Between Art and a Hard Place

By: Filip Svensson | March 11, 2022

Krossar IV by Jón Páll Vilhelmsson

It’s a tricky thing, art. For it to happen. And for it not to happen. It’s like some art is just ment to push through, like magma through the crust of the Earth. Or at least this is the feeling I get when I talk to the icelandic photographer Jón Páll Vilhelmsson.


That, and that he doesn’t really like to talk about it.

’I have no words, how could that be?’ I ask Jón when he tells me that his examination exhibition at Brooks Institute of Photography was censored.


– ’America is such a conservative community on the outside, and that school was not an art school, but for commercial photography. And it was the official policy of the school to not condone nude photography, nothing naked, nothing risky.

One was showing his pregnant wife. As innocent and beautiful as you could imagine. I had artistic nudes, nothing that would stir anything up. We were three students showing nudes. And then the third guy had a journalistic story about BDSM prostitutes, very extreme sexual imagery. That’s the one that rocked the boat

And that’s art, and it was defined that this is not an art school. There are a lot of art schools and they looked down on it, the arty-farty stuff. And of course we are talking about photography as art. It’s a strange situation with two sides of the same coin. You have the artist doing commercial work to make a living, and that’s ”bad”. And then he’s exhibiting art and nobody’s buying, and he is starving, and that’s ”good.” And these are two parallell worlds that don’t exist in the same time and space.’


’It’s like it’s impossible to win?’


– ’We read about exceptions in magazines and stuff, and those are the 0,1% who make it. My career is not all bad and my art is now landscape photography, and at one point I even had a private gallery on the main shopping street in Reykjavik. I ran that for 1,5 years selling fine art landscape photography to almost all continents. It was successful, but not successful enough. But that was ten years ago, and now I’m making a living as a commercial artist and photographer. And I’m always trying to get my art out as well. Can I show you my studio?’ >>


Grjótagjá by Jón Páll Vilhelmsson

Jón shows me around in his big studio were he does a lot of his commercial work, but also has his own printing facility where he even does his own framing. And as Jón shows me what his wife calls ”The Black Hole,” meaning his hard drive, we broach the subject of the darker side of creativity:

’When I started my career, I was ”too” creative’

– ’There is all this procrastination, self-sabotage, anxiety. We’ve got all these emotions tied to it… And every day and every week you have to pay rent, bring money home, or… eat. The artist doesn’t really need any of that. It’s a classic story. And of course I would like to do more creative photography. When I started my career, I was too creative. Doing all the darkroom stuff and all the fancy stuff, but the market didn’t want it. They just wanted it plain, well-lit. And eventually you start to do what the market pays you to do. And then you get the stigma that you’re not creative enough! It’s always about finding the balance.

– ’But that is so interesting; how do you find your artistic voice, and then preserve it, and grow it, in an environment that basically says, ”We don’t want your art, we want to see everything well-lit”?’

Jón pauses for a second.

– ’That’s a good question. I’m only 55, I’m still finding the balance and trying to figure out the ultimate answer. Which is 42, as per the Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So, yeah, I’m giving you a bullshit answer.’


’Well, maybe that’s only appropriate…’, I say as we both laugh.

– ’And the Icelandic market is different, it’s only 350 000 people, 200 000 homes, 30 000 businesses. If you’re a New York photographer, you make beautiful still-life pictures of apples. You don’t take pictures of oranges. That’s somebody else. Super niche. But in Iceland, it’s the opposite. I do everything. And if you have your artistic voice and find something specific it, probably needs to be cleansed

and changed quite often because the market is not big enough to support something that is very unique.’


Elaborating on this, Jón tells me that the natives of Iceland don’t seem to appreciate his Icelandic landscapes like people from the outside do, with leads us into a bigger discussion on art. >>

Glacier Lagoon IV by Jón Páll Vilhelmsson

– ’Do you think there is something we could call ”art” with no regard to anyone else?’


– ’Landscape fine art photography is a specific genre, that has meaning to people with an inkling of an idea of that location. If you know nothing about a place, and you have no desire to go to that place, you’re not going to appreciate it. However, a lot of other art can have a universal voice. I think my photography is more Iceland-interest specific. The series is called RAW Iceland.’


– ’I’m not sure I agree, that it’s for people who have Iceland specific interests’ I venture, ’When I first viewed your images I thought ”Icelandic landscapes, and they look kind of similar” but then I looked more closely and realized––that at least for me––they are very different from each other. That each one has a personality. Or a mood. Is that something you have reflected on?


– ’Most of this is unconscious, you’re probably not talking to the right person’ Jón laughs and continues: ’But say I have 100 000 images, there are only a couple of dozen that I consider good enough to be called art. That are elevated. Where everything just falls into place. Most of the time it just doesn’t happen. But there are the rare occasions when things go right, particularly with nature – which is unpredictable. You have to work with the element. And the other side of art, commercial art, I control everything. The people. The lighting. The setting. I create something. But landscape is nature. Unpredictable, so you have to find interesting scenes, particularly when there are challenging conditions. It’s a popular sport… shooting outdoors in Iceland. >>

Eskifjörður by Jón Páll Vilhelmsson

– ’For me your images feel unique, they certainly have a common thread. It’s hard to put a finger on what makes someone’s images unique, put I can definitely feel that there is a ”Jón Páll” about yours.’


