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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review Me Kaksi Photographs by Pentti Sammallahti Reviewed by Blake Andrews “If you want to portray the American Dream in just one picture, you could do worse than the cover photo of Gillian Laub’s new monograph Family Matters. It shows Laub’s late grandfather Irving Yasgur, engaged with a large cheeseburger and fries. It’s his 85th birthday in 2003 and he’s enjoying the fruits of a long self-made journey into wealthy retirement..."

Me Kaksi. By Pentti Sammallahti.
Me Kaksi
Photographs by Pentti Sammallahti

Atelier EXB, France, 2021. 204 pp., 9½x7".

Pentti Sammallahti took his first picture at the tender age of eleven. The sixty-plus years since have been devoted to art, teaching, and personal photography, the latter kicked into hyperdrive by a 15-year artist grant from the Finnish State. He has shot and traveled widely. But whereas most photographers hone their attention over time to focus on specific subjects or projects, Sammallahti’s visual approach has remained remarkably open. “I always work in the same way,” he says. “I tra­vel, I don’t make any specific plans. I stop when something inte­rests me.”

If Sammallahti refuses to be boxed in by preconceptions, that doesn’t mean his destinations are drawn at random. He favors places of solitude. Natural scenery is ideal. Homespun villages can work as raw material too, especially if stone-worked or snowy or remote. He likes to include animal activity — including fellow homo sapiens — but not too tightly clustered. Characters tend to be minor figures in his frames, often isolated or dominated by inanimate surroundings. The primary thread running throughout, tying its disparate strands together, is his keen compositional eye. Like Friedlander, Johansson, Gossage, and a few other select contemporaries, he’s basically a human monochrome machine. Wind him up and stick him in front of anything. He’ll find its photographic potential.

This working method tends to accumulate images en masse and, stripped of easy categories, such an archive invites continual shuffling and reshuffling into new forms. In recent decades these shifting arrangements have manifested in several monographs. From Sammallahti’s self-titled debut to his mid-career retrospective Here Far Away to Photo Poche 103, Zigzag, and Des Oiseaux, the approach has been roughly similar: curations culling various favorites into a fluid mix of greatest hits. Sometimes photos are repeated book to book, and new ones are also added regularly. Each resulting book blend is slightly novel. If none seem stale despite their repetitious nature, that’s a tribute to Sammallahti’s visual power.

So it is with his latest book Me Kaksi, a phrase inspired by the title of a poem by the Finnish writer Aaro Hellaakoski. The translation into English is roughly “We Two”, and the book offers just what the words promise. There are 106 monochromes. Each one depicts a pairing. The earliest photo is from 1964, and the most recent from 2015. The intervening half-century is covered in breadth, if not much depth, and the locations too span a wide range. Most are from Europe, especially his home country Finland. But they stretch across the globe to include selections from the US, Japan, India, Morocco, Nepal, Vietnam, Russia, and elsewhere. The overall impression is of a photographer who has worn through some serious boot leather and brassed some serious camera mileage, shooting on travels more or less constantly over fifty years.

The edit is by Nathalie Chapuis, and she must have had fun perusing his archive with a clear directive, shunting photos into “Yes” or “No” folders. A similar framework of duality works perfectly with Me Kaksi, specific enough to impose some order, but also surprisingly amorphous at times. In fact, the most enjoyable photos in this book are the ones that take liberties with the title. A photo of a cat sitting on a car roof seems like a mismatch, until one notices the paired cat hiding in the shadows just below. A picture of a waterfall breaching a cliff looks quite singular, until the reader pauses to notice its bifurcated form. Horse riders in a snowy panoramic landscape seem like a solid pairing. Or perhaps it’s the smaller couple in the background, or the other duo tucked in the opposite corner? As these examples show, even a clarion call as specific Me Kaksi is more malleable than initially meets the eye.

There are plenty of less ambiguous pairings as well. His classic strutting black crows picture from Houston 1998 makes an appearance, as does the equally endearing pup napping atop a Brahman cow in Varanasi, shot just a year later. The photo of sidewalk dogs from Nepal is here, and its well-loved counterpart, a dog peering into the rear of a spacecraft. All have appeared in other Sammallahti monographs. They’re quite familiar by now, but they haven’t yet worn out their welcome. Such frames are so well executed that they’re continually fun to revisit. They remind the reader that, whether pairings are obscure or obvious, Sammallahti seems to have no trouble spotting them wherever he goes.

Following the bygone fashions of the analog era, Sammallahti makes carefully toned exhibition prints in a darkroom, typically at smallish scale, and Me Kaksi pays homage to his process with an understated design. The brown clothbound book is dense but modestly sized, and its interior images smaller still, perhaps 4 or 5 inches longest side, with a few panoramics stretching to 7 or 8 inches. An introductory poem called “So Small” (by Aaro Hellaakoski, the title inspiration) affirms the diminutive mood, and every frame to follow feels quiet, intimate, and reticent. Uncoated matte paper and a slight sepia warmth enhance the jewel-like charm, as do wide white margins to match their snowy contents. A mass-produced book is of course a different thing than a handmade print, but this title captures something of that essence. It’s packed with goodies in the classic documentary/street tradition a la HCB, Koudelka, and Erwitt.

All in all, this is an elegant and unique curation of Sammallahti that should tide fans over, at least until his next reshuffling arrives.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at