This week’s Questions with an Educator features Arno Rafael Minkkinen.
Working with the body in natural and urban landscapes—without assistants and without manipulation—Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s self-portraiture stands as one of the genre’s longest, nonstop continuities in the history of photography. He was born in 1945 in Helsinki, Finland, coming to Brooklyn, New York, through Ellis Island with his family as a six-year-old in 1951. With a BA in English from Wagner College on Staten Island, and five years as a Madison Avenue copywriter, Minkkinen went on to earn his MFA at Rhode Island School of Design, studying there with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Currently Emeritus Professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Minkkinen also serves as docent at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland. Recent honors include the Lucie Award for Achievement in Fine Art in 2013, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2015, and the Pro Finlandia Medal, Finland’s highest artistic distinction, in 2017.
Here, Minkkinen shares his keys to staying inspired, a bit about his photographic technique, as well as what he thinks contributed to him being recognized as SPE’S 2019 Honored Educator.
We asked: What is the key to staying inspired for over 50 years? Has your inspiration ever faltered?
Arno said: Having just put to bed a major five-decade monograph of my work (Minkkinen, Kehrer Verlag, 2019), the advice is very simple. Whenever an important exhibition is over, or after a monograph has gone on press, you’ve created a vacuum. So fill it by taking a new image as soon as you can. It confirms the primary reason you are a photographer. The pictures just keep coming. There’s no way to stop them. Equally important, such an image can confirm that your creative impulses are still alive and well.
After my first monograph (Frostbite, Morgan & Morgan, 1978) came out, I thought it was time to move on, and so I began a series of images based on a nearly fatal crash in a Triumph Spitfire. But a picture (just one frame) I had shot of my three fingertips in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, told me Frostbite was just the beginning.
And this morning in my hotel room in Heidelberg—after putting Minkkinen to bed—a new inspiration arrived just before breakfast. It’s titled Falling Asleep on Facebook.
After any success—be it book, show, award, or great sale—make a new image as quickly as you can. Don’t stop at GO; the whole Monopoly board awaits again, until the money runs out!
We asked: After so many years of experience in photography and teaching, what is one piece of knowledge from your early education that you still use in your practice today? Why do you think this knowledge persists?
Arno said: Likely it was self-taught through the MadMen world of copywriting. Trusting my instincts. You didn’t get a whole lot of time to solve problems, and knowing your job was on the line, you learned to create in a kind of panic only your instincts could solve. For example, I was once given less than an hour to come up with a headline for a Yashica SLR with a built-in motordrive. With zippo time to hire a photographer to demo what a motordrive does, the headline also needed to drive home an instant urge to buy one. A stock photo of the camera itself with headline and body copy—nothing more—was all that could be shown. Solution? Judy clapped (shot, shot) as the dog jumped (shot, shot) up in the air (shot, shot) with joy.
A Minolta headline (What happens inside your mind, can happen inside a camera) was the turning point that convinced me to make the camera my pen. I believed the line so much, in fact, that it wasn’t long before I was enrolled in an Apeiron workshop in Millerton, New York. After two days of shooting horses and barns, I was told I could go back to advertising and maybe get my money back. No dice, I said. Give me a better solution. Answer: take a day off. The voice inside me said, trust your instincts. Trust your eyes, then your mind. An abandoned mirror leaning against the side of a barn became my ticket to what came next: a half-century of self-portraits.
We asked: Please describe your photographic technique. How did you end up adopting this unique technique?
Arno said: I don’t share my technique other than to say, as above, no assistants, no manipulation, and no fear. What you would see in the negative, or in the RAW file on the memory card, is what happened in the reality before the lens. I never erase my memory cards; the files therein are like my negatives. If you see my arms coming up from under the snow, I am under the snow. If my head is propped on the prow of a rowboat in the picture, that’s where my head is propped in reality. I am a documentary photographer of a performance without an audience. But my goal is not to simply document the performance but to hopefully transform it into a unique and memorable image.
We asked: You were recognized as SPE’s Teacher of the Year. What are a few of the teaching techniques or strategies you feel contributed most to this recognition?
Arno said: Optimism that photography is an open-ended medium with room for ever-evolving new works, the proof of which can be seen in so many of the new directions and ideas coming from those just starting out at whatever age or background that might be. Treating students as individuals, each with their own goals and needs, discovering assignments and directions that are individually based—that is, after basic understandings of the medium have been learned and absorbed. Suggesting pathways based on what a student has already brought to the table so they can maintain ownership of their own ideas.
We asked: What is the best question you have ever been asked by a student? Why does this question stand out?
Arno said: The question: Why do you do what you do?
The question deserves an honest answer, of course, because this is a question that the student is also asking of her or himself. It’s the beginning of the artist statement, in any case, this question of why we do what we do, and perhaps the hardest question of all to answer.
We asked: What, if anything, differed when teaching photography internationally? Do you think being able to teach in different cultures has ultimately made you a better educator?
Arno said: It depends a lot on the background of the student, the cultural and political climates from which the student’s ambitions and lifestyles are formed. Having taught in many countries, whether two-year stints in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s in Finland, or one-week continuity workshops three times a year between 1995 and 2005 in Switzerland (during academic breaks), or normal week-long workshops, be they in Japan, Brazil, Norway, Guatemala, Greece, Spain, France, or Germany, I do sense a different understanding of the medium and its potentials in the work of American students from those living elsewhere in the world. Perhaps it comes down to two factors: emulation (among the Americans) vs. breaking away from traditions (mostly the Europeans); and second, those schooled on photography’s continuum (American) vs. contemporary attitudes (European). But these are just generalizations. Surely one finds emulation tactics among the groundbreakers as well, substituting the word appropriation for emulation. Conversely, a modernist-trained vision is also capable of astonishing contemporary curators every now and then.
Has all this experience made me a better educator? This is not for me to answer as much as it is best evaluated by the students themselves. I do hope that my worldview would have been and will be beneficial to students around the world and wherever I happen to continue teaching.
I can say this about teaching. If I stopped teaching (I am an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Docent at Aalto University‘s School of Art, Design, and Architecture in Finland), I strongly believe I would stop my photography. Likewise, if I put the camera down, I daresay I would not have sufficient standing to step into a classroom again.
New Book information:
Publisher: Kerhrer Verlag, Heidelberg
Essays by: Vicki Goldberg, Keith F. Davis, Arno Rafael Minkkinen
Monograph of 330 pages comprising 50 years of work depicting over 270 tritone images, with many discoveries and early images from the 1970s, well before the self-portrait entered the mainstream of contemporary photography.
Also, find more of Minkkinen’s work on his website.