Jüri Seljamaa is a man with a straight posture whose portfolio contains numerous photos that have been taken during thirty long work years. “I do not think there is a thing I have not photographed.” Jüri´s experience and his commitment are admirable. However, looking back at his numerous works he does find some preferences: “If photographing foods is like an appetizer to me, then architecture, decor and design are like dessert. All else stays somewhere in between.”
HOW DID YOU FIND PHOTOGRAPHY?
I don’t exactly know when and how, but in time the interest just came. My mother had a partner who was very interested in photography, maybe it started then – as a young boy I observed everything from the side. I used to be quite athletic – I was involved with athletics – and I always had a camera with me when there were competitions. Friends told me to take pictures and later I shared them with others – then it all started. But this is not my main job. I graduated from technical school as an electrician. I was an electrical engineer in a company called Skanska. I worked there as an engineer for a few years and also photographed on the side. One day the manager said that „Jüri, you take better pictures than our photographer, you should be the photographer.“ So I thought why not. And I did become the photographer. There was an old shooting gallery and I rebuilt it a bit to make it a studio for myself. That is how it all started – since then I have not worked for anyone else.
I love to work by myself, I have always been a lone wolf. I had many other studios after that until I built myself a 300 square meter house and designed a part from it as a studio. Had such a craze for largeness.
SO YOUR OTHER PROFESSION WOULD BE A BUILDER?
Yes, you can say so that my profession is a builder, but photography is my hobby… I know everything about building, I have done absolutely everything when building my house, I even did its project – concrete, glass, a bit of wood, lot of light – I loved it. I also designed the interior and it was at the front cover of magazine Diivan two or three years ago.
Your profession is a builder, but did you also study photography?
In reality I have not studied it, but I have taken different courses. Life and work are the best teachers. You just start doing this job and gradually go in deeper. You learn from experience and make changes if necessary. One work brings along another one and that is how it goes. Basically only practice.
What are you taking pictures of? What field photographer do you consider yourself to be?
In Estonia it is quite hard to define yourself, for example whether you are a food or a fashion photographer. There are so many different things that are photographed and in reality we do not really know what other photographers are doing. I actually take pictures of everything, but interior decor and design are my favourites. If photographing foods is like an appetiser to me, then architecture, decor and design are like dessert. All else stays somewhere in between. But mainly I actually do advertisements.
Is photographing for advertisements different in any ways?
Advertisements have given me a lot of experiences. Different lightings, people, foods and products – every work has its own simpler and more difficult techniques, how something can be done slightly differently. Advertisement makes the photographer think differently and gives a huge experience.
How many customers have you had during all those years?
There have been so many clients that it’s hard to even believe. I just moved and found that in my archive there are boxes full of printed works – everything I have ever done. Nearly 30 years of history as a professional. When I once talked to my friend when starting this work, we decided to divide the market – one takes pictures of planes and the other of submarines – but in reality I have photographed both. (Giggles.) I have photographed airplanes taking off and being in air, from the ground and from a helicopter. I don’t even know what I haven’t taken a picture of. The pictures on the webpage are merely a fraction of my works…
Doesn’t anonymity bother you when photographing for advertisements since there is no name under the picture?
I don’t know, I guess not. This vanity has disappeared with time. In the beginning I did wait for every picture that was published somewhere. I can remember my first picture that was published. My classmate IlmarPalli was working as a journalist in a magazine called Horisont and one day he said: „Hey Jüri, I need a picture. It should be called “Loneliness”. Do you have anything like that?” But I had just been to Kaunas and Vilnius and sometimes simply took pictures of different moods. So I captured not a begger, but someone who was having a rough time: broken shoes, crouched on a bench and fed the pigeons. The picture turned out pretty nice. And it went to the magazine. I remember that when the magazine was supposed to come out, I went to the kiosk several times to see if I could buy it. I was so eager to see my first published work. The salesperson asked me what I was doing there all the time, the magazine would come in a day or two. I still remember the picture with the pigeons since then.
Does being a photographer pay off?
Some says that how difficult can it be to take a picture. For instance, let’s take this piece of cake here (we are sitting in a cafe)… Come take the picture, it couldn’t possibly cost much. In reality it’s not that simple. I am my own employer, I have a studio, a car, I have to pay taxes, buy my own equipment and take care of it. I am not denying that I have had to do a lot of work for all of it to pay off and to buy everything, including my house, by myself. The tempo of photographing during the boom was insane. Four difficult shoots a day, from morning til evening. Now when I sometimes look back, I wonder why I pushed so hard. Honestly, advertising is the field that brings bread to the table. Sometimes you can do art and exhibitions for fun or something emotional, but the main income comes from advertisements. The difference in cost could be tremendous. I am not talking about Finnish prices, there the price per hour for a simple photographer is 50 euros. At the same time we can not truly compare it, we are living in Estonia.
Haven’t you ever considered working abroad?
