“The poetic image is not subject to an inner thrust. It is
not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the
brilliance of an image, the distant past resounds with
echoes, and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away. Because of its novelty and its action, the poetic image has an entity and a dynamism of its own …”i

Jorma Puranen explores history, culture, identity, and the poetics of language. He also explores aesthetics, particularly uses of light and shade. These interests overlap within his work. On the one hand he investigates ways in which the Arctic areas of Greenland and Lapland (Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia) and the Sámi people have been represented, historically and now. On the other hand, he reflects on image composition, aesthetics, and the construction of points of view. His enquiry thus encompasses art history, social anthropology, language and communication, geography, and Nordic identities. The approach is multilayered; he simultaneously explores visual phenomena, picture-making, and, for example, ethnographic attitudes or histories of the expeditions of northern explorers. His work is very frequently concerned with nature and the representation of northern landscapes, especially Lapland, a relatively silent and underpopulated region.

‘Nature’ is an evolving and holistic system that in many respects appears unfathomable. As humans we both form a part of it and, as has been made particularly evident in recent debates relating to climate change, have an impact on it. Geographic and botanical sciences are not new, but have been brought into focus this year, 2009, through celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, whose contribution to perceptions and debates about natural forces and the origins of species remains paramount. In line with many European predecessors, Darwin’s method of research involved voyage and exploration; observation, identification, and classification of phenomena; and, in his case, the testing of propositions relating to theories of evolution.

Along with painting and drawing, photography has been implicated historically in Western investigations of previously unfamiliar regions and phenomena. Fascination with ‘wilderness’ is shared by many. Hence expeditions have been financed, journeys undertaken, camps set up, indigenous peoples scrutinized (or terrorized), and wildlife (animals as well as botanical and mineral specimens) collected for analysis and classification. The zoo, the ethnographic archive, and the nature museum have parallel histories within Western territorial expansion. Yet the wilderness of our imagination changes once we get there. Paradoxically, our very presence has an effect on the locations to which we travel, which by definition are no longer unknown to us and therefore no longer amenable to a geographic imaginary. Furthermore, that which we find never fits precisely with what we hoped or feared to encounter. One of the pleasures of the geographic imaginary is that the unfamiliar can be romanticized, generating a particular form of sublime reverie. While territories strange to us may remain unfathomable even though we are there, the actual experience generally introduces multiple sensations—pleasurable, awesome, or discomforting—along with mundane questions to do with travel and orienteering, personal energy and sustenance, that render redundant fantasies previously indulged.

The concept of ‘north’ resonates complexly within this. As Peter Davidson remarks in his discussion of “the idea of north,” everyone carries a notion of north, but attitudes vary geographically and culturally. Central to his thesis is the contention that north, although a shifting idea, in the northern hemisphere is always viewed as a hard place, remote, colder, with adverse weather (by contrast with the south which is warm, sunny, welcoming). Discussing north in relation to Scandinavia (and, by extension, Finland) he remarks: “North—further north, Arctic north—represents a place of extremes that is also a place of wonders: of the ‘fox fires,’ the aurora in the winter sky, the habitation of the Sámi, of legendary magicians and heroes. A humility attends most of those nations whose territories include greater or lesser stretches of Arctic terrain.”ii

This is the territory of Puranen’s heritage. He was born near Oulu in the north of Finland in 1951. His father was a fisherman who had worked on trawlers in the Channel between Norway and Russia in the nineteen-thirties. As a child Puranen was fascinated by his father’s accounts of the north. Apparently Puranen first had the opportunity to travel north in 1973–74, testing an “imaginary” Arctic drawn from stories from his youth against actual experience.iii He met several of his father’s ex-workmates whose tales matched those of his father. Davidson’s comment on the “humility” of those familiar with this extraordinary territory must surely apply to those who fish there.

