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25 Years Helsinki School

The Helsinki School is one of the most internationally known Finnish art phenomena. Representing a new approach to education and collaboration, the term refers to a selected group of photographers who took part in the teaching program of adjunct professor Timothy Persons at the University of Art and Design Helsinki (since 2010 Aalto University, School of Arts, Design & Architecture), starting from the early 1990s. There is no single red line that defines the Helsinki School’s contextual configuration; each generation is given the opportunity to invent themselves. What they all have in common is how they challenge and use the photographic process as a tool for thinking. It represents a unique platform of artists whose common denominator is felt and seen through a shared Nordic sensibility in how they interpret the human experience through their relationship with nature, time, history, and light. It demonstrates a collaborative effort by all the individuals involved in reaching out towards a larger audience to help advance new standards in how to measure themselves. Above all, the Helsinki School has become an international model for other artists and institutions in how to interpret and create their own systems for learning and teaching through shared experiences and collaborative dialogue.
This year, the Helsinki School celebrates its 25th anniversary, among others in the exhibition New Perspectives Through Photography – 25 years of the Helsinki School at Taidehalli Helsinki featuring 29 artists representing six generations, all evolving from the Helsinki School. It combines new works and installations juxtaposed with historical pieces that exemplify how this unique educational platform has opened up new perspectives on how we experience photography. Through a selection from 180 artist’s monographic publications and press reviews this exhibition marks for the first time a focus on the historiography of the Helsinki School’s evolution and why it was able to become one of the longest sustainable photographic movements of its kind.

Note by the editors of Der Greif: with the Helsinki School, and especially Timothy, we go back a long way. Timothy was one of our very early supporters, opening doors for us in the art world and pushing us to go further. Without him, we wouldn’t have flown to New York, despite being nominated for a Lucie Award, which we ended up winning in the end. The award put Der Greif on a new level in terms of international recognition and potential to collaborate with artists. After that, quite a few of the Helsinki School artists started submitting their work and we’re happy we were able to feature some in the print publication, as well as online. Thank you Timothy, for the many stories, encounters and new friendships! Here’s to 25 more years of Helsinki School!

Elina Brotherus, Imaginary Burial Place 18, 2019, from the series Sebaldiana. Memento Mori, pigment print, 120 x 90 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects
Elina Brotherus, Tombeau imaginaire 26 / Imaginary Burial Place 26, 2019, from the series Sebaldiana. Memento Mori, pigment print, 120 x 106 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects


Elina: In many of your works you refer to the romantic motif of looking into the distance, but in some you turn around and face back, seemingly towards the viewer. What defines this act for you?
In the past, my inclination upon seeing a beautiful landscape would be to put myself in the foreground with my back toward the camera. My idea was and still is that the artist-model in front of a landscape invites us to a shared contemplation. Her eyes are hidden from us but the object, chosen by her gaze, opens up in front of the spectator. The photograph contains this gaze and results from it.
When I choose to look the other way, I think of the camera being transparent and by that, I look out of the picture, into the eye of the spectator. This is a much more active image: The calm is gone and there’s a demand to react, to take a stance, to answer.
However, in recent years through the influence of Fluxus, Baldessari, and others I’m also inclined to reverse the gesture not only turning towards the camera but perhaps turning completely upside down and doing a headstand. A headstand in a beautiful landscape looks totally absurd. Absurdity marks a new turning point in my work. Having become oversaturated with romantic imagery I now enjoy breaking the idea of a beautiful image, revolting against ideas of the sublime and just having fun in the work.
Furthermore, the role of women within art has often been one of passivity. In my earlier work, I have dealt with the idea of the artist’s model: I borrowed iconography from classical painting and repeated the roles taken within historical imagery. In a way I tried to step into the body of the beautiful model, all while taking simultaneously the role of the observing artist. If the goal then was to emulate beauty, my goal now is rather to subvert the idea of the passive, “perfect” female and to reclaim the power of the muse through the liberation of the form. I want to let go of ideas of beauty and the sublime and liberate the body from all these ideas through acceptance – we are ok as we are, the way we actually look like.

