The Tampere-born Metamorphosis of Documentary Photography

8 helmikuun, 2011  |  Published in UP-TO-DATE  |  1 Comment

In June 1987 three photographers from Great Britain arrived in Tampere: Martin Parr, Paul Graham and Victor Burgin. New British photography filled the then Museum of Modern Art of Tampere with large photos that shone with colour and a critical attitude towards traditional documentary.

Victor Burgin, who was known as a photographer and a theoretician, surprised the audience of the opening lecture of the first international photographic event Photography 87 Tampere, by his conceptual and poster-like Office at Night -pictures and by his psychoanalysis-coloured pondering on the fundamental passion of photography: voyeurism. Merja Salo crystallised Burgin’s thoughts in an interview in Valokuva (Finnish Photography) – magazine: “That which is not photographed is equally interesting as that which is photographed” (Salo, 1987).

Barely had photographers used to black-and-white documentary photography recovered from Burgin’s deeply materialistic theory, which stripped photography of all aestheticism and mysticism (Burgin 1982), when Martin Parr and Paul Graham shook awake the photographers who took part in their workshop by disassociating themselves from classical humanistic-reformative documentary photography and photojournalism. Parr presented his colour prints of New Brighton and Graham of labour exchanges at the Museum of Modern Art.

New British photography arrived at Tampere as by stealth. The photographer Petri Nuutinen visited English photographic galleries in 1986. He met Parr and Graham during his journey and invited them to Tampere. Nuutinen assembled a theme issue of British photography; Valokuva-magazine described Parr and Graham as epochal, but also knowledgeable about the rich tradition in documentary photography (Nuutinen, 1986).

In the ironic pictures of Martin Parr’s 1986 book The Last Resort families spend their holidays in New Brighton. Nobody seems to care about the fact that the average Brits were sunbathing and the children were playing on the beach amidst trash. The confused adults lighted by Parr’s supplementary flash are immersed in their thoughts and seen as unreal as mannequins. The decline and attraction of traditional holiday resorts are embodied in the fish and chips – fast food culture at the swimming pool of Lido and the game arcades of New Brighton.

Paul Graham’s photography book Beyond Caring (1986) is deeply rooted in the traditional theme of revealing wrongs when depicting British labour exchanges and social offices. On the other hand, his Troubled Land-documentary the political tension and conflicts of Northern Ireland are discreetly shown in the graffiti painted on streets and signs. The social landscape of Graham conveys political and symbolic messages. They are signals that the viewers have to find themselves.


“Photography is not a frisbee”

The common tone of Parr’s and Graham’s photographs was based on picturing the everyday life in the 80’s. When Thatcherism divided British society into a- and b-classes, I remember Martin Parr having criticised the consensus of Finnish society: it was like pissing in cotton wool. Parr’s and Graham’s workshop called down aesthetical photographs that lacked uncertainty and attitude. I also remember the time when Parr ripped up a black-and-white print of a photographer attending the course. It was a manifesto and extrication from traditional black-and-white conventional photography. The winged sentence favoured by Parr and Graham, “photography is not a frisbee”, impressed on the people at the workshop the importance of a serious attitude towards photography. In Parr’s mind, the work of Finnish photographers “seem quite soft and humanistic”. (Hyvärinen 1987.)

The sarcastic humour of the sharp-tongued Parr won him many kindred spirits amongst Finnish photographers. He was employed as a visiting professor of photographic art at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki in 1990. Finnish photojournalists and students of photography adopted Parr’s style – some of them in a straightforward, some in a more interpretational way. One of the best-known disciples of Parr is Markus Jokela. His photographs breath a Parrian humour, although, in my opinion, the irony in Jokela’s pictures is more painful and deeper than Parr’s analysis of surface and superficiality. Jokela’s photography book Kalpean auringon alla (Under a pale sun, Jokela 2000) is a cross section of middle-classified, too-well-off Finns. All that is left of the agrarian post-war society is a yearning for summer cottages and holiday paradises. Nokialand is a weird combination of old and new, free and chained, and confusion and the bliss of consumption.

