Ismo Luukkonen

Old landscape

and the experience of time



In my photographic work I have concentrated on themes dealing with time in landscape photography. In this introduction I will show examples of my photographic works, that are connected to each other in a narrative way,
like a continuous process that has lasted over twenty years. The introduction is based on a presentation given in the Selfportrait Extended symposium in Turku in June 2014.

Photographing prehistoric places

My artistic work stems from a strong personal interest on history and prehistory.

I experienced my first prehistoric place in 1986. I was preparing a high school presentation for a history class and I wanted to see the oldest known cultural remain in Liminka, the little town I was living up North.

It was a Stone Age stone setting, probably a temporary settlement of seal hunters, now in the middle of a marshland. I cycled to the site two times. At the first time I didn't find anything. (Later I realized I had actually walked over the ancient construction.) At the second time, when I was better prepared, I noticed a shallow remain of a rectangular wall on the ground. But for my unexperienced eyes the more convincing evidence of the site was a little sign, with a title Muinaisjäännös, lain suojaama (Ancient remain, protected by law). Not much to see, really, but enough. Now, when I realized the meaning of the site, I experienced something.

When I was studying photography in Turku in the first half of the 1990's I returned to the subject – the old places. As a project work I photographed an abandoned pre-World War II fortress in Reposaari island, in front of the Pori town and harbour. Privately funded in the 1930's, armed with two cannons, but never used. The bunker, the cannon posts, trenches and dugouts were now hundred meters from the coastline, in a forest, covered by earth and vegetation. I was attracted by the mystery that was created by the touch of time to the concrete, timber and iron.

In the study trip to Ireland I decided to focus on the oldest human marks on Irish landscape. I toured and photographed Stone Age chamber tombs in the Burren area. I was inspired by the vast Irish landscape with visible marks of different eras. It was impressive to realize that the seven thousand years of cultural history was visible in the landscape.

In this work I can now recognize the basics of my later works. The ancient remains, the layered landscape, a personal experience and the link to the history of photography. Meaning in this case a homage to the classic
black and white landscape photography.

In the spring 1994 I found a book on Stone Age rock paintings in Finland, painted from 7000 to 3500 years ago on cliffs rising from lakes mainly in the eastern Finland. I got interested and thought it would be nice to see them and maybe to do a little project about them. In June 1994 I visited my first site at Saraakallio, Laukaa, That is actually the largest prehistoric painting site in the Northern Europe.

The visit was followed by another… Astuvansalmi, the best known rock painting site in Finland. Here I realized the importance of the landscape. The paintings cannot be understood by the motifs alone. They are tied to their environment. Rock art is not only the oldest visual art but also the oldest environmental art.

The more I saw the more I wanted to see. And the project grew bigger. The first stage of the project ended in November 1995, when I presented my photographs of rock paintings in an exhibition. The photographs were accompanied with texts, reconstructed tales I wrote in Kalevala metre.

But this was not the end. I had created a passion for prehistoric rock art and I continued the work. From 2001 to 2005 I was commissioned to document some 80 rock painting sites in Finland for the National Board of Antiquities. And at the same time I photographed material for myself. Both the paintings and their environments. From 2010 I have continued the work as a personal project aiming to exhibitions and publications. During the past twenty years I have photographed almost every Finnish rock painting, many of them several times.

I have also developed methods to digitally enhance the photographs of rock paintings, to make the faded images more clear. The following example is from Pyhänpää, Kuhmoinen, a painting field, that is almost impossible to see. It conceals a composition of an elk, two boats and some smaller figures.

Year 2010 a new exhibition on Finnish rock paintings opened in the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki. Since then the exhibition has toured several museums in Finland.

To understand a wider context I have also visited many rock art sites in Sweden and Norway. I wanted to see what are the differences and similarities of the rock art tradition in different parts of Scandinavia, in themes, styles and techniques. For example in Finland all known rock art are paintings, colour on the rock wall, while in Sweden and Norway there is also a great number of rock carvings.

