Back to Passion – an interview with Jeroen Luijt

jeroentitleEditor’s note:  What pushes a man with a career for several years to quit it all and go back to school to pursue his love of photography? It’s called passion and Jeroen has tons of it. I was intrigued and asked for an interview. He graciously accepted.  

Jeroen, tell me a bit about yourself — where you grew up, where you live now and do you do photography full-time?

I was born on October 8, 1978 In Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The first 8 years, I lived in Heemstede, a small village about an hour away from Amsterdam.

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Because my father got a new job, we moved to the south of the Netherlands to a small village near Den Bosch. Here I finished Elementary and High School. In 1999, I left to live on my own, back in Amsterdam. Here, I went to college. I was always very into computers and IT, so Computer Science it was. During college and at the fraternity I joined, I was always busy making photos ; (never left the house without my camera). After 2 years, I realized Computer Science was too technical and I didn’t like it, so I dropped out and went to work for a year for a publisher; but I wanted to go back to college.

This time it was Interactive Media; which was more practical. Courses like marketing, communication and web design. I lived in New York for half a year to do my internship. I worked at an investment company to do all their web and graphic design. That was a very nice time.

So, how long has it actually been that you have been doing photography and what sparked your passion?

For about 15 years now, but for most of that time, it was street photography and more like registration of events. For the last two years, I have been focusing more on conceptual photography.  First making a plan of what I am going to shoot and how I am going to take the photo. Taking photos is a kind of meditation for me, I can work on one picture for days;  taking the shot and then post processing.

Do you have formal training or did you learn on your own?

I started photography learning my own, so I knew the basics.

It was only in 2011 that  I decided that I wanted to do more with photography. So, I quit my job and went back to school : The Fotoacademie (Photo Academy). This college has a very good name bringing forward the best photographers in the Netherlands. I’m just finishing my second year as we speak. I have to give a presentation on the 1st of July, and then I have 2 more years to go.

Since I started at the Fotoacademie, I’ve learned so much more. Working with flash and light meters. But more importantly,  looking at your own images. Then you see that there is so much more to it, than just taking a photo.

beweging-5smallWow! That is an intensive course: 4 years.  And quite a commitment! I’m curious on your opinion of self-taught photographers, as at one point you also were one, but felt the need to go and learn more.  I also am curious to know if you think it will be easier to get a job with your school credentials?

If you are a good self-taught photographer, you don’t need education, but it’s so much more than only learning how to take a good picture. We also get  Art history and we have to write essays on different themes and compare paintings through the ages with photography etc.,.  Some of  the themes are : self-portrait, group photos, documentary and nudes etc.,  Another great thing is you get the opportunity to work with different types of cameras; medium and large-format cameras like Hasselblad, Mamiya and Cambo with digital backs. This equipment costs so much that ‘normal’ photographers don’t have access to them. I think the experience with these professional cameras  gives me a head start.

But I still have to pay my bills, so at the same time I work at a photo lab. We have the best machines to make large-format prints. And we work for artists and galleries. We do all kinds of photofinishing (face mounting on Dibond and behind Acrylic glass).

Sounds like this may actually be beneficial to you besides bringing in money. I’m sure you learn all about the best way to present your work.

Oh yes, it absolutely does. And I get to see a lot of photos each day.

So I’m not a full-time photographer yet, but maybe in the near future…

If you were offered a job today to work commercially, do you think you would take it or would you finish your schooling instead?

I’m not sure; I think it really depends on who is offering the job.

I know a photographer that does commercial work that is very niche. He takes pictures of yachts. He shoots from a helicopter.  What are your aspirations as a photographer that would work full-time. Fashion, Advertising or Fine Art?

I would like to work as an autonomous photographer in the Art section, but that’s a hard way to make a living, so I think you have to combine it with commercial projects as well. And then advertising would be more my thing. I don’t care much about fashion.. ;-)

So you are learning about how to read a photograph? What is more important, that you express yourself in the photo or that the viewer understands it or connects with it?