Puranen now lives in Helsinki and in southeastern Finland. He is Finnish, not Swedish or Sámi, and trained in art, which led to a historical interest in painting. He was a professor at TaiK, University of Art and Design Helsinki (now part of the Alvar Aalto University) in the mid- nineties, and his support for students has been cited by many critics as a key influence within the development of Finnish photography towards the end of the twentieth century. His approach is methodical; he notes that “as a photographer I have a scholarly attitude, I try to read up as much as possible before I plunge myself into new situations and new places.”iv His method of research has much in common with that of the social historian—he visits museums, archives, and galleries, accumulating and reflecting upon histories told through images, with a view to staging or amalgamating pictures in order to explore, reflect upon, and in some respect critically comment on the original stories and sources. In thinking about Lapland he also talks with Sámi people, in effect embracing oral history as a means of developing insight into cultural attitudes. In his earlier work this was approached in part through inviting contemporary Sámi to participate in projects. In addition, in common with all photographers working away from home, his photographic journeys involve extensive planning, similar in some respects to the forethought involved in the expeditions of explorers concerned not only with some particular geographic or geological objective but also with methods of travel and means of survival en route. His photography always involves some form of critique whereby, rather than simply contemplating the lands represented, as viewers we are invited not only to reflect on particular sites and environments but also on modes of representation. The imagery may be seductively beautiful, but there is always a critical undercurrent.

Each picture can stand alone, its narrative self-contained. Gallery prints are large, and exquisite in terms of production qualities. His imagery is calm and meditative, while simultaneously disturbing in terms of narrative content or implications for picturemaking strategies, and, by extension, aesthetic modes. But this commentary is subtle, and relies to some extent upon audience familiarity with painterly histories and traditions or with ethnographic photography. For example, pictures in the series Icy Prospects are constructed as if using a Claude Mirror, the eighteenth century device for creating the “picturesque” through abstracting and framing specific “views.”

Images become incorporated into groups that eventually get named as a series. Themes become more marked through the articulation of images within series. But the journey from starting point—collection of materials and generation of ideas—to titles, group, or sequence is never predictable. Puranen thinks through making; the mode of working is thus inherently intuitive and experimental. His work is fuelled through commitment, not commissions or deadlines, and it is his own passion for investigation that is at the heart of his work. One of the difficulties in writing about his work is that an image originally located within one group may reappear in a different context. In some cases this is because, on reflection, he has found it to be a bridge point from one set of concerns to another. For instance, the style of imagemaking from Curiosus Naturae Spectator (1995–98), in which he printed Latin phrases onto sheets set in Arctic locations and re-photographed, developed into the series of “flags” inscribed with words that became Language is a Foreign Country (1998–2000). Alternatively he may have found himself unable to fully resolve a particular group of images while finding specific single images
resonant. For example, single images from a Greenland group of seven pictures, provisionally named White Out (2002), reappear within Travels on Canvas (2002) that he was developing

simultaneously, and later within Where Compasses All Go Mad (2008), a block of separately framed images of objects and scenarios—for example, a compass and one of the rephotographed Greenland paintings of explorers with sleighs trudging the snowy landscape that first appeared in White Out. This newly constituted installation combines Puranen’s long-standing investigations of the Arctic, the archive, and reflected light as metaphor for that no longer present, for history and memory. His mode of developing work clearly indicates his focus on process and exploration of ideas as well as places. The resolution and outcome of any project is never predetermined. Indeed, images may be pinned on the walls of his studio for extended periods of time while he reconsiders them. Like Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, he finds himself repeatedly returning to particular images that intrigue him. But Puranen’s work does not operate in terms of obsessions with detail (in Barthian terms, the punctum); rather, he offers poetic scenarios that invite a meditative response.

Puranen came to international fame in the nineties when his series Imaginary Homecoming (1991) was widely shown. This remains his best-known work. Historical investigation was central to the series in which he metaphorically returned images of Sámi people, rephotographed from the ethnographic archive at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris to their native Arctic settings.vi The series attracted interest as it related to postcolonial debates about imagery and representation. That photography and anthropology were together implicated in colonial processes was by then acknowledged, and several scholars were working on questions of photography, realism, and the colonial gaze. The Sámi, as a particular ethnic group with a nomadic culture and the only indigenous people in Western Europe, had been subjected to nineteenth-century social anthropological curiosity; nineteenth-century attitudes were now themselves up for scrutiny. As Elizabeth Edwards, historian and archivist, commented at the time, Imaginary Homecoming sets up a dialogue between historical and contemporary concerns.vii In effect the series is not so much about the Sámi and Lapland as about European attitudes and sensibilities—or, rather, insensibilities.

