than I thought I could go, then it is her. She set some benchmarks in architectural and fine-art photography, practically but also theoretically, no one else in the present time did. Think about it, how many contemporary photographers can you name who not only creates beautiful work but can also present a theoretical framework of the work created and of fine-art photography in general? I know no other. You have to go back in time a few decades to find Adams who not only created but also gave a theoretical framework. Furthermore people like Cole Thompson for his deep dark Black and White work that inspired me to go deep and dark too in my architectural work. My former friends on Flickr like Nathan Wirth, Kevin Kwok, Maria Stromvik, Iain Gilmour, Brian Day, Jeff Gaydash and Joshua Wyborn. All of them are people with whom I explored long exposure photography and Black and White photography. Marc Koegel for his fantastic long exposure architectural work that was a direct trigger for me to explore architecture.

Then there are very talented and successful photographers like Athena Carey, Sharon Tenenbaum, Moises Levy, Hengki Koentjoro, Michael Levin, Daniel Portal, Mike Diblicek, Richard Terpolilli, Armand Dijcks, Mabry Campbell, Rod Clark, John Kosmopoulos, Swee C Oh, Thibault Roland, Luca Cesari, Sandra Canning, Sophie Voituron, Christophe Audebert, WalterLuttenberger, Nune Karamyan and so many more, whom I all had the pleasure to meet, sometimes several times on several occasions, in real life (I also met with JuliaAnna, Jeff Gaydash, Marc Koegel, and Maria Stromvik several times and many other photographers in real life to be complete) and they all contributed to what I am now due to the intensive online and real life interactions I had with them over the years.

My old photography friend Kees Smans with whom I went out shooting so many times in the past and Henk Bijl with whom I’m shooting with frequently these days. They may not know it but they made me better and without them I probably wouldn’t evengo out shooting. My students and especially my long time mentorship students with whom I have so many interesting discussions and without whom I wouldn’t be inspired to improve and learn and teach more. My students enriched my life and inspired me to give it all. All these people I mentioned here, and all I forgot to mention here, they all truly inspired me more than all the big names in photography could ever do. They all influenced me in a way that’s far more profound and decisive than the famous names everyone knows. All the accolades, awards and publications, are due to them because they were heart-warming, interesting, passionate, fun and like-minded people with whom I exchanged so many words, ideas and appreciation.

Not a distant famous figure with whom I’ve never exchanged a word with but my photography friends and peers. I’m also a fan of the work of the famous photographers we all know, but saying they influenced me would be an insult to the lesser known photographers who really influenced me.

LEMAG: You have recently announced (the same time presenting your new image‘ Porthouse Antwerp IV’ that you will depart from shooting architecture and move to something that is ‘in favour of something different with which I can better express how I see this world and life and my place in it’ as you put it – portrait photography.I imagine that for many of those who hold you are the father of modern approach to architecture photography it came out of the blue and was a bit of a shock, sort of a Bob Dylan announcing choosing electric guitar moment. All artists need a break ora change to be able to develop but a total change of direction requires a lot of time and very new ideas.

‘I’m done with it, there’s nothing to explore any more for me personally’ you said about shooting architecture – but the question that comes to mind is: do you have something brand new to say or will you base your new work on the same concept you developed for your previous work?

Joel Tjintjelaar: As artists we always strive to say something new, but if I succeed in that, that remains the question. I know what I want to say with portraiture, but I don’t know if it will come across. And if it is something new, is something I actually don’t care about.

The most important thing for me is that it is something I believe in and am passionate about and fits in my view of what an artist should try to express. In any case I want to express more than just a beautiful picture.

I want to express what drives me, what elates me and what hurts me. And I think I need to do this with portraiture. This all doesn’t mean I won’t shoot or publish architectural work anymore, it just has less priority. But I have to try and improve myself, I can’t do things simply because they proved to be successful, but I have to do things in the hope it’s the fullest expression of myself. And if I fail, then I hope I fail hard. That’s how we learn and improve.

LEMAG: It can be argued that every picture is, in fact, a portrait. Do you already have amore specific idea of the direction in which you would like to head your work?

Joel Tjintjelaar: Coincidentally I’ve written a new blog post that is based on Minor White’s statement that every photograph is in fact a self-portrait and what I want to express in my new work is described in detail in that article. But what I want to express with portraiture is myself, not the sitter. And what I exactly want to express with that is something I cannot explain in words, I think it should become clear when you will see the portraits I’ve created by then. I already know what I want to express, but I’m not sure of the visual style yet. Which is something different than the meaning behind the portraits. The visual style and aesthetics are supposed to form a symbiotic relationship with the meaning behind it for it to be effective. But I think details are less important and that it is going to be more about shapes and contrasts in my portraiture work, expressing emotions, desires and frustrations, I can’t and won’t talk about.

