Behind the Lucies: Arno Rafael Minkkinen

Resource Magazine, 10/23/13

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Arno Rafael Minkkinen

Resource continues its coverage of the Lucie Awards today with an intimate look inside the mind of this year’s honoree for Fine Arts photography, Finnish-American photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen. Born in Helsinki in 1945, Minkkinen emigrated to the United States in 1951. After graduating from Wagner College with a BA in English Literature, he began working as an advertising copywriter but soon realized that his true passion lay in photography. Over the past four decades, Minkkinen has established himself as a revolutionary artist. His nude self-portraits—leaping off a cliff, half-buried in the snow, planking before planking was planking—are intimate and striking. Working in black-and-white, entirely in-camera, Minkkinen has a distinct eye and style, forging his own milieu of subject and technique. In addition to his work as a photographer, Minkkinen is also an established teacher, curator and writer. The winner of a regional National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and the First Class Order of the Lion Medal by the Finnish government talked to Resource about the development of his craft, the artists who inspire him, and stepping in front of the camera and off the cliff.

What is your earliest memory of photography?

The albums must have held must some dozen deckle-edged glossy pieces of paper that pictured my family’s first years in America. I was occasionally the subject along with my brothers or our friends. I have no memory of the moments they were taken. As I recall, the photos were housed inside a slim 5 x 7 inch album cover and stapled into the fold with one perforated edge so you could easily tear them out. I still have some of these. One shows me with my father next to our 1939 Chevrolet jalopy (taken in 1952) on Shore Road in view of the parachute jump at Coney Island about a year after we emigrated from Finland. It never occurred to me who the photographer was. I like to think it was my mother but something tells me the camera was on a tripod and had a self-timer. My father was a carpenter back then but he sure knew how to nail the pictures too.

If you hadn’t been a photographer, what would you have done instead?

If it had been up to my father, I’d be preaching the Sermon on the Mount somewhere off Mount Fuji. If I had followed my own dream, perhaps I might have matured fast enough to eventually write the great Finnish American novel. Actually, I’m working on something like that now, forty-five years later. It’s a screenplay about growing up in Brooklyn called The Rain House. The Finnish Film Foundation is behind the process. My colleague, the cinematographer Kimmo Koskela, and I hope one day to realize it.

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© Arno Rafael Minkinnen, “Niagara Triptych,” 2009

What excites you about photography?

That photography is true; that I can believe it. We have this albumen print from an antique shop in Leesburg, Florida taken decades ago somewhere in France that shows a laundry line of equal-sized, ten year-old boys and girls for what looks like a class play. The boys are dressed in black outfits and alternate between the girls in white dresses. What is remarkable is the passage of time since the image was taken. The girls with their light features and dresses have nearly faded away. The boys in black are very much present. A hundred years from now the girls will be gone and the boys left behind like widowers in an August Sander photograph.

Few would have predicted the varying rates of disappearance between the boys and girls. But reality created it. And I can believe it because I have the proof in front of my eyes. The negative is like that. So is the raw file. As much as I love Gustave LeGray’s seascapes with skies from another negative, I feel betrayed, duped ultimately, as I am when someone confesses that the dog riding the surfboard was added on PhotoShop.

What does it mean to you to be honored with a Lucie Award?

I like getting up in the morning. The sun pops up over the other side of the lake, every day over a different tree as the seasons move along. It’s like breathing. We never think about it. It’s the same with sunsets. Every day they drop into a different part of the ocean.

Then, one morning, the sun comes up again rising above the trees. And everything stops. The earth stops spinning. The morning reflection of the sun just sits there over the water for hours as I contemplate what the Lucie Award means to me. Something like that happened the day I got the letter from Tony Bannon.

arno-rafael-minkkinen, lucie-foundation, lucie-awards, fine-art, honoree, photography, self-portrait, black-and-white

© Arno Rafael Minkkinen, “Kettlehole Bog, Fosters Pond,” 1996

Why work in self-portraits? How do you balance being both photographer and subject?

I was an advertising copywriter on Madison Avenue working on the Minolta account when the bug hit me. “Drop the novel dreams and pick up the camera,” I told myself. About a year later, at a workshop in the Catskills, I made a pact with my camera: “You be the photographer, I’ll be the subject.” This was 1971, before the self-portrait made much of an impact. Samaras’ manipulations, as much as Friedlander’s shadows, were outside my ken. Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman would open up the genre a few years later.

But the impulse for me to step inside the viewfinder came from someone else. Not from my teacher John Benson, who was amazing, but Diane Arbus. I was supposed to study with her but as it turned out 1971 was the year she decided to leave this earth. Looking back, I think I made the picture for Arbus anyway, meaning taking off my clothes, not just to see what I looked like naked as I used to explain my rationale, but so I could be like one of her naked subjects.

