Samuel Poromaa Stockholm, Sweden
Samuel Poromaa is a Swedish artist born in Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden. He is now living in Stockholm. Although he was originally educated to be a painter, Poromaa took the step into the virtual world through various art projects for internet-based media, which included everything from working with video, photography, animation, digital painting and graphic design. Today photography is his principal medium.
A recurring theme within Poromaa’s varying art projects is urban space, where city environments are viewed and organized as surfaces that can be arranged perceptually as well as produce responsiveness on an emotive level. There is something deeply human in the outlook of his pictures, which more often than not is stressing the presence of a person by enhancing its absence. Rather than portraying actual events that take place in a certain scene, and therefore stands in relation to the flow of time, he chooses to depict his motifs “out of time”, or as traces of a moment that has just passed. Thus he uses the urban landscape to paint a picture of everyday life as it has already happened, as well as devote it his studies through a conceptual, textural and formalistic approach, as geometric shapes combined in order to achieve compositional perfection.
In 2011 he released the book Urban Walks, which is a photographic record of his visual and conceptual wanderings in the urban landscape between the years 2008 and 2011.
Samuel Poromaa was chosen by photographer Isabelle Thibeault-Jolin
Laatikkomo’s interview with Samuel Poromaa April 12th, 2014
L: Where are you from? What cities, and/or countries have you lived in – or what places have influenced you?
SP: I’m from Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden, but I have been living in Stockholm since 1983. I would say that one of my core-things about photography is to dig where you stand, so urbanity is the base of operations, because I simply get a lot of it living in a big city as Stockholm. But having said that I’m getting more and more convinced that my background in Kiruna also plays a role in how I approach not only urbanity but art in general. Kiruna is a small town built near the wide open spaces of the moors and fells. Memories I’m carrying from my early years is very much about a kind of pure and clear form, the ever-present open spaces of the nature, but also a sense of melancholy and loneliness. These memories I carry with me into most of what I do as an artist. You see, to me the motif I choose will always subordinate concept and emotions, so to be honest; my inspiration comes from many places both from within and from all kinds of outer aspects of life. I would say that my biggest inspiration is the virtual world of games and movies and mainstream culture in general.
L: What is your earliest memory of photography?
SP: Well, I don’t really have very early memories about photography; this came later when I purchased my first camera back in 1979 at the age of nineteen, taking pictures of landscapes to use as a kind of sketchbook, a basis for my paintings. But I can actually remember when I got a pretty strong sense of photography and what you can do with it artistically and that was when I first came in contact with Ola Billgrens paintings, the Swedish artist who was part of the photo-realistic movement back in the 70’s. His paintings and the photo-realists in general has been and still is huge inspiration for me.
L: What type of photography do you take (digital/analog)? How does it affect your photography (the kind of images you take and the way you take them)?
SP: I shoot digital now, but since I have taken photographs more or less seriously since the late 70’s I have of course also photographed with film, but nowadays it is strictly digital. I don’t think it has any impact on the types of pictures I take though, but it affects how I take them, at least it used to do if I look back to when I started taking photographs seriously with a digital camera.
When using film you tend to be more careful of what you do, because of the technical aspects; it is a slow process, where digital photography is the opposite to slow. And in the beginning, with my first digital camera, I did take a lot of photographs on every photo-shoot, because it was easy, fast and cheap. This has changed drastically over the years and nowadays I’m much more cautious and deliberate with my photography, which means that I take far fewer pictures every time I am out shooting.
To shoot digitally plays an essential role in how I work with my images though, since a large part of what I’m doing is about the digital darkroom. It is really two processes to me that together, at best, lead to a working piece of art; namely the process of taking pictures and the process of working with them in post-production. So in that sense, doing it digital is crucial. But on the same time it is clear that much of what I do in the digital darkroom, I would also be able to do in a traditional darkroom, it’s just that it’s infinitely easier for me to develop and refine ideas in a digital darkroom compared with the often quite tedious and slow work in a traditional darkroom. I also do like to work with computers, and have been exploring the possibilities of the virtual world for quite some time now.
