A conversation with Arno Rafael Minkkinen is a Master Class, not only about photography, but also about motivation, perseverance and passion. He has a meaningful phrase for every situation: “Life is like this, you know, one small thing can change it all,” “things just happen,” “you have to trust,” or “whenever you have limitations you have to fight them”. There’s a lot of truth and peace in his words as I discovered going through the turning points of his biography and career—as well as a marvellous sense of humour— .
Minkkinen (1945) is a Finnish-American photographer, educator, curator, and writer with over one hundred solo and two hundred group exhibitions at galleries and museums worldwide. The famous slogan he created for Minolta Cameras, “What happens inside your mind can happen inside a camera,” might today read like an artist statement for his work—Minkkinen wrote it when he was a copywriter at one of those large advertising agencies on Madison Avenue, a job that helped pay the bills. “I believed the line so much that I decided I wanted to become a photographer myself.” He smiles.
At a workshop with John Benson at Apeiron Workshops in Millerton, New York in September of 1971, he began a series of nude self-portraits inspired in part by the work of the late Diane Arbus whose course he had at first hoped to take there. A few years later, studying with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at Rhode Island School of Design, Minkkinen earned his MFA in photography.
His photographs are ultimately a forty-seven-year-long extended self-portrait: unmanipulated images of the human figure in the natural landscape. Nudity appears in a kind of spiritual form with his body taking on unlikely shapes to become camouflaged with nature. There is no retouching at all—this is fundamental in his work—so he can be considered a documentary photographer in the purest meaning of the term. Some of his pictures might look simple, but in reality, they can test the limits of what a human body is capable of or willing to risk. His work is not a performance. Minkkinen is after an image.
Arno, how did you get into Photography?
It happened very naturally. I started at Wagner College as a philosophy and religion major on a financial scholarship but it was my father’s idea that I would become a minister. When I realized I didn’t really share his beliefs I switched to English literature. I was still very young and hadn’t experienced life enough to write the great Finnish American novel, so my brother, who was a chemical engineer, suggested that maybe I could write for advertising instead. So that´s what I did for the next five years after graduating, writing headlines for some pretty big clients, but copywriters are always getting hired and fired as clients come and go. On one such interval between jobs, a head-hunter told me about an agency looking for a writer with some knowledge of photography. I went to see the creative director with my print portfolio and a few commercials I had written. At the end of the interview—life is like this, one small thing changes your life, meaning I don’t think we would be having this conversation otherwise—the creative director said, ok, nice stuff but what do you know about photography? I told him what I knew to be the truth: while looking for work I spent my mornings toying around with my father’s Linhof 4×5 camera. The guy’s eyes lit up, nothing more needed to be said. It was like saying you drove a Ferrari when interviewing for a motor oil account —point being, they needed a writer who was also a photographer, or as I now think about it, they would probably have lost the account they hadn’t found someone. Fact was, I was hardly even a beginner. So I got to play with all the lenses and bodies I could get my hands on. A month later they introduced me at Minolta headquarters as the agency expert. Two years later I wrote the famous headline that eventually became The Mind of Minolta.
You say at the beginning you were self-taught; did you undertake any courses later?
At the very beginning I thought photography meant you were supposed to make pictures that looked like the pictures that were already published, so I sent a bunch of pictures like that to the Rhode Island School of Design because I loved the work of Harry Callahan and wanted to study with him. The rejection letter not only came fast; it was another one of those turning points in my life. My understanding of photography needed serious attention. There was an ad in the New York Times at the time for workshops with photographers I knew nothing about—can you believe it—Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Paul Caponigro, and Diane Arbus, to name a few? So I went to the Museum of Modern Art, put on the white gloves, and started looking at their portfolios. When I came to the picture by Diane Arbus of the little boy with the toy hand grenade, I stopped. I had my found my teacher. The boy was just like me when I immigrated to Brooklyn with my family at age six. Arbus might want to photograph my freaky looking cleft-palate face, I thought. And Apeiron probably needed students so I got in. Two weeks before the workshop was about to start, it got cancelled. I never found out why until about a year later. It was the summer of 1971, the year Arbus decided to leave this world. So I never got to meet her or study with her.
