For Arno Rafael Minkkinen, nudity is akin to spirituality. “I don’t want to be seen as a nudist,” he says. “But there is something about how close you get to the act of creation by walking around by yourself in some stretch of forest in Finland, with nothing on, looking for a photograph, climbing rocks and moving around like a monkey. Bared assed and just digging your toes into the soft earth, you really feel like you’ve been created.”
Over the past forty years that sense of freedom has compelled him to photograph himself in a variety of scenarios: sometimes curled up on a sandy beach, other times dangling off the edge of a cliff, always naked as the day he was born. The sites change constantly, but Minkkinen routinely becomes part of the landscape, connecting body and nature in the most surreal ways. In one shot taken in Nauvo, Finland, he hunches over in a lake so that his dirtied back resembles a log or rock emerging from the water. In another—taken in Stranda, Norway—he balances on a tree so that his leg and thigh form a branch extending from the trunk. “There is no age to the picture when it is just the landscape and the body,” he says. “They could be reality from 1305 because of the nudity.”
Born in Helskini in 1945, Minkkinen believes his affinity for nature—and, more specifically, water—reflects his Finnish roots. Another deep-seated influence is that he was born with a cleft palate. “My mother had been hoping for a princess girl and I was the total opposite of that,” he says. “I always felt like an affront to her beauty.” Doctors corrected the cleft palate as best they could, but with results that fall far short of today’s possibilities. “Surely someone who is missing a limb or who is deformed in a really horrible way has to have it a lot worse than my mouth. But a mouth is what you kiss with, eat with, speak with. That’s where people look when they watch you.”
Minkkinen, who immigrated to the United States with his family when he was six years old, rarely features his face in photographs. Even so, he still describes them as “nude self-portraits.” In the same way that Alfred Stieglitz took “portraits” of his wife Georgia O’Keefe that only featured her hands, Minkkinen sees his body as an entry point to humanity. That he’s shot them over four decades adds to the sense of autobiography. “I put my face in there every once in a while just to remind the viewers that it is me,” he says. “They have to know I’m the one who is making the picture.”
Arno Rafael Minkkinen is a Massachusetts-based artist and photographer. See more of his work here.
William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook.