"Behind the visible surface"
An interview with Anni Leppälä
Anni Leppälä’s subtle photographic works oscillate between reality and dream. Time appears to stand still; the visible world is charged with memories and emotions. The artist of the Helsinki School uses classical genres such as still life, landscape, and interior; she is considered to be one of the most promising young talents in Finnish art photography and was elected 2010 Young Artist of the Year in her native country. An entire floor is dedicated to Leppälä’s work in the modernized Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt. Achim Drucks interviewed the artist.
||Achim Drucks: How did you first become interested in photography? And why did you choose photography as your artistic medium?
Anni Leppälä: The question of how something begins is an interesting one. On the other hand, something can start at a certain point in time and at a certain age, and then begin again some time later in terms of content. I started to photograph in high school for a photography class I was taking back then, but when I started studying art at the Turku Arts Academy in 2000, I began thinking about photographs and their content in a more conscious way. I see this as the point when I really started with photography. While I was an adolescent, it was more of a hobby, a way of searching for your place and beginning to find a base for all your unfinished thoughts.
I think that my first enchantment with photographs had to do with the strong connection they have both with the past and with the momentary and everything related to that. Maybe it also had some influence on me that my father photographed a lot as a hobby—so there were photographs available of my childhood, of our daily life, and it became possible to look at the past through images. There were also quite a lot of old photographs of previous generations of my father’s family, dating to the end of the 19th century. So photographs have always felt like a natural route for viewing the past.
You’ve studied at the photography department of the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. The department represents a conceptual approach to photography. How did this approach influence your work?
The strength of photography lies in its relatively direct connection to the visible world. This fascinating quality of the photographic image can be used as a route behind the visible surface into something unreal and invisible. I could say that I like the idea of the photograph as evidence referring to a certain time and place in the past. These are the very basic qualities photographs have, but they seem to be an extremely important part of what I’m interested in. The visual world is real in its visibility. The challenge of making photographs is how to make this visual world touch an inner world or experience within the viewer in a way that is different from what the actual visual surface suggests.
I see the photography department at the University of Art and Design Helsinki not as one coherent group, but as a selection of individual artists. I think all of the artists at the Helsinki School have their own unique way of thinking and working. The only thing they have in common is the medium.
For one of your series you’ve chosen the title "Possibility of Constancy." Is your work about the transitoriness of being, about capturing a certain moment or feeling? And how did the series “Possibility of Constancy” develop?
As a title, Possibility of Constancy alludes to the illusion of permanence that photographs suggest, as it’s only an illusion that becomes visible against the momentariness that each picture possesses. It’s like a paradox: trying to conserve something and losing it at the very same moment. Taking photographs is something that happens intuitively. Some subjects I think about for a long time until they’re realized; an object, a place, or even an atmosphere can become a starting point for an image, but this prior thought is never a plan for an imagined picture. It changes when the actual act of photographing takes place, and it has its own means of constructing the image. Taking a photograph begins with going to a place that seems to have a suitable atmosphere for the imaginary vision. These places are often familiar and personally significant to me (for example, the old house of my childhood summers, now abandoned). These surroundings become settings for incidents to take place. I take many pictures at once and then choose from them later. It is essential how the picture relates to the ones already existing, how it meets with them. Sometimes new pictures are also beginnings for new routes towards a whole or a starting point for a group of images. It might then take some time before they find a companion.
The series of pictures I’m currently working on are in a constant state of change, meaning that they’re not fixed to a certain means of presentation. I add new pieces and sometimes I omit others. These choices are also related to the exhibition space: where the walls stand, how much space exists etc. The way these choices are made has to do with how things shift between the pictures, how they relate to one another. There are some pieces that function as essential and central images, and I create an installation of other images around them. The variation in size enables me to make remarks and accents that allow for different forms of emphasis in connecting the whole.
Possibility of Constancy became the title for the series at a time when I was photographing a lot in local museums. Personally, it was also a phase in my life during which I feared change and was living in a kind of a standstill.
The women’s costumes and the interiors you’ve photographed seem to evoke the past, particularly the time around 1900. You’ve also photographed period rooms in museums. What fascinates you about this time?
The visible and material world can be seen as a kind of “fixed point” of objects that are then viewed in photographs. Classical form in objects and their surroundings is something that inherently appeals to me, and so maybe it’s this quality that refers to this particular historical time.
The concrete starting point for my works has been a small old house belonging to my relatives, now left abandoned, which was built in the mid-20th century. As a continuation of this, I also started taking photographs in local museums from different centuries.
I’m concerned with being modern, but I think I’m looking for a basic “true” character in objects that also possesses a connection to memories and to history. Also that impression may have something to do with the composition and coloration in my images; many artists that inspire or fascinate me are early 20th-century painters.
In my works, I try to avoid representing a certain time or place; photographs are already imbued with this due to their documentary nature. Instead, I’m trying to give the images a timeless quality through which their invisible aspects, their atmosphere can penetrate. I hope that what finally becomes recognized in the image is something “outside” of the image, something out of sight—something imperceptible. In this momentary experience, something is revealed which is not “that-has-been,” but rather something that exists and is present here and now.
Some of your works seem to evoke the interiors and landscapes of 19th-century Nordic painting. Has your work been influenced by painting?
Yes, I think most of my favorite artists are painters. Sometimes I think the influence can be quite subconscious or unintended, and only later understood or realized. There is no specific painting that forms a starting point; it’s more general, such as compositions or colors that become part of an image. I am interested in classical questions of visual art and their connection to the subject matter.
Why are all your figures female?
They’re characters that I find easy to work with. The figure of a girl or a woman feels more familiar to me. They’re not specific persons, but characters that can be placed in different scales and surroundings, as models: something between a person and an image.
One of your works is called "My Mother’s Head. With Flora (Portrait of an Ancestor)" depicts you next to an old painting of a woman who looks a bit like you. Do you regard your work as a kind of self-portrait?
In this particular work, With Flora (Portrait of an Ancestor), it felt necessary to place myself in the picture next to this painting of a distant relative. It was an absurd attempt to be uniform with this historical figure through a visual similarity—and at the same time be inevitably separated in a temporal sense. In general, many places and surroundings in my images do hold personal significance for me. But the content of the work is altered to contain a different meaning apart from the real location or my personal history. My primary aim has not been to make autobiographical works, but more to approach the subjects I’m interested in.
Beings are Silent
11.02. - 24.04. 2011
TH13 Gallery, Theaterplatz 13, Bern, Switzerland
01.04. - 30.4.2011
Barbara Gross Galerie, Theresienstrasse 56, Munich, Germany
Anni Leppälä: Chapter five
08.04.- 01.05. 2011
VB Photographic Centre, Kuopio, Finland