"Opening a Gate
The ceiling of the bedroom is painted a faded sky blue. There are two large rusty hooks screwed into the beams and from threes, long ago, the farmer hung his smoked sausages and hams. This is the room in which I’m writing. Outside the window are old plum trees, the fruit now turning raven blue, and beyond them the nearest hill which forms the first step to the mountains.
Early this morning, when I was still in bed, a swallow flew in, circled the room, saw its terror and flew out through the window past the plum tress to alight on the telephone wire. I relate this small incident because it seems to me to have something to do with Pentti Sammallahti’s photographs. They too, like the swallow, are aberrant.
I have had some of his photographs in the house now for two years. I often take them out of their folder to show to friends who pass. They usually gasp at first, and then peer closer, smiling. They look at the places shown for a longer time than is usual with a photograph. Perhaps they ask whether I know the photographer, Pentti Sammallahti, personally? Or they ask what part of Russia were they taken in? In what year? They never try to put their evident pleasure into words, for it is a secret one. They simply look closer and remember. What?
In each of these pictures there is at least a dog. That’s clear and it might be no more than a gimmick. Yet in fact the dogs offer a key for opening a door. No, a gate – for here everything is outside, outside and beyond.
I notice also in each photograph the special light, the light determined by the time of day or the season of the year. It is, invariably, the light in which figures hunt – for animals, forgotten names, a path leading home, a new day, sleep, the next lorry, spring. A light in which there is no permanence, a light of nothing longer than a glimpse. This too is a key to opening the gate.
The photos were taken with a panoramic camera, such as is normally used for making wide-section geological surveys. Here the wide-section is important, not, I think, for aesthetic reasons but, once again, for scientific, observational ones. A lens with a narrower focus would not have found what I now see, and so it would have remained invisible. What do I now see?
We live our daily lives in a constant exchange with the set of daily appearances surrounding us – often they are very familiar, sometimes they are unexpected and new, but always they confirm us in our lives. They do so even when they are threatening: the sight of a house burning, for example, or a man approaching us with a knife between his teeth, still reminds us (urgently) of our life and its importance. What we habitually see confirm us.
Yet it can happen, suddenly, unexpectedly, and most frequently in the half-light-of-glimpses, that we catch sight of another visible order which intersects with ours and has nothing to do with it.
The speed of cinema film is 25 frames per second. God knows how many frames per second flicker past in our daily perception. But it is as if, at the brief moments I’m talking about, suddenly and disconcertingly we see between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us. Perhaps it was destined for night-birds, reindeer, ferrets, eels, whales…
Our customary visible order is not the only one: it coexists with other orders. Stories of fairies, sprites, ogres were a human attempt to come to terms with this coexistence. Hunters are continually aware of it and so can read signs we do not see. Children feel it intuitively, because they have the habit of hiding behind things. There they discover the interstices between different sets of the visible.
Dogs, with their running legs, sharp noses and developed memory for sounds, are the natural frontier experts of these interstices. Their eyes, whose message often confuses us for it is urgent and mute, are attuned both to the human order and to other visible orders. Perhaps this is why, on so many occasions and for different reasons, we train dogs as guides.
Probably it was a dog who led the great Finnish photographer to the moment and place for the taking of these pictures. In each one the human order, still in sight, is nevertheless no longer central and is slipping away. The interstices are open.
The result is unsettling: there is more solitude, more pain, more dereliction. At the same time, there is an expectancy which I have not experienced since childhood, since I talked to dogs, listened to their secrets and kept them to myself."
(John Berger in Why Look at Animals?, p. 8-11)
*Picture from here