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Longtime Art Prof Brings Home His Vision

Minkkinen Speaks to Lowell Artists for First Time

Arno Minkkinen and Nancy Donahue
Nancy Donahue with Prof. Arno Minkkinen, the internationally renowned photographer and 2012 Nancy Donahue Endowed Professor in the Arts at UMass Lowell.

By Julia Gavin

Sometimes a community doesn’t know about the treasures in their midst. Prof. Arno Rafael Minkkinen has taught and spoke about his photography to audiences across the world. But one city had been missing from his lecture list: Lowell, Mass.

Minkkinen checked Lowell off by giving a presentation on his art and process at the Cultural Organization of Lowell’s annual breakfast in May. The organization was celebrating its 11th year of fostering arts and culture in the city. Minkkinen’s life as a successful working artist struck a chord with the audience of fellow artists, businesspeople, patrons, community members and politicians.

“Arts and culture are not only enriching lives, they’re creating jobs in the Commonwealth,” said state Sen. Eileen Donoghue at the event. “Lowell has come a long way in supporting our arts and culture and we all know it’s played a large role in our success.”

Minnkinen, who worked as an advertising copywriter before becoming a professional photographer and instructor and has taught at UMass Lowell for more than 25 years, shared some of the techniques and rules he uses in his work. His photographs, nature-based nude self-portraits, involve an imaginative and grueling planning process.

“I focus on self-portraits so that no one else gets hurt,” says Minkkinen, who often holds a precarious pose for extended amounts of time before using a distance clicker to take the photographs. “I can tolerate the pain of the poses I imagine. I title them self-portraits because there’s never anyone looking through the viewfinder. You have to learn to trust the camera to get the right shot and wait to see the results.”

His camera has an artistic eye, leading to exhibits in several countries including a 40-year retrospective at New York’s Barry Friedman Gallery running through Aug. 17. For more on his process, visit Minkkinen’s website.

‘Student Art is Exciting’

Throughout his career, Minkkinen has retained a focus on education. In addition to teaching at UMass Lowell and other institutions, his international project, Spirit Level, has brought hundreds of student out of the classroom and into the world of photography. He and another Finnish colleague have brought students to Italy, France, Mexico, Russia and many other locations to photograph life as they find it. Bringing American, Finnish and often Swedish students together helps the young photographers forge international connections beyond workshops.

“Student work is exciting, that’s why I teach,” says Minnkinen. “A photograph I took as a student recently sold at a prominent auction house. Did they say it was student work? No, but they still sold it because that doesn’t matter. That’s also why I tell my students to take care of early prints and negatives. You never know where they could end up or who might want them.”

Minkkinen plans to offer further opportunities for his students as this year’s Nancy Donahue Endowed Professor in the Arts. The endowment, created by patrons Richard and Nancy Donahue to support the University’s music, art and theater programs by strengthening ties to local cultural communities, will assist Minkkinen in offering community service projects to students. His term will also cover the next Spirit Level trip to visit photographer Sally Mann’s home and studio in Kentucky.

“There are so very many talented people at the University,” says Nancy Donahue of the decision to establish the endowment several years ago, “and we’re very happy to help get their work in a public forum more often for exposure and recognition.”