[RESEARCH] The Guardian – Artist of the week 104: Elina Brotherus
10 June 2017
Elina Brotherus’s photographs are rarely instant snaps. One of Finland’s best-known artists, she takes her camera into the northern wilds at dawn or dusk, when the light is faint, creating haunting images with very long exposures. In the landscape photography that’s dominated much of her output, she captures more than looming mountains and barren stretches of open country. With its compression of time and impressionist light, her images seem to capture not merely the contours of a place but its atmosphere.
Having studied photography in Helsinki, Brotherus initially produced self-portraits, stamped with her personal, emotional experience. In 1999’s The Dog, she curls up on a mattress on the floor, hugging her faithful pet in various poses suggesting the lonely musing that might follow a break-up.
Her later photographs, done after she moved to Paris in 1999, summon up the ghosts of painting’s past. In the immaculate compositions of 2007’s Études d’après modèle, danseurs, dancers flex, twist and pirouette in a pneumatic modern-day version of Degas’s ballerinas. The New Painting (2000-4) turned vast skies, peaks and valleys into shimmering Titian-style studies in space and light. Brotherus often punctuates the bleak beauty of her homeland with a solitary rambler: herself. She turns away from us like the shade of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, asking us to take in the scene alongside her, and think about our place in the world.
Figures regularly turn their back on the camera in Brotherus’s work, though a recent suite of photographs put the artist centre stage once again. Time Series IV is a sequence of close-up headshots – part intimate disclosure, part scientific study – with one portrait created each day for the past year, while the artist underwent treatment for an undisclosed illness. Seen in sequence, the images make visible the subtle changes wrought by medication, with the artist’s face a clock marking the passage of time.
Why we like her: For her Baigneurs (Bathers), an ongoing video and photography series begun in 2001 – which won the artist a nomination for Finland’s equivalent of the Turner prize, the Ars Fennica, in 2007. Brotherus brings some steely northern spirit to the classical subject of bathers, depicting skinny-dippers in arctic streams and pools.
Testing the waters: Brotherus studied chemistry before she took up photography, following in the footsteps of her mother, who had also studied the subject before opting for art school. “I was left with this idea of what adults do,” she says. “They do chemistry and if that doesn’t work, they study art. So that’s what I did.”