Baring All: the Self-Portraits of Arno Rafael Minkkinen

On a chilly December afternoon, I scuttled into the Winnipeg Art Gallery and entered into the world of Arno Minkkinen. As I walked through the exhibit, the beauty of each image was nearly intoxicating. I wondered at this creative form of self-portraiture and his body’s playful, yet graceful, interaction with the landscape. Nearly a year later, I had the honor of connecting with Arno for this interview, where we discussed his beginnings, his motivation and his artistic process.

Photography Arno Rafael Minkkinen
©Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Grand Canyon, 1995

For close to forty years you’ve concentrated on one subject. How did you continually motivate yourself over such a long time span?

“The motivation itself comes from the process itself.”

I must say that I never intended to work for so many years and decades on the same idea but now that the work is about to reach that hallmark, I find it makes more sense than ever to try to continue the project for the rest of my life. This is not to say I have not been tempted to abandon ship every now and then but whenever such fragility and weakness visit me, I remind myself that the greater challenge—if indeed that is what I am looking for—exists in trying to keep the project alive with new works to my last days.

Photography Arno Rafael Minkkinen
©Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Oulunjärvi Afternoon, Kajaani, Finland, 2009

The motivation itself comes from the process itself. I am rarely behind the viewfinder at the moment of exposure and thus I never really get a chance to see what I got until I process the film. Keeping free and clear of any manipulation, working as I always have done from the single exposure negative, means processing becomes an extraordinary event in my darkroom. As I pull the film off the reel, I get the first look at what happened in the camera a week, a month, or sometimes even a year ago while I was buried in the snow, hanging off a cliff, or embracing a woman in the cool shade of a garden. I should have Christmas lights—dark green ones so I can still load film—hanging on the walls of my darkroom all year round! And red ones when I print!

Photography Arno Rafael Minkkinen
©Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Fosters Pond, 1996

“If you see my arms coming up from under the snow, I am under the snow.” How do you achieve such serene images while posing in such harsh conditions?

This is a most difficult matter, sometimes impossible. Whether it is howling wind or soaking rain or fading light or a failing tripod or a last roll of film or plain and simple exhaustion, the only way I get my pictures is to physically be there and take them. Given that I began my work in 1970 and realized immediately that a multiple image would become a Jerry Uelsmann, I had to find a way to create the same impression from a single negative. Perhaps all the tension that goes into the making of the image is washed away by the soothing sound of the shutter as it whirrs away the nine seconds I have before the click. In those short seconds, my breathing stops as does every muscle and nerve in my body, holding and waiting for the camera mechanism to go off.

I was photographing at Niagara Falls last summer and wanted an image of my torso seemingly carried off by the rushing waters. I knew that the moment I stepped out on to the stone pillar that the people around me would think I was going to kill myself in front of them. I got up on the post, extended my legs in the direction of the falls, fired the bulb release, and waited for the shutter to go off. I erased everything from my mind, especially all the onlookers and hoped the police would not see or notice what was going on. Once the camera fired, I swung off the post quickly and came right back to the camera position, cocked the shutter fast, locked the mirror and hopped back up on the stone pillar. After the camera fired again, I repeated the process. Anyone watching now knew I was not a suicide case; I was simply a photographer hoping to get a strange image with all that water.

Photography Arno Rafael Minkkinen
©Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Hite Utah, 1997

It is not easy to make my photographs. It is why they all have me in them. I do not want to place anyone else in harm’s way. People are by nature very willing to help out and thus I must be smart enough not to let them. The picture with my hands coming out of the snow is a good example. It is extremely cold where the flesh touches the snow (flesh is what melts the openings). In any case, it is not something you want to ask someone else to do. Nor could I ask someone to step in for me and hold a position off the rim of a mountain any more that I could ask someone to lean out over a cliff five hundred feet in the air. If something terrible is going to happen it must happen to me. I wrote in an interview with the fantastic Finnish photographer Jorma Puranen for the new Italian photography magazine Fantom that part of the euphoria of what I do resides in the danger of such moments, that if I fell and got killed, it would be a nude body the helicopter would pull up from the slot canyon, a naked frozen torso they would throw over the snowmobile in northern Finland. The naked part would be cool; being dead, I surmised, would suck.