However, it’s obviously a difference between how a digital photograph looks compared to film, that’s a fact you never can get away from, but since I hardly ever think as a photographer when I’m working with my pictures but more in the webs of a painter, then the process of post-production is anything but photography specific, and in my mind the digital darkroom offers more opportunity, at least to my knowledge, to move up the limits of what photography can be. There is also a trend in today’s fine art photography that in my opinion is about looking back, a kind of nostalgia where film plays a big role; monochrome, film-based and often bit outdated and worn, like looking at photos taken in the 40s and 50s, though they really are taken now, and I have a little hard to really understand this urge to indulge in nostalgia. For me it’s a bit too much of a romantic retrospection and I think that photography as an art form should devote more time to be contemporary, or even forward looking technically, aesthetically and conceptually. One can also see these tendencies within the digital photography in the use of various software’s that try (without any luck) to imitate analog photography. I know that I have been fishing in these troubled waters from time to time too, but my absolute goal with what I do is to have a conscious approach to my personal language of aesthetics and my expression as a conceptual artist, which hopefully is forward addressed, not nostalgic, and not with the mind fixed on trying to mimic something else; a past long gone.
L: Your images are very carefully composed, many have geometrical aspects and you have also given a lot of attention to colour and shades/tones. Everything looks planned and well thought out, is experimentation or haphazard chance also involved in your process?
SP: This is a very interesting question, and a very hard one for me to answer in a simple way. The only way is to say that my process on the one hand is very deliberate and planned and on the same time very much about haphazard, chance and pure luck. This is in fact the strangest thing, and the most wonderful thing with art; this almost magical intertwining (at best) of absolute control and the complete lack of it. If I should even try to explain how this works for me I do have to go back to the two processes I was speaking about; very simply put, one could say that the one process, the actual photography, has a lot of elements of chance and luck, even if I do plan and compose with proper care directly in the viewfinder. In fact it’s quite common that I get surprised by the pictures I took when I load them into the computer. Often, this is about things I have not seen, when shooting, since I have been quite busy with strictly formal aspects, but it is these random outsourced tracks that make the photo-shoot worthwhile; in fact it is often these frames that finally become a starting point for my work in the digital darkroom. The second process , the post-production , I would like to believe is very much about putting the image’s shape and atmosphere; find the tone , find the right color, the right contrast, the right mood and above all work with the images with the goal of an idea and an emotion, and not to forget; find my own language aesthetically and conceptual-wise.
This is obviously a very deliberate process, but it does also involve experimentation (to experiment and try new things is to move forward, I think). But even if this process of post-production is basically planned and well structured, my images almost always, at some point, take on a journey of their own, and I often get the feeling of being more of a passenger than the actual driver. So you see, this is quite complex, but I do like to believe in the planned and well-structured process, not only because I often work in series and projects where the overall feel or idea that extends over many images is important to keep track of, but also because the aesthetics is quite important, not more important than the idea or the emotional impact, but important. I often compare this with a doorway; an image’s aesthetics can at best serve as a doorway to the room where the idea and feeling is waiting. Without this door it can be quite difficult to attract the audience and pull them into the adventure you as an artist want them to take on. Then again, I have encountered many doors that lead nowhere, where aesthetics rather becomes a locked door, or a door leading into empty rooms, so aesthetics is important, but far from everything.
L: In the Laatikkomo gallery you are presenting a series of images from urban abandoned or squatted buildings. What is your relationship to these locations?
SP: You know there is quite a large community within photography that is engaged in exploring abandoned places (Urban exploration or Urbex), and as I have experienced this movement it seems to be almost exclusively about the exploration and the documentation of ones findings, and not the way I work with photography at all.
My images presented here are actually part of a specific project I call YMCA, and they are all shot at the same location over a period of one and a half year. To be honest this project is not about abandoned places at all, and it is far from Urbex. It might look the part to some, which is perfectly fine, but I assure you that my objectives have never been to document and to show the world what I have found, at least not in the lines of I have found this abandoned structure and this document serve as evidence that I have been there.