Apeiron recommended grab the course with John Benson, who, after reviewing my first two day’s output—a Monday and Tuesday—making the same pictures I had sent to get in—barns, cows and fields—said: “Maybe you should go back to copywriting; this isn’t what this place is about. You might even get your money back.” But I think now that he knew I was serious, that I had signed up originally for Diane Arbus’ workshop after all. So I shook my head and said: I can’t do that, John. Do you have a better idea? John smiled, thought a moment, then said, “Ok, Arno, take a day off.” Five-day workshop? Take a day off? But I listened and did nothing that Wednesday, just walked along the hills without my camera. I had spotted this old mirror at the back of a barn and the next morning, Thursday, hiked back up the hills with camera and tripod and decided to see what I looked like without my clothes. This was well before self-portraiture was the genre it is today, well before Sherman, Woodman, or Coplans. Looking back I think I did it to make the picture I thought Arbus might have made of me. In any case, I trusted the camera to give me what it saw when I pressed the self-timer and effectively told the camera, “You take the picture.” Standing at the other end of the mirror from where the camera was, I felt I was committing a sin, something forbidden and blasphemous because of my religious training. When I saw the picture printed later that evening up on the darkroom washboard, I was in silhouette, standing butt-naked in front of my own grave.
What happens when the result of the picture is not the image you had on your mind? How do you deal with that?
(We are looking at one of his images titled, Jamestown, Rhode Island 1974): It was very slippery, windy, icy…and very dangerous. I made only one exposure for all these reasons. This was now 1974. If someone tried to make this image today, manipulating it on Photoshop, they would forget that the light here (he points to specific areas) would hit here. That´s why there’s that black line under my butt. It’s the snow reflecting the light upwards.
Everyone knows, of course, Photoshop didn’t exist in ‘74. Not until two decades later. There’s no room for manipulation in my work because the joy comes from knowing something like this can work without such gimmicks. You could also say there is no photographer here. I am just the director, hoping and trusting the machine will do what it is told to do. The reward comes when the picture is developed the next day, in two weeks, or even months or years later. It isn’t something you see in the viewfinder; it can only be something you hope will be on the film. Still, it´s always a panic, the light changing, remembering to advanced the film, being ready when the shutter fires, I have to move fast.
Besides the nude self-portraits, you also photograph others, women in particular. Can you tell us why?
To answer that question, here’s what I looked like that when I was fifteen (he shows a photograph of crew cut kid with a cleft palate and another one of himself with hippy-length hair from his advertising days). As a teenager I had crushes on so many girls all the time. My mother had a difficult time with my deformity and reinforced the impression that I would never marry a beautiful girl. In a game of spin-the-bottle I was never the one who got kissed on the mouth; it was always the cheek. After my father died pre-maturely, he was just fifty-six, I decided to conquer my lip trip, the Achilles Heel of my soul. In history class in College I sat next to a beautiful girl named Anne who was the cheerleader captain and whose boyfriend was the quarterback of the football team. I turned to her one day after class was over and asked, “Can you do me a favour?” “Sure,” she said. “Can you go out with me?” “On a date.” She blushed (we were good friends) and I quickly added: “We can take the ferry to New York, have dinner, catch a movie, and come back.” Anne hesitated a moment, then answered, “But I’ll have to ask Jay,” [the boyfriend quarterback]. The next time I saw Anne she smiled and said: “Jay said it’s ok”. Here it was, the first date of my life with one of the most beautiful girls on campus. You have to understand that it was what I looked like in contrast to understand why beauty was so primal to me. Next weekend, I asked another campus beauty, and she too said yes. Then another. By my fourth date, I began to understand that it was not just the outer beauty that compelled me to ask someone out but more important, who the person was, call it their inner beauty. Being beautiful, I also learned, could be as isolating and ignored—you’re too good for us—as being ugly and rejected. To pay for the restaurant and the movie and ferry tickets, I got a second job as a bank teller. Almost every week I was dating someone different. I told my dates that I would not being asking them out again because I was working on something. And pretty soon I started to forget all about this (he points to his mouth). In the back of some New York taxicabs I did get kissed, really kissed. I had found myself. All this lasted over a half a year until about my 18th date (not sure why I remember that number) when I fell in love (Arno shares with a photo from college days of his wife Sandra to whom he has been married nearly 48 years).
