Surfaces of light, surfaces of water

A person using a photographic camera is curious about the world, about other people and themself. The photographic camera being used by the person is only curious about light, its wave nature and its particle nature. This light is at once a part of the physical world and outside it, like the surface of water is a part of the water, yet impossible to define in terms of mass and volume and atoms and molecules. Light itself isn’t seen, but its function is to facilitate seeing. Seeing what? Everything there is. Light undoubtedly exists, but its mode of existence is something a primate’s mind will always have a hard time understanding.

Because the camera is a being of light, it does not divide the world into things. It is only interested in the flow of light, its spectrum, intensity and propagation. It measures these and compresses the result onto the two dimensional surfaces of photosensitive film.

As for the person using the photographic camera, the photographer, all they do is search, select, frame, illuminate, think and interpret. And in the end they press the release that opens the shutter and exposes the film for a fraction of a second before closing again. By doing this, the photographer imagines, they are capturing not only light but meaning as well.

And yes, indeed, Karl Henrik Edlund’s pictures do contain ample amounts of significance. In fact, they contain multiple themes and narratives, traces of past time in the present and anticipation of future time. Simultaneously, they are liberated by light in its total, undivided aspect. Many of his pictures are characterised by imprecision and opacity, overexposure and underdevelopedness. These interferences and, more generally, the large variety of lightings, framings and stylistic schemata used by Edlund prevent the viewer from merely thinking about the pictures, from interpreting them, from reading them. They make the pictures visible.

In many of Edlund’s pictures, the boundaries of ordinary sight are breached and broken, and any conclusion about the pictures’ subject matter becomes brittle. In one picture, there is a broken boat. Its bow is blurred and the cracked stern is the center of focus. Behind it there is a body of water, seemingly consisting of almost nothing but light. It is hard to say whether the water is frozen or liquid. The shoreline on the other side of this lake, river or bay tells us that the picture is in fact tilted: the boat is no longer rocking but the world definitely is. A metaphor is thus created. The sensation of instability associated with being on the water has gained some existential undertones.

If this were only a picture of a boat, its blurriness and instability would be needless, even disturbing, but in Edlunds pictures it is a way in. It takes us one step further, into the realm of second degree meanings, in which the parameters of perceiving things and thinking about them become loosened. 

In another picture, the roof of a far-off house is reflecting a bright light. This picture, like the previous one, is blurred and overexposed and it hasn’t been sufficiently agitated in the darkroom. There seems to be a thin membrane of loose light between us and the picture, like some enchantment, giving it an oblivious beauty, a sense of stopped time. But if the landscape below is held in stasis by an insulating light, the sky above is full of movement. It has folds and ripples, an unevenness of value, different wavelengths striking different poses. This texture is produced by big, cosmic movements, the friction of atmosphere against outer space, but all the little movements as well – the reflection on the roof of the house, the lively glimmer on the river – are produced by this bright light of day. There is, then, a tension between two kinds of illumination in the picture: the sleepy membrane and the arousing sun. These give rise to different states of mind, fruitfully conflicting psychologies.

Like these two, the other pictures in the exhibition differ enormously from each other. Edlund moves between styles, freely hybridizing the various genres of photography. He mixes romantic street photography with realist documentalism (the embracing youths on a streetside bench), anthropological reportage from the northern extremities of Eurasia (the fur-hatted men in a room full of smoke, the potatoes germinating in the long light of the boreal spring), psychological portraiture and allegorical still lifes (the cardboard space probe as an idealization of the camera, the cardboard cars, lizards and bears standing in for moths and butterflies, attracted to the light). Edlund creates broad, fluctuating horizons of significance, while constantly maintaining a consciousness of the traditions and technicalities of photographic art.

There are two overarching themes in these pictures, youth and the North, whose intersections and contradictions are revealed in the pictures themselves as well as in the tensions arising from their juxtaposition.

The north is a slow and cold dimension, existing in cyclical time. In the north a single year brings forth dramatic, repeating changes in the environment, but the procession of centuries causes very few historic and irreversible changes.

Nevertheless, there have been historic events, and the North as represented by Edlund is living in a time of posteriority in relation to these. The previous century has mechanized all hunting, gathering and farming. It has created and dismantled various political systems and connected even the tiniest villages to the global information network. But this process is now past. The history happening right now, namely climate change, is completely different. It is gradual, it steals forward. It will change everything, but it will do so stealthily, incrementally, almost imperceptibly.

Youth, on the other hand, is a most straightforward age. It is a compact period of pure one-offness, whose whole goal is to break free of all molds. This can be seen in Edlund’s portraits and close-ups. In them, people’s gazes are always excessive. They’re too open, too threatening, too bored, too interested. They are decidedly separate from their environments and the cultures produced by them. They are full of an uncertain, yet intensive individuality. These faces are surfaces of clear and bright water. Looking at them, you can look deep.

To sum up, I will say this about Edlund’s pictures: their surfaces are akin to surfaces of water. Only when glanced at from afar do they look like static, frozen moments. If afforded some time, they are seen to be full of change. The reason for this is rather simple. When a picture is looked at, time passes, and the looker changes. He brings his ever-changing self into the situation. On the other hand, if these pictures weren’t so full of potential, so full of the unclassifiable, unnamable freedom of sight meeting light and the consolatory flow of liberated meaning, this other flow, this flow of self, might well go unnoticed.

Pauli Tapio

Essay published coinciding with the exhibition Bright Hours at the Finnish Museum of Photography in Helsinki 12.1.2013 - 18.3.2018.

Back to texts