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Essay: Arno Rafael Minkkinen – identity

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
  • Reading time: 8 minutes
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  • Published: June 7, 2021*
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  • Words: 2,299 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 10 (approx)
  • Arno Rafael Minkkinen - identity
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Identity has always intrigued me. One’s identity forms and develops over time, it is derived from the places we visit, the people in our lives and the experiences we face over time. There is no possible way to identify oneself without first considering what one has seen and done, therefore our identity is deeply rooted in our history and the history of those around us. The way others see us can also influence the way we see ourselves, but whether we choose to let this affect the way we see ourselves is up to oneself.

Some believe that one’s identity is an individual reflection of who one wants to be perceived as at any moment in time. This is what I am exploring in my own work.

Dance has always played a huge part of my life. From a hobby to a career path I don’t remember a week where I wasn’t dancing. Six months ago I was told that I had severe bone stress in both my shins. This meant crutches and no more dancing for a long period of time. Only then did I realise how much dance was a part of my identity. I used photography as a way to document my emotions at the time and my recovery, both physically and mentally.

Over the course of this project I have been investigating self-portraiture. I was originally only photographing myself out of convenience however as the project progressed I was drawn to the choices given to me by being both subject and photographer. When photographing myself I am able to choose how much of my true identity I reveal to the viewer as well as influence how the viewer reads the image through my body language.

I was only recently introduced to the Finnish-born photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen whilst looking through Auto Focus by Susan Bright. I was instantly fascinated by his contorted, creature like figure immersed within striking black and white landscapes. Since the early 1970’s Minkkinen has been shooting parts of his nude body, mostly within natural sites.

The amazing thing is that none of his work has been subjected to darkroom or other manipulations; they are exactly what the camera has captured. I like how simple his images are, they appear effortless and unpretentious. There is a purity in his work that I want to integrate into my own. By being so exposed to both the elements and the viewer, his images give the impression of vulnerability as well as strength. Vulnerable in how his frail, lean body is so open to the elements and strength in the way he can withstand the natural forces with what comes across as ease. Each composition requires a high level of physical strength and mental tolerance. ‘Some can even be dangerous. I do not want to have someone else coming in harm’s way taking the risks I need to take’ I never really considered this as an issue I face in my own work however on reflection the choices I make when choosing my compositions are often based on how safe they are for me as a subject or how painful the position is to maintain.

When it comes to identity I think Minkkinen controls how much he reveals about himself through how much/ what parts of his body he chooses to expose. In some of his works we only see an arm or foot (middle). Revealing only snippets of himself to the viewer, I find these images playful and enticing. Other works like the ones seen on the left and right have more of a narrative and sombre atmosphere. As a viewer I start asking myself questions like ‘who is the subject?’ how did he get there?’, ‘why is he there?’ queries I find I myself asking when looking at my own images.

Whenever I look at Minkkinen’s work I cannot help but do a double take. I am intrigued by his ethereal naked body, appearing so at home within nature and so out of place amongst recognisable domestic situations, for example his Ritterberg House, Camden, Maine, image from 2000 (Right). Even as a dancer I still feel that Minkkinen pushes my assumptions about what the body is capable of. He challenges the boundaries of the human figure, seeing it as a ‘creative instrument for philosophical and metaphysical thought.’ To me this quote was illuminating. Until now I only saw Minkkinen’s work as a reflection of himself, however, this quote implies that he was exploring something much more hypothetical, using his body to challenge the viewer’s thoughts about their own identity.

Francesca Woodman was a young American Artist. Born into a family of artists she grew up surrounded by art and art culture. Using techniques like long-exposure to capture movement, blur and sometimes total disappearance, her work challenges perceptions of identity and the medium of photography. Known for her evocative self-portraits her nude studies often explore the limits of representation. Woodman can be found entangled within landscapes or slightly out of the photographic frame; her body cropped, endlessly concealed and never fully captured. With Woodman being such a young age their sexual manner can sometimes leave the viewer feeling uneasy. Although she committed suicide at the age of twenty-two she produced a huge body of work.

I am fascinated by Woodman and how her story has had such an effect on how we view her work today.

It is generally considered that her suicide influences the way her artwork is perceived. Art critics like Kyle Macmillan believe that ‘the cultish romanticism that grew up around her suicide long clouded serious discussions of her work’. This is echoed by Alan Riding’s claim that this awareness provokes ‘an almost unconscious search for evidence of impending self-destruction in her powerful and often disturbing self-portraiture.’ I have to agree with both critics as I often look at Woodman’s work and question whether they are influenced by her state of mind at the time.

Woodman’s images are mature and of an adult nature, however she still gives off this childish innocent persona. The way she appears to shy away from the camera in a defensive crouch or hide her face by blurring the image, gives her a purity (like Minkkinen) not normally seen in a nude study. Unlike Minkkinen, Woodman could not explain the concept or intentions behind her work. Her images are completely up for interpretation. This may or may not take part of her artist identity away from her. On the one hand Woodman lacks a voice and therefore cannot articulate her intentions if she so wished. On the other hand, by committing suicide she may have (knowingly or unknowingly) given the viewer more of an insight into her work then any written explanation could.