I think it should be an interaction. And in art it is more about expression for the photographer, but in advertising, the viewer must understand and connect with the picture, otherwise he or she won’t buy the product.

As a student, are you also learning about film , and how to process in a dark room?

We have had some classes in developing black & white film, but not so much. The most we shoot on film is on large-format film, and that’s more difficult and expensive to develop yourself, so I bring this film to a specialist in Amsterdam. And then I scan and print the film myself.

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In your portfolio, you have several very beautiful still-life images that are very reminiscent of the 17th century Dutch Masters. What process are you using to achieve the Chiaroscuro method of adding light to dark which produces a very painterly feel?

First of all, good lighting is very important. So with different lights you get different effects. It takes a lot of time to setup good lighting. And post processing is also a big part of the work.

The Dutch painters were known for their still-life paintings and the symbolism of the objects in the images giving them a secondary level of viewing.  I noticed you have many of the same type of objects in your still-life photographs. In one painting, I see a plate with the lemon peel and the hot pepper, the candle that is lit, the sword, the shell, the golden egg. It appears to be a ‘vanitas’. Can you tell us more about it?

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This is one of the first still life photos  I made. I love the old masters and their symbolism. So I tried to create something myself. So first you try to find what kind of objects you have in your house which can be used in the setting and sometimes I go to the  flea market and stroll around for hours looking at all the stuff, and thinking if I can use it in one of my photos.  But all the objects have to tell a part of the story.

For our viewers that may not know about the symbolism of the objects in this image, can you tell  them more about the objects and why they are there, besides making a beautiful composition?

Well, this work is sort of a self-portrait. So some of the items have the original symbolism and some have a more personal symbolism.  The lemon stands for ‘Sour Love’ , the pepper for my temper, the candle stands for light and darkness in life. The shells have the meaning of the Hermit (I’m not a hermit, but more of a lone ranger). The silver cup I got at my birth. The tulip is our national flower, Because it’s white it also stands for forgiveness. I can’t be mad with someone for long. The golden egg is ingenuity, the knife for courage and the pipe… bad habits, but enjoying life.

You also have a photograph which is very much a replica of a painting by François Bonvin. What struck you about his painting that prompted you to want to reproduce it?

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This was an assignment for school. Everybody had to pick one painting of a still life and recreate it with the same objects and lighting setup. It is a very hard task, because painters sometimes paint things which are impossible to recreate with a photo. They add light to places where it’s impossible…

I  often do a shoot with a concept in mind, but I also sometimes I photograph a fruit or object in my house, just because it is there, for no special reason.  In 3 Eenheid, (the 3 walnuts) you have photographed the shell, the meat inside and the open shell. These 3 photos are exquisite by the way. I really love them.  Did you have a concept of showing symbols of masculinity and femininity or was it simply you had walnuts in your house?

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I read a lot of literature about symbolism, for my pictures and because I am fascinated about it. Sometimes you read new things and this was one of them. A walnut has multiple symbolisms. One of them is the Holy Trinity: The sweet core (nut) stands for the sweetness of Christ, the shell for the strength of his all-encompassing divinity and the cap is compared to Christ suffering on the crossAnd because I had walnuts in my house! :-D

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You’ve done some self-portraits. I find them intriguing. One of them is a portrait of your face wearing some sort of uniform. This photograph has a definite sense of a duality of your personality. Maybe I’m wrong, but it appears as if one side of your face is in the light and very intense and sharpened (I’m thinking a high-pass filter blended with hard light to get that look?) and the other side of your face is in darkness but quite soft and not harsh at all. Tell us about this and what are you wanting the viewer to understand or feel?

Well, It’s kinda like you described. I have a soft and a hard side.

It’s always hard to describe your own work especially when it’s a self-portrait..
The soft side is in the dark because I don’t often show it. My harder and more serious side, is the side I show more often. The uniform is for discipline (which I regularly have a lack of.. :-P ), but should have more.

I think you pulled it off very well. It also shows a vulnerable side and a willingness to be open in a subtle way. How important is it that you get across who you are in your photos?

