Tell us a little bit about your past. What got you interested in photography? How would you describe yourself as an artist?
In short, I would describe myself as a Helsinki-based, thirty-year-old artist working with staged and fashion photography. From a young age I’ve been interested in the fine arts, and throughout my life I have attended various art courses and art schools. Getting selected to the Aalto University, Department of Photography in 2008 confirmed my career choice and photography as my chosen medium for self-expression.
Can you introduce us to the ideas behind your current Rose exhibition at the Finnish Museum of Photography? What does Rose mean?
The series Rose presented in the Project Space is a study on the performance of the feminine. The series started in 2015. It presents a woman isolated in a studio, posing for a camera. In my art I want to study how our ideas about our ideal selves, beauty, trauma, the erotic and fantasies present themselves in front of the camera, on one hand through directed posing and on the other hand through the uncontrolled and subconscious. The images borrow elements from fashion photography. Even while the series flirts with fashion aesthetics, it simultaneously guides the viewer towards opposite themes and interpretations.
In the curatorial statement you raise important questions on femininity, how each woman performs it in their unique way. Who were you looking for? What kind of roles did you have in mind, when you were casting for this exhibition?
I wasn’t familiar with some of the models prior to working with them, and some are my friends. All the models are roughly about the same age, and none of them are professional models. I have reflected my own experience and feelings about age and ageing on my models. Being thirty now, in the past couple of years I’ve felt that I’m in a state of transitioning from girlhood into womanhood. I feel like I don’t quite fit into my old idea of myself. This is something that I’ve been echoing when dressing the models; the jersey outfits are tight and slightly translucent, simultaneously covering and revealing. All of a sudden something like a leotard, that can be quite innocent, becomes something sexy. The people that I chose to be my models have some external aspect, feeling or a crack – a chip – that has appealed to me on an intuitive level. The woman in the series is always the same, yet different.
Posing for profile pictures or blogs on social media has become an everyday function for many people. Even when it’s done in a more ‘natural’ way, we use different angles depending on the impact we wish to make on the viewer. What kind of script did you give the models when they entered your studio?
Yes, it is very interesting why we as people want to be recognised specifically through our visual representation, images of us. Even to the point of shaping our lives for the sake of image. As I wrote in my statement, I’ve thought of the model almost as an amateur actress invited for an audition, where she only receives the script when she goes in front of the casting jury. As a photographer I give very detailed directions to my models, placing my models in very particular poses. However, I might take the picture when the model is still in the process of placing herself into the pose. I’m intrigued by situations and compositions where the intended sexiness and self-confidence gets muddled by unintended awkwardness, stiffness and a looming sense of violence. The woman has volunteered to be looked at but is simultaneously rejecting the gaze.
The graininess in your pictures gives the exhibition a soft, nostalgic feel. Almost as if time had stopped many decades ago. Is this visual effect related to your thoughts on women’s actual position in society? Although there has been a lot of progress, the concept of a women seen as an object is still dangerously present.
In my work I want to explore traits that have stereotypically been considered feminine, such as sensitivity, insecurity, volatility, emotionality and so forth. Traditionally, the domain of the feminine has been thought to be indoors – an inward turning and passive construction – for the woman to reign in, whereas the outdoors, with its active, extrovert and public existence, represents the masculine. In my images the anonymous studio space emphasises the figure’s position in relation to the world and her thoughts. She’s not out there interacting but stuck as a prisoner of her own inner world. Even if my work involves theoretical research, the images are very much subjective meditations. Creating the images and directing the models is very much informed by my personal experiences and feelings on sexuality and posing. Obviously, as the saying goes, personal is (also) political and never exists out of the surrounding discourse.
The highly saturated, retro tones added to the composition of the colours give your photographs a painterly appearance from a distance. Is this something that intrigues you? Do you like to work between different genres?
In the series Rose I have been using what could be considered a method of recycling the images. By printing and then rescanning the pictures, I’m able to draw the focus onto the material aspects of the works. This ”materiality” of the images is also present in the costumes, body paint and the overall staging of the studio spaces. In a way the technique is also a reaction to the sterility so often present in contemporary photography. I’ve left the scratches, smudges and discolourations that come from the process in the final images, as if painting with a slightly dirty brush. Producing ”retro” images has never been a part of my conscious working method or end result. The painting-like quality is not just an aesthetic decision. For the viewer to be able to see the female figure clearly, they have to view the work from a certain distance. If the they get too close, the outlines of the woman get blurry – they disappear. Just as the picture that has been run through ”the recycling” process becomes more distant from the original, the woman in the image is distanced from the viewer and turned into a form of fiction.
Along with your art practices, you are specialized in fashion photography. Where does the line between art and fashion photography go, in your opinion?
My own work with fashion is almost always commissioned, which means there is always a client. This obviously limits and defines the artistic freedom allowed in the images. There’s a broad range of fashion imagery, ranging from commercial product shots to very narrative lead editorials. In general I believe that a well-made fashion image can work outside of its original context and be viewed as art if so desired and positioned. The rhythm of working is very different between fashion commissions and my personal artwork. Fashion shoots tend to be very intensive and short projects where the emphasis is on the aesthetics, whereas in my art the projects can span over a very long period of time and be very laborious. I feel like the dialogue between fashion photography and art and the different working environments bring more to my career.
What or who inspires you?
I’m really inspired by a lot of things. The most recent art experiences that made an impression on me have been, for example, the video works featured in Kiasma by Korakrit Arunanondchai, Elena Ferranten’s novel My Brilliant Friend describing social climbing and friendship, and the art collective Akuliina Niemi, Felicia Honkasalo and Sinna Virtanen’s touching exhibition 7 Days before the Deluge on the relationship between humans and animals.
My ideas for making art, however, are very clearly the result of different experiences of uncertainty and conflict, as well as observing human relationships and people. Artistic fiction and painting somehow affect my work the most deeply.
What are your future plans?
The Finnish Museum of Photography chose me for the one-year long cultural programme Parallel. The programme is designed to promote interactions and collaboration between emerging photographers and curators, museums and festivals. At the end of November, I’m going to Lisbon for ten days to meet the other participants and to kickstart the process into a new personal art project. Within next year, I’ll be travelling a lot and hoping to create a lot of new work. From a professional point of view it’s hard to know what the future holds, for instance, in three years’ time, so for now I’m just going to let the existing projects lead me.
Sofia Okkonen: Rose