Hilla Kurki, Theatre of Memories, 2021, pigment print © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects
Hilla Kurki, installation view at Fallen Feathers (from the Phoenix series), Gallery Taik Persons, 2017 © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects

Hilla: How do you use grief as stepping-stones towards a new becoming through your work?
Grief worked as a catalyst that forced me to turn my gaze inwards and choose a personal experience as my subject matter for the first time. After my sister passed away in 2012, I started to photograph myself in dialogue with her dresses. The images address the complex process of grief and healing through performative acts and self-portraiture.
First, the dresses were pictured as symbols of sorrow, a burden, or a feeling one can’t shake off. Subsequently, I began referencing my family’s legacy of rug-making; the cutting of clothes of the deceased to the weft. I took images of myself wearing my sister’s dresses cutting them to a continuous thread while still wearing them. A shedding of skin of sorts, growing out of my sorrow, my body gradually emerging from the black garment. I later used these cuttings to weave an actual rug, to transform something painful into something useful, an act of pragmatic exorcism.
In the past years, these works have become a tool for finding my identity in the world. The combination of the female nude and the aggressive act of cutting have grown to represent liberation from far more than just grief. By referencing the tradition of weaving, my work linked me to the generation of women in my family, of rural farmers and their traditions born out of scarcity. I began to view my legacy in a new light, and notice the non-sentimental strength in the women in my family, my mother and grandmother, my great-grandmother, and so forth. To my surprise, I noticed that by working through my grief additional healing had happened: I had formed a new connection to my body and my past.

Niko Luoma, Self-Titled Adaptation of Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 (1912), 2021, from the series Adaptations, archival pigment print, Diasec, 328 x 210 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects

Niko: Why do you only work with light and light-sensitive materials to create your abstract analogue photography?
It’s the way in, to the inside of the camera, into the process. I could not find photography used as I saw it in my head. So I went to the beginning, stripped the photographic process to its skeleton, and started to experiment with light, film, and space just as materials. The idea was somehow to reduce the speed of photography to confuse its usual placement into the past. The idea of repetition, the exposure repeated, became a key that opened Pandora’s box. Not a miscalculation but rather a simple basic concept that will probably haunt me to the end, the great demon.
It was such a revelation to me, and what usually happens in front of or behind the camera lost all its importance. What became meaningful were events inside of the camera on the surface of the film. My photographs are first-time images representing nothing but the process of their own making and the ideas this process illustrates. There is no decisive moment, but many moments forming one original event. The rest is up to your imagination.

Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Helsinki, Finland, 1975, archival inkjet print, 60 x 50 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects
Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Fosters Pond II, 1989, wallpaper © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects

Arno: Why did you choose to photograph yourself over and over again over 4 decades?
Make that five decades. It started 50 years ago, September the second to be exact, in 1971. Speaking of decades, five happens to be my favorite number. I like the way its single curve and two straight lines move like the knight on the chessboard, a beautiful balance of two straight lines and a curve. But to the question, if communicating such matters of balance between nature and the naked body, for example, is the goal, then some form of familiarity and consistency over time will be required if we want to reach the audiences we never meet. It’s what makes the Helsinki School so unique: the pushing of ideas over time with a voice and vision that becomes intimate through its familiarity and persistence. For me, staying the course, going the distance, became a kind of mantra or constraint that I posed on myself and still do, perhaps in the way Morandi did. Or to quote Braque’s famous words “out of limitations, new forms emerge.” For me, that meant “make it different, keep it the same.” That’s a big ask and a bigger task. Still, the challenge of consistency was way too much fun. It was always Christmas in the darkroom, even later when viewing the digital back, especially when vowing to yourself that you would never manipulate—or forget going to photography heaven. And finally, just for the fun of it, maybe I wanted to disprove an accusation in Le Monde in the late ‘80s that a well-published picture of mine of my hands raised over my back made in 1975 was stolen from a famous self-portrait of an old guy doing the same thing in 1983.

Jyrki Parantainen, Fire No 14. (30.6.1996, Haapsalu, Estonia), 1996, from the series Fire, archival pigment print, 128 x 160 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects

Jyrki: How would you describe the conception and preparation for your work, and why do you see parallels between your work and writing a script for a film?
In my artistic career, there have been perhaps a couple of cases that have not been premeditated. Naturally, each photograph, installation, or object goes through the mental and physical process which will always deform the originally planned idea. That’s the beauty of making art. The process. Surprises and mistakes.
The ideology of these processes is that I create my reality, which will never resemble the “real world”. I step out of the pure documentation.
Going through a manipulation process in each case is essential for me. I mainly work in front of the camera. That can mean working at night and in a similar kind of section of the year. Some actions include several processes to paint the target or landscape with light and with assistants. It can also be a series of props and interiors that will be burnt down when they are ready. Or making a print, mount it and add letters, pins, and wires, and then re-photograph it.
With these combinations, I aim to discuss essential human issues. Flesh and blood, love and hate, and life and death. Society and behavior.
In the end, the outcome mainly exists in the film. My photographs are documents of processes.
My first and noteworthy inspiration and interest in conceptual content and visuality came from cinema, as well as my interest in storytelling. That happened before I became a professional photographer. It still goes on strongly.
For me, the most interesting artists beyond film stand out for their ability to tell stories, combining space, time, light, sound, visuality, and content with one concept. They belong to the same circle and the same family as Peter Greenaway, David Lynch, or Andrei Tarkowski.
As mentioned, I don’t do straight photography. Each process starts with the manuscript of the first draft: purpose, schedule, conceptualization, set up, actors, etc. Then comes the work and again – the process!