The portraits show faces, or faces and shoulders. The source materials clearly conform to ethnographic pictorial conventions with its requirement for systematic recording and classification of subjects as “types”; facial and bodily characteristics constituted a basis for social anthropological classification. There is something very powerful about the evocation of the dead through portraits, an affect which has been deployed by several contemporary European artists, for instance, by Joseph Beuys or Christian Boltanski on the Holocaust. We look at faces and clothing, seeking biographical and cultural understanding, as if histories can be read through wrinkles etched onto a face. Such clues are limited, but remain all that we have to go on when trying to imagine people and their historical circumstances. But the return of the portraits to the Lapland landscape serves to emphasize the limitations of such images as sources of cultural information and perception as we consider the scale and characteristics of the landscape within which they are now set and the extent to which geography has an impact on culture in such unforgiving terrains. The aesthetic harmony of the pictures belies disturbing questions relating to histories of land, identity, and dislocation.

Puranen’s photographic method also attracted attention. He copied images found in the ethnographic archive. The rephotographed portraits were printed onto acrylic panels and then taken to the northern slopes of Norway and Sweden, where he physically installed them within their “home” environment prior to further rephotography. The process was timeconsuming, but also reflective: the panels had to be transported and situated when the snow was crisp, then he had to set his tripod and await the intensification of natural light—limited in the north through much of the year. Often by the time he had made the image the snow would be melting and he might have to wait into the late afternoon for it to harden again before retrieving the images. Sometimes he worked with other people, descendents of those in the photographs. Otherwise the pause offered solitude, time to listen to the sounds of nature, or perhaps the silence rarely present in more urban or populated areas. In some examples, old portraits, or pictures of Sámi families outside their tents or wooden dwellings, were reprinted onto square metal plates and “floated” (screwed) a couple of centimeters in front of fine gelatin- silver prints depicting wide northern horizons. In one instance, the horizon is scarred by open mines; the metal of the plates acquires a further level of reference. The overall series could have been made through digital amalgamation, although the Nordic light is very special, white rather than amber toned, and sometimes very intense. It was unlikely that the atmosphere could have been accurately achieved through digital means at the time. More particularly, for Puranen the journey to photograph in the landscape and the symbolism of “taking home” the portraits that become, in effect, ghostly references to the past was an integral part of the process. In some images the Sámi people seem integrated within the environment; bodies apparently buried within the snow, or faces half concealed within woodlands. In others, historic reference is enhanced through the industrial legacies marked on the surface of the land—open mine shafts, chimneys, rail tracks, or power lines— that serve to remind us that motives for Arctic exploration were in part economic. The series not only brings nineteenth-century ethnographic attitudes into question, it also reminds us of the extent to which colonization was integrally related to industrial interests.

Expedition is central to Puranen’s work in several respects. First, he researches records of journeys made by nineteenth-century explorers concerned to investigate the Arctic motivated by a combination of geographic enquiry, ethnographic interests typical of nineteenth-century classificatory attitudes, and, of course, commercial prospects. Second, awareness of seasonal journeying is marked in his work both through his engagement with Sámi culture that is essentially nomadic and also through his interest in what have now become well-established tourist routes within the north. In the picture Curiosus Naturae Spectator, which also became the series title, we see lines of caravans parked on the cliff tops overlooking the sea at Nordkapp. The photograph is black and white, but there is no snow on the beach or the cliffface so this must be summer, the primary tourist season. Third, as I have already indicated, his work process implicates expedition—planning, driving to locations, being subject to weather conditions. In common with many landscape photographers, his approach necessarily echoes the preparations and purposefulness of earlier explorers setting out into the unknown.

