Jorma Puranen: Narrating the North

© Jorma Puranen ‘Imaginary Homecoming 1’ [detail] 1991

I am interested in the temporal movement back and forth between archival and linear time.


Sápmi is a culturally defined region that spans the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Historically, the English language name was Lapland. The culture that defines this area is that of the indigenous Sámi people. Like First Nations peoples in many other parts of the world, their way of life has been seriously threatened by colonial expansion and attempts to assimilate them, if necessary by force, into the majority Scandinavian cultures to the south. But also, as with some more enlightened contemporary cultural sensitivities, there is a growing recognition of the depth of insight and knowledge the Sámi people have for the land, the flora and fauna with which they share it, and the climate by which it is shaped.

For the Finnish artist Jorma Puranen, this northern landscape has been a continuing source of inspiration. His creative work is shaped by what he has learned from the Sámi community within a conversive frame that perceives the landscape informed by two interwoven cultural perspectives. His methodology is a dialogue across time. Refracted through the compound lens of archive and memory, his photographs draw on imagery shaped by the context of former ways of thinking and recollections continually reshaped in the ongoing coalescence of personal experience.

Jorma Puranen was one of the founding members of the Helsinki School, which established a new, more conceptually focused Nordic sensibility in the photographic arts of the early 1990s. Its members are interested in photographic practice as a tool for thinking, exploring ways to translate the passage of time and the phenomena of nature through an understanding of light as a raw material of creation. Jorma Puranen is now one of Finland’s most celebrated photographers. In 2005 he received the Pro Finlandia Medal of the Order of the Lion of Finland, the state’s most prestigious award made to an artist.

Alasdair Foster

© Jorma Puranen ‘Icy Prospects 69’ 2018


How would you describe the overarching approach and themes of your artmaking?

My work is about ‘narrating the North’, creating a field of fantasy and geographical imagination. In it, I am exploring and visualising relationships between history, knowledge, landscape, and culture. Re-thinking the Arctic colonialism through a poetics of memory and the historical. And, on a more abstract level, themes of disappearance and loss.

Early in your career you developed a collaborative way of working with the Sámi people of northern Finland. What did you learn from them and how did this influence your work and ideas moving forward?

Before photography, I studied art history and archaeology and consequently a wider field of history and cultural studies have shaped my thinking about the medium. Over the years, my understanding of the northern landscape was greatly improved by many long and illuminating discussions with local Sámi people. These conversations formed the starting points for many of my subsequent projects. Like any nomadic groups who spend much time observing the landscape, Sámi people have a very sharp eye attuned to nuanced visual perception and inference.

In the beginning you made documentary images, but you changed direction. Why was this?

I have always been restless. I felt the world was changing. It had become too complicated just to go out, take a picture and say ‘here it is’. This new awareness required new forms. By the end of the 1970s, documentary had reached a crisis point, no longer a mirror of, or a window onto reality, but a construction of it. As a field worker, I found new inspiration from anthropology and, in particular, anthropological filmmaking.

© Jorma Puranen ‘Imaginary Homecoming 3’ 1991

The first of your work that I saw was ‘Imaginary Homecoming’. How did this begin?

From early in my career, I developed an archive-based approach. In the 1970s, while still making documentary work, I sought to educate myself about the history, life, and reality of the people with whom I was working. This took me to various historical and anthropological archives and picture libraries. I made frequent visits to the Musée de L’Homme in Paris during the 1980s, where I got to know the photographic collection documenting Prince Roland Bonaparte’s expedition to Lapland in 1884. I found the collection both disturbing and moving, and felt a strong need to use the images in some way. However, it took quite a few years before this interest found its visual outcome.

How were the images in this series created?

I began by rephotographing the archival images of the Sámi. I printed them on graphic film, which I mounted on clear acrylic sheets. I then took them into the northern landscape, making temporary installations in places that would have been familiar to the Sámi people depicted in the archival images. Sometimes I wrapped the transparencies around birch trees. Mostly they were arranged on snowy slopes where those represented would have wandered a century before.

© Jorma Puranen ‘Imaginary Homecoming 5’ 1991

What themes are you exploring in this work?

