New Perspectives Through Photography – 25 years of the Helsinki School
The Helsinki School was founded in the early 1990s at the University of Art and Design Helsinki (now Aalto University School of Art, Design & Architecture), when Adjunct Professor Timothy Persons (b. 1954) began to internationalize the photography programme together with photographer and Professor Jorma Puranen (b. 1951), under the leadership of Rector Yrjö Sotamaa (b. 1942). A new set of Helsinki School studies was established in the Photography MA programme, which brought together photography students to study photography as a tool for thinking and to try new approaches to both photography and collaboration.
The Helsinki School has since expanded into an internationally known phenomenon, which has enabled new types of career opportunities within the field of Finnish contemporary photography. In addition to photography, Helsinki School-related professional studies emphasize internationalization, practical lessons important for working in the field of art, and questioning art and ideas.
According to the artists, one of Helsinki School's most important values is intergenerational cooperation and dialogue between students, alumni and teachers. This collective dialogue has become a constructive tool for receiving and giving criticism, which in turn has encouraged artists to seek creative solutions rather than have fear of failure.
Helsinki School's art gallery, Persons Projects (formerly known as Gallery TaiK-Persons) in Berlin has served as an important confluence for the artists. The gallery in its joint venture with the Photography programme at TaiK and, since 2010, Aalto ARTS Department of Media has organized group and solo exhibitions, participated in international art fairs and featured in numerous publications, including the six-volume, The Helsinki School photo book series by the leading international art and design publishing house, Hatje Cantz.
Helsinki School artist Hilla Kurki (b. 1985) explains, how the studies have been important motivating force and support for her career development since her studies in photography. “My series Phoenix, which is on display in Kunsthalle Helsinki, would not have materialized on this scale, not at least in this schedule”, she states and continues: “I was terribly insecure about my work, nor was there any external necessity to do it”.
Kurki says that it is difficult to organize exhibitions in Finland, as the artist is responsible for the costs together with possible grants. “Phoenix is a personal series for me, which has been scary to present at times”, she says. The pressures on costs together with the personal nature of the series would probably have made organizing the exhibition impossible.
According to Kurki, the opportunities provided by Helsinki School to present work in international galleries and fairs have helped her to find both motivation and courage. “It was easier to present self-portraits about losing a loved one in a foreign country”, Kurki says.
Within Helsinki School, no topic was considered too difficult or personal, which also helped to cultivate faith in one's own work.
Kurki explains how, through the Helsinki School, she has understood the importance of art fairs for the sale of art. The large and international audience includes museum buyers and individuals who buy art on behalf of customers. “Participating in the fairs through galleries is really important”, she says.
One of the founding members of the Helsinki School, a former professor (1996-1998) of the photography programme at the University of Art and Design Helsinki, Jorma Puranen explains how photography was hardly introduced in the field of visual arts in the early days of Helsinki School. “There were no parties that would have promoted the internationalization of Finnish photography, which gave birth to a do-it-yourself spirit and initiative in photography”, he says and continues: “In the beginning, Helsinki School was characterized by independence from institutions and a spirit of self-creation, which was really great for both those in the photography programme, and for Finnish photography in general".
Through the Helsinki School, Finnish photography found its way into art fairs, which played a key role in internationalization, networking and the sale of art.
According to Puranen, internationalization is not an absolute value in itself, but with it the artists learn to place their work in the international field and, through comparison, to identify the qualitative level of photographic art.
It is also important to receive criticism. "It's terribly good that artists can present their work outside of Finland – in this way the work is viewed from a different culture and context, and this is really enriching", says Puranen.
Niko Luoma (b. 1970), a lecturer in the photography programme and a long-term artist of the Helsinki School, graduated from the Master's programme in photography at the University of Art and Design in 2003. Since graduating, he has worked at Aalto, first as a course teacher and now as a lecturer. The principles of the Helsinki School have served as a solid guideline for Luoma in his teaching.
"Helsinki School has offered students a very exceptional opportunity to perform internationally and to learn what it takes to organize an exhibition", Luoma says.
The Helsinki School's gallery, Persons Projects in Berlin has enabled both group and solo exhibitions, and offered internships for artists and students. According to Luoma, the gallery space has been a must for practical learning. “The teaching involves a lot of things that are hard to teach in the classroom – that’s why we’ve had fairs and gallery activities”, Luoma says.
Helsinki School's pedagogical line has been comprehensive. “The teaching starts with writing statements and CVs, making budgets, experimenting with materials, packing works together with insuring and transporting them”, Luoma says. Some students have sometimes been able to sell their work already during their studies.
Luoma sees the curation of the exhibitions as a pedagogical matter. “You have to hone and look at your own work from many angles, and also learn to recognize the stage when the work is ready for the actual arena”, he states. Luoma sees the competition setup that supports the artist as a positive thing which encourages one to try their best.
According to Luoma, Helsinki School is a community with an excellent spirit. The artists support and help each other, there is a dialogue about the works and no hierarchy between the teachers and students in the exhibitions.
“What makes me who I am, and why I am currently sitting in my atelier, is all related to the knowledge I have gained from the combination of the University of Art and Design, Aalto and Helsinki School – theoretical knowledge and practice are inseparable, and they are continuously reviewed equally”, Luoma says.
Curated by Asia Zak Persons, the current exhibition showcases works by 30 Helsinki School artists over the years. Although each generation of Helsinki School has defined their own way of working, the interaction between the works and the main themes and style of Helsinki School are strongly presented in the exhibition. The works examine the passage of time, nature, self-image and an abstract approach to photographic art.
The exhibition also presents artist interview videos produced by recently graduated photography student Daniel Court, together with publications and history of the Helsinki School.
New Perspectives Through Photography – 25 years of the Helsinki School -exhibition open at Kunsthalle Helsinki 11.9. – 31.10.2021.
Address: Nervanderinkatu 3, 00100 Helsinki
For more information, visit Kunsthalle Helsinki's website here.
Artists: Elina Brotherus, Tiina Itkonen, Ulla Jokisalo, Jaakko Kahilaniemi, Aino Kannisto, Sanna Kannisto, Sandra Kantanen, Eeva Karhu, Pertti Kekarainen, Timo Kelaranta, Ville Kumpulainen, Hilla Kurki, Milja Laurila, Janne Lehtinen, Ville Lenkkeri, Anni Leppälä, Kira Leskinen, Niko Luoma, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Rainer Paananen, Nelli Palomäki, Jyrki Parantainen, Jorma Puranen, Riitta Päiväläinen, Mikko Rikala, Noora Sandgren, Jari Silomäki, Santeri Tuori, Niina Vatanen.
The article is written by Oona Räyhäntausta.