Pictures to get lost in
10th March 22 - By Elin Jonsson, Marketing Manager
We met up with the dark room photographer who has turned grainy black and white observations into an artform to talk to him about his inspiration and why he chooses the analogue art form.
With his first collection for Paper Collective, Finnish dark room artist Mikael Siirilä brings his unique vision into a collection of photographic art prints. Channeling 70’s minimalist Japanese photography, each of his works features pronounced film grain, dominating black elements and deliberate composition editing to create a sense of mystery and meaning. Mikael Siirilä explores the language of visual poetry and creates pictures you can look at again and again. Working exclusively with the silver gelatin process, Siirilä’s work reveals an approach to photography where every piece is viewed as a handmade object.
Portrait photo of Mikael Siirilä by Niilas Nordenswan
Dark room enlarging process
Mikael Siirlä's background
Can you, in short, describe your background?
I am a darkroom artist and entrepreneur living in Helsinki, Finland. I was born to an art-loving family, and I learned the basics of darkroom printing at an early age at home in a bathroom-darkroom. Now, in my early 40s, I feel that photography has been a persistent sideline in my life.
During the last twelve years, I have gradually cultivated my relationship with photography towards a more consistent form of expression. As a result, working on pictures has become a means for contemplating my human experience.
How did you get into photography?
I have worked as a web and graphic design entrepreneur for more than two decades. Artistic expression through photography and printmaking have emerged as a means to balance the stressful realities of commercial work and deadlines with something unhurried, purely subjective and unapologetically poetic. My eye for composition has undoubtedly passed on to my artistic expression.
I find analogue photography has a poetic superpower that sets it apart from other forms of picture-making. Analogue prints feel physically and causally connected to the world.
You are a darkroom photographer; why have you chosen this analogue form of expression?
I recall a strip by Juba, a Finnish cartoonist. One of the main characters, Wagner, is asked if he realises that money does not bring happiness. He replies: I don't want happiness; I want money. I am only interested in the analogue process; I am not weighing anything else.
Perhaps interestingly, I was an early adopter of digital photography at the turn of the millennium. Yet, looking back, that short foray into pixels and post-processing almost suffocated my passion. I returned to using film in 2010 to document the time of pregnancy leading to the birth of my daughter. Shooting on film felt like the more intimate and private means for capturing a life-changing time. The final pictures felt meaningful and permanent, deeply connected to the experience. It was eye-opening. Now I work exclusively with black & white film and the silver gelatin process. The process and craft feel inseparable from the final pictures.
I consider myself more artist and picture-maker; I would probably not make a good photographer. I am only motivated to make a certain kind of picture – on my terms. I don't work on projects or take on commissions. I'm not interested in storytelling or making an emotional impact. My pictures are as much about me looking as they are about the idea of a picture.
Dark room fixing process
Dark room wash process
Difference between analogue and digital photography
What is the biggest difference for you between analogue and digital photography?
I find analogue photography has a poetic superpower that sets it apart from other forms of picture-making. Analogue prints feel physically and causally connected to the world. The negative is the physical record of light that once emanated from the world. There is an element present in the process beyond the artist's control.
The process and inspiration
Tell us about your creative process?
For me, it's all about the darkroom. I have no studio, process or practice outside the darkroom. Each picture is an authentic observation from my life and travels shot with minimal interaction with the subjects. I find this prerequisite ontologically essential. It sets the status of my gaze as an outsider. The origin of my pictures is the act of looking, not creative imagination or preconceived design.
There are often several months between shooting and making prints. Time allows the pictures to lose their connection with the emotions and expectations of the moment. Instead, they become raw material that I can interpret and recontextualise into meaningful, recurring themes. The place, time and events surrounding the negative are almost arbitrary.
How would you describe your visual style?
My visual style is perhaps reminiscent of the 70s, minimal Japanese photography and even pictorialism. I cultivate a graphic look of overpowering black elements, reduced details and a rough texture of exaggerated film grain. I use stylistic devices for both expression and meaning. I am curious about how visual absence through partial crop or obscurity can enhance the sense of presence. Sometimes the present is not there at all.
I love the idea of visual poetry. Like literature, visual poetry explores language but is not limited to a shared alphabet or vocabulary. It can be acutely aware of its picture-ness and challenge the viewer to reflect and discover, again and again. I make pictures that I want to stare at, feel and become lost in.
Dark room tea toning process
Dark room drying process
Where do you get your inspiration for your work?
Exhaustingly, inspiration is everywhere. Most recently, with less travel on the agenda, I have discovered the poetic in cinema. Michelangelo Antonioni's classic films, Abbas Kiarostami and the contemporaries such as Andreas Fontana and Carlo Sironi have opened my eyes to subtle ways of depicting the human experience.
I'm not convinced that it's the inspiration that I seek. Even the tiny observations in everyday family life can inspire. What I look for in the arts are reassurances that my irrational and shamelessly poetic side is safe to let loose, that I am onto something meaningful. The constant self-doubt is simultaneously a source of despair and drive.
How do you think that your Finnish heritage has influenced your work?
I have to assume it has. We Finns love a sense of calm and subdued emotions, a dose of melancholy and a respect for authenticity. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that my inspirations and artistic contacts are almost entirely international.
Mikael Siirilä’s collection of art prints are available in store now. You can also buy Mikael Siirilä’s originals on papercollective.com. Discover his work here.