The northern rock art is certainly the most important subject of my photographic work, but I have also done some other major projects concerning prehistoric remains. In south-west Finland I have toured different sites from Bronze Age and Iron Age. Including tombs, cemeteries, settlements, hill forts, cup stones et cetera. And in 2004 I made my first tour in southern Sweden to map Swedish prehistoric sites. My main interest in both projects was what is the relation of prehistoric and present layers of landscape. What kind of temporal encounters appear in the landscape?

My photographic style in these projects has been documentary or topographic. I have emphasized the window-like appearance of a photograph. It was a conscious decision. I have been impressed and influenced by photographers that have used topographic style in their landscape projects. And I wanted to show the places as they are today, subtly emphasizing the temporal layers I am interested in by cropping and composition. For this, I thought, the topographic style is ideal.

I was thrilled by the places. And some photographs, of course, but yet I thought I was lacking something. Something essential.

It is now time to meet the crucial question often asked me when I present my works.

Why prehistory?

Why am I interested in such places? Why do they attract me?

I have replied in various ways, like:

1. I have been interested in history and prehistory since I was a child. I remember the stories I read from the history books, the older the better. They were as fascinating as fairytales or science fiction, but they were also true.

2. There is a mystery in ancient places. Much is lost, something little remains and suggests stories of the people that lived in the place some thousands of years ago. We have facts that tell us about the past, but there is also plenty of room for imagination.

3. In prehistoric places I feel the presence of past generations. They have left their marks. I can touch the same stones, feel the same landscape. There is a chain of people that connect me to the works of the ancient people.

4. As a picture maker I find the images of the Stone Age people fascinating. In a way I feel unity with the ancient painters. They use the same tools as I do. And almost the same language.

This is all true, but... none of these is really giving me an answer. Not in a profound way. These are explanations, not answers.

In his famous book Camera lucida Roland Barthes introduces two kinds of approaches to a photograph. A studium and a punctum. The studium as a mild interest. Cultural, bookish, even political aspect that makes the photograph interesting. The punctum as a wounding, personally touching detail, something you cannot actually verbalize. Or in the second part of Camera lucida the second punctum as a resemblance of mortality. For a long time it was difficult for me to understand why Barthes wanted so desperately to connect photography – the medium I loved – to death. I found so many other possibilities in photography. Even though I was mainly photographing tombs and other marks of dead people.

Anyway, all my explanations were in the level of studium. But my real interest on the prehistoric places was actually in the level of punctum. They really – not always and not in all cases, but frequently – wounded me. But why?

I am now thinking of prehistoric remains like photographs. They have similarities. Both are in this moment, but they refer to the past. A photograph by its appearance, an ancient remain by its existence. Both of them can be discussed as indexical signs. Just like a photograph can raise meanings, so can a prehistoric remain. My question is, what is the meaning of the ancient remain to a present viewer.

I have often used a panorama format in my photographs of old landscape. I create the panoramas by combining several images. This is also a reference to the history of photography, especially to pioneers like William Henry Jackson and Into Konrad Inha. At times the technique creates special temporal oddities. A person appears twice in the final image, for instance. These kind of occurrences fascinated me, for some reason.

Something is happening in the picture. I started to think about it. What was in this photograph that was not in all the others. Most of my photographs looked timeless, taken in no specific time. This kind of little incident changed it, it exposed the moment of exposure, created a momentary aspect in contrast to the long history of the landscape, it was an encounter of the moment and eternity.

I had found my punctum. And it is not far from Barthes's.

It is the time.

The time for me appears to be about the same as the death in Camera Lucida. Something inevitable.

When I found my punctum, I also realized what I was looking for, what I was lacking in my photographs. It was the experience of time. The very thing I at times had felt in the places.

Experiences of Time

This insight opened new approaches to my work. I wanted to see, what happens if I begin to show the time in the photograph, not only that I photograph old places, but also showing the actual exposure time, the moment of the photograph. Or moments.