Not long ago Tate Modern released an article called ‘Finding Francesca.’ The title alone implies this idea of discovery. Trying to figure out who Woodman was and what she was trying to express in her work. Some believe that Woodman wanted to make visible her own state of anxiety, giving the viewer insight to a suicidal mind. I struggle to agree with this as it suggests her work was inseparable from her own personal story. If Woodman wanted to reflect her personal life why is her work so unearthly? Why does she deliberately stage her photographs, often dressing up in vintage clothes? Is she really creating a truthful image of her herself?

Minkkinen describes himself as a ‘trickster’] in the way that he photographs. Looking at the image above with this word in mind I am reminded of the character ‘Puck’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The way that Minkkinen appears to run across the calm lake already gives the sense of fantasy and fairy tale; key themes within the famous Shakespeare play. However it is the ripples that surround his feet that add that Puck-like playfulness to the image. Unlike Puck, I believe that Minkkinen is much more than a trickster. The viewer can connect on a deeper level with his work as the human body is something everyone can identify with. I am personally drawn to the determination Minkkinen shows in all of his images, whether that be a tense limb appearing from the water or gritted teeth as he submerges himself in snow. Alan Lightman states ‘If the subjects of his ‘tricks’ were beach balls…we would not respond as strongly, his images would be far less disturbing … we identify in a deeply emotional and psychological way with images of the body.’

In this photograph we see the naked body of a man from his feet to his knees appearing to run across a winter lake. This unearthly image was taken in Connecticut in 1974 when Minkkinen was thirty years old. Under the unidentified man’s feet ripples of water travel into the mid-ground and background, disturbing the water and adding an urgency to the man’s movement. As so little of the subject is visible it allows the viewer to create a narrative. Who is the man? Where is he going?

Behind the naked legs a white bank cuts laterally across the centre of the image. A forest and white sky follows behind this. To the left of the image is what appears to be a white cottage or house, too far in the distance to be sure. The lack of texture in both the sky and the bank simplifies the image, allowing the viewer to focus on the details of the subject. Looking at the clarity and lack of noise in the image it must have been taken with a fast shutter speed and wide depth of field. With these settings we can see every small detail, the protruding vanes running along his feet, the strain of his calves.

The more I look at the image the more I want to know about who the subject in the photograph is. Obviously we know that it is indeed Minkkinen himself however that does not mean that the identity of the subject in this specific photograph is also Minkkinen. For all we know he is trying to portray a completely different character to that of himself. This is not actually the case. Minkkinen has always made it clear that it is he in his photographs and that he alone took them. ‘They have to know I’m the one who is making the picture. As a viewer I think it is important to know that it is Minkkinen in the photograph to fully appreciate it.

Something that interests me most about Minkkinen is how often he hides his face, there are only a few images of Minkkinen where he reveals his face to the viewer. The face can tell us about someone’s emotional wellbeing, age, gender, health, cultural background, ethnic origin, lifestyle within a few moments. The choice to hide ones face is also the choice to hide a part of one’s identity. In TIME’s article from 2011 Minkkinen reveals that by being born with a cleft palate he has ‘always felt like an affront to (his mother’s) beauty.” And that he only ‘puts (his) face in there every once in a while just to remind the viewers that it is (him).’ This lack of self-confidence facially might be a significant reason why Minkkinen often chooses to focus on revealing his body and concealing his face.

In the same article William Lee Adams says that Minkkinen ‘rarely features his face in photographs. Even so, he still describes them as “nude self-portraits.”’ The term ‘Even so’ surprised me. To me the face is always ‘nude’ and as a dancer I strongly believe that although the face is the most revealing part of the body it most definitely does not make up ones entire identity. Ones legs or hands are just as much a part of one’s identity as their face. Therefore the image Beach Pond is no less of a self-portrait then Minkkinen’s [INSERT NAME] right.

Naked against a wall Woodman stands between two large windows. Covering parts of herself with scraps of wallpaper her body merges into her surroundings. Like many of her works I find this image explores both presence and absence. She is centre of the photograph yet still somehow part of the background.

The intimate nature of the image is enhanced by its location. Often using abandoned warehouses or derelict buildings Woodman’s settings echo her surreal moods. The stripped back nature of both the setting and Woodman herself makes it harder for the viewer to grasp a sense of who the subject is. There are no references that give evidence to the time-period of the photograph or much about Woodman’s own identity. The petit/slender silhouette of the figure gives the impression of a young woman however the choice to conceal parts of her body not only brings an innocence but again leaves the viewer second guessing; unsure whether the subject is indeed a woman.

By allowing herself to appear so vulnerable Woodman moves past the controversial themes associated with the naked female form and questions broader concepts of gender, body image and identity. I think this image is a great example of this as the choice to conceal her face allows the viewer to relate to the subject, seeing themselves in Woodman’s exposed body. By doing this Woodman becomes a voice for young woman and creates a discussion platform where topics like gender, body image and identity can be discussed.

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