Your images frequently display the body interacting with space or landscape. Do you carefully plan your poses or is it a process of improvisation?

“I was standing there, naked in the wind, watching the world spin.”

It often begins with a preconceived idea. It can be a sketch made at the site itself or it can be inspired by a failed attempt from another time—but ultimately the image is guided by the reality of the place and the reality of the situation in which I find myself. It is there that the image must be created no matter how much thinking prior to its making had been expended. It is another reason why I consider myself to be a documentary photographer. What I shoot did exist in reality. That I created the reality, well, that we can say is another thing. Still, the constructed reality, once it is imbedded into the image, has a way of winning me over. I was standing there, naked in the wind, watching the world spin.

Photography Arno Rafael Minkkinen
©Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Dalsnibba, Geiranger Fjord, Norway, 2006

Photography Arno Rafael Minkkinen
©Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Self-portrait with Coralie, Fort Foucault, Niort, France, 2009

What differences do you notice between working solo and posing with others, such as your son and women?

It isn’t that I know any better what the outcome of any photograph with someone else will turn out to be than I do making photographs strictly with myself in them but I must say the anticipation after such images is dual fold because now there are two people interested in finding out what happened at the moment of exposure. That is the simple answer, of course. Once the shutter has fired I have a longing to see the result of such a picture even more than I do with those that just have myself in them because I can never repeat such images if they don’t work. When it is my son or someone else in the picture, it’s not so simple to go back to the situation  if doesn’t work the first time or get ahold of the person. “Next week,” my son would say on the phone now. But that isn’t necessarily so tragic. Our imaginations can hold such images—lost frames—alive in our minds all our lives.

Photography Arno Rafael Minkkinen
©Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Self-portrait with Selva, Monterinaldi, Italy, 2001

As an emigrant to the States, what did you experience upon returning to Finland? Did this process influence your art, and if so, how?

When I came to Finland for the first time after leaving as a little boy, I was 22 years old. I was not a photographer then but I had with me a small cheap camera that had 12 frames of film in it. It was the only roll of film I had along with me, the only film I could afford given I had hitchhiked from Southampton, England begging my way up north while my future wife and girl friend at the time sailed back to America. Thus I had to treat each picture as if it was the last frame on the roll. Naturally I took great care to make sure I did not waste the film on unnecessary pictures, views that I could theoretically purchase through postcards. Once I got back to America and processed the roll, however, I realized that most of the photographs I had made in Finland contained images of my beautiful cousins, walking in the forests and old villages in their colorful Marimekko dresses and hats. The strongest influence from this initial return visit (I’ve made countless trips and sojourns back to Finland since then, of course—we lived there for two years in both the 70’s and the 80’s) had to be the women and the natural beauty of the land. But something deeper also stirred in my consciousness.

Photography Arno Rafael Minkkinen
©Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Nauvo, Finland, 1973

I discovered that my puritanical American attitudes were about to be dumped in the river. I remember when my cousins wanted to take a swim and simply disrobed in front of my eyes, running in their white panties into the water, imploring that I disrobe and join them in the frolic. I have recently published a book in Finland titled Homework: The Finnish Photographs, 1973 to 2008. The volume contains numerous stories that illuminate, I hope, the distinct cultural, psychological, and societal connections I have to my homeland, most of these attributes made manifest in the photographic works produced there.

Photography Arno Rafael Minkkinen
©Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Väisälänsaari, Finland, 1998

Can you explain more about the idea of looking at the world through the mind via photography?

