The Helsinki School

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The Helsinki School refers to a loose group of photography artists, still studying at or already graduated from the Photography department of Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland. This specific photo-education is based at the Aalto University, School of Arts, Design & Architecture which is the largest art school in Scandinavia with 400 teachers and nearly 1700 students of which 14% are from abroad.

The predecessor to the Aalto University's School of Arts, Design and Architecture was The School of Sculpture that was founded in 1871, later the University of Industrial Arts Helsinki and, until 31.12.2009, the University of Art & Design Helsinki. The School has been located in the 'Arabia' factory campus at Hämeentie 135, Helsinki since 1987.


The approach towards photography changed about 30 years ago when the focus on strict photojournalism seemed to change. New teachers brought in new ideas, such as Pentti Sammallahti who encouraged students to perceive themselves as artists, as well as British photographer Martin Parr, who served as visiting Professor in the department for 2 years at the end of the 1980s bringing his own international outlook and experience as a pioneer of the new British photography movement of the time.

Timothy Persons has been Senior Lecturer since 1982 and is currently Director of Professional Studies at the University of Art and Design Helsinki. Persons brought a new way of thinking into the school. He created a virtual gallery, Gallery Taik, which represents outstanding students on international art fairs such as Art Forum, Berlin and Paris Photo.

Art of teaching[edit]

When selected to the Helsinki School group, students are pushed to: produce series of photographs, thinking about a concept and realizing it, to prepare portfolios that are of international standard, to present each other's work, to write artist statements about their own work and learn both the history of, and the practice of, conceptual art. While students also learn a lot regarding the practices and history of photography as art in the actual curriculum of the Photography department, they are not, contrary to popular belief, pushed to become conceptual photo artists unless they choose to apply to The Helsinki School.


It is impossible to name one style or genre within the Helsinki School. In that way the school isn’t a “School” or movement historically speaking. But what they all have in common, is an intense and precise aesthetic awareness. They work with thoroughly planned concepts and whole thematic series. Finland hasn’t got a long tradition of photography so the style of the artists from the Helsinki School isn’t as self-referential or self-conscious as the Japanese or the American photo-artists’.

“In art historical terms, however there are other criteria that must be met to call a group of artists a school. Beyond location and function, their work should share some unique stylistic, material or thematic qualities. Examples of this abound, from the expressive naturalism and inventive compositions of the 15th century Netherlandish Schools to the Manhattan motifs and burly colors of the Ashcan School 500 years later. The photographic art being produced in Helsinki cannot be easily categorized by style, theme or material. The artists’ personal visions, techniques and presentation vary widely. (…) While most of the art is conceptually based and many of the photographs feature the northern light typical of Arctic and sub-arctic regions, a light that can lend an elegiac, lyrical quality to the works, there is no uniform “look” unique to the Helsinki School. Rather, it is the approach taken to making photographic art that is uniqueliy its own and uniquely Finnish in intent, design and execution.” Ferdinand Protzman

Artists from The Helsinki School[edit]

Elina Brotherus is one of the well-known photographers coming out of the Helsinki School. She reflects upon the history of landscape painting and female nudes placing herself nude in nature. She examines self identity, sexuality, love and loneliness all at the same time.

Miklos Gaál is another Helsinki graduate who is well known internationally. He uses a special technique within the camera to manipulate the photographed scenery. The end result looks like toy worlds, but are actually pictures of reality.

Jari Silomäki began his series “ The Weather Project” in 2001. The concept is simple: every day he takes a photograph and then writes upon it what was on his mind at the moment, or what was in the news on that particular day or maybe just the weather forecast.

In the series “Tangible Cosmologies” Veli Granö takes photographs of people who collect objects such as bottles, toys or cans as a hobby or perhaps an obsession. His occupied by eccentrics, people who are not looked upon as normal. There is a melancholy but also humour present in his photographs.

Jyrki Parantainen deals with human anxieties and aggression. In his series “Fire” he took photographs of rooms that were deliberately set on fire. He uses himself to a degree not often seen in art photography, putting his life at risk. Thereby he also explores his own fears and anxieties.



  1. ^ Helsinki School, Helsinki, Retrieved 14 May 2016

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