Photography 87 drew in an audience that did not only consist of professional and amateur photographers. The event arose extensive interest in the press and television. Matti Apunen spoke for photography in the newspaper Aamulehti: “Culture can be made for less than a hundred million” (Apunen 1987). By this plea he referred to the expensive and monumental culture palaces in Tampere: Sara Hilden Art Museum and Tampereen työväen teatteri (the Tampere Workingmen’s Theatre). Apunen was criticising the paltriness of exhibition spaces that Tampere provides for photographers.


The West of Danny Lyon and the East of Rifkhat Jakupov on neutral ground

The wall broke down in Berlin in 1989, and immediately after that the ruins of the socialist economies of Eastern Europe opened up for the capitalist market economies of Western Europe. The consensus of Finnish society and photography unravelled when the economic depression of the early 90’s fell on Finland. It broke the European record in the speed with which companies gave notice to their employees. In few years the number of the unemployed almost increased tenfold. When Finland turned its “neutral” look from the East to the West as it joined the European Union, the society polarised and photographic art became post-modern.

Almost as a reminder of its position as a geopolitical and cultural middle-ground of the East and the West, a photographic event was organised in Tampere of Finland in 1990, whose main guests arrived from the superpowers of the West and the East. The American photographer and film-maker Danny Lyon and the Russian photographer Rifkhat Jakupov were the ambassadors of photography. The theme of the seminar and workshops of Photography 1990 was creative reportage.

The adversaries of the Cold War mocked uninhibitedly their own imperiums. Known for his prison- and motorcycle gang-documents, Lyon criticised the USA for being a nation where the government only supported artist who create decent and clean art. A hysteria of censorship was born in the USA when homoerotic photographs were removed from Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition. While Danny Lyon scorned the membership of the legendary photographic agency, Magnum, Jakupov – who was liberated by Perestroika and who wanted to enter the photography market of the West – a membership would have been a dream come true. Jakupov believed in the power of reportage, whilst Lyon was repulsed by magazines and newspapers.

Lyon and Jakupov used traditional black-and-white film in their reportage and photo-essays. Both of them, besides social wrongs and phenomena, dived into privacy: into their own people and families. Jakupov showed pictures of Tatars in Tampere, Lyon his latest film of his own family. Jakupov was then in the midst of making a book on Tatars and Lyon on 60’s civil rights battles.

In the workshops of Photography 1990 Jakupov’s pupils created traditional reportage, whilst Lyon loved to present his photo collages. He had just produced a photography book about his family, I Like to Eat Right on the Dirt (1989). In the book Lyon builds photo collages, as did Robert Frank in his autobiographical, pre-post-modern book The lines of my hand (1989, first published in 1972) that resembled a paper movie. Lyon was flattered when I mentioned the similarities between his and Frank’s styles. Still, he was only enraptured by his fishing trips to Finnish countryside and the salmon a fisherman caught from Tammerkoski in the centre of Tampere.


The forgotten Middle Europe returns in Cibulka’s photocycles and Klein’s performances

The dominance of Anglo-Saxon photography was shaken at Photography 93 Tampere, when Middle-European photography was brought to Tampere. The photographers invited by Photography Centre Nykyaika’s Ulrich Haas-Pursiainen, Heinz Cibulka from Austria and Jaschi Klein from Germany, presented photography that was then only known very little in Finland.

The works of Cibulka and Klein have been shown in the German-language Camera Austria, which is as an influential and high-quality a publication as is the late British Creative camera and the American Aperture. Heinz Cibulka made a career already in the 70’s as a performance artist and a Viennese actionist. Actionists painted in animal blood in performances that Cibulka documented. He investigated the Catholic culture in his photographs. Cibulka’s method was to build photocycles of four photgraphs. (Cibulka 1993). He places pictures of slaughtered animals side by side with family photos and religious images. The comparisons are shocking.

