Receiving polished pictures from Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti

At K1 in Helsinki, insightful, compassionate pictures of people, trees and animals by Pentti Sammallahti show why he’s one of Finland’s best-known photographers. (Article includes photo show.)

“You can’t say that, in my opinion,” said Pentti Sammallahti, standing in front of a large black and white photo at K1, a downtown Helsinki gallery run by the Finnish Museum of Photography.

It was opening night at his exhibition The Two of Us (through February 25, 2024). He was responding to Erja Salo, a curator who had just quoted a major magazine calling him “the most esteemed Finnish photographer of his generation.”

Sammallahti (born in 1950) seemed unnecessarily modest again a couple minutes later when he remarked, “I’ve never gone on assignments – this is all on sort of a hobby basis.” This brought chuckles from the assembled crowd.

“You do hear that people are laughing?” said Salo.

“But it’s true,” said Sammallahti. “I don’t ever have to force things. If I go out to take pictures and nothing comes of it, it doesn’t matter. If I was a professional, then I’d have to accomplish something [regardless of the circumstances].”

The pony and the bird

One pony in a row of four ponies is looking down at a small bird on the pavement in front of it.

What is the pony thinking as it regards the bird in Paris, France, 2000?Photo: Pentti Sammallahti/Finnish Museum of Photography

Sammallahti’s career spans almost six decades, including nearly 20 years teaching photography at the University of Art and Design Helsinki. He would fit anyone’s definition of “professional,” even though he’s not a news photographer.

The exhibition contains everything from postcard-sized photos to near-panoramas as wide as an arm span. All of them are black and white, and Sammallahti does his own darkroom work, which is an art form of its own.

Most of the pictures in The Two of Us show pairs of figures – people, trees, birds, horses, dogs, cats. In some, their companionship is literal: a kitten peeking out from inside a child’s jacket, two horses nuzzling each other, a couple embracing on a waterside stairway, two kids asleep in a hammock on a summer day.

In others, Sammallahti’s ability to find exactly the right moment and angle to click the shutter produces a photo that implies togetherness in some way. A pony looks at a little bird, seemingly smiling at it or talking to it across a line on the pavement. Or two pigeons walk past the reflection of a nearby statue in a puddle.

About the exhibition’s title, Sammallahti said, “It could have been about sky or trees or birds or dogs. Actually, most of my pictures could fit into lots of different themes.”

A world of photos

Several boys push on a car that is stuck in the dirt, while in the foreground two girls smile at the camera.

Vuokkiniemi, Viena, Karelia, 1991 Photo: Pentti Sammallahti/Finnish Museum of Photography

Two children sleep in a hammock under leafy trees.

Kemiö, Finland, 1995 Photo: Pentti Sammallahti/Finnish Museum of Photography

A boy sleeps with his head and arm on a dog that is also asleep.

Pyhäjärvi, Finland, 2000 Photo: Pentti Sammallahti/Finnish Museum of Photography

A small dog is sleeping on the back of a cow resting on the ground.

Varanasi, India, 1999 Photo: Pentti Sammallahti/Finnish Museum of Photography

Two people watch from the shore as a person in a canoe-like boat passes.

Varanasi, India, 1999 Photo: Pentti Sammallahti/Finnish Museum of Photography

A person with their back to us is embracing someone else whose arms are the only part of them visible to us.

Helsinki, Finland, 1983 Photo: Pentti Sammallahti/Finnish Museum of Photography

A dog is stretching its legs under a tree whose trunk stretches out sideways.

Helsinki, Finland, 1982 Photo: Pentti Sammallahti/Finnish Museum of Photography

A huge portrait of Jesus's head is being carried across a town square by someone who is hidden behind the portrait except for a pair of legs that are visible.

Kraków, Poland, 1981 Photo: Pentti Sammallahti/Finnish Museum of Photography

A child and a dog walk through snow under a tree whose branches are dusted with snow.

Finström, Åland, Finland, 1981 Photo: Pentti Sammallahti/Finnish Museum of Photography

Two birds are perched on a large tree branch that has fallen and become stuck in another tree in a position that is parallel to the ground.

Helsinki, Finland, 2002 Photo: Pentti Sammallahti/Finnish Museum of Photography

In some photos, silhouettes pop out against snowy landscapes or misty skies. Dark birds perch on white chunks of ice on black water. People pull sleds past enormous trees in a snowy Helsinki park. In front of a distant mountain range, a person on a horse looks over a snow-covered expanse towards a cabin. It works the other way, too: A white horse stands in front of a dusk-darkened forest.

The info posted beside the pictures gives you an idea of how far Sammallahti has travelled with his camera: Shetland, South Africa, Siberia, Vietnam, Nepal, India, Georgia, Ukraine, Egypt, Bulgaria, Hungary, France, Ireland and more.

He told the story of how he took – or received, as he prefers to say – one of his photos, in 1991 in Vuokkiniemi. The village is located in Viena, a northern area of Karelia, a region that spans the Finnish-Russian border. He was coming down the road and saw a car that had gotten stuck and was spinning its wheels.

“Some boys came to push, and dogs were barking,” he said. “Two little girls noticed my camera – there wasn’t a single camera in the village back then, and they were delighted. They hurried into the picture.”

Quotes on the gallery walls reflect Sammallahti’s long experience as a photographer and teacher and provide clues about his thinking. One quotation is: “The best images are rarely planned or expected, but result from moments of lucky coincidence.”

By Peter Marten, November 2023