Words like “proper” and “sensible” aren’t usually the first to come to mind when talking about art. Even so, they describe the state of photography in Finland, where artists often pay high gallery fees and institutions cannot afford to take risks. What is presented to the general public is therefore almost always the equivalent of ready-to-wear fashion: visually appealing objects waiting to hang on the living room wall.
Three exhibitions in Helsinki exemplify this deep-seated tradition, while also showing how societal trends are reflected in the art of photography: the newly-discovered female photographer Hilja Raviniemi (1915–1973) shown at the Finnish Museum of Photography (15 September 2023 – 7 January 2024); the well-established conceptualist Jorma Puranen at Galerie Anhava (7 September – 1 October 2023); and the young rising star Emma Sarpaniemi at Fotogalleri Hippolyte (1 – 24 September 2023). Individually, these shows represent different generations and styles, but also the same uncritical devotion to the conventions of the gallery space.
Looking at the exhibitions in chronological order, we begin with Hilja Raviniemi. A Touch of Blue is a retrospective comprising works held by the museum. It is a rather jumbled collection, ranging from personal holiday photographs to blue-toned still lifes captured with an X-ray camera during the 1960s. The museum’s justification for Raviniemi’s relevance seems firstly to be her gender, followed by her use of experimental techniques. It all clearly stems from a half-hearted attempt to rediscover a female photographer, à la Vivian Maier, but I get the feeling that the curators ran out of steam at some point along the way.
Jorma Puranen, on the other hand, needs no introduction. He is an established member of Berlin-based gallerist Timothy Person’s loose-knit collective The Helsinki School, which has boosted his visibility on a European level since the 1990s. The group is often associated with an exasperating idiosyncrasy, but Puranen manages to develop his own concepts without completely shedding his skin.
In his previous exhibition at Galerie Anhava, Puranen used archival material from Fridtjof Nansen’s polar expedition (1893–1896) to invoke mankind’s struggle against nature, impermanence, and itself. It was moving without being maudlin. This time around, in They Could Hear a Faraway Thunder, humanity is largely absent, and with it the importunate Barthesian tone. The camera is no longer in the hands of the mortals, but has ascended to the heavens, where it surveys the Earth’s surface. Aerial views of snow-covered mountain ranges form the main motifs. The photographs’ blueish surfaces have been treated with liquid, which has left evaporative rings. It is tasteful, but in a very removed way. So too, is Puranen’s usually elegant use of dust as a symbol, which is reduced to a formal gesture here; the compositions are too neat and resolved.
Emma Sarpaniemi is the representative for millennials, and an emerging artist. Her aesthetic cleverly walks the line between the trendy and the timeless, and she has a knack for series in which the content of each work stands on its own terms. As a result, the images work both online and in real life. More, she is able to refer to her role models without descending into pastiche.
Two Ways to Carry a Cauliflower is Sarpaniemi’s second solo presentation in Helsinki, following her debut at Galleria Katariina two years ago. Thanks to her participation in Søsterskap (Sisterhood), a group exhibition within this year’s Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, she is much better known than her CV might suggest. Self-portrait as Cindy(2022), an homage to Sherman, was chosen as the festival’s main press image and has thus been widely disseminated. It is also on display at Fotogalleri Hippolyte as one of nineteen self-portraits which, in addition to Sherman, show the influence of Claude Cahun, Elina Brotherus, children’s literature and fashion photography. It is 100 per cent role play and 0 per cent selfie culture.
On the surface, Raviniemi, Puranen, and Sarpaniemi have little in common other than nationality and artistic medium. However, as a group they say a surprising amount about how photography can be presented in an art context. Finnish photography has only recently begun to see a connection between the medium’s materiality and its content. Up to this point, works have most often been created through preconceptions of how art should look, without much consideration given to subject or theme. Finnish art photography in the 21st century consists of a disproportionate number of shiny mounted works and huge pigment prints in thick white frames. That a work can be more than a robust two-dimensional image in an edition of five or seven is a concept that is spreading slowly but surely.
Sarpaniemi is the most daring, but she is also working in an era in which the self-portrait already plays a central role in art photography, and where photography’s materiality and spatiality is a given point of discussion. For Raviniemi, the reality was much more confined. Photography was hardly recognised as a serious art form, and there was no question of any feminist discourse. Her work was also totally removed from academic art education, instead stemming from her work in local photographic societies.
In turn, Puranen’s situation is markedly different from Sarpaniemi’s. Critical approaches to the materiality of the photograph were more or less absent for artists of his generation, whose work gained recognition for its grandiose size and glossy surfaces regardless of the relevance to the content. The image surface reigned supreme for them, never approaching the playful use of reproduction, framing, and use of colour which is so important for the young (photo) artists of today. For example, Sarpaniemi chooses to make her own c-prints and paints both walls and frames in colours sympathetic to the works. In Self-portrait in Red Circus (2022), she takes this to an extreme, with the frame itself being the circus referred to in the title.
By comparison, Puranen’s exhibition seems rather bland, but his work is also more restrained. There are experiments using silver gelatin prints on metal sheets mounted in frames lined with beige buckram, but the majority of the choices are safe, letting the surprisingly limp, if beautiful, images emerge. Still, it is clear that there is an idea behind them, albeit one that is somewhat shackled by conventions related both to tradition, and to a certain cowardice in the face of the demands of the art market at large.
The decisions made for Raviniemi’s works are harder to understand. How to curate an exhibition of a dead person’s photographs if they were never in the position to experience their medium in the manner of today’s photographic artists, and when part of the material only exists as negatives? There isn’t any visible logic to the selection, sequencing, and installation of A Touch of Blue. This could have been an opportunity to create a comprehensive body of work in Raviniemi’s memory. Her X-ray images of small animals and flowers in particular could have been used in a more meaningful way. Instead, poor selection and extremely unimaginative framings of original prints have been artlessly chucked on the walls. Those images for which no physical copies exist have been scanned and are projected on the walls at a breakneck pace. It is as if everything has been assembled into an incoherent and fragmented mess solely because she was not a ‘real’ photographic artist.
It is difficult to draw significant conclusions from just three exhibitions, but the differences between the museum, the gallery, and the artist-run space show that the risk of a rigid end result increases as one moves towards Finland’s prestigious venues. It clearly takes courage to see photography as anything other than a surrogate for painting. Unfortunately, hoping for a new international breakthrough for Finnish photography – like the one a quarter of a century ago – does not seem plausible in the near future, given an environment that does not encourage experimentation.