If you can get across and tell a story, then a photo, has in my opinion, much more value and impact. If it has no story, people walk past it.

Das Experiment. Tell us about this series – what it is about?

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This series was made in the dunes of IJmuiden, Here, you can still find old bunkers and fortifications from World War II. With a special lens, I tried to create a feeling of the German soldiers running through the bunkers, in a kind of panic state, knowing it was all lost.

It is very effective. Here, we do not really talk about gear (Canon vs Nikon for example) but when you say ‘special lens’, what type are you talking about and what is it about this lens that gives this sense of panic?

It’s a Lensbaby Lens (composer Pro) which is sort of a tilt-shift lens. Tilting it and removing the aperture ring gives it an aperture bigger than f1. This gives the panic/ spinning effect.

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I see in your portfolio, that you do many types of photography: still-life, portraits, architectural abstracts, even some surrealism. Is there one that you prefer to the others and is there a type of photography you do not enjoy?

I love all photography, but momentarily I enjoy still-life photos the most, because I can set it up, walk away, change the setting again, adjust the light;. Sometimes a process of days. Working with a model requires you to have a plan beforehand and to do the shoot in a short amount of time. That,  I find difficult sometimes. For landscapes and architectural subjects, I take during long walks. It calms me down.

These long walks; contemplating life? or just putting yourself into a different and neutral space?

Both, I can just clear my head. Look at the things I pass by. Especially in Amsterdam. Early in the morning or late at night when it’s quiet on the streets, walking by all the canals and the old houses, almost feels like the 16th century.

What would you say your greatest strength as a photographer is?

That’s a tough question… I think.. and hope.. that I make pictures that tell a story and in some of the pictures, I tell more stories with the symbols I use.

How do you challenge yourself to keep fresh as a photographer?

These day’s that is very hard. Because everybody has a good quality camera. Most people on their phone, but the DSLR prices have dropped so much that everyone can afford a good camera. So you have to do new stuff (or old stuff). I am taking more and more pictures with old cameras on film. That’s something a lot of people can’t do anymore. So in that way you can make distinctive work.

I agree that film has a different look. I wonder though about your thoughts about better cameras for less money. Surely the artist is behind the lens and the camera is just a tool?

Oh I agree with that. But what I see around me, is that a lot of magazines and even newspapers use photos from the internet (wikipedia) or ask their readers to submit their news’ photos. People love to see their name in a newspaper and don’t even want money for it. So the media chooses the cheaper and often poorer photo. So it’s getting harder for photographers to sell their photos for a good price.

Do you have a favorite indulgence?

With a lot! too much actually… I love fine dining, so I treat myself to that. And once in a while I like to shop for camera gear, but only when I feel I really deserve it.

If there were one thing you would want people to know or understand about you and your work as a photographer, what would that be?

A lot of the pictures I take, tell a story about me. You’ll probably need to be a shrink to see it.. :-)

Ha! , well, i guess we all have a few skeletons in our closet. :-D

If you were interviewing another photographer, is there a question you would ask them that I have not asked you, that you’d have liked to know?

Of course I would have specific questions for specific photographers, but those are more technical questions. Otherwise, Not really; this is the deepest interview I have ever given … :-)

LOL! I think I’ll take that as a compliment. :-D   Thank you so much, Jeroen, for giving us an insight into who you are and sharing your wonderful photography with us. It has been a pleasure to interview you. :-)
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Jeroen Luijt is a Dutch photographer from Amsterdam, who left his job to go back to school to pursue his dream of photography. He  has a strong, unique voice, and his work expresses a lot about him.

His photos have been exhibited:
2006: Walls Gallery, Amsterdam
2012: Fotogram, Amsterdam
2013: Fotogram, Amsterdam
2013: Slotervaart Ziekenhuis, Amsterdam.

Jeroen sells his photographs through his website and also does commissioned work.
Please visit his website here: Jeroen Luijt

You may also phone him at:
+31 (0) 648182441
The photograph of the painting by François Bonvin is in the Public Domain.

Creative Commons License
An interview with Jeroen Luijt by Maggie Terlecki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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