The biggest chunk of my artistic life has been spent trying to create something of lasting value and purpose.
The unclothed male body has always been a sensitive subject, even more so in photography, a medium so undeniably tied to actual events. In response, conventions drawn from the History of Art have variously been used to justify photographs of the male body by clothing them in allegorical roles of myth, metaphor, or mockery.
In striking contrast to these conventions, the work of the Finnish–American photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen is a remarkable exception. Spanning five decades, his image-making has focused on his own unclothed body. I can think of no other photographer whose oeuvre has so consistently addressed this subject. Yet his approach has relied on none of the traditional tropes. Instead, he has re-imagined his body as a collection of parts, as something malleable and re-interpretable.
I first saw the work of Arno Rafael Minkkinen in the late 1970s when I began researching an exhibition on the history of the male body in photography – an extensive survey that was the first of its kind. I was struck then by how different this artist’s approach was to the many, often inventive but ultimately similar, interpretations of the stereotypes of Art History. His remarkable consistency of focus and variety of visualisation map not only his maturing as an artist but also his aging as a man. Yet there is nothing of the slow decline that images of the aging body can so often suggest. His ideas remain as vital as those of his youth, and, half a century on, as refreshingly original.
When did you begin to make photographs?
In early childhood, we are shown photographs in albums, images that frame out everything except what they show. It is then, I think, that we begin to develop an internal peripheral awareness of segmented realities. Next step in my childhood was the gift of an 8mm movie camera to take to Scout Camp, where I worked as a lifeguard. Those individual frames within the 8mm film were my first photographs. They were most often images of the lake and surrounding mountains. Those images surely influenced the subject matter that has dominated my photographic oeuvre ever since.
Your work has a very distinctive way of using the body. How did this begin?
It started back in 1970, when I was learning the basics of photography while working as a copywriter on the Minolta advertising account. I experimented with pictures of me leaning out of the ninth-floor window of our Manhattan apartment, or shooting into the bathroom mirror. But it was in 1971, during a workshop in upstate New York, that I made the first deliberate self-portrait: me standing, without clothes, at the edge of a mirror placed on the ground. I realised then that I could make hundreds of self-portraits with this basic idea… And this was several years before the genre of self-imaging had become popular with artists such as Cindy Sherman.
What is it that you seek to explore through your images?
I hope that they might address our place in the world, of which we are but a part. The philosopher Martin Heidegger called it “being in the world”. The phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote that it was “to perceive with the body”. Both are referred to in the essay Keith F. Davis wrote for my new book, ‘Minkkinen’ [Kehrer, 2019]. ‘Perception’ is the key word… and within nature: to experience nature as an integral part of me, not just be surrounded by it. I want to become the rock in the water that a fly can land upon and dream. I want to climb a tree and become the tree.
[Left] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen ‘Oulujärvi Afternoon’ Paltaniemi, Kajaani, Finland 2009
[Right] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen – Väisälänsaari, Finland 1998
You always work alone, without an assistant. Why?
From the start, I knew I must accomplish my images single-handedly. I am always available. Any discomfort or pain is in my control, no one else is put in harm’s way. And, then the point at which I undress… I’m shy. If my images were in colour, I would feel naked. It is a major reason I shoot in black and white.
You have said: “I think photography piles up the limitations more than any other medium I know … To outwit the calamities, I have learned to formulate a partnership with spontaneity.” What did you mean?
It was a spontaneous decision, for example, when I bought a postcard in Moab, Utah, that was to lead me to Dead Horse Point. Two hours later, I was on top of a milkcrate, camera tied to crate, crate to tree, tree to a boulder, so that my legs and the lower half of my naked torso was cantilevered over the ledge, my toes directed down across the Colorado River to Dead Horse Point.
That sounds dangerous!