Mikko Rikala, Year in My Pocket (Spring), 2019, pigment print, 110 x 135 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects
Mikko Rikala, Year in My Pocket (Summer), 2019, pigment print, 110 x 135 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects
Mikko Rikala, Year in My Pocket (Autumn), 2019, pigment print, 110 x 135 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects
Mikko Rikala, Year in My Pocket (Winter), 2019, pigment print, 110 x 135 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects

Mikko: How are you trying “to uncover the relationship between what is seen as rational on one hand and what is perceived as irrational on the other” in your work?
In my work I have observed natural phenomena through two different ways of looking:
By seeing, through which I get measurable, accurate information that leads to a rational understanding of the world. And by perceiving, which gives me subjective, intuitive knowledge, something unconventional or irrational.
Instead of choosing one worldview over the other, I have tried to combine them. For example in my work Year In My Pocket, I have studied how water changes its form from liquid to gas to solid and back to liquid during one year. The work consists of four seasons and shows water in different forms.
In my pocket, I have carried a photo of the season that preceded the current one. Spring was in my pocket through summer, summer through autumn, etc. I have rephotographed all four original images seven times during all four seasons. Slowly the original image fades and is replaced by an abstract image. It could be thought to be an image of a fading memory, an act of forgetting, or simply the decaying of material. Beneath every image, there is the date of when the original photo was taken and of when it was rephotographed. The calendar as a rational structure is combined with a fading image, something by nature unpredictable.
Despite the countless ways that we are trying to create order around us, on which we could build our lives, we are still constantly moving towards the unknown.

Noora Sandgren, Henko 2 – Correspondence (compost 7 days) 2, 2020, pigment print, 240 x 175 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects

Noora: Why did you choose to use different elements aligned with the photographic process in your work, yet never the camera itself?
I can thank the home garden at Hiidenvesi for a lot of things. This space has its own time, which has attuned me to be play-able. Many years ago, I found a forgotten box of older-than-me photographic papers that used to belong to my father. The garden provided the right kind of place to learn within the mix of different materialities, including photographic matter. Those found paper-beings together with the garden became my teacher.
Working with cameraless photographs positions me in a tangible relationship with the body of the photograph. How are our bodies the same? We both have light-sensing skin, record happenings and touches, change in time, and share chemistry. Thinking of the analogies between myself and the photographic body has led me to consider what the new materialist theorist Jane Bennett calls “thing power”: how all matter can have an effect on others, but always within a situated assemblage of many. Photography as a thing-being, what does it do, how is it constructed? Considering a cameraless photograph as a being allows me to practice empathy towards other-than-human entities, not only seeing but sensing them as bodies, related by material flows. Working with this kind of photographic relationship is about researching and meditating on what it means to take part in a relationship and how it is always born new.
I consider a photograph to be my companion, which is not always easy. Yet, there is no way of getting rid of it; it inhabits me. Then, what is left is to sit with it and consider this a practice without conclusions or frozen answers. This is an open process of living together. And with whom do I really share my life with? How much or little am I able to perceive those? Who and what processes are meaningful life sustainers?
For me, the space of the cameraless photograph is something open, for snow, rain, and others to leave marks, to become noticed, heard – and felt. I´m thinking, what is the language of the other? What are the distance and metamorphic journey a single raindrop or snowflake has taken?
Things are on the same level in this open photographic space, and control of what gets to be included or excluded in the image is let go. This makes me wonder what kind of gestures and situations constitute a hospitable space? While thinking about this, one becomes more conscious of the choreographies and desires in command while working with a camera in the images-space-making event. For me, letting go of the camera is another kind of knowledge creation that is more directly sensed, and not always human-intention-driven. The cameraless process means surrendering to the wildness of the photograph itself.
Cameraless working is about the oddness of bodies, touching, smelling, being tasted – this is intimacy, immersion by permeability, which also balances the eye-centered way of living. It is about being exposed next to each other, being inside the image.
While working with different entities living in the home garden, compost has become an important space to care for. It is not only metaphorical but based on concrete mutualism. It is a space of messy relationships, melting outlines and functions. Working with outdated light-sensitive papers makes me meditate wider on consumption and the idea of surplus, which resists definitions. Sometimes I leave my photographic paper companions in the warmth of the compost for some days, inviting the microbial agents to colonize the image and make their multi-culture visible.
Compost has taught me to think differently about time, matter, and energy. I wonder how a photograph could be more about life and presence than death and absence – often mentioned within photography. Slowness as a way of gentle resistance is one way. Yet, there is a need for more holistic thinking: How can a photograph – and my life with it be more aligned to life that is moving, changing escaping definitions, leaking from one place to another, eventually enabling continuance of life for something else. To consider the shared metabolism is something that makes one think of distances anew. Sun, rain, waters, and soils are eventually a shared matter we live by, the same air we breathe.