My concerns were with temporal and spatial distance. On the one hand, the Musée de L’Homme located at the Place de Trocadero in Paris, on the other, the expansive snow-driven fells of the northern Norwegian province of Finnmark. The present is juxtaposed with the year 1884 in a dialogue between two different landscapes and two historical moments, but also between two cultures. To bridge this distance, I tried to achieve a metaphorical return by taking the portraits to the very places where these people had once lived.

This was also a time of heated debate around post-colonialism. These theories fascinated me, especially in the context of the history of the Sámi. In ‘Imaginary Homecoming’, I sought to understand Lapland as a historical space that has been inhabited and shaped by the Sámi. As such, it is also an effort to suggest a sort of historical counter-memory.

© Jorma Puranen ‘Imaginary Homecoming 16’ 1991

Are there ethical issues to consider in using images of unidentified, culturally specific people in this way?

There certainly are, and these complexed ethical issues really need to be debated. However, in the case of ‘Imaginary Homecoming’, I was careful to include the names of the people portrayed. This helped to identify them as the great grandmothers and great grandfathers of people I know personally.

I have always tried to ensure my photographs are accessible to Sámi people. From the late 1970s, I contributed to publications such as Sápmelas, which is the only magazine in the Sámi language and is delivered for free to every Sámi home in Finnish Lapland. This is how people first came to know my work, so that later they could decide for themselves if they wanted to work with me or not. There are no art galleries in the north and so, over the years, I have organised small exhibitions of my work in local schools and community houses. In this way, ‘Imaginary Homecoming’ travelled to many parts of the Sámi region, being seen by a lot of people.

But you should remember that I started this work in the 1980s and many things have changed, politically and otherwise, since then. I don’t think I would make the project in the same way now. Representing anybody or anything has become a complex and deeply problematic issue. It is impossible to avoid the notion of authority.

© Jorma Puranen ‘Language is a Foreign Country 3 (wind words)’ 1999

What ideas initially prompted you to begin ‘Language is a Foreign Country’?

In the archives, I had found scientific illustrations and historical maps depicting Lapland that spanned the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The language of those maps was Latin. What could be more alien to the Lappish landscape than a language that no one living there spoke. This led me to think more deeply about the relationship of language to landscape.

How did you go about making this series?

It is based on the Sámi and Greenlandic languages. Both are languages of the regions where I worked. I spoke with local people, reindeer keepers for instance, people who were working outdoors spending most of their time in the landscape. I asked them to name as many words as they remembered to describe their natural environment. For example, what were the words for types of wind, a phenomenon inseparable from the high fells. And I have to say that their vocabulary is truly rich and extensive.

I printed these ‘wind words’ onto silk fabric and attached them to metal rods, which I then installed in the northern mountains. When the gusts blew strongly enough, the silks fluttered outwards and the words may be read. In this way the wind also made itself visible.

What underlying ideas were you exploring in this work?

‘Language is a Foreign Country’ is perhaps my most conceptual project. It is about an experience of space, history, and landscape that oscillates between visual representation and linguistic pronunciation. Although these ‘wind words’ are precise, the experiential understanding of a landscape cannot be conveyed entirely through language. I see the landscape as an archive, where one engages the unstable and ambiguous associations embedded in place, lending a voice to silent symbols and hidden meanings.

Elizabeth Edwards has highlighted an uncertainty or ambiguity in your work. Do you agree?

Elizabeth is an excellent interpreter of my work. However, since she made that statement my work has become even more ambiguous and uncertain. In art it is impossible to make exact and absolute statements. Without these two qualities there is no art.

© Jorma Puranen ‘Icy Prospects 66’ 2014

The landscapes in ‘Icy Prospects’ have a painterly quality. How did you go about making them?

I was inspired by the shimmering reflections one sees on the varnished surface of old paintings in a museum – something I had been photographing for several years. To make this work I carefully sanded a wooden board until it was smooth and then painted it with glossy black paint, which gave it a reflective finish. I then took the board into the icy northern landscape and set it up so that I could photograph the fragmentary impression of the Arctic landscape reflected in its surface. When I began, the effect reminded me of holding a daguerreotype in the way one had to get the angle just right for the image to become visible. It also shares some similarities with the Claude glass.

