Music To Your Eyes
“For me, music is the greatest art form by far,” says Kaupo Kikkas when we ask him about his two great passions. That might come as a shock to those who’ve seen his brilliant portraits, but it shouldn’t; it makes perfect sense when you understand Kaupo’s work, his history, and the intrinsic link between passion and creativity.
“Music is unmeasurable in its abstraction. Photography is my other love, but it’s more descriptive for me; closer to reality. So why am I a photographer? I feel that I can be more use to the world as a good photographer than a mediocre musician!”
Sure, Kaupo’s candour comes with a side order of modesty there, but what his combination of passions really tells us is that specialism in photography is a powerful thing; it’s a focus and devotion that very often separates great shots from average ones. Specialism is about finding the thing you can’t stop shooting; where it’s so natural and enjoyable that it doesn’t feel like work anymore. Shoot what you love and people will see that in your images and they’ll respond. With Kaupo’s work, you get to feel his love of music right there in the pictures.
© Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α7R II + 85mm f/1.4 GM| 1/250s @ f/6.3, ISO 200
This didn’t all happen at once, of course. Instead the elements built like notes into chords. “I attended a Soviet-style music specialist school in Estonia,” he explains, “and these schools have a harsh and serious approach. There was only one choice really: you will be a musician or a failed musician.” Even then though, he had an interest in photography and became mesmerised after he picked up what was probably the first digital camera in Estonia, which had just 0.3 megapixels. He also bought a film camera which he used to learn traditional techniques, and after leaving school made ends meet working as a freelance photographer in Finland, where he also studied photography. Ultimately though, Kaupo felt that he needed to make a choice. “Music was my education and my potential career, but I couldn’t go on as half and half; it’s a principal of mine, not to do things at a half level.”
But once a musician always a musician, and after 10 years he decided to try and connect the two, concentrating on working with musicians he knew – his first customer was his clarinet mentor. Still there was some doubt though.
“I didn’t think I could fully specialise in Estonia; there is no money in the classical music scene there, but I thought I could maybe do it internationally. I did some sessions for free, then for just a small fee to get my name out there. Eventually I was able to swap all my commercial jobs – which were better paid – to just doing the music.”
© Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α7R II + 24-70mm f/2.8 GM| 1/125s @ f/5, ISO 1600
Of course, music photography is a wide subject and Kaupo’s portraiture one of many niches within it. “It’s a simplification,” he explains, “but for me there are mainly two types; there’s event based or documentary music photography, which might include concerts or festivals. Concert pictures can be art, but it’s rare at those heights, and actually there’s not high expectation either. On the other side there is portraiture, which is what I do. It’s a very different approach because you need more of a connection with the subject.” You can even see this in the natural way his subjects hold their instruments.
© Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α7R II + 24-70mm f/2.8 GM| 1/160s @ f/11, ISO 100
“If the connection is wrong, or your approach is wrong, you can easily end up with nothing from a session, but the trick is to realise that a portrait session isn’t one-way traffic. It’s a duet, not a solo. When I’m working with musicians, I say ‘this is like chamber music’, and they understand this well, because with a pianist and cellist it’s a combination… there’s trust. It’s the same with photography. If only one of you is trying hard, it’s not good enough. You need to work to a goal.”
This, he says, comes from using empathy and creating a relationship with the subject, and that his deep understanding of music creates connections that are more personal, which comes across in the images.
© Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α7R II + 85mm f/1.4 GM| 1/250s @ f/2.0, ISO 2500
Being photographed, he observes, is stressful for some people, so relaxing and respecting the subject is a big deal for him. This really comes through in his images and there’s an easiness to the subjects. “In many portraits,” he says “you see there’s too much air in the lungs that the shoulders are stiff, and the posture is defensive…” Again, he says, avoiding this is about being empathetic, not just a photographer who’s arriving with a dominant agenda. If you’re looking to impose a style or ideas that don’t fit the subject, things can quickly go wrong. “The technique must not overwhelm the subject or it starts to say more about the former than the latter.”
© Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α7R II + 24-70mm f/2.8 GM| 1/100s @ f/3.2, ISO 1000
Using great locations also plays a big part in Kaupo’s work – so many of his shots feature interesting backdrops or framing that complements the subject – but again they don’t happen by chance. He logs locations mentally over time; “I’m always walking, eyes open, and I’m trying to find good places. Sometimes, I will carry a location in my mind for years. Like this one in an old peat bog, with roots that are 100s, or 1000s of years old; it seemed so strange and apocalyptic. Then suddenly I have a subject who made sense in that place.”
© Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α7R III + 24-70mm f/2.8 GM| 1/160s @ f/5.6, ISO 200
Interesting locations, Kaupo says, help to keep things fresh for himself as well as the audience, and he also invests time in personal projects for the same reason.
“It gets more and more important to me every year,” he says, “that I don’t repeat myself as a portrait photographer. Yes, the subjects change, but having too much of a recognisable visual style is a fear for me. I need to work with my own stuff – I call it free art – where an idea touches me and I can react in my own way. It’s where I can be at my best as a photographer, but I’m still extraordinarily lucky that my field is also the most important thing to me.”
© Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α7R II + 24-70mm f/2.8 GM| 1/640s @ f/7.1, ISO 400