The World of Arno Rafael Minkkinen
Yellow-green water lilies float over still blue water in a quiet cove at Foster’s Pond in Andover. The placid setting serves as the outdoor studio of photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen, 73, known internationally for surreal black-and-white self-portraits of himself in nature.
The artist is a tall, reed-thin man with wispy silvery hair that brushes the tops of his shoulders. Despite his wizardly appearance, he’s a down-to-earth guy, running outside to greet guests, playing catch with his dog, Bravo, canoeing to an island in the lake for a picnic with his wife, Sandy, and enjoying martinis and oysters on the deck with friends. When he’s not at home in Andover, he’s exhibiting, teaching and lecturing in art museums and festivals in France, Germany, Finland and elsewhere.
Mystery and optical illusions surround his work, such as “10.10.10, Fosters Pond, Andover” in which Minkkinen seems to balance on the misty water’s surface. It’s not a Photoshop trick, so how does he do it? The artist prefers to keep that a mystery. In the 2005 book “Saga: The Journey of Arno Rafael Minkkinen,” writer and physicist Alan Lightman notes in the introduction, “I trust Minkkinen because he is not really a trickster. He does not superimpose negatives. He does not digitize and manipulate bits. Each image we see comes from one negative. Each image is the actual scene that presented itself to the camera. But more importantly, I trust Minkkinen because I sense that he is honest in his art. He creates photographs out of personal conviction.”
Minkkinen often twists his body into impossible poses and takes dangerous risks — hanging off a cliff, submerging in water, being buried in snow, dangling off a ski lift. His poses can be painful and require time and patience. Rather than inflict these tortures onto a model, he does them himself.
Minkkinen’s interest in photography began while he was working as a copywriter for Minolta during the 1970s. While studying the works of various photographers, he discovered Diane Arbus’ iconic “Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City” a 1962 image of a thin boy, lips formed in a peculiar grimace with arms stiffly extended, holding a toy weapon.
In this, Minkkinen saw his 6-year-old self, new to America, speaking only Finnish, entering a world of strangers. The photograph opened his mind to how he could go beyond “taking pictures” and create art. He participated in workshops and eventually entered the graduate program at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, then led by Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, two notable photographers known for their black-and-white images. He graduated in 1974 with a master of fine arts degree in photography.
These days, Minkkinen’s photographs are collected and exhibited by museums around the world. This year, his work was on display through September in the exhibit “Extreme. Bodies” at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt.
Recently, “Self-Portrait with Daniel, Andover, Massachusetts, 31.12.86” was included in the “(un)expected families” exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This photo reflects a pivotal time in the artist’s life. He’d completed two years of teaching in Finland and had just returned to Andover. Pictured is his 6-year-old son, Daniel, sitting cross-legged in bed, hands in his lap, light hitting him from the side. Half of his face is brilliantly illuminated, while the other half is shadowed, expressing uncertainty.
“That boy is me,” Minkkinen says, referring to his son. “He spoke Finnish. He had trouble fitting in.” The photographer extends his long, slender arms along the curved contour of the arching headboard behind the boy, creating the notion of wings curling protectively around his son.
The family did readjust to American life. Minkkinen became a professor at UMass Lowell in 1987 (he is now professor emeritus in the department of art & design). Sandy got a job working as an editor at the MIT Press. Then a real stroke of luck arrived. After Minkkinen saw a waterfront house for sale in the Andover Townsman, he drove out to take a look. As soon as he pulled into the driveway and spotted the sapphire-blue water in the private cove, he thought: Finland!
Though the house was little more than a fishing shack, it came with a grand piano, which remains in the living room today. Over the past 30 years, the house has undergone numerous renovations and is now daffodil yellow. Among its many features are a darkroom, two libraries with books about photography, a living room with an antique chandelier from Finland, and a Finnish sauna that looks out on the water.
“It’s sufficiently away from the neighbors,” Minkkinen says about his “Shangri-la.” It’s a place where he can live quietly, enjoy the water, and photograph himself — in the nude. If the neighbors know about it, he says, “Well, they’ve been kind.”