Skip to Main Content

'Art is Risk Made Visible'

UMass Lowell Professor Emeritus and photographer Arno Minkkinen talks about his work during a recent interview at UML s photo lab. SUN / JULIA MALAKIE
UMass Lowell Professor Emeritus and photographer Arno Minkkinen talks about his work during a recent interview at UML s photo lab. SUN / JULIA MALAKIE

Lowell Sun
By Cassidy Swanson

LOWELL -- Finnish-born American photographer Arno Minkkinen has been celebrated around the world for his work. His photographs appear in countless galleries, his books sell thousands of copies, and he has multiple awards to his credit, including a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship. Most recently, Minkkinen, a professor of photography at UMass Lowell, was named the 2015 Honored Educator from the Society of Photographic Education for the Northeast Region.

Q. How did you get into photography?

A. I was a copywriter for many different kinds of clients ... (but) it was a job where you lost your job very often ... In one of these rounds where I was not employed, I ran into a headhunter on Madison Avenue, who said that there was a job she wanted me to go see, and she kind of gave me a hint that it had something to do with photography. So I went to the interview and showed my portfolio, and the creative director at the tail end of that asks me, "By the way, what do you know about photography. And I had my answer prepped, because I knew the question, and I shared the truth, which was that I was working with a 4-by-5 Linhof view camera in my spare time as I was looking for a job, and his eyes light up ... They introduced me at Minolta headquarters as the agency expert. So I became a photographer shooting pictures of other people's works.

Q. You were born in Finland and grew up in the United States. Did your experience being a part of two cultures influence your art and aesthetic?

A. At home, we spoke Finnish, so I felt very much like the immigrant ...

I was not able to read, I didn't speak English, and in school, they didn't know what to do with me. They saw that I could paint. ...and I did all (the sets for) the school plays. I spent days in theater, painting trees and those kinds of things. And the paintings came out of the books my parents brought, the Finnish artists. They were in black and white, but they were these very romantic, turn-of-the-century Finnish paintings, and they were usually in natural settings, in the forest, with the lake and the rowboats. My work comes right out of that, more than anything else.

Q. You've published many books of your work and your photographs have been displayed and praised around the world. What are the biggest differences between being on that stage, and being behind the scenes, helping aspiring photographers?

A. I think I can help nurture by example of how it worked for me, and how it has worked for so many of the students that have succeeded.

Q. What's the most important thing you tell your students?

A. Maybe the most important thing I tell them is etched on a brick at the student athletic center ... It says, "Art is risk made visible."

Q. Where do you draw inspiration from?

A. From the work of others, meaning painters. I draw from (Giorgi) Morandi, (Wassily) Kandinsky -- totally opposite -- and Balthus. In photography nowadays, the list is fairly long, but Carleton Watkins -- he's a 19th century landscape photographer -- then a Mexican (photographer), Manuel Alvarez Bravo ... And then sort of going up the ladder, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank for their persistence of vision. And in current, contemporary times, Sally Mann, and a Spanish photographer, Gina Matos.

Q. You've won a Guggenheim and most recently this award from the Society of Photographic Education. What do these recognitions mean for you?

A. It's always humbling. It's always an honor. I also happen to have gotten a Lucy Award, which is photography's Oscar ... But after the whole thing is over, and you put the little statuette up on the wall -- or for the Society of Photographic Education, a beautiful plac(que) -- I put it in a place in the studio or the library, and I look at it, and when something didn't come out, a client didn't buy something, or I didn't get into something I thought I should be a part of -- I look at those awards and I say, "You have nothing to worry about." When the wind has died and you look up at the sails, they're ready. You just need the wind to come back. You haven't lost anything.

Q. What are some of the major changes you've seen in the field of photography?

A. The temptation to manipulate (photographs) is almost no longer a temptation; it's simply the tool that people use. I sometimes will have a student say, "Oh, there's this thing in the picture," maybe I'll wish they framed it differently, and they'll say, "Don't worry about it, I can just take it out." And then I would say, "You sure you want to do that?" And they have to think about that ... Once we do that, does photography go back to drawing? Does it go back to painting? Because it's illustrating. It looks like reality, but it's not the reality within the image itself ... There's also a return among students to alternative processes. They want to make it with their hands. They want to know that it happened that way. Maybe they're tired of being in front of the screen, because it's no longer the real world.

Q. Does photography ever feel like a "job?"

A. (Talking about preparing for an upcoming show in Kyoto, Japan:) I was working on it a couple of days. Last night it was a lot, all kinds of things, and now it's 12 o'clock at night and I'm realizing I still don't have the answer of what the title and themes are going to be. And if it was a job, I would've gone to bed, and sent an email saying, "Let me work on it tomorrow." If it's not a job, then I'll stay up till 1:30. And by staying up, I actually got it and loved it.

Q. What are some projects you're working on at the moment?

A. The book (I'm working on) has a working title ... but it is a definitive monograph with some really important essays by people in the history of photography ... The next project is in São Paulo, a major retrospective, and my gallery in Beijing is showing a lot of brand new work and producing a catalog ... I've also started shooting color.

Q. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment over the course of your career?

A. My wife. We've been married 47 years. Best thing in my life. Of course, our son, but it begins with the wife.