As I have said before: Art is risk made visible. The audience needs to see the risk we are willing to take to produce the art we make. It needs to reside in the work itself, not just in an artist’s statement, what is said in some lecture, or in the words of an art critic. To take an artistic risk is to aspire to originality. We risk little if what we do has already been proven.
Do you imagine through your body (as a kind of physical exploration) or with it (as a kind of external tool of something pre-envisioned)?
It’s a blend of both. The mind commands the body what to do. But the body sometimes shouts back: “Stop! Can’t you see it hurts? … This could kill you!” That’s when the mind fires back, urging the body: “Bend more, you can do it… You would never forgive yourself if you didn’t try it!” And so the body listens, rises to the challenge so that the daredevil can take over. The picture is made. I survive.
[Left] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen – Saunderstown, Rhode Island 1974
[Right] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen ‘Fosters Pond II’ 1989
How would you position your work within the larger frame of Art History, if indeed you would?
Art may be thought of as combining style, subject and philosophy. My Style? I am a documentary photographer. If you see my foot coming up from under the snow, I am under the snow. For subject matter: the human body, a being without clothes in natural and urban settings. It is the philosophy part that fascinates me the most. Our entry into the world is a miracle as much as death when the world as we know it suddenly vanishes. The biggest chunk of my artistic life has been spent trying to create something of lasting value and purpose.
Art education today lays emphasis on the artist being conscious of, and able to articulate, the relationship between their own creative practice and the broader History of Art: to know where they fit in. Do you think this is important?
I don’t think this task belongs to the artist as much as to the observer, the interpreter, and the critic. The artist should be focused on the doing, the making, but that doesn’t mean she or he shouldn’t occasionally be watching in the rear-view mirror to where they have just been and consider whether the occasional U-turn is in order. To use another metaphor: one should brave going down the contemporary aisles in the art supermarket every now and then just to remind, myself in this case, that the images I’m after need to steer clear of trends and retain what some have termed my ‘under-the-radar’ uniqueness. For me, the practices of others will always be an inspiration, enthusiastically so. The focus isn’t on the images per se, but rather to gain an understanding of contemporary ways of thinking. Otherwise, all we would see, all we would ultimately remember, would be the appropriated works; like ten-second commercials for the original.
[Left] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ Rockport, Maine 2005
[Right] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen ‘Le Bouquet d’Arbres’ Malmö Castle Prison, Malmö, Sweden 2007
What are the benefits or pitfalls of being thought of as a contemporary artist?
Contemporary practice has its rewards with higher prices, greater attention. It thrives on the thrill of breakthroughs, always searching for something different, something new. But will such disparate activity thwart cohesion and thus reduce the kind of lasting recognition that was the hallmark of Modernism? Will theoretical discourse dominate, rather than the artwork itself? In my work, I try to strike a balance between contemporary and modernist practice with a kind of personal challenge: make it different, keep it the same.
You have been making self-images for over half a century. Is it a challenge to make it different, or indeed, to find variety while keeping it the same? Does experience enrich creativity or does (self)knowledge stifle intuition?
At Scout Camp I loved archery. There was but one objective, a difficult one to repeat time and again. To pull back, eye the bull’s eye, release, and hit it. I like to think that’s the same with every image I aim for, only now the target keeps moving to different spots in the landscape. A stairway in Zagreb, a Zen garden in Kyoto, a balcony in Moscow, or a cliff edge in Fry Canyon, Utah.
Fact is, how can one hope to communicate with audiences one will never meet if one keeps changing one’s way of working? Once a way of thinking and seeing is established – call it the trunk of the tree with its deep roots – one can branch out all we like. For me, I guess, I’m a Finnish pine, growing singularly in one direction only. Yes, the higher it grows, the narrower and more difficult it gets. Yet, at the same time, the established branches become more visible; some may say they become the masterpieces, enriched (as you say) by experience. Harry Callahan, my teacher at Rhode Island School of Design, said that a life’s work making photographs boils down to “ten good ones” in the obituary. Perhaps those branches, along with the best of the trunk, will become my ten good ones.