Puranen had been traveling north, making work in Skolt Sámi villages, since the early nineteenseventies. Initially the photographic idiom was documentary, but later, from the early eighties onwards, his approach became more conceptual. Alpha & Omega (1987–88) developed through collaboration with a Sámi theater group in the far north of Sweden whose work emerged from improvisation and whose remit included exploring local history and mythology. The locations for the pictures were very carefully considered, but the performances were spontaneous. In retrospect it is interesting to note that Puranen was beginning to stage people in the northern landscape. In some images people are integrated within what appears as a natural environment with relatively little evidence of human intervention. Indeed, in a picture made at Cˇeavcas, the hand of the person lying on the hilltop at first glance seems like the pools of snow in the foreground. It strikingly echoes the snowscape in the middle distance, towards which our eye is drawn through curiosity about the wooden skeleton tent in the center of the point where the horizon might appear, although in this instance there is no sky, no horizon, rather an unending expanse of snow. Other images bear the marks of industrial intervention that would later feature in Imaginary Homecoming, for example, an electricity station marked by floodlights, which must irrevocably change the atmosphere of this place at night, creating a pool of artificial light where otherwise starlight would have sufficed. He had also begun to reflect upon anthropological photography through researching the work of U. T. Sirelius, a Finnish ethnographer who traveled extensively in Siberia at the end of the nineteenth century. Sirelius photographed people in familiar landscape surroundings, with a white cloth behind them; the landscape was later cropped out for publication purposes, so the images, despite the natural light, appear as if they are studio setups, people extracted from their environment. Puranen’s series of portraits, made in 1983–84, very clearly stands as a precursor to his later work in a number of respects: First, anthropological imagery and attitudes as object of investigation. Second, people photographed located within their familiar environment and, unlike Sirelius’ images, Puranen did not edit out the landscape. Third, use of simple performative devices, in this case, a strategically placed white sheet that can be seen as a precursor to the Perspex panels in Imaginary Homecoming, the silk sheets embossed with Latin phrases in Curiosus Naturae Spectator, and the staged flagpoles in Language is a Foreign Country.

What we see, then, are approaches to picturemaking that continue to characterize Puranen’s approach to picture-making. But the early work also testifies to his interest in aesthetic modes and, more particularly, effects of natural light. One image in Alpha & Omega is particularly striking as a formal landscape of the type that he later reflected upon in his 2005 series Icy Prospects. Here, the composition is in accordance with the classic landscape pictorial, with the tree in the foreground counterbalanced by that towards the right of the picture in the middle distance; the land falls away towards the horizon. Tonally muted grays dominate; it has more in common with painterly subtleties than with the rhetorical tonal emphasis of much Modernist photography, for example, Bill Brandt’s photographs of the English landscape. The trees are sacred trees—significant in Finnish mythology—and the landscape is carefully contoured, except that, on closer inspection, we spot performers up the trees, spirits of their ancestors perhaps? Mischievously, Puranen sets up the classic landscape only to undermine it. Likewise, his portrait of Sinikka Semenoja prefaces his interest in portraiture and the movement of light that he explored later in Shadows, Reflections and All that Sort of Thing (1990–2010). It also points to ways in which Nordic lakes and woodlands lend themselves to idealization as landscape. Here the tension is between the implied critique of the ethnographic imagery, the stillness of the portraitee, the movement implied through the shadows on the sheet, the calm reinforced through the formal harmony of the landscape as pictured in the right hand part of the composition, and our curiosity as we wonder at the presence and intentions of the child standing on a large stone in the lake. The image delights and disturbs, as it is simultaneously harmonious yet uncomfortable, reminding us of questionable ethnographic practices. Taken alone, the picture stands as a double portrait of people and place. Taken as part of a critical series, the beauty of the imagery seems fragile; once again, deceptive harmony.

