Natural Woman: An Interview with Sanna Kannisto

By Anna Carnick

Sanna Kannisto, Close Observer

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Sanna Kannisto’s latest series, Fieldwork, explores the dialects of nature and art. Since 1997, the Finnish photographer has spent several months each year living alongside biologists in the rainforests of Peru, Brazil, French Guyana, and Costa Rica. Adopting elements of her companions’ scientific methods and concepts, she’s developed her own form of visual research, extending her depictions of flora and fauna beyond the confines of the natural sciences. Her work addresses the acts of staging and image-making, showing not just the beauty of nature, but also the tools used to achieve her images. With gentle humor, Kannisto recognizes and uses the constraints of photography and science alike, investigating the concept of truth in photography to challenge how we perceive and “know” the natural world.

Kannisto’s Fieldwork exhibition is on view now through June 23 at the Aperture Gallery.

We spoke with Ms. Kannisto earlier this week.

 

AC: Where did your fascination with nature come from?
SK: I’m used to being near nature and forests. When I was child, we spent summers and weekends in our countryside home. I was always playing in the forest, singing, making huts, and collecting insects, frogs, mushrooms, and such with my little brother. We also went picking berries and fishing. It was a great, outdoor life. I also did some early nature studies. Maybe that has influenced my attitude towards nature. I have always been fascinated by how science explains the world to us.

You’ve been shooting in Latin American rain forests for almost fifteen years now. What was the original motivation for this setting?
My first idea was to make portraits of the plants and small animals of the rainforest. I wanted to find the most spectacular species imaginable. I was very interested in the huge species-richness and in the beauty of the rain forest. At the time, I was twenty-two, and I was just doing my final thesis for the first art school where I studied.

Why scientific stations?
I chose to work in scientific stations because I wanted to learn how scientists do their fieldwork. And I wanted to borrow some of their working methods as well as scientific methods of representation for my work.

How has your series evolved over the last several years?
I gave up on making portraits of animals and plants with white backgrounds quite soon, and I started to show my own photographic arrangements as part of the image. I also wanted to look more closely at what the scientists were doing. I started to think about how we actually approach nature in art and in science. I began to use different approaches and perspectives in my photographic work. I took different roles: the artist, the scientist, the animal, the visual researcher, and sometimes I adopted the attitude of a romantic traveler.

Prior to Fieldwork, did you have any formal scientific training?
No. I just have “practical training,” which has grown over the years.

What is your relationship or interaction like with the scientists at these field centers?  Is there a sense of collaboration?
The collaboration happens in small things. Everyone has their own projects and people are often busy with them. There is still always some collaboration—because most of the people are curious of others’ work as well. There’s discussion, sharing ideas and problems of everyday work. I have I teamed up with researchers for going out at night to mist-net bats, to count reptiles or mammals. I have been studying how birds are being captured with mist-nets. A few times, I have helped collect samples and pressed samples for herbarium. Some scientists have helped me with my shooting, and many of them have brought me “materials” from the forest. I have also gotten tips about where to find things. Scientific stations are quite isolated from the surrounding world (or they used to be!), so people do get to know each other when they are working in the same place for months and months. And they do help each other if needed.

How do you perceive the relationship between art and science? Has your understanding of that changed over time?
I like my role as a sort of mediator between art and science, drawing parallels between them and working very freely with different ideas. I think art and science are too separated. I wish that there were more interdisciplinary projects. Universities and research organizations have wonderful projects and also interesting equipment; it would be very fruitful if artists had more opportunities to work together with scientists.

Duct tape, wiring, and set construction are incorporated into many of these photos, exposing the methods of conventional nature photography, and even documenting your own role in the process. Why did you choose this approach?
I wanted to show the process and study my own role as an actor, as someone experiencing this world. I was interested in that.

Fieldwork explores the concepts of scientific visualization and, at the same time, questions the objective nature of photographs. [For example, for Monkey Bones, you created a scientific scene by gluing teeth back into the skull of a howler monkey in the lab alongside a scientist, then took the bones out to the forest to shoot.] How do you reconcile these two ideas?
The conception of the world that science gives us needs constant specification and correction. Photography and science are closely linked. There are similar ideas of objectivity or apparent objectivity in both practices. Like we all know, photography has been used as scientific tool since its beginnings. Both scientific and photographic truth is often something constructed according to institutional needs, or, in my work, according to my artistic needs.

Beyond general staging, the box sets you use also lend a theatrical element to some of these photographs. It makes them stage-like, and you a kind of director. What are your thoughts on this?
Photographing plants and animals in my small-scale studio has become one important working method for me. It’s one way to reduce and frame the abundance of the rain forest.

Strongly lit, simplified, white space is to focus the viewer’s attention, metaphorically creating the same kind of situation as in the theater. When the object has been isolated, taken out of its original setting—out of nature—and put to the stage it becomes special. The still lifes in the studio also have an allegorical nature. For me, photography is a medium that in itself documents the transience of life. Practically speaking, the studio enables me to work regardless of weather conditions, which is an advantage in the tropics.

You’ve mentioned previously that some of your images are inspired by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scientific still life paintings. Are there any particular artists of those eras or others that particularly inspired you?
Especially the Dutch and Flemish painters like Frans Snyders, Rachel Ruysch, Jan Davidsz de Heem, Jan van Eyck, Johannes Vermeer, and many others.

There’s also an interesting back-and-forth between order and chaos, which seems to arise from trying to monitor something that is very much alive without disturbing it. Can you tell us a bit about working in a living environment?
Even though I have a clear idea of how an image should be, some situations can be unpredictable with live animals. This is something I enjoy.  I always like to work with some chance and intuition. It’s great when birds challenge the frame with their speed, or when I have had the chance to observe and find a way to photograph bats flying in my tent many nights . . . I guess learning more and more every year has changed my perspective and also trained my eyes to see always more in the nature.

At the same time that these photos realistically depict the natural world, there is an undeniable, whimsical element to them. Can you speak to that combination?
One of my aims is to use irony and humor to investigate the concept of truth in photography, and to ask how we actually want to view nature. According to Claude Lévi-Strauss, during the course of cultural evolution, man changes a raw and unpalatable nature into one that is cooked and digestible. Photography can resemble a cooking process of sorts. The photographed objects are made intelligible by being photographed, and are incorporated into culture. In the same way as in science, art, too, is used to try to bring the world under control. The impossibility of this task is also linked with a certain absurdity that I have noticed in my pictures.

 

Fieldwork is available now through Aperture.

The Fieldwork exhibition is at the Aperture Gallery through June 23rd.
547 West 27th Street, 4th Floor, New York, NY

This exhibition was made possible, in part, with generous support from FRAME, the Finnish Fund for Art Exchange; Finnish Cultural Foundation; and the Consulate General of Finland.

Watch our video of Ms. Kannisto discussing her work here.

Artist Profile:
Sanna Kannisto (born in Hämeenlinna, Finland, 1974) studied photography at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. Her work has been exhibited at venues in more than twenty-five countries around the world, including Centre Pompidou, Paris; Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris; and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland.