Risk Made Visible
In his photography, Arno Rafael Minkkinen ’67 envisions a world where the impossible becomes possible. And after more than 40 years of self-portraiture, he's finally ready to show his face.
By Laura Barlament
In 1988, Arno Minkkinen ’67 was finally able to give up working as an advertising copywriter and creative director. He had won a tenured appointment as associate professor of art at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, securing financial stability for his family and a platform to practice his art, a journey he had begun 18 years earlier.
That year, Minkkinen and his wife, Sandra Hughes Minkkinen ’68, also bought a house located on Fosters Pond in Andover, Massachusetts.
The house was old and run-down, but that didn’t matter. Minkkinen not only had a secure position as an artist; he had a muse right out of his back door.
* * *
At dawn on Fosters Pond, the sky glows pink and mists rise off the water like spirits. The water is still, and even the birds are hushed.
Only a couple of houses are visible from the dock at One White Oak Drive. A naked man can work alone and unobserved — just as he wishes. His purpose, after all, is not to perform or to scandalize. It is to reveal the timeless unity of man and nature, while letting the camera take the picture.
This is basic to Minkkinen’s art: It is documentary. The images are surreal, giving the body magical powers. Yet, there is no post-production manipulation of the image. What you see in the image is what happened in front of the camera’s viewfinder and was captured by the negative.
So, it is natural to wonder, how did he do it?
Arno Minkkinen tells the story behind some of his photos, but not all of them. Not this one (see above), one of his most beloved works, “Self-Portrait, Fosters Pond, 1989,” where two arms cross between two legs in an elegant symmetry mirrored in the water, on which the body seems to float.
He did almost give it away, in the 1995 documentary “Still Not There.” But, at the film’s preview, he overheard the nine-year-old daughter of his gallery owner whispering to her mother, “You know, when I was very little I used to think he was standing on a crocodile.”
Minkkinen asked the director to remove that scene, saying, “Don’t kill the crocodile!”
“The role of the artist is to renew our lives, but also, in turn, to listen internally to the song of the child within us all,” Minkkinen wrote in an essay about his friend, the filmmaker Kimmo Koskela. “Or, as I like to remind my students, how Brancusi puts it: ‘Unless we see with the eyes of a child, we will make no art.’”
* * *
For more than 40 years, Minkkinen has single-mindedly pursued his own unique vision in photography. The journey has not always been easy, and rewards and recognition were slow in coming. Yet, he persisted; and today, many consider him one of the “rock stars” in the world of photography.
“Arno’s work is very individual,” says his New York gallerist, Barry Friedman. “His self-portraits are always nude and in black and white, which gives them a feeling of timelessness uncomplicated by elaborate colors or visual sleights of hand.
“They are also timeless because there is no obvious school or trend that they attempt to be part of,” Friedman continues. “There are other photographers, like Cindy Sherman, who have turned the camera toward their own bodies, but Arno’s style from his first 40 years only shows allegiance to his own vision and not to a particular school. His work constitutes a groundbreaking contribution to contemporary photography.”
Published and exhibited worldwide, Minkkinen’s work can be found in museums from Boston and New York to Paris and Helsinki. Seven monographs on his work have been published, and he has had more than 100 solo shows around the world. “Arno has had more individual museum exhibitions than most artists can dream of having in their lifetime,” notes Friedman.
The year 2013 was especially gratifying. During the summer, Minkkinen had one of the major shows at Les Recontres d’Arles, the prominent international photography festival in Provence, France. Then, at the 11th annual Lucie Awards for international photography, held at Carnegie Hall on October 27, Minkkinen received the prize for Achievement in Fine Arts.
But when it comes time to create new work, it’s still exactly the way he started — just his body, his camera, and his own unique way of seeing and being in the world. In the words of his good friend, the famous photographer Sally Mann, “Everything he does is radiant and clever — but not too clever — and filled with the impudent joy of creativity.”
* * *
Last February, a selection from the 40 years of Arno Minkkinen’s photographic self-portraits were on view at Lincoln Center, in conjunction with the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Dance on Camera festival. One evening, Minkkinen was giving a talk about his work before the screening of scenes from a movie he wrote and now has in development, with the working title The Rain House.
The gallery was filled with people admiring the images and trying to get a word in with the artist — a tall, slender man (that we know from the photographs), whose long, silver hair hangs below his collar and into his eyes, while a droopy mustache and long goatee obscure his mouth. With his square glasses, gray tweed jacket, jeans, cowboy boots, and bright blue polka-dotted bow tie, he looks like a combination of young hipster and senior professor.
Arno Minkkinen is gentle, friendly, and unfailingly gracious to all, despite the fact that he and at least three technical guys are trying, to no avail, to get his PowerPoint presentation to project properly so that he can start his talk. Finally, he decides to wing it. “Technical issues can sometimes happen,” he says philosophically. “You can say that the computer and projector didn’t wanna make friends.”
Then Minkkinen starts to tell his story: He began learning about photography in 1970, when he was hired to be a copywriter for a New York City ad agency that had an account with Minolta. By 1973, he had become a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, and he figured out the basic tenet of his work: “It’s possible to let the camera take the picture.”
He began putting himself, exposed and nude, in all kinds of places — some of them painful, or even life-threatening. That’s why, he says, he used his own body instead of a model; he could never ask another person to do things like “lean off a cliff or go under the snow for 15 minutes. But you can do it yourself!”
Working for Minolta, he came up with the headline, “What happens inside your mind can happen inside a camera,” and it became his personal motto as a photographer as well: Imagining the scene he wanted, he would set up the camera, pose his body in front of it, and operate the remote shutter release to take the picture.
He often worked early in the morning, before any other people were awake, he tells the Lincoln Center audience — as in the photo “Dead Horse Point, Utah, 1997,” where his legs soar over a canyon thousands of feet deep. To capture his image, he put the camera in a crate at the cliff’s edge and lay on top of it, holding the shutter release in his mouth. Or, as he describes it: “Camera on milk crate, shutter release in mouth, lower legs until I think they are in the field of the camera’s vision, and then I bite.”
One audience member asks him about a photo in which a hand emerges from Foster’s Pond, holding a pen poised to write on the water’s placid surface. How did he manage to stay under so long that the water reached complete calm for the photograph? “There are some things I don’t tell you,” he replies.
* * *
During a conversation in the studio he designed at his Foster’s Pond home, he reveals that the picture was made for the cover of a book entitled Writing on Water, a collection of essays, fiction, and poetry published in 2001 by the MIT Press.
Sandra Minkkinen, his wife and fellow Wagner English major, was a production editor at the MIT Press for more than 20 years. Practical, tough, and well-organized, she guided more than 400 books — on topics ranging from Romanian architecture to surveillance technology — through the editing and production process during her career.
It’s not at all unusual to see Arno Minkkinen’s art on and in books. Beneath a row of windows and another row of framed photographs in his studio, there are shelves crammed with books featuring his work: novels by authors like Charles Bowden and Michel Houellebecq; photography books (in French, German, Italian, and Chinese as well as in English); books about the body, the self-portrait, light, the black-and-white image, and more.
In Minkkinen’s life and work, there has always been a strong connection to storytelling, metaphor, and symbol. Perhaps part of what gives him such an original way of visualizing the world is his ability to see stories in the raw material of life — like a beautiful green stove in another lake house he and Sandra almost bought, but didn’t when they found out the stove didn’t come with the house; or a colorful woven rug that he accidentally left at a Helsinki gallery, and in returning to retrieve it fell into the conversation that led to his first job after graduate school. That green stove, that woven rug are more than just objects in Minkkinen’s telling: They become signposts and symbols in the journey of life.
* * *
Minkkinen’s original artistic dream, in fact, was to be a writer. Having immigrated with his family to Brooklyn from his native Finland at age six, he dreamed of writing “the great Finnish-American novel.”
But first, his father had other plans for him. The elder Minkkinen was a highly, though idiosyncratically, religious man, born in Japan to Finnish missionary parents. He wanted his youngest son, who was born with a double cleft palate only partially repaired during his infancy, to become a missionary.
Attending public schools in Brooklyn, Minkkinen struggled, especially in English (not until age 10 did he learn to read), but he did have a talent for art and for math, which came easily to him. Art helped him in school — he kept his teachers happy making classroom dioramas and murals, and supplied his classmates with student government campaign posters — but math wasn’t satisfying, he says. “I thought life was about the subjective, not about factual theorems. There was no juice in mathematics.”
In the summer of 1963, he was a counselor at Boy Scout camp in Narrowsburg, New York, when he hitchhiked to a nearby town to see a movie — Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2. From the surreal opening dream sequence to the wild mix of fantasy and reality that makes up the plot, it blew young Arno away. “I never saw anything like it in my life,” he recalls. “I knew I wanted literature and wanted to write. I wanted to answer that film.”
At Wagner, he started to find his way to that goal. As a sophomore, he started pursuing his own academic interests, and declared an English major, instead of the religion major to which his father had pushed him. “I just opened up to academic pursuits, and I loved it.”
His English professors’ teaching was unforgettable — especially Professor Thomas Kendris, in seminars on Joyce’s Ulysses and short-story writing. “Dr. Kendris brought dozens of characters from Joyce, Strindberg, and Yeats to life as if they were actually alive, real folks you got to know,” he says. To this day, a shelf of his extended home library — overflowing with all of Sandra’s books, plus books by Arno’s touchstone photographers, like Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Diane Arbus — contains his well-worn college copies of Yeats and Joyce.