Puranen thus became interested in photography as a tool within the construction of social histories, colonization and appropriation, and in language and ideology as integral discourses. His concerns echo Foucauldian currencies of the time, especially in his emphasis not only on the exercise of power historically but also on the legitimating role of language, visual and verbal. This was foregrounded in Language is a Foreign Country (1998–2001), in which Sámi and Greenlandic words are flown on flags staked in icy landscapes, and in Curiosus Naturae Spectator (1995–98). In this series he integrates Latin phrases and medieval script, printed onto silk sheets, within Nordic landscapes. The phrases, taken from maps, are playful in that, although they can be rendered in more precise translation, at first glance there is ambiguity. Is nature innately curious? Is the spectator curious about nature? Is it processes of observation of the natural that are curious? The series refers to the Renaissance, an era of philosophic debate encompassing astronomy and cartography wherein the natural world was idealized but also interrogated. Latin had become the language of logic and classification, yet was able to encompass poetics as well as rationalism. In Speculum Orbus Terrae white lettering on a black sheet is set on white snow, with gray snow water in the middle distance and ominous clouds. The title suggests an explorer’s desire to view and investigate the whole of the earth. In Systema Naturae a man-made dam dominates the center of the picture, enticing the eye towards the vanishing point. What we see is a human marshaling of natural resources. The clouds above were manipulated by the photographer to connote the romantic landscape, thereby enhancing tension between the idealization of nature and the actuality of human intervention. As Nikos Papastergiadis comments, study of distant lands and peoples was often presented in terms of theatrical rhetoric; the audience engages with the exotic as form of make-believe. The silk sheets remind us of pages and curtains; for him, this points to the distinction between language and landscape, which is emphasized through the performative gesture of inserting the sheet within the landscape. As he comments, “Puranen has entered the landscape, to set the scene, to reconfigure the role of the stage in our imaginary landscapes. He returns to the position of the man behind the camera but his presence remains in the frame.”viii But it is more than the directorial presence of the photographer that is made manifest within the picture; the intervention and the precision of the phrases points to the symbolic import of naming as a mode of claiming spaces as particular types of place with specific histories that may be contentious.

This is directly addressed in Language is a Foreign Country, which is concerned with words and meaning, and with ways in which specific language systems reflect particular cultural concerns and consciousness. Space, place, and identity are interrelated; armies plant flags to signify occupation, and the renaming of places is an established imperialist tactic. Flags are symbolic markers, statements of allegiance that welcome allies, claim territorial rights, warn off trespassers, as well as signifiers of celebration of mourning (flags flown at half-mast). The flags, carrying words in differing languages, remind us of competing claims and varying understandings of, for instance, Nordic shorelines and associated weather conditions. Several examples are of words denoting different qualities of wind; a high degree of detail—such as wind force (breeze, gale), direction, and movement (steady, gusty)—is essential for survival in Greenland or Lapland whether at sea or on shore. We are reminded that language is not simply a matter of translation of words; rather, language systems integrally reflect ideological discourses that are simultaneously philosophic and related to everyday circumstances. In the Sámi language there are a whole range of words describing the differing qualities of snow: old snow, new snow, hard snow with soft snow underneath, melting snow, and so on. This is in contrast with English, for example, within which there are about three words: snow, slush, and ice. In Lapland precision is necessary for survival. Hence, language is a foreign country.

The visual language of this series contrasts with Puranen’s earlier work. Cool, hypersaturated blues of the sky or a lake contribute to rendering the environment strange, forbidding, as snow, ice, sky, brown-gray hills, and clouds merge, their shapes reflecting upon one another, drawing attention to uncanny effects of light and movement. In one image a house, pylons, tree, and a satellite dish lend a sense of scale, but, however literal the setting, the theme is abstract. Hidden histories, memories, forgotten narratives—cultural legacies may be obscured, or beyond our comprehension, but they are nonetheless formative in terms of attitudes to place. Saturated color, especially the bright blues, draws attention to effects of the light in the far north. Maybe it also references the blue and white of the Finnish flag—although not all the images in the series were made in Finnish Lapland. Puranen manipulates imagery to emphasize symbolic (sometimes art historical) links, but it is not easy to determine exactly what is occurring in some of these examples. The blue of the sea and the sky may have the banal uniformity of an advertisement, but the ground below tells more complex stories—hazardous rocks revealed below the melting snow. For those not from the north, the harsh unknowability seems emphasized in these sometimes cloudless pictures. It is difficult to know how to translate the information with which we are presented. Language is indeed a foreign country.

