Here, now

1 October 2012 | Extracts, Non-fiction

Beijing, China, 1989. Photo: Pentti Sammallahti

Photographer Pentti Sammallahti (born 1950) has travelled widely over six decades; his mostly black-and-white photographs portray humans, animals, cities as well as open landscapes, in Nepal, France, Kalmykia, the US, Morocco, Russia – in more than 40 countries. His beautifully executed retrospective work, entitled ‘here far away’, containing more than 250 photographs, is introduced by Finn Thrane

here far away is a retrospective work that comprises nearly fifty years of photographic activity and unfolds in almost as many countries. Despite this, Pentti Sammallahti’s discreet title points to the paradox that the photograph always represents a here-and-now: an encounter in the exhibition or on the page of the book between artist and viewer, which is of course subject to the law of mutability, but constantly reflects the capacity of the two to enter into a dialogue, to extend the picture’s mirror of the past into the viewer’s present and future.

Moscow, Russia, 1980. Photo: Pentti Sammallahti

In this respect Pentti Sammallahti’s work is ensured a long life, because with his photographic images he steps outside time and instead grapples with the great mysteries that existence offers the curious: love, death, spirituality, nature – key existential concepts that he would hardly allow to pass his own lips, but would instead be all the more willing to show.

This modesty flows as an underlying current through all of his work, but only makes sense if it is viewed together with the obligation to hold the wondrous forth for us to see: the magnificent landscapes, the diverse multitude of animals, the struggling people, the fragile earth.

Not least the last theme – that God’s great apparatus could collapse – is one that his retrospective book still seems to be revolving around. Insistently, but without pathos. One of the more sophisticated photographs speaks silently but strongly about it: in the winter-white park stands a tree that has lost its side branches in the storm. One of the branches has positioned itself horizontally in a fork across the main trunk, so they together form a cross. But the symbolism of the cross is quite sacrilegiously killed off by a pair of crows that have occupied the cross-branch as if it were a see-saw in a playground.

Helsinki, Finland, 1992. Photo: Pentti Sammallahti

Two birds, the same distance, the same weight: the game can begin. If the balance shifts, the disaster happens… The beating of a butterfly’s wings in Hong Kong can start a tornado in Texas.

So goes the most famous sentence of chaos theory. Here Sammallahti has reformulated it with understated humour in Finnish.

In the photographer’s portfolios from the 70s and 80s animals are still only sparingly present. But after they get their own opus, ‘Tiny Pictures of Animals’, in 1993, the frequency rises, and birds and all sorts of domesticated mammals are pressed into service as punctuation (or rather ‘punctumisation’) marks in pictures that set the characteristic tone of humour: laughter disarmed by affection.

Varanasi, India, 1999; Kathmandu, Nepal, 1994. Photos: Pentti Sammallahti

It is clear that Sammallahti is insisting on this Paradisiac fellow-feeling when a little dog grabs himself some ‘underfloor heating’ by sleeping on the back of one of India’s sacred cows.

But Sammallahti’s truly musical animal-trainer activity, which in the world context only finds its equal in the 84-year-old American Elliott Erwitt, arises as early as 1982 with the incomparable picture of a dog stretching itself beneath a deformed tree which it resembles not only because of the slope of the tree, but also by placing its forelegs at an angle and distance that exactly ‘apes’ the two supporting posts of the tree.

Helsinki, Finland, 1982. Photo: Pentti Sammallahti

Such a shot should in reality be impossible to capture. But Sammallahti has kept his eyes open for this special sort of mimicry.

Not only dogs, pigeons too can be used. Just look what happens to the heroic halo around the Paris statue of the victoriously marching General de Gaulle, when two cool doves of peace take up the challenge, and with both the length of their stride and their bodily postures perform a parody of the later president.

Paris, France, 2005. Photo: Pentti Sammallahti

The extracts above are from the introduction by Finn Thrane, published in
here far away. Photographs from the years 1964–2011 by Pentti Sammallahti
ISBN 978-1-907893-26-1 (English edition)
Edited by John Demos in collaboration with Mario Peliti
Texts: Finn Thrane, Kristoffer Albrecht
Design: Pentti Sammallahti
Print: Arti Grafiche, Pomezia, Italy
here far away is available in six languages:
English: Dewi Lewis Publishing, Great Britain
French: Actes Sud, France
Spanish: Blume, Spain
German: Kehrer Verlag, Germany
Finnish: Opus, Finland
Italian: Peliti Associati, Italy

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