– ’I’m not sure I can see it myself, but I appreciate it and I’ve been told this before, so… But that is something unconscious. Landscape is so different from other artforms, like painting when there is a concept behind it and there is a story and a lot of emotion… I don’t want to be negative, but landscape photography is not the most creative.’


Which in turn makes it so fascinating, because there is just the photographer, and nature. With not a lot of room for anything else. So to be able to use what little room for creativity there is to make something unique, is masterful. Which makes me think of my favorite Jón Páll, called Winter Highland.


– ’Oh yes, this is my favorite subject. Very subtle. This is in the highlands, winter time obviously, and what is mostly an shelter for animals. When I had my exhibition with the same series of images, a friend of mine who is also a photographer said, ”Oh, this is Iceland BC.” Before the Vikings, nothing man-made. I’m deliberately avoiding that, I want the raw.’


’It is very interesting, it has this eternal calm to it. I can totally see the Iceland before Christ-angle,’ I chuckle.

Winter Highland by Jón Páll Vilhelmsson

– ’It reminds me of one of my favorite images, that was similar to this one, up on a glacier. But it was unfortunately lost in a tragic accident with no backup. I still think about that image…’


There is something poetic about a timeless landscape, being lost in time. But before I have time to air this reflection, Jón brings up another aspect of his images:

– ’I probably have difficulty getting the commercial artist out of me, but I would like to. But I still have to think about what sells, and what doesn’t sell… I have never received a grant, no support, nothing. Ever. I’m proud when I sell something, when people buy my work. I don’t really respect artists who exhibits at galleries, but nobody buys. It’s great and all, but for me it’s important that people buy.

For instance, my relative was an artist selling landscapes and you can see his work in people’s homes. He sold a couple of thousand paintings and made a living for decades. For me that’s something that lives on. It’s important. But that’s just me… And I love going to galleries and look at other photographer’s work. Even if it’s completely different from mine, it doesn’t matter. I appreciate what other people are doing.’ >>

>> – ’You seem like a very down to earth, grounded in reality type of artist. And it sounds like you live in the real world?’’

’People don’t know how difficult that is’

– ’Yeah, that’s unfortunate!’ laughs Jón and continues, ’The bohemian lifestyle wasn’t self-sustaining. Most of my friends and colleagues, they’re not working as photographers anymore. I’m proud that I’m still able to do this and make a living from it, full-time, for almost 30 years. People don’t know how difficult that is… No one ever quit photography because it was boring – it’s always the money. If you can’t make a living, it’s always a dead end.’


– ’Back in the day, the great artists like Shakespeare and the likes, they had patrons. People from the nobility basically giving them money so they could do art, and nothing else. And that is not really the reality we live in… Speaking of which, I’m still curious about your view on the artistic voice. Like, how do you grow it? Or is it just an illusion that we have one?’


– ’Sorry for dodging the question earlier. I don’t know…’ Jón starts a couple of sentences and grasps for a seemingly fleeting train of thought, but reverts back to ’I don’t know’ and concludes that ’it’s a mystery.’

Brúarárfoss by Jón Páll Vilhelmsson

’I think that’s a good answer, let’s call it a mystery.’


– ’Yes, let’s keep that way!’ Jón chuckles and continues, ’Then of course there is the art, killed by definition. Like when you define the art, it’s no longer art.’


’I love that, that is such an interesting approach to it. And in a sense it’s so true as well.’

– ’We need something unique, unexplained about it. And I find it difficult to talk about landscape fine art photography, there is not much to say about it. For me… You know when you read ”the artists statement”, I just call it ”blah blah blah.” If the art is crap, it doesn’t matter what people write about it. Blah blah bullshit. The art itself has to be the thing. I don’t know where I’m going with this…

Sorry for dodging what is probably the most important question, but I don’t have the answer… It’s in the eyes of the viewer.’


’I think not having an answer to this is a great answer in itself… Now, is there something that we haven’t touched upon that you want to tell me about?’ >>

’It’s the stigma of the artist’

– ’I don’t know. I’ve been ranting for an hour and dodging your questions… I don’t like to talk about my work, but I’m supposed to. It’s the stigma of the artist. I’m not an entertainer. I’m not that kind of person.’


’That is the thing, I think. Trying to keep your artistic soul, while at the same time being a salesman. Talking up your work, doing the blah blah.’


– ’It’s so difficult. But you do need to get it out there.’




It is most positively so.


And it seems that walking a tightrope with the commercial side in one hand, and art in its purest form in the other, is in fact an artform in itself.


And that Jón Páll does it masterfully.


/Filip Svensson

Fagradalsfjall by Jón Páll Vilhelmsson

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