“Passion and the – at that time – totally unjustified belief in all the things I could accomplish in photography, helped me to make that choice. It is not possible to have two parallel careers at the top. Music leaves no space for compromises and often no space for a life.”
But when you have been deeply involved in music, there is no complete way out. Hence it was logical that after the glamorous world of advertising and some experience as a press photographer, Kaupo Kikkas found his way back to music. The young man met the music manager Kevin Kleinmann who introduced him to some famous musicians. This step helped to slightly open the door into this world.
“It was really important, because I had my first photo sessions with the cello player Leonard Elschenbroich and violinist Nicola Benedetti, and I took some great photos. It is an unfortunate fact that you can show hundreds of pages of photographs of Estonian artists, but unless you have some photos of world-renowned musicians, your career will not take off.”
Albeit this significant step did not fast-track his career, it allowed the slow climb to start. Years of collaboration with Estonian cultural ambassadors like Arvo Pärt Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer of contemporary classical music. and the Järvi family has helped to introduce Kaupo Kikkas’ name and work. His photographs of Pärt have been published in all continents and in most reputable publications in the world.
“Pärt is my mentor and greatest inspiration. His personality and the world behind his music has taught me more than life,” says Kikkas gratefully. “With such grandmasters, a photographer cannot intervene, direct or add his own strong vision because it dilutes their essence. Sometimes one needs to really prepare and get onto the right wavelength with a person in order to take their photos, but it is not so with Arvo Pärt Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer of contemporary classical music. . It would just get in the way. The best way is to be in the same room as him and to get a glimpse of his heavenly honesty and authenticity. Nothing other than acceptance by him is necessary.”
One of five in Europe
Today Kikkas is one of only five people in Europe who are fortunate enough to have a career as a professional music photographer. His work often takes him abroad, but many leading classical musicians are willing to travel thousands of kilometres to his studio in central Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). in order to have him take their photographs. Needless to say that he has portrayed most leading musicians in Estonia.
“You have to earn the trust of musicians, it’s not something that just happens. Classical musicians have to be convinced that the best and most honest way to portray them is to do it without smoothing their imperfections. Opera primadonnas who are used to theatricality and make-up are different, of course. The editing to perfection of their portraits is something of a standard,” ponders Kikkas. “Many top names in the world of music are used to having a leadership role and they have a difficult time giving it up. But in photography, we are in a situation where I lead and I do it with confidence. People need to be approached gently because photography is an aggressive act and nothing good will come out of pouring oil into the fire. It is a very exciting psychological and chemical process between people.”
Over twenty years, the collection of photos taken of Estonian musicians alone had grown so large that this piece of cultural history needed to be preserved. This is how the book ‘Estonian Music Portrait’ was born. The photographer himself calls it a book of people and music. It was very difficult to select the photos that made it into the book. As an author, Kikkas first set down the criteria. The first people to be included were the ‘big shots’ – musicians who have become Estonia’s business card in the world, who deserve to be seen and who people also want to see.
“I wanted to balance those big players with young up-and-coming talents, who may not be so famous but who are on their way to a great career. Another important keyword was the people who are no longer with us, but whom I have had the honour to work with. Their creative heritage remains with us forever, but life has shown that people are forgotten and the creators become anonymous behind their creations. A book connects us with them visually. Emotionally their portraits are very lively and for some time they will have the impact of people who are still among us, not like the engraving of Ferenc Liszt with a large mole on the wall of the music history classroom.”
The emotional feedback from the book, which has received a lot of publicity, has been warm from the start. “As a realist, I understand of course that this is not a bestseller that can be sold in thousands of copies.”
The mysticism of the forest
Recently, Kikkas opened a personal exhibition called ‘Treescape’ at the Untitled Gallery in Rotterdam. This is a long-running successful project in which he combines photography and old planks of wood, discovering an indescribable world of the trees through his imagery.
“It all begins with walking in nature, discovering places, and thinking. Nature sends mystical signals which the brain catches on a totally different wavelength,” explains Kikkas, who normally calls himself down-to-earth. “In the forest, you try to shake off your daily worries and joys and await inspiration from the trees.
It is not possible to release everything, but my hand holding the camera has its own muscle memory and it starts to capture things which my heart or mind sense.”
The planks of wood that Kikkas collects in old farmhouses and on which he exhibits his photos, turn the ‘Treescape’ into a spacious object where the old wood and the images start to communicate with each other. “Many people say these are frames, but I see the wood as a three-dimensional way of mirroring some feeling. The photograph is a window into nature. In combination, they help people fly far away in their thoughts.”
The black-and-white graphic photos are often created using the double exposure technique, which provides a level of abstraction and takes them away from traditional nature photography.
Kikkas fondly recalls the opening of the exhibition where the audience held their breath listening to the photographer, watched and analysed the photos and afterwards came to share their emotions and experience with the creator. It was only possible to visit the gallery for a couple of days before the coronavirus crisis took over the world.
“Creating an exhibition is a huge undertaking which takes years and tens of thousands of euros. Therefore, I am very sad that ‘Treescape’ was only open for a week. The prevalent thought in Estonia is that being an artist is not real work and people often find it difficult to understand why art is so expensive. Fortunately, there is a gradual shift and people are starting to realise that buying art and thereby supporting the author is the only sustainable way to keep the world of art alive.”
“It is no secret that hobby artists tend to pay in order to pursue their hobby. Luckily, there is more talk about there being nothing negative in asking for money for your creation and there are more and more people who can afford this luxury called art. This helps us creative people to somehow survive during difficult times.”
Saved by nature
The emergency situation which has locked down the world has totally influenced Kikkas’ working life – he had only one work project in the normally densely packed April. In the beginning of the lockdown, he was certain that he could carry on with his existing projects, but in reality, he has received totally new ideas whilst spending a lot of time in nature. Those ideas are waiting to see the light of day.
Last year, Kikkas delivered a grand project entitled ‘Ansel’, which was inspired by his great role model, one of the most legendary landscape and nature photographers: Ansel Adams, who proved to the world that a landscape photo can be art.
In 2021, the next large-scale undertaking with the working title ‘Homo Deus’ should come into existence. This is inspired by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari’s work with the same title which questions what it means to be human, asking the most humane questions about history and placing them in an epic, not a directly personalised environment.
Many famous people in the world have stood in front of Kikkas’ camera, but there are many more that he would like to portray. “Just out of a sense of duty I would love to photograph Philip Glass and Steven Reich who have already reached high age and who I really admire and consider to be intelligent composers. Also, the musically very important cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It is
a dream of mine to be able to photograph my favourite film director Wes Anderson, whose films full of goodness are an endless source of inspiration for me.”
A sense of not knowing and uncertainty about the future is part and parcel of a freelancer’s life. This creates worry and as a person who tends to be a worrier, those times are stressful and full of anxiety for Kikkas.
“I care about what happens in the world, therefore I force myself not to think about all of this too much every day. Which does not mean that I manage to do it,” he laughs. “I truly care about nature and it offers the only thinkable balance to my work with people. I cannot imagine how I would have kept sane if I had to stay at home during these times or be responsible for the livelihood of many people. Nature has been my saviour.”