In 1994 Finland held a referendum to decide whether to join the EU. 56.9% of the electorate voted in favour and the country joined the EU on 1st January 1995 adopting the Euro. In April 2016 the Finish parliament debated whether to leave the Euro following a citizen initiative petition; as a reaction to Brexit another petition is now in circulation calling for a referendum on continued EU membership.
In 1993 two photographers Henrik Duncker and Yrjö Tuunanen collaborated on Hay on the Highway, (1) a study of farms in two separate areas of Finland, Vihti and Hankasalmi, during the build-up to the 1994 referendum.
Duncker and Tuunanen intended to “illustrate a fraction of the farmers’ ideas about today and his visions for tomorrow” (1: p.5) using staged portraits, sometimes of single farmer and sometimes of family groups, combined with their written thoughts following interviews with the farming families. The book which was also the photographers’ degree course submission presents an intriguing combination of documentary and staged photography. The text is highly designed with multiple font sizes, colours. highlights and graphic designs juxtaposed with full bleed photographs.
Tuunanen uses a portable, hand painted backdrop that alludes to theatrical stage scenery in the shape of a rectangular archway and which appears in all but two of his images. The archway which usually acts an an internal frame is painted with two stylised silver birch trees against a blue sky. Its colours and the details of the painting change across the images which, as this series was produced in 1993, I assume was repainted on site rather than manipulated in Photoshop. I interpret the arch as a representation of an idealised Finish landscape and it is used cleverly to contrast with the real landscape which is often grey and bleak.
A typical rural scene is often played out in the background behind the arch, a fishing boat being pulled past nets hung out to dry, people collecting wood, a forester sharpening his saw and in the foreground Tuunanen often uses lighting to pick out his subjects who pose theatrically. There is a suggestion that the backgrounds are from different photographs which make the combined images appear even more theatrical, a stage set. Each tableaux is carefully constructed mapping the route between a romantic rural past, “the great romantic rural fable” (1: p.16) to the present uncertain times for agriculture. The subjects often span the generations in each farming family and thus allude to the passing of time, the past and the future in one scene; a young boy in a modern crash helmet references a snow mobile whilst his grandparent’s generation hold ancient tools that have worked the land for generations.
The captions, which accompany some but not all the images, talk about the changes that have occurred and how these families are devising new strategies to survive. They speak of migration from the country to the city, the changing agricultural industry and of new ventures; planting new types of trees, bee keeping, organic farming, new technologies, growing strawberries and developing agri-tourism. Each image is rich with symbolism, probably far more than I am able to identify; laden super market bags appearing from a grain chute with an ancient windmill in the background speaks of the transition from traditional flour and bread to a world of mass produced easily purchased and non-challenging produce; hard crusted, artisan bread versus the sliced white loaf.
Duncker’s photographs follow the same themes and are equally staged but they are set inside homes and farm buildings. Wall hung, painted landscapes and portraits are used in many of the images as a reference to the idealised rural landscape or to family histories. Vintage furniture and household objects are also often used to reference the past. Duncker worked nearer to Helsinki and his families appear affluent, middle-class professionals, selling organic produce as health food or keeping horses. His subjects are smartly dressed, a stark contrast from the working clothes of Tuunanen’s rural farmers, their produce or business interests are often incorporated in the smart home interiors; are the Mäkelä’s foresters or Christmas tree growers? and does the mother make artisan rugs? The Aunolan’s grow mushrooms and keep chickens, and perhaps grow roses. Eki Hakkarainen grows organic garlic.
Each image incorporates the past and the future; the family portrait and the smart wooden boxes destined for marketing expensive products; the traditional hay stack and the organic health food; crayfish apparently being produced from a laptop computer; the business man possibly checking share prices surrounded by cabbages; the women remembering her parents and their evenings listening to classical music.
It is cleverly done, contemporary tableaux, carefully staged in the style of Jeff Wall but using the subjects to play themselves in a blend of realism and fantasy, of documentary and theatre. If Tuuanen’s work feels like a theatrical stage set with backdrops and painted scenery, Duncker’s is more still life with carefully arranged objects and human subjects interacting in little narratives. Both approaches are full of symbolic detail that slowly reveals itself as the viewer flips between the text, that is scattered through the book, and the photographs, the longer we linger the more detail appears offering alternative punctums and multiple meanings.
The portrait of Mikko Yli-Rosti is one of the harder images to read, its caption is hidden behind the image, only three English words are visible, we are offered no clues. The subject appears to be in the midst of a renovation project, a new brick chimney dominates the right-hand side of the image, a stout beam holds up a ceiling or roof, the detritus of brick laying has been neatly swept into a pile to the left. The electrics look ancient and non functional and are they oil lamps lighting the rooms in the house? A painted winter scene hangs over an empty vintage desk and the subject, dressed in overalls and sitting on an antique chair quite obviously brought out from the house, drinks something from a strange antique decanter decorated with a white silhouette standing on an old fashioned table cloth. The wooden floor suggests this is an interior, perhaps an outbuilding, but its function is hidden from the viewer. One feels the symbolism is there to be read but the photograph remains ambiguous.
I believe this book was self published and it is an ambitious project with carefully designed text and beautifully structured photographs but it is also an enigma, I am left feeling that there is a code hidden here that I have been unable to decipher. What is the meaning of the Mikko Yli-Rosti portrait, is that drink something he produces? Is the renovation project and the vintage furnishings a metaphor for the regeneration of his family’s agricultural business or of a long family history that has not yet ended? This sense exists for me throughout the book; after an afternoon carefully reviewing each picture I have managed to make some links, understand some of the messages and whilst my overall impression is positive and I am able to accept it as a portrait of family families at the beginning of a new era within the EU presented within the context of their long family histories I sense that much of the photographers’ message has passed me by.
(1) Duncker, Henrik and Tuunanen, Yrjö (1993) Hay on the Highway. Helsinki: Musta Aukko