Chronicling Depression, with Photography
Ville Kansanen is a self-taught landscape and portrait photographer who fixates on loneliness and authenticity. In his “Procession of Spectres,” Ville explores his own recovery from depression, which he likens to a loss of selfhood that requires reconstruction. For this and other work, he won the International Photography Award for Fine Art Photographer of 2015. For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann chatted with Ville about his creative process, his new experiments with sound design, and the Finnish virtue of silence.
Emily von Hoffmann: You have a very distinctive style that is present in various forms throughout your body of work — how would you describe that style, and how has it evolved into its current form?
Ville Kansanen: Thank you, that is a wonderful compliment! My approach was always to spend my early years learning an aesthetic of my own because I recognized that I wouldn’t really have anything terribly meaningful to say, but could learn a rigorous technique. Now that I’m a bit older, I hope to create more conceptually robust work. I would describe it as minimal surrealism or perhaps melancholic surrealism. It is heavily influenced by surreal painting, sculpture, cinema, and to a degree graphic design.
EvH: You wrote that you use your work to explore the human condition — How did you arrive at self-portraiture as the best way to do that? How does your performance of self sharpen the creative process of this work?
VK: I realized at some point that I had to commit to the work fully and become immersed in it. The work is me. I fail at being myself in so many other aspects of my life but when I create photographs, I feel my most authentic self, and it seemed like a natural progression to put myself literally into them. The performance aspect of my work is at times intoxicating and hypnotizing, and at times it is very painful and agonizing. I know it sounds trite but I feel it is a very spiritual experience; it overrides all my conceptions of comfort and limitations. There is something incredibly special about actually touching the landscape instead of merely recording it.
EvH: You use lone figures and vast landscapes as complementary, mutually revealing characters; you wrote that you’re interested in the landscape because “it does not care if we are in it, if we are swallowed, lost, or found.” Can you talk a little more about your use of landscape, and how you feel it can create an emotional experience or revelation?
VK: The contemporary industrialized view and use of nature and land is as inventions. Nature is something we vacation in, put into pictures, or subjugate for industry. However, our self is tied to an on-going natural evolution — it is not separate from anything that we see in the world. I feel like that process has been psychologically diverted from nature by our inventions. I try to use landscape as a framework to communicate the internal friction we experience being “outside of the natural world” by placing myself directly into it. That act changes how the landscape is read — it becomes an internal, metaphysical world.
Places like Bonneville and Death Valley are never entered — they are encountered — you became acutely aware of being at the mercy of the heat, howling wind, dry air, the corrosive salt, and sometimes freezing cold. Everything you thought of, precautions, plans, and sketches refined in the comfort of your home are likely going to fail to a certain degree. I always have a threshold period of adapting to that sense of elemental chaos and it always produces disastrous and wonderful accidents. You just need to let go of control and let inquiry and intuition take over.
Landscape is also about space. We travel from one various-sized space to another in our daily lives. You can theoretically go for days without seeing the horizon. Everything is constantly obscured by something man-made. I find that deeply depressing.
This is especially tragicomic when you visit places like Yosemite where they have these commercial visitor centers where people view landscape photography from large TV-screens and are disappointed at the real thing outside the window.
For me, the great expanses remove my sense of self from distracting contexts. You cannot see bodies or hear anything except your own movement and all the minute operations of your own body echoing inside your skull. You are present with yourself and you have to face yourself. There’s a tension which is hard to overcome, especially since we have grown accustomed to distracting ourselves constantly.
EvH: Silence and desolation are also strong undercurrents in your work. You’ve said that these are themes in your own life, as well as in Finnish culture where silence is traditionally considered a virtue. Can you share more about how your personal experience has shaped your art?
VK: Finns are quite particular about their silence. It is OK to be quiet with your friends or family, no need to fill space with inane chitchat. I feel this creates a wonderful propensity for meaningful connections and conversation; on the other hand, it also creates a fairly antisocial society. I will probably receive some hate mail from my Finnish friends for this generalization.
I use the word silence but perhaps it is actually stillness. It is very poetic. If you look at traditional Finnish paintings by great artists like Akseli Gallen-Kallela or Albert Edefelt, you see this lyrical stillness in them which is so beautiful. If you watch an Aki Kaurismäki movie, you will see and experience that same stillness.