Cultural geographer Doreen Massey has remarked that space becomes constituted as place through stories told and those yet to come.ix This includes visual narratives, and through pointing to the future as well as the past, implies fluidity and change. Puranen’s ongoing series Travels on Canvas once again draws on museums and archives, reflecting on the narrative function of art as well as upon the effects of paint as a medium. The series title refers to the tents carried by explorers as well as canvas as a material base for oil painting. His focus is on detail within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings and drawings depicting expeditions. Color and textures (derived from the surface of oil paint) contribute to emphasizing the alienness of environments within which the visitors find themselves. For example, in one painting the men are gathered round a campfire within a tent, refugees from the deep blue of the Nordic sky outside. The picture is based upon a painting from the museum at Château de Versailles titled (The Duke of Orleans future Louise-Philippe) Receives in a Tent in August 1795 (1841). Sámi rarely appear in these paintings, and where they do figure they are either subject to instruction, as in Pastor Laestadius Instructs the Lapps (Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, Tromsø, 1841), or marginalized, along with vegetation and reindeer, as indicators of a Nordic exotic. Sámi are never subjects of painting in their own right. This is the point. The paintings are not about the Arctic per se but about the experiences of explorers and ways in which understandings of “place” tell us as much about ourselves as about environments encountered. Likewise the White Out sequence, later incorporated within Travels on Canvas, was based on the fortunes of the New York based African-American explorer Matthew Henson, who reached the North Pole in the nineteenth century, traveling in support of the white explorer Robert Peary.

As a man of color, his involvement was neither acknowledged nor applauded; nor indeed, in Arctic expeditions, was the contribution of Inuit (or Sámi) people as guides and bearers ever individually noted. Apparently Robert Peary freely admitted that he had chosen Matthew Henson as companion on the final haul to the Pole as he wanted to be the first and only white man to achieve this. Pictures recording such arduous journeys depicted ships and explorers, perhaps striding out across the snow, their possessions on sledges behind them. Puranen’s project was based on paintings at the Arctic Institute in Copenhagen made by Danish artist

Aachton Friis on a 1907 Danish expedition to northern Greenland, and on his own photography of North Atlantic seascapes from various trips to eastern Greenland.

Puranen’s 2006 series Icy Prospects explores landscape pictorial. The title resonates multiply. A prospect offers a commanding view, in actual experience or as represented in art. Prospects also refer to new social or economic opportunities. To prospect is to search for something, to face outwards, to look into the distance, to seek change. The series is more abstract than those immediately preceding it. The pictures are large (typically 158 × 189 cm) and impact very differently as gallery prints than they do within the confines of the printed page. In the gallery we become immersed within the space of the image that, although pleasurable, can feel somewhat overwhelming. Imagery is ambiguous; light and cloud formations are reiterated through reflection on water and trees appear almost as shadows or loom out from the snow like industrial artifacts. The pictures are made by painting wood with black gloss paint, reflecting the landscape on the wood, and photographing the reflection, thereby echoing use of the Claude mirror. The construction of the picturesque is thus one of the themes, along with the sheer silent space of the north. Ice, snow, sky, clouds, trees merge, their shapes reflecting upon one another, inviting us to reflect upon uncanny effects of form, texture, light, and movement. At one level the relative indistinctness reminds us of Impressionist explorations. But for Puranen the hallucinatory imagery also resonant of expeditions lost in Arctic voyages; indeed, Icy Prospects resonates a sense of risk. When it was shown in Paris in 2006 along with Travels on Canvas, Puranen stated that he had also attempted to express the interrelation of history and memory, of the geographic imagination, and of cultural difference. ‘Histoire’ in French translates vividly as both ‘history’ and ‘story.’ The construction of history through (visual) storytelling is precisely central to Puranen’s work.

Puranen moves from project to project, but, as I have suggested, thematic links and lineages are woven throughout his work. Likewise, there are continuities of vision and of aesthetic exploration. It is striking to compare the formal geometry of the lake depicted in his portrayal of Sinikka Semenoja from the early eighties and the composition of the waterscapes in Icy Prospects. In this respect we witness a form of stylistic signature, ways of seeing that—in combination with the subject matter—are unmistakably Puranen’s. As I have suggested, the work always incorporates critical reflection that reaches beyond content into the intestines of Western aesthetics and modes of representation. His work throws attention onto the act of viewing, in the instance of Icy Prospects inviting us to reconsider our investment in the sublime—which is not an adjective describing actual landscapes, but a reference to human perceptions, awe, or fears. If ‘north’ is a shifting notion that reflects our specific situation and cultural experience, then meaning differs for those who live in the North, for whom this is an accustomed environment and for those of us for whom this is an sociopsychological imaginary (that allows us to overlook the actualities of harsh environments). I once showed slides of Puranen’s work in Bangladesh, emphasizing his interest in exploring the representation of marginalized people. This clearly had echoes for the audience. It was only about halfway through that it occurred to me the snowy landscapes, other than being unfamiliar, and no doubt curiously exotic, had no meaning at all for most of the audience, only one of whom (a student from Nepal studying in Dhaka) had ever experienced icy cold.