What happens inside your mind can happen inside a camera was the line I wrote for Minolta cameras as an advertising copywriter in 1970 when I began experimenting with the camera myself. I believed in the line so much that eventually I left advertising to go study with Harry Callahan at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. It wasn’t that I didn’t like advertising—it was a lot of fun to be in the business: you could wear your hair long and come in late. The problem was that no one was interested in the product a year later when the car or camera model had changed and the campaign wound up in the circular file of the trash basket. I wanted to create something more enduring than that. But I never left the business because I didn’t like it. For those young people in the creative side of advertising, you are lucky. You get to use your mind and imagination and if at the same time you keep yourself as a client too, then balance in life is possible.

So, at various points throughout your life, you’ve worked in Advertising. How does this compliment your personal photographic work?

In addition to what was stated above, about the image in your mind, advertising pointed to the power of single images as communicative forms. I suppose that had some effect on my desire to make each of my images stand on their own yet, like an advertising campaign, bear resemblance to one another. Not that I would like my work to be seen as an advertising campaign but just the same it could be viewed that way: a forty year plea to see the purity of the human form as a humble portion of the grandeur of nature.

Photography Arno Rafael Minkkinen
©Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Dead Horse Point Utah, 1997

In your website’s Chronology, you note when and where you met other prominent photographers such as Minor White and Lee Friedlander, or missed opportunities like Diane Arbus. What is the significance of these encounters for you personally and for your work?

“The missed opportunity, Arbus of course, haunts me to this day.”

Robert Frank, Minor White, my teachers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, the names would travel around the block if I started to write them all down. The encounters are filled with stories, short and long, sustained and temporal, each one adding yet more assurance to the fact that being a photographer is a worthy life’s pursuit. That it might come off as somehow boasting of one’s good fortune in meeting so many of these people—men and women, to add Linda Connor or Sally Mann to the list—is the risk I take to announce them. Chema Madoz, Alex Webb, Sally Gall, Joyce Tennyson, Abelardo Morell—these are my contemporaries naturally but many of them were already well on their way when meeting them for the first time. Their presence was equally inspiring to me in my growth as a photographer, even today, because I am always growing.
The missed opportunity, Arbus of course, haunts me to this day. The boy with the toy hand grenade, a favorite of everyone, is the boy I was when I arrived in Brooklyn, New York, with my funny nose and broken top lip. I had hoped to study with her in the summer of 1971 but that was the time Arbus decided to leave this world. I always thought she would have asked to take a picture of me had we met.

Photography Arno Rafael Minkkinen
©Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Fosters Pond Millennium, 1.1.2000

What projects are you currently working on?

I am working on two projects. First, I would like to produce a book that contains the largest compendium thus far of the works I have done over the last forty years. For each of those years, I have works that have either been shown or published and thus known to some extent. I also have many images from each of the forty years that have never even been printed before. The images would be presented in chronological order. It would be possible to look at an image from 1973 and not see too much difference from an image made in 2003. While such seamlessness was never a goal for the work I am happy that such uniformity exists. There are thousands and thousands of artists in the world. I quite admire the Morandi approach. Find one thing and try to do it well.

The second project is a secret. That said, I have always been a great believer in committing oneself to future projects by sharing my intentions with others. It’s optimistic to make your plans public, I tell my students. But, as the pessimist might counter, it’s a sure sign of stupidity too, if you fail.  So, the secret is I am writing a screenplay, working on a film to come out of Finland. But let’s just leave it at that for now.

This is not to say the still camera is feeling neglected. Quite to the contrary, the last few years have proven to be among the most bountiful ever. Perhaps that is what I was trying to say in “A Man and His Dog,” taking a bow in thanks for the gifts that my camera continues to bestow on me after all these years. It was only in the moment of making the image, in fact, that I saw the dog. “Make another,” my instincts told me, but then “why?” I wondered. Surely the dog was a gift–the way it always happens in the best pictures–arriving to keep me company on one frame and one frame only.
Photography Arno Rafael Minkkinen
©Arno Rafael Minkkinen, A Man and His Dog, Exconvento de Santiago, Cuilipan de Guererro, Mexico, 2007

Interview by LG

Link to Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s website