Soren Solkaer Digs Beneath ‘Surface’ for Street Artist Portraits

By - Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Shepard Fairey’s Subliminal Projects gallery wraps noted Danish photographer Soren Solkaer’s “Surface” exhibition today after a month-long residency. For “Surface” Solkaer spent the past three years traveling the world photographing renowned street artists in front of and interacting with their art in public spaces for unique portraits.

The passion project culminated in a luxe coffee table book of the same name that serves as a portrait anthology of many significant street artists in the contemporary art scene, as well as many of the genre’s pioneering icons.

“Surface” found Solkaer sojourning to Copenhagen, Stavanger, London, Miami, Newcastle, Paris, Berlin, Athens, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Sydney and Melbourne in order to track down street artists in their natural habitats of rooftops, back alleys, train stations, studios and walls. All told Solkaer shot more than 140 artists for the project.

Solkaer often used artificial lighting on location, and sometimes utilized masks or props to obscure the artist’s identity, some of whom have never revealed their faces. The collaborative effort between photographer and subject forms a distinct melange of urban landscape, street art and portrait photography.

For the show at Subliminal Projects Solkaer reached out to 14 of his subjects and asked them to hand paint over their portrait in order to create a unique, collaborative artwork. “In this way, the portrait is reconfigured into a self-portrait, addressing the idea of artwork as an extension of the artist and highlighting alternative visual avenues for capturing and communicating identity,” Solkaer said. A few of those selected artists were CYRCLE, DABSMYLA, LEE, RISK and SABER.

“When you add the additions of the artists working back into their own piece—I love what RISK did because of what he’s added to the original it all gets very kind of confusing with what he did versus what Soren’s done with the lighting,” Fairey told 12ozProphet in between breaks DJ’ing at the opening night reception. “So this back-and-forth interplay between the analog and the digital—the photographic—is really fascinating. It adds another layer to things.”

For Solkaer, who spoke at length about the project to 12ozProphet, “Surface” is the culmination of a lifelong fascination with street art and urban culture. Growing up in southern Denmark Solkaer was an avid breakdancer, and with movies like Beat Street, Wild Style and Style Wars paving the way, Solkaer came to idolize SEEN, LEE, Grandmaster Flash and Africa Bambaataa.  

By showing “Surface” at Subliminal Projects, Solkaer’s three-year journey came 360 as Fairey was the first artist he shot, not exactly knowing where the project would take him. For Fairey’s portrait Solkaer utilized red and blue lights to pay homage to the artist’s iconic Barack Obama piece. 

“The majority of my projects have been collaborating with other creatives,” Solkaer told 12ozProphet. “Actually my very first project in the nineties was photographing other photographers in the style of their own photography–something I spent a few years doing–so this is a natural succession of other projects I’ve done. I photographed Shepard in 2011, and that first image came out interestingly. I think it said something about him personally, and about me as a photographer, and that kind of became the concept of the project.”

For Fairey’s part, it was inevitable that “Surface” would be on display in his gallery.

“When Soren approached me about having the show here of course it made sense,” Fairey said. “I was committed to it from the get-go. Honestly, we’ve had less commercial success selling photography, but we do show a lot of street art and graffiti-based work. To me, I love photography. I consider photography fine art. So regardless of what our audience typically thinks, it’s my job I feel to put the shows out there I believe in, and stand behind them, and try to educate the audience. So this was a show that’s a nice link to a lot of things that I’m associated with–a link between illustrative art and photographic art–there’s a lot of layers to this that I thought were important to present so I’m glad we’re doing it.”  

Coming from a background of music photography that found him shooting iconic images of Björk, The White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, Amy Winehouse, Metallica, The Arctic Monkeys, R.E.M. and U2, among others, Solkaer confessed he found it refreshing to work with street artists who didn’t have the same complications that mainstream celebrities do.

“What I find very interesting about shooting street artists that’s different from shooting musicians is that there’s a lot of control around musicians, from the label to the publicist, managers, and others who all have an opinion, what you should do, what it should look like,” Solkaer said. “With this project every single shoot has been only for the sake of making an interesting image. It’s been totally free and creative, and above all, a collaboration.”

The irony of shooting portraits of a subculture of the art community, many of whom do not want their faces shown, wasn’t lost on Solkaer. Add that to the intrinsic impermanence and sometimes illegal nature of street art, and you have a unique set of challenges to overcome. But leave it to a talent like Solkaer who managed to imbue a distinct sense of personality to each photo, obscured face or not.

“That’s been the tricky part,” Solkaer confessed about shooting a subject that won’t fully reveal himself, like Space Invader. “As a photographer, you’re always interested in the face, in the eyes, in capturing the human psyche through a portrait. When I started this I thought of that, but I soon found out I couldn’t do what I usually do, so I had to use everything around them to tell the story. It was an obstacle that became a blessing. I still consider it a portrait, just not in the traditional sense.”

Fairey also marveled at Solkaer’s photographs’ ability to tell the story of the artist and their work no matter how secretive they wanted to be.

“It’s cool that he was able to convince a lot of the people that they would be able to do something creative to keep their identity secret, but also show how they would interact with their work and how they would present their own personal image with the work, and that’s a really cool thing,” Fairey enthused. “I love that he’s gotten stuff that most people couldn’t get and yet there’s still an element of mystery, but it makes a lot of the artists even cooler in how they maintained their anonymity because they did something pretty stylish to create a composition with him. So it’s a very collaborative process in that sense…In a lot of ways he was able to get in touch with these artists, have them comfortable enough to do it, and then capture them in a way that allows them to have some say in what the end result is. The whole thing is fairly miraculous.”

The genesis of “Surface” was an interesting one. What started out fairly simply as the artist standing static in front of his or her work morphed into a more whimsical interplay between the artist and their creation. This is most evidently apparent in portraits like Blek Le Rat which Solkaer shot through the artist’s own rat stencil. Or in New York City graffiti legend LEE posed to release birds he painted as if they are flying out of an underground subway stop. Among the more ironic shots is street art duo The London Police dressed like Bobbies running after a culprit in front of their painting.

Solkaer envisions “Surface” as a lifelong project and confesses that he gained a new appreciation for street art in a meaningful way. He jokes that he started with a list of 25 artists to shoot, and three years later, still has a list of 25. 

Summing up, Fairey admires how Solkaer was able to make the portraits intimate yet devoid of pretention.  

“I really like Soren’s work in general,” Fairey said. “I think he does a really great job of putting his subjects in a scenario that feels very stylish but not pretentious. It’s like he’s taking what would be the natural inclination of these people anyway and amplifying it with hypersensitivity. I think that is really strong because there are people who are able to look like they caught a candid moment, but a lot of times that feels to snapshot-y. And then there are people who do something that’s really stylized but it’s like you’re really aware of all the devices used. His work exists in an interesting place where something like the Blek Le Rat portrait that’s shot through one of his own stencils does’t seem real at first—you think there’s some sort of Photoshop work here, but then you realize no, he just shot it through an actual spraypaint stencil to create this stylish window. There’s no trickery.”

Subliminal Projects is located at 1331 W. Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles. “Surface” is next headed to Cophenhagen, Vancouver and Oslo. 

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