From Morning Mist to Composition – Art Photography in Post-war Finland
From Morning Mist to Composition – Art Photography in Post-war Finland
The exhibition From Misty Morning to Composition presents an unparalleled overview of Finnish post-war art photography, mainly from the 1950s. Most of the artworks are from the collections of the Finnish Museum of Photography. Lost key pieces have been recovered, and some of the destroyed works have been re-proofed. The overview is based on the research by Leena Saraste, the curator of this exhibition, and architect Kirsti Kasnio’s visual design.
For a long time, those who were into art photography sought their favourite subjects in nature. Typical subjects, especially after the war, were wide landscapes with clouded skies and horizons that disappeared in mist. Water lilies, dragonflies and swans, or flowers portrayed against the sunset were photographed in detail. Beautiful motifs and a search for harmony were de rigueur. Skilled use of light and soft composition were the foci of photographers.
In the early 1950s, this pictorial sentimentalism was challenged by a group of young cosmopolitans from Turku, who created photographs reminiscent of graphical art, but without the familiar classical subjects. The upswing of "subjective photography" that started in 1953 was short-lived, but in the 1950s, the dominance of nuances that the pictorials concentrated on had to give way as photographers focused on questions about form and composition. By the 1960s, landscapes based on the control of nuances became uninteresting in the eyes of art photographers.
To balance the mute modernism which focused on composition, a demand for narratives and human subjects soon arose, which culminated in The Family of Man exhibition, presented in 1959. From then on, "narrative" portrayal based on realistic narration, or reminiscent of genre painting, lived side by side with strongly stylised approaches.
The From Misty Morning to Composition exhibition is built around the same classification system as the photographic contests and exhibitions of photographers’ societies, i.e.: 1. landscapes and close-ups of nature, 2. portraits and portrayals, 3. situations and actions, 4. other subjects. The photographers Trond Hedström, Per Olov Jansson, P.K. Jaskari, Otso Pietinen, Matti A. Pitkänen and Hilja Raviniemi are each presented individually. A separate corner is given to photographs about the photographers’ friends, families and pets, not as in an album, but portrayed in the name of art. A slide show presents background information; the bittersweet advertisements of the post-war era, the continuous discussion about equipment and techniques, and the most popular cameras.
The exhibition catalogue Valo on kaikki, muoto on kaikki, ihminen on kaikki ("Light is everything, form is everything, man is everything") is the first publication in the new series of the Museum of Photography, the Pieni valokuvakirjasto ("Small Photography Library").
The exhibition is also presented at the web site of the Museum, at www.fmp.fi/sumusta.htm, designed and produced by Päivi Honkonen.
Leena Saraste: FROM MISTY MORNING TO COMPOSITION
LIGHT IS ALL, FORM IS ALL, MAN IS ALL
The Second World War interrupted organized professional and amateur activity in Finnish photography. The Finnish Federation of Camera Clubs was barely able to compile a series of earlier photographs for what was to be a limited exhibition "The New Europe", held in Croatia in 1942. The Finnish collection was the only participant to receive a prize.
After the war there was a stream of new members joining the clubs to learn about photography, to satisfy their yearning for beauty, and to combat general uncertainty by focusing on the miracle of light – in order to improve their pictures from snapshots to the art of photography.
During the years of crisis it was important to focus on national themes. Popular images featured staunch patriarchs, demure maidens in scarves, children playing, and landscapes with symbolic values titled "Arising Thunder", "Ice Road" or "Breaking the Ice", "Prisoner of Winter" and "Land of Legend".
LIGHT IS ALL, SUBJECT MATTER NOTHING
Finnish photographers and enthusiasts were not attracted by a documentary attitude. There were few traces of the recent war in the works of the period. The authors of the 1946 book Kameran taidetta (Art of the Camera), Arvi Hanste and Santeri Levas, well-known art photographers and camera club activists, were also vexed about modernist photographs, pointing out as often as possible that the extremes of the "new orientation" had now been tamed.
To raise photography to the level of art called for the author’s personality to come forth. Levas wanted light and the photographer together to create the image. The subject matter was nothing – light was everything. Levas spoke of light as an almost metaphysical phenomenon, for which the photographer nonetheless had to find an inspiring parallel in reality.
"--the Finnish photographer always keeps to nature. -- There is often
something melancholy about Finnish pictures. The graceful lightness in rhythm and the life sustaining richness in tones that we often find in photographs of the southern peoples is wholly foreign to the Finnish photographer, who always strives for suppressed softness and quiet harmony. The Finnish national character is ultimately introverted and meditative, and even Finnish art photography concentrates on reflection of emotions instead of phenomena of the outside world" (Santeri Levas, 1946)
ONLY COMPETITIONS LEAD TO ART PHOTOGRAPHS
PRIZES AND PUBLICATIONS CREATE MODELS
The Amatör-fotografklubben i Helsingfors (AFK, The Helsinki Amateur Photographers´ Club) was founded in 1889 and was Finland's first association of photographers. Language skills, knowledge and funds were prerequisites for learning photography. Up to the late 1930s university graduates were the majority among the membership, and one member out of ten was female. In 1932 Finland's nine associations of photographers formed the Finnish Federation of Camera Clubs. Less educated people gradually joined in and academic or professional titles were no longer used in the 1950s. They were replaced by titles earned by submitting photographs to FIAP (The International Federation of Photographic Art), RPS (The Royal Photographic Society) and PSA (The Photographic Society of America). The acronyms AFIAP, ARPS, APSA then signified an artist recognized by those international organizations.