My first try was to create a more complex panorama with more temporal layers. I chose a place close to my home, an Iron Age cemetery with two cup stones. And photographed it in pieces. After a few weeks I returned and took some more photographs. And again after a few more weeks. The process took seven months, after which I created the final image, that combines different seasons, different times of the day, three hundred seventy six single images and fifteen hundred years of cultural history.

I also created a series of photographs of shorter periods. I still went to old places, but now I placed a human figure in the landscape together with the ancient remain. I used a long exposure or a sequence of photographs. The movement of the human figures, branches or clouds represents the moment and creates a contrast between the momentariness of temporary things and the constancy of the stones.

Standing in the rain under an umbrella. Inside a fifteen hundred years old stone circle. After another fifteen hunded years the stones – I hope – are still there. And maybe someone else is standing in the middle.

Father and son passing the Bronze Age cairn. How short is the visit compared to the age of the tomb? Our existence compared to the existence of a stone... or the existence of a 5000 years old painting on the stone wall?

Questions about Time

Experiments with time in photography lead to another work. When I understood the importance of time in my work I of course tried to find out what we actually know about time. What have they said about the time… the philosophers, physicists, astronomers, historians, neurologists, theologians, artists. I found out they have said a lot. But there is no agreement what the time ultimately is, or even… if it is.

We have a lot of questions about time. And these questions created images on my mind.

In physics time is considered as the fourth dimension of space-time. I wanted to try weather it is possible to show this dimension in photographs. I again photographed things in sequences, and combined them into a single image. I also became interested how the time had been presented in visual arts. The next one is an homage to Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey and Marcel Duchamp.

I left ancient places for a while and aimed my camera to subjects that – I believed – show the presence of the time. Such as…

Objects worn out by the time. In this case a statue on a grave. Touched by hundreds of years so that the face of the figure has vanished.

The Sun, the Moon and other celestial bodies. The oldest known calendars are markings of lunar phases. Chronology – how we measure time – is based on the movements and phases of the Moon and the Sun.

Contact is an astronomical term of the moment two celestial bodies seem to touch. This happens for example in solar eclipses, when the Moon blocks the Sun. But also, when the Sun sets, it seems to touch the planet Earth. This happens all the time. In every moment the sun is setting somewhere in the planet. But still, every time we see a sunset it is different.

And the stars. When we look at the stars we are looking to past. Even the nearest star is so far that the light we see has travelled more than four years. The most distant light we can see with the naked eye has left the Andromeda galaxy two and a half million years ago. But the light itself has no sense of time.

Back to the Earth. Withering flowers. A slow movement is revealed in a sequence of photographs. Here forget-me-nots… that, in their poetic English name carry a reference to time.

People in action. Playing violin. Creating a sound that also is momentary in essence. There is no sound in the photograph when we look at it.

Photographs of this project were published in a little book titled Fourth dimension. As a conclusion I want to present the translation of the introduction of the book. It is about how we perceive the time as both linear and cyclical. And how our experience of time is, after all, private.

Time is cyclical. Everything is repeating. Hands of the clock are running the same circle time after time. The days follow one another, the weeks and months begin and end just to begin again. The years roll one after the other resembling the ones passed. But still, every second, minute, hour and year are unique. Another exactly alike never comes.

Time proceeds. What was born yesterday is ash tomorrow, maybe just a memory in the day after tomorrow. There are no persistent conditions. Everything changes. What we see around us is only a glimpse. But there is a new beginning in the ash. The wheel of time is beginning another circle.

The time of a human is not like a clock. In the clock every minute is measured equal in duration, but human minutes are not equal. Time is relative both in physics as in everyday life. If you hurry, the time slows down in physics, but runs out in everyday life.

What is the relation of a moment to eternity?



Ismo Luukkonen is an artist photographer living and working in Turku, Finland. He also works as a senior lecturer of photography in the Arts Academy at the Turku University of Applied Sciences.

This introduction is based on a presentation given in the Selfportrait Extended symposium in Turku in June 2014.


© 2014