I have struggled with depression for years and it has left me feeling very isolated because it distorts your worldview and strains relationships. If you allow that depression to run rampant long enough it can destroy your entire sense of self. The work I call “The Procession of Spectres” deals with that concept and coming out of such a state, out of this loss of selfhood. This experience and creating work out of it crystallized how my selfhood is constantly in-flux, in “a procession of disjointed moments,” to borrow from pop-neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer, who puts it so eloquently.
EvH: Congratulations on your recent awards, by the way. You’re in your tenth year of work as a photographer, and are entirely self-taught — how did you get started in photography, and what are some of the most important things you’ve learned since then?
VK: Winning the Lucie Award still seems a bit surreal to me. I have been practicing photography for ten years but I would say I have been properly committed and serious only the past 2–3 years. I’ve been very apprehensive about trying to put the work out into the world and I still have trouble with that part of being an artist: the exposure. I wanted to be a painter since I was very young and never considered photography as an option.
I had always been very interested in doing things with computers and had Photoshop, which I used mainly to just draw things and experiment with. Not until my mother bought a digital camera for my birthday, did I realize that Photoshop was meant for retouching photography. I guess the word “photo” in the title evaded me somehow… Anyway, when I put my images into Photoshop, everything changed in my mind.
In the beginning, I essentially took photographs only so I would have something to do in Photoshop. This is a very small but significant difference from making images and using Photoshop as a tool to enhance them. For me photography was never a representation of a static single moment because of this mental starting point. It was always a material to be built, joined together, mixed, molded, and changed.
The most important thing I learned is that mistakes are wonderful learning devices; everyone should welcome them with joy after the initial sting wears off because nothing else sticks with you like a gut-wrenching mistake and well considered failures lead to great development. The second most important thing: always carry sunscreen.
EvH: Your project “Survey 001” seems like a bit of a departure from your other work in that it is interactive, and also involves some sound design. Can you describe the concept of that project for our readers?
VK: OK, this project is a bit self-indulgent, I admit. It really began out of this desire to take straight tourist photographs of Death Valley with my mobile phone. However, being allergic to boredom, I had to come up with a justification for doing that.
I also really wanted to learn how to create online multimedia experiences and develop interesting design components to observe space. It really is kind of an elaborate study. The concept is to explore Death Valley as an internal alien landscape. I was fascinated with how using a diving bell point-of-view and limiting the vast desert-scape made it feel incredibly intimate. No one ever takes photographs of the rocks and pebbles which make Death Valley, but there are droves and droves of classic B&W landscape photographs of it.
So, I thought of ways to obfuscate the cultural notion of Death Valley by limiting the optical viewpoint, limiting narrative information, and creating a scenario where you land into it without knowing anything about it. I had so much fun immersing myself into that fiction and everything became instantly more interesting and detailed. It also made it somehow very sinister, mysterious, and frightening.
The most striking feature of Death Valley is how it sharpens the fact that we are helpless creatures in the world without our technology and culture. I would love to do more projects like that. Not too many people really cared for it or understood it. It was a bit disheartening, so I needed to set that aside for a while. Maybe I’ll come back to it. I really enjoyed creating my own sound design for it. My goal with the soundscape was to create an immersive experience, which complements the sharp edges of Death Valley, the heat, and the alien quality of it. In a way, I wanted it to reflect the landscape and the perilous, unknown aspects of it.
EvH: Who (or what) are some of your most important influences?
VK: Early on, I would have to say Storm Thorgerson, Elina Brotherus, Gregory Crewdson, and the ParkeHarrisons were a huge influence on me; also, the surrealist movement — especially Magritte and Dali. I have always loved photographers who work very hard on single images like Misha Gordin and Jerry Uelsmann. My current work is strongly influenced by sculptors and land artists, such as Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, Stephen De Staebler, Antony Gormley, and Olafur Eliasson. And music! I would probably never take a photograph if I didn’t have music to put me into a headspace to make work. Nils Frahm in particular really primes my heart to make pictures.
EvH: Can you share with us any plans for future projects that you’re particularly excited about right now?
VK: I am exploring more land based and structural work right now. I’m very fascinated with the concept of creating structures and forms, which can only exist within the temporal space of a photograph or multiple photographs. In fact, I am traveling to Utah very soon to begin working on these ideas and that is very, very exciting indeed!