Jaschi Klein’s photographs do not impress by their shock value but their poetic quality. Klein staged surrealistic visions in his pictures. He first used people as his models and then animals. Klein’s photographs of winged horses are mystical and dream-like. How does a white horse make a black shadow? asks Juhani Niiranen, who attended Klein’s workshop, in the magazine Valokuva (Finnish Photography) in 1993. Klein answers: “A philosophical question. I want to simplify, to abstract. By abstracting one can make more of reality.” (Niiranen 1993.)

Jaschi Klein can be seen as the representative of the subjective school launched by the German Otto Steinert in the 50’s. (Eskildsen etc. 1984.) The NAMNAM-seminar that examined Oliviero Toscani’s Benetton-photographs completed the concept of European photography. The seminar of Photography 93 called Morality and sacredness appraised the blurring of the boundaries of advertisements, films and documentary. The genres get mixed up and the audience is confused, or is it? Besides advertisements, the magazine COLORS has been developed as a showcase for Toscani’s documentary photos. In the magazine the photographs of different artists and agencies are assembled into theme issues about large and topical subjects, like religion, aids and urban life. The pictures do not really form traditional photo-essays; they illustrate global phenomena as picture galleries. (Vanhanen 2002.)


The new means of expression of Finnish documentary at Finlayson’s Siperia

When the map of Europe was drawn anew in the 90’s, it resembled to a surprising amount the map of the 20’s with its small nation-states. Photography 96 Tampere took an inventory of Finnish documentary photography, and it made the fierceness of its crisis tangible. The works of 20 photographers were hung in the old factory milieu and its dark and high Siperia-hall. Jukka Male’s and Jaakko Heikkilä’s classically straight photographs of people witnessed the recognition of tradition and the vigour of humanistic-emphatic documentary. Veli Granö’s, Jorma Puranen’s and Marja Pirilä’s works cross-expose people from the perspective of time and space. Their subjects are at the same time models and narrators. Some of the photographers

of Nykyaika brought their own pictures to the public view as well.

The photos of Antti Haapio, Ami Hyvärinen, Petri Nuutinen, Asko Salminen, Irja Samoil and Taina Värri shed light on the heterogeneity of local photography.

The development took place in Finnish photography as elsewhere in Europe as well. Conceptual ideas were applied to documentary photography. The collage-like exhibition built in the Siperia-hall even exhausted with its massiveness. If some photography exhibitions have been shown in too small spaces, then Siperia-hall was like a laboratory, where the viewers felt themselves to be a part of the multifarious worlds – rooms without walls – of the art works. Besides the large prints there were CD-ROM’s, video installations, space-, sound- and light-works. This told about a new kind of commitment of photographers to the increasingly polymorphous expressive field of photography.

Because of university-level studies, Finnish photography has become more academic at the same as it has become an established art form. The discussion started by Raoul Grünstein, Asko Mäkelä and Inari Teinilä at Ylioppilastalo in Tampere reflected well the expansion of documentary photography to the direction of art, video and film. According to Grünstein, a document can record, analyse, reveal, bend and express. He also considered self-expression to be important.

The discussion about the reality of photography was no longer limited to the problematical theme of objectivity, but also concretised in the fashionable concepts of discursion theory and identity, already familiar from the world of science. The fact that no workshops were organised in Photography 96 Tampere was symptomatic: instead the transitional phase of Finnish photography was regarded and appraised. Self-analysis has brought about schools in Finnish documentary photography, which see photography as a very different means of expression of communication and art. Although Finnish cultural discussion is often rather conceptually limited, there has been an attempt to accept different ways to approach photography, different genres. Post-modern and conceptual photography and its theoreticians have not completely devoured the strong Finnish documentary photography, although documentary based on tradition and visual narrative have been undermined.

The exhibition spaces of Nykyaika have changed and it has become one of the photographic centres in Finland. Besides the Finnish Museum of Photography in Helsinki, regional photographic centres have specialised in different concepts of activities and photographic traditions. Tampere is the centre of documentary photography.