Back to your question, I did photograph my wife in the beginning but she didn’t want to be
recognized in the pictures. Maybe it was shyness or she would find it difficult to explain it to her friends or parents why she sat in the nude at the stern of our canoe Peapod. It had gone down a lot of bumpy rivers by its former owner so we painted it green like a peapod. But she understood my need to express myself and that my work with other women was merely an artistic creation much in the way that it happens in the movies. Or maybe that’s just me thinking so. In any case, she’s a pioneer, not to mention a great editor; it was her profession. In any case, knowing that many of the women I´ve photographed I’ve photographed over a period of time must have reassured her as well. When you do that you don’t need a model release. Images made over time give the viewer permission to look because the subject gives the photographer that same permission.
The pictures I ‘ve made with Veronica are like that (Arno shows me an image from Tuscany made in 1998 and another one made almost twenty years later). We are dearest of friends. Her husband is a classic guitarist who just came out with a new CD with one my images on the cover. She is a photographer concentrating on the delicacy of reflections as seen through mirrors, interiors, and still lives that seem to breathe light. So we make pictures together from time to time. My goal with Veronica has been to create a kind of chain link of time. When she was young, I was middle aged. Now that she is in the June of her life, I am already Mr. November, something out of Man Ray I suppose.
One could ask why I only photograph women. It has something to do with my 18 dates I like to think, a kind of homage to all those who said yes. It’s not that I am against male nudity, it´s nothing to do with that, but being a heterosexual man I guess I don´t want people coming to my work solely from the male nude perspective. The nudity, of course, is imperative, in the nature images especially, if I want to keep the work timeless.
Or one could ask why not photograph someone else, a male nude model, for example, to be the person you see in my pictures instead of me? The answer is simple. Given the dangerous nature of many of my pictures, I can´t put someone in harm’s way for the sake of my image. In some pictures, technically I could, and once on a very rare occasion when there was no issue of safety concerns I tested the idea to confirm my methodology. It’s better if I do it myself. I have to be the one in the picture because eventually all the pictures taken together will become a kind of collective self-portrait, one body of work—one body as subject.
I have some pictures where, if I had fallen, I would surely have been killed. When I make pictures like that, I can´t have anyone anywhere near me to be implicated with something like that. It’s also why I have no assistant and on occasion when someone has been around to help to carry a tripod, for example, that’s all the help I need. No one looks through my viewfinder at the moment of exposure. Otherwise it would be collaborative; nothing against that, but it’s not what I am after. If I am going to be out there submerged under the snow or hanging off some cliff, I certainly can’t see what’s going on inside the viewfinder at the moment of exposure. No one else should see that either. And that’s where the adventure lies. Finding out only afterwards what the camera saw.
How do you select the locations?
The locations actually select me. A landscape from Finland quite near the Arctic Circle provides a good example. The moment I saw the sweep of sky from atop a hillside above a vast lake with the reflections of white clouds followed by dark clouds, I saw my picture. I raced down to the shoreline and got to work. That happens a lot. The landscape selects me. Come here it says, come closer, all those whispers are there in the air, after which it just becomes a question of how to realize what my imagination craves, the potential image I need to convert into reality.
Some things, of course, the landscape can’t show me. For the length of time I would need to hold my breath I splashed the hell out of the surface and counted how long it took for the water to return to its mirrored state. That’s how long I would need to hold my breath before squeezing the shutter bulb I would have with me under the water. It was during that time—add another nine seconds for the timer plus five more for good luck—submerged with my curved back floating on the surface with the aim of replicating a rock that a fly took the bait and landed on my back. It was nothing I could have predicted but everything I could have wished for. It’s all in the air you could say, this way of working the camera.
Once I frame the image the rest is pure documentary. It’s not a performance, I´m not a performer. In a performance, you see the whole thing; I´m after an image.
Then, occasionally, things like this would happen (we are looking now at the image of a white shirt dripping wet on a hanger): I washed my shirt (laughs), hanged it to dry it and loved the light pouring through it, but if I went into the shirt it would be a stupid picture and yet I wanted to be part of the picture because I´m always in the picture, so what to do. Out of the limits means new forms emerge, Georges Braque’s famous words, meaning whenever you have limitations you have to fight them, you have to do something. I saw the solution as you can see in the picture. If you painted this, it would be equally stupid because people would say of course you can paint that! (laughs).
*Introduction and interview by María Fuentes Guiote with verbal and written responses by the artist. Images Courtesy of WILLAS Contemporary