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Anne Kelly Interviews Pentti Sammallahti

photo-eye Gallery Anne Kelly Interviews Pentti Sammallahti In this rare interview, Gallery Director Anne Kelly speaks with Pentti Sammallahti about his past, process, and photographic vision.

Pentti Sammallahti is a self-proclaimed nomad, a man who has dedicated his life to patiently observing and recording the world as he perceives it. His images are quiet, perfectly composed, imbued with a dash of humor, and are often inhabited by animal accomplices — photographs that are nothing short of magical.

Pentti's love for photography began at a very young age and has become a lifetime passion.  This benchmark figure in Finnish photography has been widely published, exhibited, and even selected by Henri Cartier-Bresson as one of his top 100 favorite photographers. Despite Pentti's remarkable success, he remains incredibly modest, and I believe you can witness that modesty in his images.

When I contacted Pentti to request this interview in honor of Warm Regards, his current exhibition at photo-eye, he explained that at the moment he was sailing in Swedish archipelago, and yet he agreed to answer my questions. I feel very grateful Pentti took time out of his current voyage to shed a little extra light on his images.      – Anne Kelly

Pond by the Holy Font, Lapland, 1909 Hildur Larsson (Pentti's Grandmother)
Anne Kelly:     What were you like as a child?   I understand that at age 9 you decided you wanted to be a photographer and that by age 11 you were actively making photographs.   It seems that most children of that age want to be a firefighter, race car driver – or perhaps a paleontologist. 

Pentti Sammallahti:     As a child, I was surrounded by pictures. My father had an artist's education, although he earned his living as a goldsmith he continued painting, drawing and engraving through his life. His mother had been a photographer in Lapland but unfortunately gave up her profession when she married. Her 18x24cm contact prints of landscapes and people were unbelievably beautiful and inspiring.

I told my father when visiting the Family of Man exhibition with him at the Helsinki Art Hall in winter 1959-60, I said to him that I know what I want to do in my life, to become a photographer.

Balearics, Spain, 2014 – ©Pentti Sammallahti
AK:     I love that you are sailing in Swedish archipelago at the moment. Are you sailing because you just love to sail or are you making photographs – or is it all connected?

PS:     For decades I have spent a week or two with very good old friends sailing in the Finnish (and sometimes Swedish) archipelago. There are more than one hundred thousand islands and the main purpose of the travels is to enjoy the nature, observing and photographing too.

AK:     In addition to your grandmother, what other photographers and artists have inspired your work?

PS:     There are very many admirable photographers, to name three of them, I love the work of Paul Strand, André Kertész and Josef Koudelka. They have been working very differently but I feel they have understood everything about photography and life. Greatest experiences have also been the 15th-century Italian painting, foremost Fra Angelico. Also the work of Pieter Bruegel and of course the early etchings by Rembrandt.

AK:     How did you find your unique personal style?

PS:     I'm not so enthusiastic to have a personal style but photograph everything that moves me. I study and practice different ways to work.

Alaverdi, Georgia, 2014 –© Pentti Sammallahti

AK:     Can you describe your process?

PS:     I don't have any special way to photograph and don't make too many plans in advance but just walking around trying to keep my eyes open only.  Often I found myself observing animals and every now and then I try to influence their behavior and location by giving them delicacies.

AK:     I read somewhere that you don’t take photos – you receive them. This is an interesting statement; can you please elaborate on that idea? 

PS:     Everything I've photographed exists regardless of me, my role is only to be receptive. The most important thing is the luck, behind every good image there is the good luck too.  Sometimes when you are in a right place in the right moment, you'll feel that the image is a gift and even that it doesn't matter who's behind the camera.

AK:     In the past half century, you have traveled to a great many places to photograph. Is there a particular place that speaks to you more so than other places?

PS:     The world is so interesting and every place is worth to visit. Especially I love to photograph in remote quiet places vanishing things. When the world has changed, the photograph is left.

Solovki, White Sea, Russia, 1992 – © Pentti Sammallahti

    As I understand it you have several cameras that you shoot with. Do you have a favorite?

PS:     That's true that I've been working with quite many cameras, mostly middle format, but normally I have only one or two cameras with me when traveling. Which camera I take with depends on where I go and what kind of visual things are in my mind, often Pentax 67, Widelux 1500 or an old Rolleiflex.

AK:     You taught for 17 years. How did that affect your personal image making?

PS:     Difficult to say how it has influenced my work but it has had big influence in my life, many of my closest friends are from that era. Of course working with talented active students is inspiring and instructive. Teaching is also learning and the relationship between students and teachers is interactive as well.

AK:     Over the years you received a number of awards and grants – including Finnish State's 15-year artist grant– which you made wonderful use of. How did you go about getting the grant?  This must have been life changing.

PS:     There has been quite good state grant system in Finland, there are thousands of writers, musicians, and artists in various fields, including hundreds of photographers who have received grants for one or several years for working, not only for special projects.

When I received the 15-year state artist grant I was 40 years old and since then I have had the possibility to completely concentrate on my own work. I've been lucky and privileged, it's really good reason to be very grateful.

Log Floating at Kemijoki, Lapland 1910 – Hildur Larsson (Pentti's Grandmother)
AK:     Is there anything else you would like to add?

PS:     I would like to attach two of my grandmother's images which I wondered and admired as a child on our walls.

Our Warm Regards exhibition by Pentti Sammallahti is in its final days and will remain on view at photo-eye Gallery through Saturday, July 1st.

VIEW Warm Regards

For more information and to purchase prints please contact Gallery Staff at 505-988-5152 x202 or