Why not, new places and people are inspiring. But I have from time to time sent some work to the magazines in Finland and Russia and these have been very interesting projects. I got my first experience in advertising working in a Finnish advertising company for a few months. I think that some change is good once in a while, but in the end all roads lead to home.
Are there many special tips on how to photograph food?
You know, if you have taken pictures all your life, you have discovered all kinds of tips. For example, with meat there is the opportunity to grease it to give it a shine. There have been stories that even motor oil is poured onto food, but I don’t know, there is a border somewhere and it all comes down to your conscience. Instead of red wine you can use blackcurrant juice. Red wine is sometimes so dark that if you want to light it through, nothing happens. At times I mix water with red wine for it to become lighter… Simpler tips are that you do not fry or boil ingredients thoroughly for photographing – that way it keeps its shape. For example it is hard to get a golden crisp on a chicken. It is polished with a special mix, put in the oven and then it comes out beautifully golden brown.
Have you had any really difficult jobs?
I recently had a very difficult job, the client was a piano factory. I thought I had seen everything in my life, but this was very technical. You think that it could not be that hard photographing a piano, but in reality it was really complicated – everything shines! And all else shines from the surface which shines. You cannot hide anywhere yourself – there are reflecting surfaces everywhere… If you put mirrors everywhere in this room that reflect, it would be the same. So I had to build the final picture together from ten pictures. The camera was set and so I took the keyboard, feet, inside and cover all separately and later put them together in the computer. I couldn’t have done it any other way.
Round surfaces are also complicated. Shining bottles, golden reflections – they are the hardest to take pictures of to make these surfaces look entirely the same. These kind of works are complicated, but it all comes down to attitude, so the one who takes pictures of models is a top photographer, but the one photographing a chair is no-one.
Is it easier to be a photographer nowadays thanks to photoshop?
In some ways maybe yes. When you look at the result from the screen and see a fault you can instantly do something about it. It has definitely become more interesting. Although I must say I only use photoshop if really necessary. I am also not so skilled with it. I think that everybody has to have something they are good at. I am skilled at photographing and in advertising companies there are guys who are specialists in photoshop, because they have used it for years…
When I went to an advertising company five years ago, then the designer there, a boy with long hair, asked: “So what did you bring me?”. As the pictures go into the computer, he stretches for a bit and says: “ouch, my back hurts”. In five years I go back, he is still sitting in the same place, maybe a bit more crouched… and still types on his keyboard, only the music in his headphones is slightly different. These boys really have an experience with photoshop, they work with these layers and contrasts every day.
The piano photographing I mentioned earlier gave me quite a big of an experience with photoshop. It is always so, that you start using something only when you really need it. You go to the dentist, when your tooth already hurts. You won’t go to a check-up before that.
Have there been any accidents?
All kinds of weird things have happened… This one time we were shooting an album cover for Sara, a girl from a band called Code One. There was a studio, stilists, hairdressers, costumes. The digital era hadn’t arrived yet. I used like fifteen rolls. But when I got the pictures developed the next day, it turned out they were all ruined. The camera’s shutter had not worked properly.
That is why it’s easier with a digital camera, you can see the picture right away. But when you used a film roll or slides, you saw nothing. And so everything had to be redone. Maybe next time the pictures turned out better, because I was already familiar with that specific shoot. You just gotta swallow these kinds of things. There is nothing to do, it can happen to anyone. Even the Americans had an exploding spaceship…
How to become a really good photographer?
I think only through experience and with a big commitment. Experiences beforehand – thanks to them you know things and notice what needs to be done. For example, I came into this room and the first thing I noticed was not what they serve, instead I started thinking that if I had to take pictures here, what needed to be changed and how’s the lighting. I see that there are only a few lights here, there is not a lot of light coming from the outside, so the corners will be dark… Maybe they need some extra lighting – this can also be added in photoshop, but it is better do be done on the set.
It doesn’t matter what needs to be photographed, the thoughts start running immediately. I get so excited when I work that I forget everything else. I couldn’t do it any differently. I see photographing the same as actors and singers see their job. The actor goes on stage, the curtains are pulled apart and he starts talking or doing something. It’s the same with me. I come, I need to, for example, take pictures of this interior, put people moving, set the lighing. I go so into it all that I forget everything else… When someone offers to drink some tea, I say: “No, not before I’m finished.”
I would like to point out that with every job you also need commitment in addition to experience. It is important that everyone, whatever they are doing, would be professionals. I raise my hat – although I don’t have one at the moment – and bow in front of those who put their heart into their work.
Will you be a photographer for the rest of your life?
Yes, actually it’s a nice profession. Thanks to my job I have seen so much in my life and travelled a lot. All those fancy interiors I have taken pictures of, all these people I have met – it all has given me so much. My work has really broadened my horizon and changed me. Something is happening all the time, one thing leads to another. And every work brings along another one.
-Text Ene Kaasik, KÖÖK magazine-