Santeri Tuori, Waterfall 4, 2009, sublimation print on canvas, HD video projection, sound, 455,5 x 250 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects

Santeri: Can you tell us a bit about how you conceptualize the passage of time by layering one photo negative upon another in order to create your own imaginary landscape?
Many of my works consist of several layers of photographs taken at different times. These different layers are combined into one. For the Forest works, for example, I have been photographing and filming the same forest on a small island of Kökar in the Åland archipelago for sixteen years now. The works I make are based on this vast archive of images of the same forest. In the final works, the years of photographing and time are condensed into one. The series is divided into prints and moving images.
I strongly believe that our body of work is part of the traditions we come from and we work with. I started my photography when everything was still analog and mostly black and white. Everything was still printed by hand in a darkroom and handcraft played a part in the production. The grounding layer for many of my works is a black and white photograph into which color layers merge. The many traditions of black and white photography can still be seen.
In the moving images of the Forest series, black and white photographs and color videos have been superimposed on top of each other. The superimposing is done either by projecting the video on a photograph or in an editing program. The result is a layered image, which contains the sharpness and richness of a photograph and the movement and time of a video. The image is layered also in the sense that images taken at different times or even years come together in the same landscape. Time in these images cannot be counted, not in years, not in split seconds. Time just is. As long as the viewers are in front of a forest, they are confronted with photography and questions surrounding it.
Photographs never lived a life outside visual arts or society in general. In the Sky series, the references to the traditions of painting for example are sometimes obvious. In Water lilies, the references and also inspirations are maybe more towards Japan and the traditions of woodcut and animation. These photographs can be seen as intersections of different traditions and times.
We experience the work in time. This is most obvious with the pieces that combine video and photography. When I made my first portraits where a video of a person was projected on a portrait of the same person, I was very interested in the fact that we viewed photographs as very natural representations of the world when it in fact seemed to be quite the opposite. Our being in time is very different from how photographs present the world. The world is never still, it is never a moment. In my portrait works, the photograph is still proposing one quite firm identity for the person portrayed, but the video is proposing another much more fluid identity. The works come closer to how we experience time, it happens in time.
The Forest videos with their large-scale installations create immersive spaces. In the videos the normally still forest is seen as full of life and movement. It is as if the forest is alive and has its own will. Suddenly it is the forest that seems to be the subject and the exhibition visitor is the one who is being looked at. The works make us aware of ourselves and our being in time.

Niina Vatanen, Gravity Experiments and Cyclic Phenomena, 2021, sublimation print on fabric, 175 x 249 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects
Niina Vatanen, Gravity Experiments and Cyclic Phenomena, 2021 2021, sublimation print on fabric, 175 x 249 cm © the artist, courtesy: Persons Projects

Niina: What are your methods of depicting time and our perception of it through your work?
A camera is a simple optical instrument that can be used to capture moments. But how to depict time?
A certain sense of time has always been present in my work. Throughout my career, I have tried to depict and capture time in many different ways. Instead of changing the subject, I have changed my point of view, looked at things from a different perspective, and posed the question again and again.
Photographs are physically connected to the world through the rays of light. Light enters the camera through a small hole and allows the light-sensitive surface, a photographic film or a digital sensor, to capture the image. In such a manner, light forms a temporal bond between the subject and the viewer, as Roland Barthes describes in his book Camera Lucida: “The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here.”
Barthes’s thought of “a sort of umbilical cord” formed by light is at the same time very tangible and poetic. This thought evokes sentimentality in me, especially when looking at old pictures. While I was working on an archive project a couple of years ago, scanning through boxes of perished negatives, the sense of the time passing turned into something nearly palpable. The holes and chemical stains, all the scratches and marks that had emerged through handling and time passing, had created a whole new layer on top of the negatives.
The questions concerning time most often return to mathematics, physics, religion, and myths. However, in the museum archive, these questions turned into something more personal, subjective experience of time.
I’m mostly working with photographs, text, and found material. I combine different sources from my own pictures to various archives and old encyclopedias as well as documentaries of art history and science. In the book Time Atlas, documentary material is mixed with poetic observations. I’m exploring themes concerning birth, death, growth, and perception.
Playful interventions and experimenting are essential to my work. I’m trying to find new connections between images and fill the gaps between times and places. Overlapping photographs create a tapestry of time in which history, memories, and experiences become an inseparable part of time and our perception of it.