Anni Leppälä, one of the most eminent young artists belonging to the Helsinki School, sat down and shared a moment with us, unveiling a bit of her artistic philosophy. She shared her views on what photography and arts in general represent to her, the interview finally ending in discussion on her projects-to-be and on the current state of the Finnish fine-art photography.
What fascinates you about photography? How did you discover it?
I’m not actually sure how I ended up studying at art school… In high school I had this course on black and white photography, and back then, photography seemed to open up the possibilities to deal with my inner world and experiences. After high school I sought – and got accepted – to study photography to the Turku Arts Academy. These four years of studies were really intense – this was a significant period for me and determinant for my future.
Different themes, which emerge when combining and recognizing pictures is what fascinates me about photography: when a sort of third picture appears, a picture which has been invisible before. It is amazing how photographs are attached to real life, and at the same time, one can create new meanings through them. As if pictures would be using world as their point of reference. The narration which is attached to pictures is not linear however, but it rather develops in different directions. Through photography, we can recognize a certain feeling, an experience or a memory based on our senses. As a photographer, I’m interested in visible reality, which transmits these inner experiences; photography being their projector.
The aspect of lost moments and their elusiveness is strongly present in your pictures: with the help of different clues found in the image, the viewer is able to build a story around it. What is the starting point for you when photographing? What do reality and fiction mean for you?
Reality and fiction, visible and non-visible get the possibility to blend in my pictures. Often when photographing, the presence of these non-visible elements is tangible, however, it is only afterwards, once looking at the photo, when one is able to see the outcome. A photograph always transforms its objects, so normally I don’t plan the pictures with their details before shooting. One has to be open for changes, and surprises, which are brought forward by this transience, are, at their best, things that develop my work. A certain light or detail can create an essential meaning for the picture, and this impact is practically impossible to predict in advance. I like the fact that a picture closes itself in it; finally it is its own, perfect entity. It is only afterwards, once looking at it from the outside, when one can realize its meaning and whether it is essential or not. So, this certain unexpectedness which is unfolded in photography fascinates me as well.
Sometimes I might have a specific place in mind, where I’d like to shoot, and from time to time, I also have a model with me. These models are close to me and I know them personally: mostly family members or friends. During recent years, when working abroad in different residencies, I noticed that the time between shooting and perceiving things, recognizing them, needs to be much shorter than in familiar surroundings: you need to react instantly, because you never know whether you’ll come back there anymore.
You have created a strong unique style, which is, however, full of inner controversies: often the subjects are either turned away or pictured with masks – as if the camera has searched and found something forbidden. At the same time, there is a strong theatrical element in your pictures: the curiosity of the viewer is often aroused with masks, red curtains or immobility of the characters. How do you explain this juxtaposition?
Even though I know my models personally, I want to depict them more as characters, not as individuals. The masks and the gestures of turning away were a natural element in the pictures right from the beginning: they leave the process of identification uncertain, attracts the focus on behind the picture. Paper masks are also a fascinating element once they’re captured in photographs; they represent a certain metamorphosis, which is a universal idea in photography and arts. In my earliest pictures, there is often an element of this “paper dollness”, of something superimposed and stagnant. This has been, in my mind, a symbol of metamorphosis, but it also represents the idea, which runs through photography more universally: processing the weigh of the lost moment and its yearning.
You have also done a lot of photographing in museums: old-time interiors are often featured in your works. Have you made this choice only for the sake of staging, or does it stand for a more profound meaning?
This phase was a part of my earlier works, when I wanted to study the theme of dissolution through something more constant. Ancient homes, which are turned into museums, are interesting for the sake of their inertia: they aim to preserve a certain, lost moment. The things that are on display in museums have lost their original meaning, and their role is now to manifest something else. Back then, I also photographed a lot in my family’s old, abandoned house, which had, as well, remained intact, disconnected from time. I have a lot of memories connected to that house, whereas museums represent the same thing, but in a more universal level: an impossible attempt to stop time from passing.
Woman in maid’s clothes, paper doll, red-haired girl… Most of the characters that you photograph are females, even though they stay remote and anonymous, as if one would be watching something intimate, even forbidden. With this choice, do you want to take a stand on gender roles, or is it even relevant for you to talk about this?
When photographing, the character of a girl or a woman seems the most natural and the closest one for me. I have no need, nor intention, to highlight the gender specifically, but it is clear to me that the female figure has its definite place in the pictures when transmitting certain experiences and emotions.
Do you have other dreams than photographing?
My dreams and hopes are strongly attached to arts, to things and experiences that it represents to me, for example through works of other artists. Moments of understanding, which sometimes occur when working, are worth of pursuing for. Also the search of balance is essential for me.
Nature with its different elements is also something characteristics of your works; someone might associate this with the Finnish landscape. How important is it to you as a source of inspiration?
Experiencing the different seasons in Finland is something very multifaceted. The light which enters from the window and its constantly changing amount, for instance, is a part of the versatile characteristics of nature. In nature, I often find counterparts to different emotional states or experiences, which is something very substantial and inseparable for my works.
You are born in Helsinki, where you currently work. How do you see the state of photography in Finland? What it means for you and your work to be a part of the Helsinki School?
In recent years, Finnish fine-art photography has become eminent abroad, thanks to the Helsinki School. I have participated in their exhibitions since 2006. It has been a great opportunity, permitting me to discover more possibilities when exhibiting abroad. Also, participating in the Helsinki School has been really important for me in order to develop my work: for example when planning and realizing the display for exhibitions, and being able to actually see the final result. Moreover, it has been essential for me to get to know other artists and students through the Helsinki School.
Your last solo exhibition was in France, in Montreuil-sur-Brêche: where can we enjoy your works the next time? What are your current projects?
My works will be on display in Berlin, at the Art Berlin Contemporary fair in mid-September. I’m also planning to work on an artist’s book.
Text by Sini Rinne-Kanto