Back in the late 1970s, John Szarkowski, the former emperor of photography at MoMA [New York], told an audience of educators at a conference that, as photographers, our best work would be created within a period limited to ten years at most. According to him, even the best works of Evans, Weston, Lange, Adams, et al were made within a single decade; his only exception was Eugene Atget, whose gems extended throughout the whole of his thirty-year career in photography. This was just Szarkowski’s assertion, of course, but, subconsciously at least, it made an impact on how I thought about my work going forward. Could my way of seeing challenge such a creative time constraint? Was Georges Braque right in his view that out of limitations new forms emerge? In any case, Szarkowski planted the seed for my teaching mantra – make it different, keep it the same – a conundrum of impossibility, like skimming a stone that never stops skipping and never drops into the water.
[Left] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen – Narragansett, Rhode Island 1973
[Right] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen – Kilberg, Vardø, Norway 1990
Hippocrates is credited with saying: “Art is long, life is short” – understood variously as art outlives its creator or that the skills of art take a lifetime to refine. You have spoken about your commitment to continuity. Is this the continuity of your evolving oeuvre – that there are no sudden breaks or changes of direction – or to the persistence of your art, your vision and philosophy, after you yourself are gone?
It’s both. Maintaining continuity allows audiences one never meets to recognise one’s work over time, like a face, changing gradually across the decades but essentially being the same individual. If every artist kept changing the appearance of their work, a hundred thousand artists would become a million. I want to build a lifetime body of work, which is more difficult. It’s too easy to change. There’s a greater challenge to holding on, while still avoiding what the commercial world would term ‘branding’. Even so, I hunger for variety within my work, and yet seek to assure my audiences that the new work is but a part of a bigger picture puzzle: another missing piece, if you will.
If the goal of one’s artmaking is to communicate with audiences one never meets (especially in the first few decades of one’s career), then change has to happen within the work. For me, the great pleasure and reinvigoration comes when images emerge that I have honestly never seen before, and nor has anyone else for that matter.
[Left] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen – Jamestown, Rhode Island 1974
[Right] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen ‘Ismo’s Stick’ Fosters Pond 1993
And what about the persistence, the legacy?
I like to think that, in my small way, I’ve conquered Szarkowski’s decade theory, and that my Callahan’s “ten good ones” are sprinkled throughout my creative career… not just one, but five, six, or even seven decades, if I am lucky. The legacy of that persistence will be to anchor what has always been my work’s key message: that our nudity unites us, that we are but one of nature’s marvellous living beings, clothesless souls. As I see it, the earth – our planet – may be the cathedral of the universe brought into existence by powers beyond all knowledge. We disappear into that mystery. It needn’t be frightening. Our art is but our farewell gift.
You have been commissioned to curate an exhibition of your own work for the Kunstfoyer in Munich. How did you find the process of self-curation?
It’s an honour to be exhibited there, where photographers I studied in photo-history class and those at equivalent levels in contemporary photography have been the focus of nearly all the exhibitions.
My photographs are like children. They all want to get into the show, or if it’s a magazine interview, don’t want to be left out. After all, they have emerged into this world from the same mind and eye. When I’m asked to send ten images, I send twenty – my preference is to let curators curate. But with this show – which, in extent, is the largest exhibition of my career to date – it made sense that it be brought together by its maker. I accepted the invitation.
[Left] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen ‘From the Shelton, Looking East’ New York 2005
[Right] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen – Rockport, Maine 2022
How are you addressing these opportunities and challenges?
In reality it’s an amalgam of structural needs and hold-fast favourites. As with my show at the Centro Niemeyer in Aviles, Spain, that influenced the title of my latest book from Kehrer Verlag, the Kunstfoyer title goes solely by my name. I guess that’s a sign I have an audience that knows me in these two countries.
