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We Spoke to the Danish Photographer Who Is Building a Street Artist Bible

Soren Solkaer's exhibition Surface comes to Canada for the first time this week.

by Raf Katigbak and Sierra Bein
Aug 8 2015, 5:00pm

Don John, Denmark, Copenhagen. Photo courtesy the artist

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Danish photographer Soren Solkaer is known for his cinematic photography of big-wig musicians like Bjork, Amy Winehouse, and U2. But for the past three years, Solkaer wandered from the organized world of commercial photography and has taken on the task of building a bible of street artist icons and their work from around the world. This is the first time he will be bringing his work to Canada, for his exhibition, Surface. His show will be in Vancouver at the BAF Studio from August 8 until September 12.

VICE: How many photos have you taken at this point?
Soren Solkaer: I've done about 140 portraits at this point.

Holy shit that's crazy.
Yeah, it's taken about three years to do. I thought I was going to be done by this time, but it would feel very strange to stop now. There are many new ones and also some of the older ones just take a long time to get to do this. So some of them I've been working on for years.

That's amazing, but let's just rewind a little bit. How would you describe this project in a nutshell?
Yeah sure, well it's an attempt to create a pretty complete anthology of some of the most important street artists today and also, I suppose, historically.

I think it's interesting especially considering that you're really known for portraits of musicians. In a similar sense, these guys are rock stars in their world but hardly anybody even knows what they look like.
Yeah, that was definitely part of the challenge for me. Because I've often been wondering myself. A lot of the work and a lot of the names are so well known by a lot of people and I think being a portrait photographer I just got very curious. And I travel a lot around the world, so I kind of figure that I could maybe be that person who could put the artist and the artwork together.

Vhils, Portugal. Photo courtesy of the artist

I watched some of that documentary your girlfriend had recorded and there's talk of you being a young person, kind of just break dancing. Did it start with that sort of level of hip-hop and graffiti?
I was really interested in break-dancing and graffiti when I was about 13, 14, 15. I think that's when we first started learning about the scene in New York here in Europe. And then actually for many years I've just been following it in the big cities because I've been traveling constantly with my work. I tried, I did a bit of graffiti at the time, but I pretty much lived in the countryside in a tiny village, so there was hardly anywhere you could paint. There was one bus shelter in our town and it was definitely the break-dancing part of that. I think for probably for two years or three years I breakdanced everyday.

Were you good?
Not super good, I was not like world class or anything big. But we were totally caught up in it. There were a few groups of break-dancers around where we lived so we like meet and had battles. It was pretty ridiculous in a way, because I mean, if seen from the outside, it would have been pretty ridiculous. We were called the Bronx breakers.

What?!
I remember there was an African American exchange student in our school when I was in ninth grade and we were breakdancers. And when she heard our name she laughed for like ten minutes.

Jimmy C., Australia. Photo courtesy of the artist

Tell me a bit about what you've discovered from meeting over 100 street artists.
I mean, it's been really, really nice because I've been used to photographing pretty high level musicians for many years and that's a very commercial, very organized business so there's always people around the artists and also a lot people lots of opinions, a lot of restrictions. And with this I found like total freedom really, to do creative collaborations with these people because we are just there in the streets with their artwork. And I think even if you are big star in street art, it still keeps you humble and grounded. I mean, to have to get out on the street and do this very hard physical work is very generous—generosity is a big part of this movement. They spend a lot of time doing a wall for everyone that they could've done just using canvases in their own studio.

When you're all done, or if you're ever done, what do you hope people get out of the project?
I think there's definitely an educational element to it, because even if you don't know anything then after seeing this exhibition or this book you have a pretty good idea about some of the big names and some of the totally unknown talent and just a new concept of how you can use the public space. I know that I've called it a bible... I've kind of come to realize that it's not really a bible, when I show it to the artists, actually I can see that it's more like a family album. Actually the most interesting thing has been seeing artists go through the book. To see the ones that they don't know it's like, Oh my god, is that him? or I thought it was a girl.

I'm curious about your challenges, what's the most difficult thing?
A lot of them are not very good at communicating with the outside world I mean they're just interested in painting, so like you might get auto responses from someone like "I'll be checking my email in six months" or something. But the biggest challenge has been really more of a creative challenge. Because the very first few images I did were pretty plain. They were just a guy with his wall. I started really liking the scene and the artists in it and I just soon realized that if I was going to do a big project I had to be much better.

Shoe, The Netherlands. Photo courtesy the artist

You probably couldn't have made that step without doing that first step of meeting them and taking very "normal" photos.
It's so strange because it's one of those things that you can't just... you have to experience it. You have to get those pictures out of your camera and then you can start doing the real stuff. It was exactly the same when I started doing band photographs. I start just lining them up then I would get bored with that soon and starting to come up with a new approach to the theme.

Who is more difficult to deal with? Street artists or musicians?
Musicians, it's mainly the people around them. They're generally pretty cool, but it's just everybody who's trying to justify having a job. It's just defending the artists or protecting the artists from the evils of photographers. I would just find somebody if I knew they were painting. I would just go up to them and that was such a new thing to me. I have three or four friends here are who were around when the first sort of wave of rock music came and they've been telling me all these stories because they have all these amazing pictures of Stones and Beatles and Frank Zappa and David Bowie and they're all saying, "Oh, we could just go to the hotel and just we would go out and do a few pictures and maybe go to a club," and it's the same thing I'm experiencing now with street art.

This text has been edited for length and clarity.