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How Does It Feel to Have Your Photography Sold at IKEA?

Talking to the photographers behind iconic IKEA prints about how it feels to know your work graces the walls of many.
08 July 2015, 4:18pm

Yellow Cab by Kord, IKEA VILSHULT series. Images courtesy the artist

The “yellow cab,” the “red double-decker bus,” and the “bike on the canal bridge”: You’ve certainly seen them adorning the walls of student dorm rooms. Like me, you might have even bought one of these iconic posters yourself. The point I’m trying to make is that we all know what I’m talking about: IKEA art. Those overly-enlarged black-and-white photos of New York’s Times Square and London’s Piccadilly Circus that cover the walls of thousands of homes. But what about the people responsible for creating them? Who are the unsung heroes that took what might even be the best-selling photographs in the world? And how does it feel to know that your work hangs in almost every home you visit? Well, I wanted to know, so I asked three of them, starting with Bob Krist, the American photographer who took this photo of Manhattan:

Golden City by Bob Krist, IKEA VILSHULT series

The Creators Project: How does it feel to know your work graces the walls of so many households?

Bob Krist: You know, I’m not really that bothered. The National Geographic assignment I’m currently doing comes closer to my ultimate dream than being an IKEA celebrity. The irony is that I constantly have to contend with the curse of that fame, or infamy. Every day I get emails from fans asking where the Golden City is, despite the fact it’s obviously New York, and surely everyone can see that the Brooklyn Bridge forms the foreground. It’s a mystery to me why IKEA chose not to identify the city. Just like it’s a mystery that I’m often credited with having taken this aerial black-and-white photo of Manhattan, dating back to the early 60s. Hell, I would have been about 10 years old!

Shame for the guy that really took that photo then, but I’m guessing you don’t have a copy of the Golden City at home?
No. But I do have a few of my other black-and-white photos on my walls. I prefer showing the work of my colleagues. The funny thing is, I haven’t often seen my photo in many people’s homes either. Perhaps I’m subconsciously trying to avoid it [laughs].

How did you take that photo?

It was a freezing cold New York morning. I got up a few hours before dawn to find the ideal spot on the Brooklyn Bridge and get the camera settings just right. My feet were freezing, but my patience paid off when at last the moment I’d been waiting for arrived. A perfect sunrise that delicately bathed the Manhattan skyline in sunshine. Looking back, I wouldn’t have done things any differently. There’s only one perfect moment in photography!

How much did IKEA pay you for the photo?

IKEA approached me through my agent and bought the rights to the photo. I can’t tell you the exact amount, but suffice it to say it wasn’t exactly life-changing.

Manhattan 1961, the photo erroneously credited to Bob Krist; the actual photographer remains unknown

Piccadilly Night by Leo Dolan, IKEA VILSHULT series

How did you take the photo?

Leo Dolan: I wanted to show something typically iconic of London in my composition. Two years ago I set up my tripod outside an entrance to the Piccadilly Circus’ Underground station, experimented with the shutter speed and took dozens of shots of black cabbies driving through my frame. Luckily for me, a double-decker bus passed by at the last moment and the circular wall of light it created was quite astounding.

A lot of people have a copy of that print at home; how does that make you feel?

I think art should be accessible to as many people as possible, but I don’t think the fact that so many people have bought this photo erodes its value. The beauty of art lies in its shared appreciation. It makes me very proud that so many people seem to think my photo looks good in their home. I’ve even spotted it occasionally in TV series. Call me silly, but I really get a kick from seeing my work on a TV show.

Would we find this photo in the Dolan residence?

Yes, of course! I was first in line when the photo first went on sale at IKEA. I loaded my shopping cart with as many copies as I could get in, in case friends and family wanted one. And luckily they did. It’s hanging in my kitchen at the moment. And my young son Patrick surprises me every morning by pointing out different things about it. It’s a great thought to leave behind a legacy like that.

How much did IKEA pay you for it?

I get a certain percentage of the royalties, but I’m not allowed to tell you how much.

Paris by Jean-Marc Charles, IKEA VILSHULT series. Image courtesy the artist

How did you take the photo?

Jean-Marc Charles: I waited for six months for a one-day permit to go to the top of Paris City Hall. But at the “moment supreme” the lighting was far from perfect, so I was a bit disappointed with the result. Imagine my surprise when I got a call from IKEA to say they wanted to buy the photo.

How much did they pay you?

€40,000. Photos like these make us seem a bit like creative one-hit wonders. But while being admitted to IKEA’s “Hall of Fame” was very welcome, it certainly doesn’t mean I’ll be giving up my day job.

Has the immense popularity of the image affected you?

The fact that IKEA bought the rights to my photograph isn’t that important to me, but I am proud that it has such a sizeable following. My work is regularly published by The New York Times, Le Monde, Paris-Match, and Figaro Magazine, but to be honest, photographers are rarely focused on where their images end up. In my rookie years I vividly remember being at Rapho’s, the acclaimed French photo agency, and meeting one of their renowned photographers. “Listen buddy,” he said, “it doesn’t matter where, when or how your photos are published, just as long as they’re published. A photo that nobody sees is not a photo.” I’ll never forget his words.

And are you a part of that IKEA audience?

No, that would be the height of narcissism. Although I must admit, I did visit IKEA when my photo was finally on sale. I couldn’t find it at first. I was expecting a small frame when my girlfriend shouted a little too loudly: “It’s right above you!” It was huge, so as you can imagine we spent the next hour or so gazing at it. We even eavesdropped on shoppers to hear what they had to say about it. Now it’s everywhere: in hotels, Paris bars, TV shows, and at my friends’ homes. Sometimes I’ll tell people, as modestly as I can, that I’m the photographer; but that element of mystery also has its appeal.

Amsterdam by Fernando Bengoechea, IKEA VILSHULT series

We know the lay of the land when it comes to the above-mentioned IKEA photographers, but others remain a mystery. Having lived in Amsterdam most of my student life, I would have loved to have been able to speak to Fernando Bengoechea, who captured this all-too-familiar scene of a red bike on a bridge over an Amsterdam canal. Unfortunately, Bengoechea was a victim of the 2004 Tsunami, while visiting Thailand with his partner Nate Berkus (the famous interior designer). We’ll never know what intrigued Bengoechea so much about the Netherlands’ capital city, nor how and when he took this iconic photo. Regrettably, the poster of this Amsterdam scene, the one that silently hangs on so many of our walls, is incapable of telling us.

*A version of this article originally appeared on The Creators Project Netherlands. *


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