[Left] © Jorma Puranen ‘Icy Prospects 2’ 2005
[Right] © Jorma Puranen ‘Icy Prospects 33’ 2007

What are you exploring here?

This is a continuation of my long-term work re-animating the legacy of Arctic exploration. The idea arose while reading histories of polar expeditions, Arctic lore, and from watching tourists on the most northerly promontory of Nordkapp [the North Cape in Norway]. But it also arose from my frustration in finding ways to depict the northern landscape. It seemed this landscape had become so corrupted that it was no longer possible to take a single straight landscape picture.

For fifteen years I had been engaged in projects in which I prevented direct admiration of the landscape by putting something in between the viewer and the subject: portraits, words, flags… They all served as obstacles of a kind, denying simple admiration. And here, in ‘Icy Prospects’, direct viewing is completely denied. What we see is merely a reflection. Jean Luc Godard once said that “a photograph is not a reflection of reality, it is the reality of that reflection”.

Your most recent work is called ‘They Could Hear a Faraway Thunder’

That title comes from a poem by Aqqaluk Lynge, a Greenlandic poet and human rights leader. Lynge’s lines echo an ancient time of caribou hunting when people could hear the herds approaching two or three days off, like the sound of distant thunder. Today the caribou are gone and, for the Arctic Indigenous peoples, the faraway thunder now resonates with different threats and uncertainties.

What is it we are looking at in these images?

It seems that my work is becoming more self-referential. Here, I deploy the archival, dreams, memories, and time to create transient and accidental visual forms. Old satellite images and aerial views of the Arctic have been blended with my own photographs to suggest an eerie, otherworldly landscape. A matrix of fact and fiction reflecting on the history of northern colonialism and the fragility of a world that is melting away. Through it, I hope to encapsulate multiple, interwoven temporalities in which all this found material reappears as though from some lost (or future) world – perceived as a ghostly manifestation.

What can we learn (or perhaps unlearn) through this kind of re-purposing of archival materials?

My approach to archives is undisciplined; fragmentary rather than systematic. Memories are invariably conjured by fragments. Words alone are not enough. I am interested in the temporal movement back and forth between archival and linear time, between past and present. For me, archival photographs possess a certain historical ‘now-ness’ that is different from any other medium. Working with archival materials is a way to re-consider the present and my aim is always to project the archival onto the world outside.

What have photography and the Arctic landscape taught you?

The Arctic has taught me that landscape has another dimension, the potential but invisible field of possibilities nourished by everyday perceptions: lived experiences, different histories, fantasies… the sounds of animals, the wind and rain… time to let one’s eyes linger in the distance. From it I have learnt relativeness and patience.

I have also learnt a lot from looking at the photographs with the Sámi. Photographs are extremely important for people who until quite recently have had no written history of their own. Discussing photographs with them reminds me of something John Berger once wrote: “If the living take the past upon themselves, if the past becomes an integral part of the process of people making their own history, then all photographs would re-acquire a living context, they would continue to exist in time, instead of being arrested moments.”

© Jorma Puranen ‘Imaginary Homecoming 10’ [detail] 1992

Biographical Notes

Jorma Puranen was born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1951. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1978 and a Master of Fine Arts in 1978, both from the University of Art and Design Helsinki (now Aalto University – School of Arts, Design and Architecture). His work has featured in fifty-seven solo exhibitions and over one hundred and thirty group shows across Europe and in Asia and the Americas. His photographs are held in many prestigious public and private collections including the Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris; the Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki; Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki; Kunstmuseum Stuttgart; the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris; the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; the Musée de la Photographie, Charleroi; the Museet for Fotokunst, Odense; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

He has published four monographs: ‘Maarf Leu’dd – Photographs of the Skolt Lapps’ (Opus 1986), ‘Alpha & Omega’ (Opus 1989), ‘Imaginary Homecoming’ (Pohjoinen Publications 1999), and ‘Icy Prospects’ (Hatje Cantz Verlag 2009). He won the National Prize for Finnish Photography in 1988 and again in 2019, and the PhotoFinlandia Prize in 1992. In 2005 Jorma Puranen received the Pro Finlandia medal, the highest state award for a Finnish artist. He lives and works in Helsinki.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.