Esko Männikkö

Pudasjärvi Finland 1959, lives and works in Oulu

To the reproach once made that women rarely appear in his photographs, Esko Männikkö responded dryly: ‘I am a photographer of fish, dogs and old men.’ Indeed those are the subjects that predominate in his work. But to this one could add the landscape and the many, almost incidentally portrayed things that surround the people whom he photographs.

In a formal sense Männikkö’s photographs become, due to the expressiveness of the pose and the intricacy of the lighting and color distribution, images in which all elements have equal importance. But his equal treatment of human figure, objects and environment does not seem to be a matter of stylization, and his way of working does not come across as an intervention. Männikkö manages to maintain a very precise balance between distance and involvement: the impression of artlessness has its foundation in a great mutual respect between the photographer and those who are placed in front of his camera.

Somehow we would like to know more about these people, but Männikkö’s photographs contain only scant information despite their openness. They have no air of knowing what motivates or occupies these men. Clothing and tools occasionally allude to activities outdoors. Yet there is no sentiment or nostalgia, about life in the wilderness for instance; nor are the photographs dramatic or sensational, about loneliness or social circumstances or as a means to inform society about life in distant, unfamiliar places. 

Männikkö places his works in old frames picked up at the flea market. Although he himself once said that this ‘makes it easier to hang them,’ the photographs are strongly influenced by the frames. They become more obtrusive, like decorative objects that demand too much attention. But most of all the frames establish a direct link with the world that Männikkö photographs: such frames can be found in the interiors as well, around pictures and photographs hung on the wall. This minimizes the distance to the world that he depicts; it is as though he ‘takes sides’ and thereby views the ‘official’ notion of art with some irony.

The photographs derive their strength from the authenticity of the subject matter but are not unrelated to developments in art. In the Düsseldorf school, in the photographs of Thomas Struth for instance, we see a similar way of looking: an allover view that gives every element equal treatment. Here, too, one can see latent political, social or psychological motives within the ostensibly formal perspective. One striking difference, however, is the scale. Unlike the German photographers, whose works are usually large, Männikkö does not approach the monumentality of the image on the basis of scale. With him, it is the very intimacy of size, frame and color that sharpens the eye for every unique detail of the surroundings. And in contrast to their methodical, more serial way of working, that of Männikkö allows each photograph to be as singular as the lives of the individuals portrayed.