* * *
It’s notable that throughout Minkkinen’s decades of self-portraiture, his face rarely appears — and when it is present, it’s blurred, partial, or otherwise obscured. In fact, his body is constantly disappearing into the landscape, or the architecture, or the other person in the picture.
And the most hidden element of the body is the mouth. That is part of Minkkinen’s story.
Take, for example, the photo “Sipilä, 1987.” Minkkinen wrote this comment about that rare image showing his face, but hiding his mouth: “The face is the door to the soul, the mouth especially. It is the source of our speech, our voiced emotions. In my childhood, the mouth had even more significance. It was my Achilles’ heel.”
In his own recounting, his mother’s first words on seeing him were a scream, “Take him away!” The gaping hole created by his cleft palate horrified her. During his infancy, the palate was corrected enough to allow him to function, but not fully reconstructed. His mother was so stressed by the ordeal that she retreated for a time to a sanitarium to recover. Throughout his early life, Arno was acutely aware of his mother’s embarrassment at his “deformity.”
But just as he embraced his own artistic and intellectual interests at Wagner College, he began overcoming his feelings of personal inadequacy as well. “In my sophomore year,” he writes in an autobiographical essay, “I decided to conquer the lip trip and dated only the most gorgeous girls on campus, a different date every weekend.”
For his first attempt, he says, he determined to throw himself upon the mercies of one of the most popular girls at the College. “Would you do me a favor?” he asked. “Would you go on a date with me?” She agreed, and being with her started a revolution in his self-image. He started asking a different girl for the favor of a date every weekend, explaining that it was just for once. He even got a part-time job to support his new self-therapeutic habit. “The beauty and the beast, that’s who we were, that was our secret joke,” he recalls. “In the backseat of New York cabs, the most beautiful girls in the world kissed my scars away.”
The dating carousel stopped when he met Sandra Hughes. If her opinion is to be trusted, then Arno’s appearance was not as beastly as he perceived it to be. For her, he was a dream date — tall and blond and Nordic, her very image of attractiveness. They married in 1969, and worked to make their relationship as egalitarian as possible, she just as committed to her career as an editor as he was to his career as an artist. In fact, for her sake, in 1986 Arno turned down an offer to become a distinguished professor of art in Finland. The family — which by then included their young son, Daniel — returned to the United States instead, and Arno went back into advertising work for several more years.
During his college years and later in his 20s, Minkkinen underwent further dental treatments and surgeries, attempting “to replace my crazy smile with something more normal.” But, the lingering pain of his mother’s reaction to his appearance continued to influence his work. A former student of Arno’s, Chehalis Hegner (now a colleague at the University of Massachusetts Lowell), sees pain at the heart of Minkkinen’s work. “His work for me is about — sure there’s the irony and surreal sense of three-dimensional space — but for me it was the subtle calling out to be seen, and a recognition of the body in pain. The body can be a metaphor for what’s happening internally.”
“Beauty and pain are inseparable,” Minkkinen himself writes, “as are the polarities of living and dying that guide all of us eventually to that certain terror and grace at the end.”
* * *
Terror and grace are also the polarities that impel Minkkinen’s photography. Or, as another one of his personal mantras says, “Art is risk made visible.”
In a work of art, he explains, “We need to see the risk that somebody is taking. We need to see where the conflict is that makes this work viable. Where are you willing to be fragile and show the insecurity of a chance, to do something that hasn’t been done before?”
Minkkinen’s art thrives in a space where the real and the imagined intersect — where documentary practice meets an imagination of unending fertility and a willingness to do whatever it takes to make the impossible come to life.
“The dream world fascinated me more than anything else, because in the dream world we are entirely free,” Minkkinen has written. “Things happen there that rarely happen in real life. You get to kiss beautiful women, fall off mountain cliffs and live.”
During the past year, it seems as if the hard-fought courage to embrace the song of the child within himself has reached a new phase: Full views of his face are emerging from his dream world landscapes. “Life is an arc,” he says. “My latest work is the strongest.” Also opening new possibilities in his artistic practice is his recent embrace of a digital camera. Finally convinced that raw digital images are as reliably documentary as film negatives, he is also enjoying features that this new technology provides, such as a shutter timer that can be programmed to shoot several images in a row while he holds a difficult pose in front of the camera.
“The work is nothing less than exquisite, and inventive, and relentlessly questing down this vision that he has within himself,” says Virginia Morrison, executive director of the Society for Photographic Education, of which Minkkinen is a longtime member. “He doesn’t compromise ever on the craftsmanship. And he never stops working.”
And now, he is ready to show his face.