On Location: Five photographic highlights of Helsinki

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© Louise Long.

Animated by the country’s dramatically shifting seasons, the Finnish capital’s photographic scene has steadily gained international recognition since the 1960s. Here, we guide you through some of its artistic hotspots

Finland’s capital may float on a peninsula of 300 islands, but since the 1960s its photographic scene has been firmly grounded by a solid infrastructure. International-facing museums and galleries, a cohort of prolific publishing houses, and a weighty educational system underpin Helsinki’s photographic community. But changes are afoot. Financial support for artists is still healthy, but competition has never been greater. The funding model of previous decades, which bore valuable framed prints suited to the international art market, is now being undercut by new modes of self-publishing, performance and events. 

Meanwhile, other dynamics whirl through the scene. There is increasing pull from international publishing houses (the likes of Kehrer and Hatje Cantz), alongside a generational shift towards local publishers, such as Khaos, Bokeh and UTU Press. Then there are the stylistic and thematic shifts, influenced by artists’ rising ecological concerns, the encroachment of a ‘Southern European’ documentary genre, and even tendencies towards the materiality of photography.

Cycles, flows and weather systems define and animate this city. With the turn of each season – from the uncanny darkness of January to the disarming levity of August – there is plenty to bewitch visitors in Helsinki’s art scene. New spaces seem to rise from the spring melt, and even as the winter encroaches, artists gather to plot and scheme.

Below, we pick out some of the city’s best spaces to enjoy photography – adapted from a feature first published in the Time & Community issue of British Journal of Photography.

The Finnish Museum of Photography

The Cable Factory

Presiding over a collection of two million photographs, The Finnish Museum of Photography marks the country’s steadfast commitment to the medium in all its forms – from fashion, documentary, advertising and architecture. Holding 10,000 works of art, the museum may be the oldest of its kind in Europe, but what distinguishes it, says Elina Heikka, museum director of 15 years, is the presence of Finnish photographers within its ambitious international programme. This is “very special,” notes Heikka, “and not the case in other cities”. 

Exhibitions are housed across two sites: The Cable Factory – a cultural centre occupying the vast former industrial buildings in the city’s Ruoholahti district – and at the centrally located K1 Gallery, on the lower ground of Kämp shopping centre. The museum’s adjacent bookshop, The Temporary Bookshelf, is a non-profit peer-to-peer initiative founded in March 2021 by Helsinki-based French-Japanese artist Hikari Nishida. It is “a vital hub of small press and self-publishing”, praises local publisher and educator Tuukka Kaila.

Installation view of Paradoxes of Photography exhibition at The Finnish Museum of Photography.

Nide

Fredrikinkatu 35, 00120 Helsinki

Terhi Jääskeläinen and Joose Siira founded Nide in 2015, observing a lack of specialist artbook shops in the city. The bookstore fills the gap with its stacks of art theory, monographs, coffee-table books and non-fiction titles; “from the most talked about works to little-known small editions”. The outlet, in the Design District, often hosts talks and readings, which are attended by a loyal community of creatives, students and academics. Venture into the back room for choice indie magazines, and look out for pop-ups with the likes of Marimekko, particularly during Helsinki Design Week.

Bookshelves at Nide © Louise Long.

Hippolyte Gallery

Yrjönkatu 8–10 Courtyard, 00120 Helsinki

Helsinki’s Association of Photographic Artists and foremost contemporary photography gallery find their confluence at Hippolyte. Founded as a non-profit in 1978, the gallery exhibits its members’ work at two locations: its downtown courtyard space, which boasts an elegant bookshop and upstairs library, and the Korjaamo Culture Factory in Töölö. The shows are curated following a “really thorough” peer-review process, says Henna Harri, director since 2016.Ranging from installation to moving image, the programme gives space to emerging talents such as Shia Conlon, originally from Ireland, engaged in transgender processes; and Sheung Yiu, a Hong Kong-born artist exploring image algorithms. There is also an older generation of established practitioners, including Marja Helander, a Sámi artist working with moving image; and Hannele Rantala, whose recent Ateneum Museum show, Dialogue, uncovered the ongoing correspondence and friendship between Rantala and Elina Brotherus, first initiated at Hippolyte Gallery in 2009. Alongside its mentoring programme and weekly broadcast of grants, residencies and work opportunities, the Association runs the annual Photobook Award (with The Finnish Museum of Photography), continuing to bolster the city’s vibrant publishing scene.

Work from the series Altar by Ananya Tanttu on show at Hippolyte Gallery.

Helsinki Photo Festival

Various locations

The fifth edition of Helsinki Photo Festival, themed ‘Believe’, ran from July to September 2022. The annual festival offers an intense series of contemporary photography activities in the city. “We are a young organisation, and every edition is a learning process for us,” says artistic director Rafael Rybczynski. Fifty emerging and established artists occupied historic landmarks, warehouses, galleries, parks and waterfronts during the summer exhibitions, followed by an educational programme of seminars, workshops and portfolio reviews.

From the series Brightness Hiding (the failure… © Carl-Mikael Ström.

Galleria Huuto

Kalevankatu 43, Inner Court, 00180 Helsinki

Huuto celebrated its 20th birthday this summer with a party hosted in collaboration with mental health organisation Pro Lapinlahti. The open-invite event – which included film screenings, visual art, outdoor music, a ‘Flower Bar’ and face painting – encapsulates Huuto’s spirit as a fiercely independent art collective of around 120 members, eschewing the limitations of institutional spaces. Some 50 exhibitions a year from member artists are held at Kalevankatu 43, the collective’s chequer-floored exhibition space in the University of Technology’s former labs. Recent shows include Tuuli Teelahti’s Curriculum Vitae, a video installation exploring the poetics of sleep, time and water flow; and Anna Reivilä’s Metaphysics, published by Kerber in book form this autumn as Nomad, a series fusing ideas around land art, Japanese bondage and the divine.

Installation view of Nokipiirroksia by Antti Keitilä at Galleria Huuto, January 2022.
Louise Long

Louise Long is a London-based photographer and writer with a focus on culture and travel. Her work has been published in Wallpaper*, CEREAL, British Vogue and Conde Nast Traveller amongst others. She is also the founder of Linseed Journal, an independent publication exploring culture and local identity.