When I first caught a glimpse of this place, this derelict industrial compound outside Stockholm, sitting on the commuter train on my way to another photo-shoot I was struck by a feeling of discomfort but also a sense of enticement. I simply felt drawn to the place, and when I finally was on ground a week later this eerie feeling where even stronger, and I remember thinking of the movie Hostel; that was my initial thought; a creepy feeling I carried with me throughout the project, even if the initial discomfort changed along the way, moved back and forth from discomforts to fear, to sadness and despair, to euphoria and back again. My eyes and my mind kind of adjusted to the darkness of the place over time, and I guess that is one reason to why the project went from Hostel to YMCA.
Anyway, this journey to me has been about walking with the ghosts; it is a place of constant change, a constant ongoing degradation, where layers upon layers of communications in the form of graffiti, tags and street art fill the obscure abandoned halls. It is a dark, messy and gloomy place bursting with bright colors. The feeling of sadness keep getting broken against a sense of an ongoing party; joy and sadness hold hands. And so the voices, this persistent communication in the form of graffiti that seems to get a whole new meaning in the context of time and decay, like the spirits still lingers in the darkness and talk to themselves and to me. So I guess I took upon myself the task of trying to decipher and understand what the spirits of the place was trying to communicate, and you know this is actually something that really interests me not just in this project but generally speaking; to use the milieu where I’m shooting as platforms for the reminiscence or the reverberation of events. I’m always more intrigued by these reverberations, these tracks we humans leave behind, than the actual events, and in this context, places like this is the perfect spot for me. But I’m not part of the Urban Explorer community, to put it simply; they are usually pretty quick to take to the next deserted place in search of new discoveries, while I choose to stay behind, trying to penetrate the depths of the site’s inner life, digesting it slowly over time. Dig where you stand, simply.
L: The urban landscape seems to be at the heart of your creations. What do you think the future of urban environment will be?
SP: Well, the urban landscape or urbanity is constantly changing and evolving, and I’m quite confident that we will reach a point where urban spread will lead to environmental disaster; I mean, we are already well on our way. This particular abandoned structure for example, where YMCA has become a project of mine, is in itself an environmental disaster. It used to be a place where ink-cartridges for printers where made but after the company went broke, they simply fled the place leaving it and its surroundings so polluted that it is almost impossible to even try to clean up. The area has been left to its fate since then, while the various parties involved, authorities and company are arguing about who is responsible for cleaning up the mess. I don’t know what the outcome of this will be and I probably have a pretty dystopian way to relate to questions like these, but I think you know by now that my agenda is not really about the urban landscape itself or the political, social and environmental aspects of urbanity, although these aspects obviously can be found within my work from time to time as a kind of backdrop.
L: Do you consider your work to be in some way socially or politically involved?
SP: You know to me art is about questions, not answers, so I can’t really say that my art is socially or political involved. Maybe it is, maybe it is not, it is what you as a spectator wants it to be. Of course I have an agenda with what I do, and I can of course, and do leave my tracks as clues for you to follow or not, but I would say that the core is basically about making questions visible, not telling you how to respond. I do believe that we as artists at some point have to hand over our work to the viewer, and leave our own ambitions or agendas behind. In that sense we no longer own the experience. If my ambition where about making statements, I would have chosen a different carrier. But having said that I do not mean that artists or art can’t influence people’s minds, on the contrary that is exactly what art is all about.
L: Could you list 5 (or more) words that you were thinking about when you made this work (shown in Laatikkomo)?
SP: Ghosts, time, despair, joy, communication, decay, fear… and about a hundred more or so.
L: Laatikkomo is based in Finland and we couldn’t help notice that you have a Finnish name, are you as Finnish as your name?
SP: No, I’m not Finnish, but my father was born in a small village near the Finnish border (up north), and the name Poromaa is actually the name of a house. The story is that the first Poromaa was a hunter that lived on the Finnish side of Torne River. This was in the early nineteenth century when Finland was, if I’m not mistaken, a part of Sweden. Anyway, where he lived, there was a great lack of game to hunt, so he decided to take his boat over the river where he then build a house that he named “Poromaa”, due to the vast amount of reindeers in this area. So the first Poromaa were a man from Finland, and the name is his house. I am myself born in Kiruna, where there are a lot of reindeers too, so…;)
Thank you so much Samuel!