“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
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
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