Introduction – Timothy Persons

The Helsinki School represents far more than a selected group of photographers from Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. It has been the model for a new approach to education as well as a vehicle for collaborative thought and cooperation. Even more, it is a shared vision that began as an experiment in the early nineteen-nineties and eventually evolved into one of the more recognizable teaching programs in the world.

Designed in part by myself, Jorma Puranen, and the then acting director of the school Yrjö Sotamaa, the program sought from the beginning to initiate and advance new career opportunities that were virtually nonexistent at the time for graduating MA photography students. Finland had just emerged from the devastating recession of the early nineteen-nineties and thus found itself in a moment of economic and cultural stagnation. The cultural climate for galleries was provincial and lacked international standards by which to measure itself.

This was the perfect time to create a professional studies program that could introduce, teach, and in a sense mentor the skills needed to begin an international career. There was a whole generation of artists who had no other choice than to look outside the Nordic region if they dreamed of pursuing an artistic career. Our vision at Aalto University was to build an open environment where students could be introduced to the international expectations they would later face. To do this we designed a multilevel teaching system, using both the commercial and institutional environment as a means of referencing information for self-evaluation.

Our emphasis was not only on teaching photography, but also on questioning art and ideas in terms of the quality of their content. This approach tried to show students not only how to think, but also how to present, write, and edit their ideas to the highest artistic and professional standards. This academic platform could not have been realized without the inspired efforts of a core group of professors, beginning with Pentti Sammallahti, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Jorma Puranen, Ulla Jokisalo, Timo Kelaranta, and Jyrki Parantainen.

I find it amazing that after twenty years of existence, the Helsinki School cannot be defined by any one fixed point of view. Conceptually there is a red thread connecting one generation to another in the way they perceive and present their ideas, but not necessarily in how they apply them.

Historically, the name "Helsinki School” was introduced in an article by Boris Hohmeyer, "Aufbruch im hohen Norden,” in ART Kunstmagazin in 2003. It was the first time the name was used to describe a specific group of artists who all came from the same department at Aalto University. It referred to artists from the second and third generation, such as Elina Brotherus, Miklos Gaál, Ilkka Halso, Ola Kolehmainen, and Riitta Päiväläinen. However, the article served another purpose by opening a new chapter for other artists associated with this group who were not mentioned, such as Tiina Itkonen, Pertti Kekarainen, Joakim Eskildsen, Aino Kannisto, Nanna Hänninen, and Jyrki Parantainen. What they all had in common was a conceptual education and a mutual desire to build their own solo careers out of a recessed cultural environment. The challenge was to find a way to combine all these factors into one collaborative effort. Experience cannot be bought but has to be earned through trial and error. It is an old teaching tool that can be used to generate an influx of knowledge by creating situations where it can then be collectively shared.

Collective dialogue is one of the cornerstones that the Helsinki School concept was built on. It affords each generation the time and space to invent itself while learning from the others. Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture learned early on that unlike other institutions of its kind, it needed a plan for using the knowledge learned from its former graduates and pulling it into its current curriculum as a shared dialogue.

I’ve always joked that being part of the Helsinki School isn’t a life sentence but an opportunity to be used or not. In the case of many of the artists selected, such as Miklos Gaál, Elina Brotherus, Aino Kannisto, Janne Lehtinen, and Sanna Kannisto, they chose to establish their careers outside the group yet still remain a part of it through shared exhibitions and publications.

Persons Projects (formerly Gallery Taik Persons) was conceived as a vehicle for joining all four generations together. Its primary responsibility was to prepare the students and guide them in the management of their professional lives. The gallery also acted as an educational bridge connecting selected students with other galleries both in and around the Nordic region. It is one of the cultural conduits for introducing these artists’ works to established curators, publishers, collectors, and museums through participation in these various international forums. Nevertheless, sustaining any successful program for over twenty years takes an enormous amount of support both in- and outside the university. The Helsinki School would not be where it is today had it not been for the directorships of Yrjö Sotamaa, Helena Hyvönen, and Anna Valtonen, whose combined endeavors found the means to keep this project moving forward. Another nod of thanks must go to Philip Dean and his staff at the department of media, who manage day-to-day affairs and keep the program pointed in the right direction.

The academic environment can only do so much in setting the contextual table. Outside help is essential whether it be from regional museums, private foundations, or other local galleries. In the mid-nineteen-nineties, under Asko Mäkelä’s leadership, the Finnish Museum of Photography played a pivotal role in supporting second and third generation artists by purchasing their works. It established a solid basis of credibility that was recognized locally and internationally, and led to the first museum exhibition with the Helsinki School name. This launched a series of individual and group exhibitions that followed throughout the Nordic region, as well as the publication of the Helsinki School book series by Hatje Cantz.

In 2010, Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén, who was then acting director of the Helsinki Art Museum, produced and sponsored the most important exhibition for younger artists up to that time. It helped establish the careers of Susanna Majuri, Saana Wang, Nelli Palomäki, Kalle Kataila, Pernilla Zetterman, Hannu Karjalainen, and many others. It was a breakthrough moment for the Helsinki School, opening up new invitations for exhibitions from the Daegu Photo Biennale (2010) to the National Museum of Photography in Copenhagen (2011) and setting the tone for the future. Nevertheless, it would not have come about without patronage from the private sector. In the late nineteen-nineties, Dr. Pentti Kouri helped introduce and champion artists from the Helsinki School through his extensive cultural network. Ten years later, the Statoil Collection was fundamental, as it not only purchased works but also lent them out for important international exhibitions. Our policy of asking collectors to lend the works they acquired to future Helsinki School exhibitions was essential in promoting the artists, as it enabled us to engage in multiple exhibitions simultaneously and vastly extended our range of possibilities. The collector Carl Gustaf Ehrnrooth, whose graciousness is as legendary as his Helsinki School collection is extensive, has been one of our greatest supporters in this endeavor.

When I look back on the history of how all this happened, beginning with an educational model and ending up with volume five of a series of books devoted to the Helsinki School, I believe anything is possible.

Today’s generation has a whole different feel to it than those that came before. Conceptually self-reflective, the generation of artists now graduating from Aalto University tends to use a cross-disciplinary format to exhibit their works. Time-based pieces such as Eeva Karhu’s Path series or the Fluxus-inspired works of the Maanantai Collective are just the beginnings of a new approach to how photography will look in the twenty-first century. This look will challenge how the photographic process has previously been perceived as well as help redefine how it will be taught in the future. The Helsinki School is a good example of how a program is only as good as it is open to both praise and criticism, where there is as much to be learned from failure as there is from managing success. Both can be understood through a flexible system that teaches by using unconventional arenas as a means of solving problems, an environment where teachers and students alike can work together in joint ventures to facilitate the experience factor of one generation and combine it with the innovative energy of the next. How to harness and harvest this synergy is the challenge of education in the future.