Finnish Gilt: The Photography of Esko Mannikko

By Schjeldahl, Peter | Artforum International, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Finnish Gilt: The Photography of Esko Mannikko


Schjeldahl, Peter, Artforum International


When in Helsinki last winter I came upon Esko Mannikko's antique-framed photographs of back-country Finns,[1] I wanted one. Lust to own art is infrequent but not novel for me. I have often said that, given the pelf, I would be a collector instead of a critic. Writing a check is so much more sincere than writing a review, as you know by the pain of parting with your money. Pelf being what it isn't for me, my lifetime total of art purchases can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But Mannikko's photographs, which come in editions of prints, each cropped differently to fit an available frame, turned out to be almost indecently cheap. I bought the one I am looking at now.

It shows a far-northern sunrise or sunset, probably in autumn and thus late morning or early afternoon. Against a slash of livid horizon under an otherwise overcast sky, stanchion lights gleam wanly along a railroad siding lined with empty timber cars. Tiny in the picture's exact center, a man is silhouetted on the wooden porch of a trailerlike shack whose glowing window gives it the air of a fairytale cottage. Details of the actually squalid scene are barely legible in gloom that is like the crudded varnish of an old oil painting. (I am now in the market for one of those frame lamps that illuminate such paintings.) The bearded man has his head thrown back and a bottle tilted up. Glug, glug. It is a gesture of abandon that salutes the place and whatever is transpiring in the sky. It unclenches a wildness.

This distant view is a tour de force among Mannikko's portraits of deep-North characters in their tatterdemalion homes. Himself a 36-year-old northern Finn who lives in Oulu, Mannikko knows his people. He visits and often stays with them for a day or two to achieve the images that say what can be said about them. His portraits are overwhelmingly fact-filled and naked, delivering more truth more suddenly than can be absorbed, no matter how long you look at them. With allowance for the greater formality of his photographs, he reminds me of Nan Goldin, who similarly causes pictures to happen like congested freeze-frames within achingly intimate, dark flows of life. Also like Goldin, Mannikko knows how kicked-up color can function analytically, drawing almost tactile attention to the quiddities of things.

I chose the generalized portrait of the drinking man because it gives me latitude to meditate at large on Finland, a country I have visited several times (though only its southern parts) and love. My Finland is a zone of melancholy extremes. Emotional, shy, and acutely observant, Finns of my acquaintance share a national dead certainty, at once sad and defiant, of being misunderstood. Their exotic language, geopolitical bum luck, and tragic history combine to make them more interesting than it sometimes seems they can bear. There are fewer than five million Finns in a roomy but awkward corner of the globe, knowing things they despair of conveying to anyone else. When they get drunk (not as regularly as the stereotype suggests, but as intensely), it is often with a complicated, nearly sacramental will.

I fancy confirmation of all of this in Mannikko, whose finesse as a photographer is likewise Finnish, characteristic of a culture famous for subtle talents in many genres of making. …

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