Book review: Here Far Away / Pentti Sammallahti – by Barnaby Nutt
I had a realisation recently that all the (generally film) photography podcasts that I listen to, and many of the blogs and articles I read online are only about gear and technicalities of the photographic process. I’ve listened to endless comparisons of film stock or essays about how the Fuji GW690 mark two compares to the mark three, but it’s far less often that I’ll hear someone talking about what they’re actually trying to do with their photography.
Gear or film stock might help you get ‘the look’ or colour rendition that you find pleasing, but what about composition, narrative and expressing the world as you see it? In my ‘moment of clarity’, I realised that what I really want to know about are the pictures, the output, the end result; not the tools used.
I had the feeling that many folks in the community, myself among them, had lost sight of what our hobby (for most of us at least) was about. The equipment is a means to an end. But we don’t talk about the end enough…
Having said this, I understand that people are often nervous about discussing art and especially talking about other people’s work. We seem to associate debate of such matters with pretentious, inaccessible, esoteric rhetoric that should be left to critics and poseurs. This seems a shame. If we like something, we should be able to say why in whatever language we choose. It’d be great if we kept the openness that my three year-old displays. If she likes something, she’ll tell me how it makes her feel and why. If she doesn’t like it, she won’t hold back.
So with this ‘agenda’ in mind, I thought I’d share my thoughts about some photographs, in a book…
‘Here Far Away’ by Pentti Sammallahti.
My Valentine generously bought me this book and I’ve been looking forward to spending a bit of time with it. Removing it from the cellophane, it becomes a beautiful, tactile treat. The lovely textured binding and cover mounted print prepare you for the quality to come when you actually open it.
I first became aware of Sammallahti a couple of years ago when images from this book were featured in Black + White Photography magazine. A badly cropped version of his picture of flamingoes was on the cover with a further seven pictures inside. The accompanying text was an excerpt from the book’s the opening essay. I saw more of his work a while later when I visited the Photographer’s Gallery in London. A show of his work was in the basement print gallery, next to the shop and despite only spending a couple of minutes with the work (I had somewhere else to be), I realised it was something special and I took a note of the name.
The book is a retrospective of his 50-year career. The images are all black and white and feature photographs from major projects in Finland, Eastern Europe, Russia, Morocco and Ireland. I am occasionally baffled by the sequencing of some monographs but here the order flows and becomes an entertaining narrative, occasionally juxtaposing, but often linked in some way. For example, two early minimalist compositions of seascapes have their horizons perfectly aligned. Later, a dog appears to be chasing pigeons from one frame to the next. The fly on the step in one frame appears on the old lady’s hand, despite being taken six years previously.
The book is split thematically into chapters and begins with watery views of Finnish lakes before a frog breaks the surface. From then on, more animals begin to appear, but rarely (to begin with at least) in centre stage. They occupy the edges and corners, but always add balance or tension to the composition. The best example is the picture on page 59, taken in 2003 of horses in Bulgaria. It is a masterpiece. The composition may look a little off at very first glance, but as one spends time with the picture, we see that the perfect symmetry of the horses and the arrangement of the trees are flawlessly positioned to allow space for the storm or mist that is appearing in the left edge of the frame. In the book, it looks fantastic – printed it’d be incredible.
The wide crops and wonderful detail in the printing give a cinematic feel that particularly lends itself to a motif that Sammallahti repeats on several occasions. He’ll shoot from a street corner, showing views in two directions that run away from the viewer. Interestingly, we will see people walking towards each other on each street even though the subjects cannot see each other. It works especially well in his Moroccan series and is something that I’ll be trying at the next opportunity.
A friend of mine says that a picture of a person is worth a dozen without, which I have some sympathy with. Sammallahti repeatedly demonstrates that an animal, particularly a domestic animal can provide an interesting substitute. Don’t worry though, this is not all cute puppies and kittens. He seems equally brilliant at portraits, landscapes, abstract minimalism or street scenes, but all bare his trademark attention to detail and compositional excellence.
The pictures are often funny, surprising and visually stunning. It is a book that I’ll return to often and I thoroughly recommend it.
There’s also a pointless video of someone flicking through it on Vimeo.
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