Backlight lighted up Tampere from back to front

The photography triennial in Tampere got a new name, Backlight, in 1999. The event looked towards Europe: Documents and Identities – Young European Photography – backlighted by global multimedia reality? The invitation to Backlight was a sign of the multilayered and challenging nature of the event.

A new residence project, which the curator Ulrich Haas-Pursiainen writes about elsewhere in this publication under the title Residence works, was started at Backlight. He and the director of the photographic centre, Antti Haapio, managed (with the help of EU’s Kaleidoskope-project) to create the most interesting photographic event in the whole Northern Europe. The main partners of Backlight were Fondazione Studio Marangoni from Italy, Centro Português de Fotografia from Portugal, Rupertinum Salzburg Museum moderner Kunst from Austria and Pro Helvetia from Switzerland. Backlight was seen in the large lighted advertisement stands by the sidewalks. The mother tongue of Backlight changed from Finnish to the Latin of today – English.

Caroline Smith appraised Backlight in Creative Camera in December 1999. According to her, the Tamperean photographic event presented well the minorities of European peripheries: Detlef Riemarzik’s pictures of Lapps, Adrian Istvan Sulgok’s collages of self-portraits and factory pictures of Rumania, and Paulo Catrica’s topographical series of Porto. All of them dealt with the cultural identities of the periphery. Backlight led the discussion about the hybridisation of global culture and multimedia. (Smith 1999.)

The gallery of Nykyaika presented a series of ten exhibitions during 1999. The cultural centre Telakka held a symposium, which was, besides Finnish photographers and researchers, attended by several European curators, including Alessandra Capodaqua from Italy, Tereza Siza from Portugal, Alan Humerose from Switzerland and Margit Zuckriegl from Austria. The seminar studied the local and peripheral identity under the pressure of global media culture.

Daniel Meadows, who held his exhibition Now and then at Backlight, travelled around Britain in a double-decker bus in the 70’s. He photographed all his subject again twenty years later. Meadows gave a virtuoso, unforgettable lecture on his photographic project at Tampere University. He also gave an intensive workshop to students from various schools, where the relationship between photography, journalism and art was discussed.

The group Chipex, formed by four Swiss photographers, began a series of exhibitions in May, in which the works of altogether 15 photographers were presented. There was no theme in the Chipex exhibition: the artist brought as heterogeneous works to Tampere as possible. Steve Iuncker’s black-and-white, granular pictures of aged prostitutes undermined the traditional idea of beauty. On the other hand, there are no people in Gérard Pétremand’s photos. His city is a chaos of sign boards, advertisements and guideposts. Alan Humerose turns his look to the aesthetism of street surfaces.

Besides the main exhibition at Verkaranta and Nykyaika at Kehräsaari, there were other works at several other galleries. Backlight 99 gave the opportunity to foreign photographers to work in Tampere for ten days. The artists in residence-project (often practised in art circles) brought photographers to Tampere from Japan and several European countries. The contacts that were born during Backligt enabled it to become a link in the chain of European photographic events. It also gave a chance to regional photographers from Pirkanmaa to present their work at collaborating countries.

The special characteristic of Backlight is the magical communality that has been born between photographers, curators and organisers in Tampere. The smoky sauna of Hangaslahti could not better act as the kindling of the Backlight-spirit.


The global doors open –photography goes POPlatino

There has been a photographic triennial every since the coherent review of British photography in 1987. Backlight is like a melting pot of different styles and approaches in global documentary photography. While the exhibitors of 1987 shared the same nationality, the backgrounds of the partakers of Backlight 02 were multinational and

multicultural. Although Parr’s Cost of Living – and Graham’s New Europe -works told of a change in their styles, they still witnessed a documentary spirit. Marcos López from Argentina, Pitt Sauerwein from Germany and Martin Kollar from Slovakia use different methods, but they can still be called documentarists. The work of Kollar, the recipient of the Backlight-award, inevitably bring to mind the work of the young Parr in the 80’s.

