From the urban stories of his landscapes to the human stories of his portraits, Markus Henttonen’s photographs immerse viewers in images that are silent and eloquent, mysterious and evocative.
Henttonen’s unique form of ‘magical urbanism’ blends the poetic with the documentary, reportage and the fairy tale. It’s easy to see why Henttonen sees the separation of his professional work from his artistic as a false one. He brings the same eye for evocative mystery to both. In this interview he talks about the roofshot image that got him invited to a party and his love for Wolfgang Tillmans who liberated his sense of the photographic.
A shot of a single powerful memory/event?
Markus Henttonen: PARAL-LEL CITY my first real art project inspired by the city of Barcelona exhibition in 2002 and a book published in 2004. My first trip to Barcelona as a photography student in 2001 has been so far the most powerful single event. The city gave me such inspiration and I found my way to photograph the urban environment. The pictures from this trip became my first exhibition and a book named Paral-lel City. When I graduated I moved to Barcelona and lived there for a few years photographing my own art projects and also doing freelance photography.
An image of 3 books that have inspired you?
Markus Henttonen: Wolfgang Tillmans, Burg. Pearl Jam, Twenty. Helmut Newton: Sumo
Favourite photo you have taken?
Markus Henttonen: I do not have one single favourite, usually my own favourites are the ones that I am currently working on, the ones that are the latest. Some pictures have even become more interesting for me too as I have heard other peoples interpretations of them. For me the most memorable pictures are the ones that include a story. The story in the picture or in the making, something might have happened while taking the photograph, a special moment or feeling, a place or encounter.
Rooftop Party is a picture like that: It is photographed in a special place, an art residency in Barcelona of a Finnish art council of Häme. The residency has been a very special and important place for me. I had many times looked at the view and planned the picture in my mind, but there was never anyone there in the rooftop of the building facing the terrace of the residency. This was to be my last trip to this residency and it was my last night there. Suddenly I noticed that there were people gathering on the rooftop and preparing to have a party. I quickly put together my equipment and shouted across the tiny street between the houses if I could take a photo of them and if they could stay still for 8 seconds for the exposure. I nailed the frame with my Mamiya 7 and they invited me to the party afterwards. This is the thing in photography. It is a great way, a perfect tool to also meet new people.
Markus Henttonen: At the moment I have many artists that I like and they are not all photographers. I really enjoy going to exhibitions and seeing other artists´ works. I also have a wide collection of photo books which I unfortunately do not have enough time to concentrate on. But from my early days in photography, some ten years ago, the one photographer that has been the most influential and in that way a favourite is definitely Wolfgang Tillmans. Before I got to know his work I was more familiar with traditional photographers and style. Through his work I understood that there is more than one way to do this and all the rules in photography are meant to be broken. That was liberating for me and my photography – a bit like the way the band Nirvana was to the music industry.
From the more commercial end of photography I really enjoy seeing the work of Helmut Newton, his style has always been so recognisable and also brave, ahead of his time, and he was able to work on the top for so many years until his death. I wish to keep that kind of a spark to the work too.
Can you recreate the image of a scene from your favourite movie from the contents of your desk/bag?
Markus Henttonen: I really like the movies from Alejandro González Iñárritu,…
…and David Lynch.
They all make interesting, powerful movies. I love how they tell stories and handle the themes. I can not recreate scenery out of a movie with just my desk contents. This is way too much of a challenge for me. Maybe I just need to stick with my own stories and scenes in photography!
How does your professional work play onto your exhibition/artistic work?
Markus Henttonen: They compliment and support each other in my opinion. With my professional work I learn techniques that are useful in my own artistic projects and the vision that I have in my art I can sometimes use in commercial work too.
It feels artificial to think of these two as totally separate things. I appreciate photographers that are able to work across a wide ranges in photography but still at a high quality and level. Nadav Kander is a great example of such talent.
Many of your portrait subjects feel like ‘outsiders’ – the skateboarders, the ‘adult’entrepreneurs, even the Angry Birds guys who succeeded from ‘leftfield’. Does your work attract certain kinds of clients?
Markus Henttonen: I think my portraits have more to do with being real rather than certain clients. I don’t see my subjects being outsiders nor do I want to present them like that on purpose.
However in the portraits I want to present the ‘real’ subject and maybe that brings out some kind of an outsider feeling. I would preferably use the word honest. I think there is a slight touch of melancholy and maybe the off-moment with expressions and gestures that brings interesting things to a portrait. My portraits are maybe not always the most flattering to the subject but they are always beautiful and genuine.
You bring a strong sense of narrative to your vision of cities, urban spaces and neighbourhoods – they’re mysterious, odd, ominous even. Where does that sensibility come from and how do you create that effect?
Markus Henttonen: First of all for me everything starts with the location, it has to be selected carefully. In my pictures the compositions are simple but thoughtful. It is how I see the world – first inside my head and then with the camera. In the location I usually think of a story of what has happened or what might happen, so maybe that is visible in the finished picture. Of course the photography basics as cropping and depth of field are important too.
The second thing is light which is always important in my pictures. Whether it is picture taken in daylight or darkness it is essential. I want the light to look real even if it is artificially created.
The last is of course photoshop, I do use it but not to create the picture maybe just to highlight something that is there originally. I am not a photoshop wizard so most of the work always happens on the field.
Tell us a little about the ongoing Night Time Stories and how do settle on the subject matter?
Markus Henttonen: Night Time Stories is a series on the city where the everyday is like a film. I am interested in the relationship between people and their urban surroundings. With this series I focus on the feelings of melancholy and the outsider – what it feels like when you are a bit lost or have the feeling of not belonging in the place. There are hints of sadness but also love in these stories that are not solely my creations, just atmosphere and feelings and slight suggestions.
My latest series is called Silent Night where I have photographed Christmas decorated houses in the L.A. area. I felt really drawn to the visual aspect at first but quickly realised there was so much more. Decorated houses rise in the middle of the darkness wanting to be seen. They are at the same time somehow frightening, threatening, exciting yet appealing. There appears to be no one there but the presence of people is obvious. A little light in the window, a car parked on the driveway, a swing of a curtain.
And on the other hand the observer, viewer, someone in the dark. The name of the series suggests Christmas time but this is not the main focus. In this series I am more interested in the empty streets, the houses fully decorated outside and so still in the night. In my pictures the focus is on the feeling and stories, at the same time it is my story, the viewers´ story and the story of the whole society.
Who would be your ideal commercial clients and what would you shoot?
Markus Henttonen: My ideal client.. That would be the kind that gives me free hand on the project with ideas and lets me do the photography in my style. Guidance and boundaries come from the client, ideas and realization from me, the result is excellent quality work. I have done these kind of projects and they have been great for everyone involved. A good project always should include an appropriate budget, clear directions and mission, a talented, enthusiastic team… and of course I don´t mind if the project is successful and ends up as an exhibition too…
To see more of Markus’ work, visit his website.
You can also view his work for Image Source here.