LEMAG: If you were to name your biggest photographic achievement so far, what would that be?

Joel Tjintjelaar: I think that of everything I have achieved, the biggest achievement is to know that I’ve inspired people to either pick up B&W photography or create similar photographs. There’s nothing more rewarding than that. People telling me I’ve inspired them, that’s a more rewarding feeling than all the awards I’ve won and all the publications I’ve had in magazines and all the exhibitions I’ve done in galleries overthe world. Just a simple word of gratitude over email or in person, those personal stories and human interactions are what I remember and value most.

LEMAG: My favourite image by you is ‘Heart of darkness I’. Do you have your own from your work done so far?

Joel Tjintjelaar: I think I have a preference for the Pantheon photograph and the Salk Institute photograph as that was the first photo I created, entirely built on the concepts of creating presence and use of exaggerated shadows to obscure visual noise which resulted also in the baseline of my B&W work-flow. BTW, Heart of Darkness was its initial, working name, but I later renamed it to Visual Acoustics – Calatrava Bridge.

LEMAG: I guess the reason why I enjoy ‘Heart of darkness I’ so much pertains directly with your notion of ‘presence’ in photography, which I find a very powerful one. I wanted to ask you to explain a bit more about it to those who meet your work for the first time and also to say if the same concept will permeate your new work.

Joel Tjintjelaar: Presence or creating presence is a phrase used by George DeWolfe, and I found it a beautiful phrase to use myself. What I mean with that is nothing more than creating depth in objects and in scenes by altering the distribution of light and shadows in objects.

That can result in an exaggerated perception of depth that is already present when perceived by the human eye, and which is less present when captured by a camera. Or it can result in an entire change of the original direction of light and shadow. The exaggerated shadows are a part of this concept with the additional purpose of creating a sense of mystery and at the same time obscuring irrelevant and distracting objects (details) in a scene. And this will always be a part of my work, any work i do. But one has to be aware to what extent this remains powerful and effective as it depends on the type of work you do. A man-made object lends itself more to exaggerated physical depth than a human object for example. I would approach humans therefore in a more subtle way when it comes to creating depth to not distract from the fact I want to say something about myself when I create fine-art portraits and that it is not about the one being portrayed.For that you have other types of portraiture like fashion, glamour or editorial photography. (read my latest article to get to know more on this: https://www.bwvision.com/ on-portraiture-and-self-portraiture-in-photography/ )

LEMAG: And what about the idea of photography not being a means to reflect the reality but to depart from it in order to present something hidden or deeper or the artist himself? Will you continue this?

Joel Tjintjelaar: I will always continue this, no matter the type of photographs I take and create as a means of fine- art expression. If I don’t use the objects in my photographs in a more or less symbolic way, it would be hard to express something deeper or meaningful of the artist him/herself. And that’s the purpose of any art. It is not impossible but it would be less effective. Besides, it would also be lessaesthetic. Abstractions of reality, by distorting it, moving away from it or by simplifying it to its most fundamental shape, have always proven to be perceived as more aesthetic by every conscious form of life.

LEMAG: Let us talk for a moment about emotions in photography. What is that draws you to photography, what are you looking for and what you aim to give your viewers?

Joel Tjintjelaar: Basically I look for beauty and to experience something I haven’t experienced before. Whether this experience is something purely aesthetic, a profound emotion, an intellectual idea or a social-cultural message, is irrelevant. It’s the mental experience that counts. So that’s also what I try to convey to my viewers: an experience they haven’t experienced before wrapped in an aesthetic package that hasn’t been used before, for as much as that is possible. I also try to avoid cliches as a cliche is nothing more than an experience I’ve experienced before.

LEMAG: From your videos I gather you are a fan of Milles Davis. Let me ask what does Joel Tjintjelaar enjoy part from photography?

Joel Tjintjelaar: First I love music to listen to and to make myself. I play percussion and I’ve been doing that on and off for years. Furthermore, reading books and everything that is worth reading on the Internet is an important part of my day. I also love traveling and I even like waiting in the airport as it gives me an opportunity to have time for myself and to observe people without being creepy. I love solitude and the isolation of a remote location but I love being among people in crowded cities as well. l. Basically I love and value everything that allows me to explore and know myself and the world better.

LEMAG: Joel, thank you very much for your time, and best of luck with your new work. We are sure to present it again.

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