Backlight 02 reached the widest audience of the triennials so far. Photography is POP. The opening of Backlight was a gig cultural event that attracted, besides photography aficionados, the cultural creme de la creme more than the premieres of local theatres. The Argentinean Marcos López is almost like a personification of Backlight. His pop latino- photos mix documentary with poster-art and painting. (López 2000.) He deals with Latin myths from football and beauty pageants to political and religious subjects. López has one passion. He adores taxi drivers, without whom he says he could not live. He shows his respect to them by his pictures. Although some of Lopez’s photographs seem like the fruits of whim, he directs and stages them. He distances himself from realism by finally painting on his photos with ad-like garish additional colours.

The German Pitt Sauerwein uses autobiographical themes in her work. The settings vary from Germany to Rumania: from public parks to intimate situations at home. She is a performance artist who takes part and directs herself in everyday absurdities. There is a connection between Sauerwein’s intensive work that penetrates the spirit of the times and Finnish Elina Brotherus’s self-portraits. The straight colour prints of Slovakian Martin Kollar honour the tradition of on the road-photography. The unreal reality of his photographs describe the transformation of Eastern European society in a sympathetic but uniquely humorous way. His work shows the way to the changing and renewal of photographic reportage.

López, Sauerwein and Kollar gave, besides their exhibitions and lectures, workshops to the students of Tampere Polytechnic School of Art and Media and University of Tampere. The workshops produced photographs that resembled both the teachers and the students. The results were exhibited at the Emil-hall at the Old Library.

The exhibition at Vapriikki that opened in September 2002 was quite a varied whole. The photographs shown on three floors still managed to retain their allure in a strange way. The artists of Backlight mainly came from Europe, but some Finnish documentarists were also included in the show. The contacts created during Backlight 99 brought new photographers to Tampere. Before the main exhibition at Vapriikki there was the Residence works- exhibition at Photographic Centre Nykyaika. The residence-project acted as a bridge between the two Backlight exhibitions. Each visiting artist carried out his own photographic project in Tampere. Many of them showed Tampere with the freshness of a stranger’s look.

There were two symposiums at Backligt 02, both organised by curators Harri Laakso (regional artist of Pirkanmaa) and Ulrich Haas-Pursiainen. The theme of the first symposium was critical authenticity, and the theme of the second one the ethics of photography. Laakso considered Vilém Flusser’s thought on knowledge and truth, according to which knowledge can be approached from two different directions. “Science proceeds from the probable to the even more probable, whilst art progresses from the probable towards the more improbable. Work created at this meeting point is the future of documentary.” (Laakso 2002.)

The relationship between images in the media and documentary photography is increasingly multi-faceted in modern society. Surveillance cameras and webcams create imagery, whose “functionary” – a term developed by Vilém Flusser for photographers – is the user and starter of the program (Flusser 1984). The images of the new millennium have shown the possibilities and limitations of media fusion. The role of photography as a form of art and communication has enlarged but also become more differentiated.

I see in the documentarism in the series of photographic triennials – in which I have taken part either as doer or a seer – three central styles and approaches: straight black-and-white and colour documentary photography; performative and staged photography; manipulated and experimentative photography, video and multimedia. Clear lines between genres are, however, soluble and documentary as a concept nowadays includes almost all photographic art. Although conceptual photography and video film are part of Backlight, straight photography has not lost its position. Multimedia reportages published on the Internet have appeared as a new form of expression beside traditional photo reportage. The metamorphic cycle of documentary photography is winding to its starting point, fresh and new.

The Internet has made Backlight an increasingly international an event. The Tamperean event has not, however, blown itself to the proportions of the Photokina fair. The operational philosophy of Backlight as a showcase for international quality photography is related to the film festival of Sodankylä. Both Backlight and Tampere are human-sized.




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  1. Margarita Ledo Andión sanoo:

    Thanks a lot, Hannu, for coming back towards this very interesting text. Years ago I have written about Graham, Parr and the so called ”The phtographers of the Thacher years” and I even reach to bring Parr to Santiago.