Balancing being both photographer and subject isn’t easy. You lose a lot of shots, come back empty because you have no way of knowing just what you got at the moment of exposure. Today, there are devices that let you see yourself in the picture as it is being made. My negatives told me what I got as they came off the reels, wet and slippery, potent perhaps, but only certain, once the print was made.

arno-rafael-minkkinen, lucie-foundation, lucie-awards, fine-art, honoree, photography, self-portrait, black-and-white

© Arno Rafael Minkkinen

You’ve said that a line you wrote early in your career as a copywriter, “What happens inside your head can happen inside a camera,” was an important motivating factor in your decision to pursue photography as a career. What does that line mean to you?

Not being able to see yourself in the viewfinder forces you to imagine what you would like to see. It is so exciting to frame an image and know that once you are inside it, the camera has to record something. Knowing my toes will be at the edge of a cliff but not knowing where the rest of me will be when the camera fires off is incredibly addictive. It’s a kind of split-second performance. But then again, performing for the picture wasn’t the way I would have termed it when I started in 1971. Back then performance art surely meant only one thing—being on stage in a Shakespeare play.

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© Arno Rafael Minkkinen, “Banks, Oregon,” 2003

One of the things that set your work apart is your dedication to working completely in camera, without any post-production manipulation. Do you think photographers today rely too much on retouching software such as Photoshop? What can you capture in camera that you just can’t recreate on a computer?

What happens inside my viewfinder happens in the print. This has been and will be my mantra until that day when the sun really does stop for me. Hopefully there will be negatives as yet unprocessed in my camera or raw files like egg yolks before the shell is cracked on my memory stick. (What an appropriate name that is. It already excuses not being absolutely truthful. Raw file works better, the same true grit as negative.)

Dogs on surfboards aside, I don’t think the human mind has the capacity to out-imagine reality’s ability to invent. We will lose seeing that miracle if we cannot maintain viewfinder veracity in the process. Photography will go back to drawing and illustration. I have this picture of our new German shorthaired-pointer puppy named Bravo (after Manuel Alvarez, one of my favorites) sniffing around by the edge of the water. Behind him is a yellow leaf that is still in the air, like the sun above the lake. I would never have thought to wait for a leaf to drop into the picture like that, and if you did it on Photoshop it would be the corniest thing on earth.

arno-rafael-minkkinen, lucie-foundation, lucie-awards, fine-art, honoree, photography, self-portrait, black-and-white

© Arno Rafael Minkkinen, “Self-Portrait with Sandra,” 1974

In addition to your work as an artist, you’ve also taught photography for many years and are on the national board for the Society of Photographic Education. Why do you think arts education is important? Should photographers go to school? What does one gain from formal education that can’t be gleaned from practical experience?

I am honored to be on the national board of SPE, elected for a second term, and chair of our publications committee and journal Exposure. Every student of photography and every photographer who is also a teacher should join this remarkable organization.

Learning to see photographs through picture analysis has benefits for everyone, not just photographers. We come to understand how the world works and how it doesn’t. Photography opens our eyes to life in all its manifestations, thus extending our own lives immeasurably. But becoming a maker of photographs that speak to audiences the photographer will never meet requires a body of work that makes a significant contribution beyond what has already been done before. That is no easy task. Becoming a student, becoming teachable, means giving yourself a chance to place your work in the context of your class peers, to become aware of traditions and history, and to see your work as part of the social circumstances of our times. A good teacher helps you make these discoveries. A good teacher provides the assurance that your work matters most when it comes from the heart as well as the eye.

Another line I wrote years back states, “Art is risk made visible.” Such art is what “the audience you will never meet” requires of you. They expect you to take risks, to abide by the limitations you set for yourself, meaning knowing what you are willing to give up to get what you want. Those are the pictures audiences you will never meet remember most. Memorable works are the kind you can actually see without being in their presence. But you get to them through the editing process of others: magazine editors, gallery owners, museum curators, and teachers. Sure, you can succeed without a formal education, but something else happens in the classroom that is worth considering.

Harry (Callahan) would look you in the eye when he liked what he saw on the critique wall. That gleam of confidence and what he said afterwards surely carried the day for me. His gleam would be there with me as I stepped off a snowy cliff, buck naked, hoping I’d get something good cooking as the nine-second timer counted down, something for the next round with Callahan. What I did in two years at RISD might have taken me ten had I been out there in such blizzards solo.

arno-rafael-minkkinen, lucie-foundation, lucie-awards, fine-art, honoree, photography, self-portrait, black-and-white

© Arno Rafael Minkkinen

Resource will continue its behind-the-scenes look at the Lucie Awards throughout the week. Check back tomorrow as we talk to two more of this year’s honorees: fashion photographer Victor Skrebneski and humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine!

The 2013 Lucie Awards Gala will take place this Saturday, Oct. 27, at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City at 7:00 p.m. To purchase tickets visit www.carnegiehall.org.

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