But this inability to edit my own work I’m sure has to do with my cleft-palate and my experiences in middle-school. Good looking kids, I concluded, got to play first base or centre field. I’d be lucky to be chosen substitute catcher assigned to the bleachers… Besides, I like all my work, with the newbies and discoveries from past decades given silver carpet treatment. I suppose such favouritism represents a form of editing after all. In any case, selecting works for a one-hundred-print retrospective taught me to listen to my eyes. They can spot the winners better than my heart. You’re in, you’re out.
[Left] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen ‘Head Without Face’ Köyliö, Finland 2021
[Right] © Arno Rafael Minkkinen ‘Dead Man Swimming’ Paltaniemi, Finland 2021
The silhouette of a stick figure bobs sideways at the shoreline of a reed-encircled lake, a setting sun washing out the sky above seems to levitate the body. In another new work, a faceless head drops from the upper edge of the frame, flanked between trunk-like limbs. Two Chagall–Kafka newbies. It will be interesting to see how they hold up among the hundreds assembling for the last big hurrah. Ten good ones, if we’re lucky…
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making these images?
That integrity is built on intimacy; that fear is best faced with the act of courage; that being a fan of the work of others lets you escape thinking only about your own work and, in so doing, smothering it. We are but caretakers, the few acres we own belong to the earth. It is the earth that continues. So, too, I hope that my work can exist down the road of history, doing its part to affirm the nexus between humanity and nature.
Arno Rafael Minkkinen was born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1945, moving with his family to the USA in 1951. He received a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Wagner College, New York, in 1967. He then spent five years as a copywriter on Madison Avenue before studying with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the Rhode Island School of Design, receiving an MFA degree in photography in 1974. His work has featured in over one hundred solo exhibitions and more than two hundred group shows in museums, galleries and festivals around the world. His photographs are held in many prestigious public and private collections including the Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris; the Musée de l’Élysée, Lausanne; the National Gallery Ateneum, Helsinki; the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the National Art Gallery, Ottawa.
Eight monographs of his photographs have been published: ‘Frostbite’ [Morgan & Morgan 1978], ‘Waterline’ [Aperture 1994/95; Éditions Marval 1994; Otava 1994], ‘Body Land’ [Federico Motta Editore 1997; Nathan 1998; Smithsonian Institution Press 1999], ‘SAGA: The Journey of Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Thirty- Five Years of Photographs’ [Chronicle Books 2005], ‘Homework: The Finnish Photographs, 1973 to 2008’ [Like Publishing 2008], ‘Swimming in the Air’ [Cavallo Point 2008], ‘Balanced Equation’ [Lodima Press 2010], ‘Taivaanranta–Firmamento’ [Pontifical Catholic University of Peru 2018], and ‘Minkkinen’ [Kehrer Verlag 2019].
He has received numerous awards including the Grand Prix du Livre at the 25th Recontres d’Arles for ‘Waterline’ (1994); the Finnish State Art Prize for photography (2006); the Special Jury Prize at the Lianzhou International Photo Festival, Guangdong Province, China, for ‘SAGA: The Journey of Arno Rafael Minkkinen’ (2006); the Lucie Award for Achievement in Fine Art (2013); the gold award at the German Photo Book Prize for ‘Minkkinen’ (2019), and the Honorary Jury Selection at the Finnish Photo Book Award for ‘Minkkinen’ (2020). In 1993, Arno Rafael Minkkinen was knighted with the Order of the Lion First Class for services to Finnish photography and, in 2017, he received the Pro Finlandia Medal, the nation’s highest honour in the Arts. He currently lives and works between the USA and Finland.
photo: © Morten Krogvold
This is an extended and updated version of an article initially published in Chinese, in the May 2021 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Art and Photography.
‘Arno Rafael Minkkinen’, a major retrospective of the artist’s work, opens on 12 August 2022 at the Kunstfoyer, Maximilianstrasse 53, Munich, through to 27 November 2022.