Recent work was made closer to home. Right this moment the canvas seems to be getting smaller —although this is probably because his travel was limited for a couple of years due to looking after his wife when she was terminally ill—rather than a permanent shift in his approach to making work. Sixteen Steps to Paradise (2007–08) focuses on that which he observed within sixteen steps of his own front doorway at his house in southeast Finland (where he now lives most of the time). At one level the series is about his garden, as it consists of close-up observations of natural phenomena; it has a lineage back to very early uses of photography as “the pencil of nature” (Fox Talbot). But for Puranen it is not the realist detailing of natural appearances so much as the effects of the movement of light and shade that is under interrogation. Within Puranen’s own oeuvre, the link is with Shadows, Reflections and All That Sort of Thing (1991–2003) in which he rephotographed painted portraits, capturing the effects of the movement and angle of light within the historic houses that form the homes and contemporary settings for these pictures. Portraits, drawing upon the collections held at major country houses, consider the posing of persons and their representation. In this series the realism attributed to photographic representation overlays the interpretative qualities of painting, thereby heightening attention to the artificiality of the pose. Reflections on the surface of the image metaphorically remind us of the layering of history, of the complexity of the relations between past and present, of phenomenological issues implicated in contemplating pictures of people from the past through eyes culturally tuned to the present. To paraphrase Roland Barthes’ rhetorical opening question in Camera Lucida: what does it mean to us to look at the eyes of someone who lived and observed the circumstances of an earlier era?x

Photographs hold onto moments in time and space. They reinforce or reinflect particular memories and generate impressions of that not directly experienced. Stillness is inherent within the economy of photographs. Puranen has described Finnish photography as performative, meditative, and as “trying to trace poetic possibilities found in silence.”xi He acknowledges the interplay of locality and internationalism in art dialogues, but nonetheless notes qualities of tranquility and contemplation that, he suggests, reflect desire for space and a sense of oneness with nature. As he has remarked in relation to interpretation of land and environment, “transforming the resulting information into comprehensible visual form finally entails spending time in the landscape: letting one’s eyes linger in the distance, in the wind and the rains, among the sounds of the animals.”xii Nature itself is not silent— birds sing, ice cracks, waters cascade, leaves murmur responses to the wind. But photography distils scenarios silently. Calm resonates in Puranen’s imagery; content is rendered iconic and the metaphoric is enhanced.

Liz Wells


i Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston, 1969), p. xvi.

First published in French in 1958.

ii Peter Davidson, The Idea of North (London, 2005), p. 9.

iii Interview with the artist, January 2009.

iv Liisa Aula, “Jorma Puranen took the Saami People Home,”

Form Function Finland 1 (1992), p. 41.

v The Claude glass was tinted and curved in order to reflect a scene

harmoniously in the manner of the work of landscape painter

Claude Lorrain. See The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (

Oxford, 2008), ed. Robin Lenman, s. v. “Pre-Photographic Imaging


vi The originals were by a French photographer, G. Roche, who

travelled north with Prince Roland Bonaparte in 1884.

vii Elizabeth Edwards, “Jorma Puranen—Imaginary Homecoming,”

Social Identities 1 (1995), p. 317.

viii Nikos Papastergiadis, “Flags in the Landscape,” in Jorma Puranen:

Language is a Foreign Country (Helsinki, 2000), p. 20.

ix Doreen Massey, For Space (London, 2005), pp. 9–12, 68.

x See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (Paris, 1980), section 1.

xi Jorma Puranen quoted in Timothy Persons, The Helsinki School:

New Photography by TaiK (Ostfildern, 2007), p. 223.

xii Jorma Puranen, Imaginary Homecoming (Oulu, 1999), p. 11.