After reading this entry on Iceland Review, I was really looking forward to the photography exhibition on Karl Christian Nielsen hosted by Reykjavik Museum of Photography. Karl Christian Nielsen was a man of the people and, for his time, a pioneer. He portrayed in several photographs the life and the places of Icelanders. Rarely the working class was into this kind of occupations and the reason is not hard to understand: pursuing photography full time was too much in terms of time and resources.
For a bitter irony, I could never find the time to go take a look at the exhibition with my own eyes. When I finally managed to go, I got to the museum too late, thus the experience was spoiled in part (the staff politely invited me to hurry up while I was only halfway through, so I examined the last twenty or so photographs in a frenzied state while hyperventilating through my front teeth).
The fact I didn’t have enough time to look carefully at each photo doesn’t imply I was not impressed by what I saw: a tiny tender hand holding a prized doll, a ribbon adorning a girl’s head, a new pair of shoes; ladies promenading in Austurvöllur in their Sunday best, men engaged in road tarring work. All these faces and their stories. The joy and the pain of meeting them through these black and white images. It takes nothing to see how history weighed hard on these people. In Karl Christian Nielsen’s photographs, the levity of simple gestures exposes the gravity of life. Trivialities from the city of Reykjavík’s past transpiring from the stills, in all these details, in the recognizable places, in the signs of everyday life. The smiling folks in their labor attire, girls too young to endure motherhood, children playing among construction sites; and then also the occasional social gatherings, the memorable public events, glimpses of the upper class. Above everything else, the artist’s face, so serene, looking straight at the camera, almost knowingly. Karl’s photos are social commentary about his times, but they are also the honest visual account of an artist that couldn’t accomplish to make a living out of his passion.
Very different — and yet not so different — from the current situation, when with money and the right connections anybody can turn a costly hobby like photography into a (successful?) career. It’s limitations and the ability to make them work in their advantage that usually define real artists, but limitations alone don’t serve the artist, in the long run. It’s often publicity that breaths life into artistic creation. Too bad, but success has its own price; a price that many artists cannot afford to pay. Stories like Karl Christian Nielsen’s are far from uncommon: how many names are buried into oblivion and how many are still waiting to be discovered? We tend to like art for its seductive packaging, but confusing success with excellence is one of the common misconceptions of contemporary arts. Not all artists are good at selling their names and their creations, not all of them are experienced businessmen. Not for this reason their art must necessarily be seen as less valuable and worth of recognition.
The exhibition on Karl Christian Nielsen, “Reykjavík Citizens – Photos from a Working Man”, is open until the 28th of August at Reykjavik Museum of Photography.