Professional photographers joined the camera clubs to realize their aims and to obtain precious knowledge of composition. Since the termination of the two-year course in photography at the Central School of Applied Arts in 1939 no formal training was offered before the year 1959. Many of the country's leading photojournalists had learned and taught at camera clubs, where professionals would take turns with amateurs in winning prizes.
For many years the practice in amateur photography was to arrange competitions and to exhibit the winning pictures for a few days. Photographs were on show so rarely that Kameralehti Magazine in the late 1950´s wrote: "It would be desirable to have one exhibition every year at least in Helsinki. "As pictures were few in number they had a great impact. The few publications in the field were efficient media for establishing models.
A solo exhibition was not a real option. Ivan Timirjasev had held a photo exhibit at the Strindberg gallery in Helsinki in 1918. The next one was by Trond Hedström at the Stockmann department store gallery in 1953. Most of the photographs were Hedström's commercial works, and the ones created with personal interest demonstrated the extent of his professionalism and his orientation towards portraits. Matti A. Pitkänen followed the same concept six years later in the next one-man show. Gradually professional photography gained artistic esteem.
FORM IS ALL
When the opportunity arose, those who had been successful in pre-war competitions took out their old prints made of good material available before the war. They also had impressive stamps of international exhibitions on the backside. Exchange collections of photo clubs and complete exhibitions began to be imported. Information of progress in photography was obtained from rare trips abroad, photographic journals and books. The fine quality of the Swedish magazine Foto did justice to the pictures. Among its writers and contributors were people who were not photographers themselves but could serve as important links with other sectors of culture.
In 1949 the young generation of Swedish photographers shook the spirit of "painterly camera club images" with a visually radical joint exhibition. In 1951 many of their pictures were included in the Subjektive Fotografie (Subjective Photography) exhibition curated by Otto Steinert of Germany. The show was based on important works that had survived from the 1930s, accompanied by recent modernist photographs. Issued in book form, these pictures had a great influence, in Finland particularly among Swedish speaking camera clubs. In Turku the Åbo Fotoklub (ÅFK) was well abreast of international developments. Three of the young members stayed a short time in Germany studying mainly technical skills of professional photography.
In 1953, Sig Söderblom (ÅFK) won the Second Prize in the championship contest of the Camera Club Federation with a series of "subjective" photos. His graphic Self-Portrait led to heated debate. It was the only storm in the whole decade, continuing with slight variations in the pages of Kameralehti magazine for several years.
Söderblom had moved to Sweden and only later heard about the commotion he had caused.
The debate was marked by a generation conflict. In 1930 Eino Mäkinen, writing under the pseudonym of Opposition had introduced Moholy-Nagy's new concepts of photography into Finland, to liberate the field from old restrictions and restraints. He noted i.e. that not only a fine range of tones was worth presenting but also the tension between the brightest white and the darkest black. He now criticized Söderblom's Self-Portrait, noting that a picture of that kind could have been made more easily with an ink brush. It was important to keep to matters that were specific to photography and photography alone.
Despite criticism and opposition, graphic prints and clear-cut compositions became widespread. From 1954, the term 'composition' began to appear in the titles of exhibition works. Perspective narrowed and ever-smaller fragments of reality became acceptable subjects.
A fear of over-abundant details prevailed among photographers. The picture had to present the essential, and that alone. Nothing of a random nature could be allowed. In lectures and articles experts reiterated that the camera is a gossip and that art matter of selection. Traditionally elimination of excessive details had been done with filters or by reducing focus and contrast in prints. When seeking graphic effect, parts of negatives were covered with red varnish.
For many photographers, composition was everything, and everyone was expected to be able to discuss it.
MAN IS ALL
The Family of Man exhibition presenting the common fate of mankind finally came to Finland in 1959, after four years of its creation by Edward Steichen. Here it drew 16.000 viewers and enormous attention in the media. Photography came to be regarded as an art after it had rejected "artistic" appearance by approaching journalism and snapshots and become easily accessible to the ordinary viewer. Discussion now called forth The Family of Finns to be photographed and focus to be placed on themes of human interest. There was a movement away from the emphasis of technique and composition, but in most cases solid classical composition remained hidden under powerful narrative.
The concept of the competition picture was shaking. The aestheticizing camera-club spirit had come to the end of its path. At the beginning of the 1960s subjective photography had lost its rebellious spirit and its supporters divided their interest between graphic decoration and reportage.
The heyday of landscape images and other carefully composed competition pictures was becoming a thing of the past. New, more mundane themes and new photographers came to the fore, and soon groups encouraging and training their members began to campaign for a new approach and a new identity in photography.