Pentti Sammallahti

The aura of the moment

Just as the Song of the Nibelungs is one of the best-known works in German folk poetry, the Kalevala is the most important historic collection of folklore for Finns. Age-old tales of the wise bard Väinämöinen were passed down orally and only put into writing in the 19th century. This heroic epos is deeply rooted in present-day Finnish culture, as evidenced by the many mythical elements in contemporary art.

Pentti Sammallahti, born in Helsinki in 1950, also shows an appreciation of fantastical stories in his photographic work. He not only finds his motifs at home in Finland. On the contrary, driven by an insatiable interest in the world, he has been on countless journeys to the most remote regions of the globe. His photographic eye is often drawn to animals and nature. And yet Sammallahti’s interest seems detached from concrete circumstances: The moments he captures radiate a timeless, lyrical force. Elegantly balanced arrangements of figures, lines and surfaces absolve these scenes from any triteness and take their animal protagonists to an almost metaphorical dimension. The toad, its head breaking through the surface of the water in the light of the setting sun, suddenly appears to have a character of its own. A dog, stretching in an urban scene, does an impression of the slanting tree next to it with such comic likeness that one is inclined to see its very nature revealed to the observer for an instant.

By working without colour and developing his photographs usually in small format, Sammallahti gives what he sees a new form, with the photographer acting as the author of the image, and not as an archivist. Beyond the process of reproduction, he charges his images with significance. To this end, he uses his work in the darkroom, where he transforms his pictures into exceptionally beautiful prints. The expressive force of his analogue photographs blends absolute precision with extremely delicate graduations of grey to produce a texture reminiscent of ink drawings. It is ultimately this quality that points to his underlying topics: Living creatures, stones or vegetation, urban space and primordial habitats – all elements seem tangible and at the same time precious.

Even though Sammallahti’s work poses questions about the relationship between humans and animals or the state of a natural balance in our world, they never take on a dramatic note. The parables he visualises in his photographs seem far too mysterious for that. They express a tongue-in-cheek humour coupled with an artistic homage to the fragile beauty of this world that is exceptional in contemporary photography.

Biographical information

1950

born in Helsinki, Finland

1964-1965

joins the Helsinki Camera Club and participates in international exhibitions by amateur photographers

1971

travels extensively throughout Scandinavia, the Soviet Republic, Siberia, Japan, India, Nepal, Morocco, Turkey, Europe and South Africa and stages his first solo show

1975

receives his first of four State Art Awards for Photographic Art

1984–1991

lecturer in the Department of Photography at the University of Art and Design, Helsinki

2001

awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Art by the Helsinki University of Art and Design

2010

retrospective exhibition at the Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki

2012

retrospective exhibition at the Rencontres d'Arles, France

2013

receives the German Photobook Award for Here Far Away

lives and works in Helsinki, Finland.