Mastering the Power of Three

A photographic vision is rarely built from a single great image. We can all make such photographs, share them, exhibit them, or have them published on a magazine cover. There is nothing wrong with that. When we make a second great image that shares the same qualities of the first one, and yet is entirely different, a relationship begins to form. But it can’t stop there because who can resist comparing the two? Which one is better? It’s possible to spend a lifetime going to portfolio reviews with stacks of these disparate winning images. We can break out of that perpetual struggle by producing just one more—a third great image, one that, again, mirrors the first two, yet sings its own song the way that image one and image two must also do. With three independently strong yet linked photographs—the same, but different—the comparisons cease and a pathway emerges. I call this emergence “The Power of Three.” From there, we can anticipate a fourth photograph, and a fifth—in fact three years or three decades worth of seemingly endless and significant works. The pathway photographer is born.

It’s the same with project-based work. A project has a beginning, middle, and end. When a project is finished, it is far easier to begin a new and entirely different one than it is to stay on the same path. And with little or no connection between them, we are back at the portfolio table to find out which one works best.

The Power of Three traverses subject matter. It’s not what we photograph but how we see it. Photographs that gain this power are not casual snapshots, of course, but images that have been seriously self-vetted and critically evaluated by colleagues, teachers, and mentors who have come to know and take interest in our photographic careers.

Oulujärvi Afternoon, Paltaniemi, Finland, 2009, ©Arno Rafael Minkkinen/Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Oulujärvi Afternoon, Paltaniemi, Finland, 2009, ©Arno Rafael Minkkinen/Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

THE HELSINKI BUS STATION

If starting out on a pathway is difficult, staying the course is even more challenging.

You aspire to become photographer, build a body of work, and two years later bring it to a portfolio review. Five minutes into the session and the conversation turns to the photographer who inspired you too much; in other words, it’s time to find a new direction. Two years later the scenario repeats.  And repeats. Everything you do has been done before.

Welcome to the Helsinki Bus Station. It’s an analogy I created some 25 years ago for Finnish students seeking an answer to the originality dilemma. The Helsinki bus station is arranged by platforms from which the buses depart along the same route out of the city. And that’s the problem: you are riding someone else’s vision, or so they say.

The key is to look at the whole route map and long journey each bus takes. By the fourth or fifth stop, the routes start to separate, and soon every bus is barreling away happily along its own route. It was only at the beginning that the similarities were so obvious. The moral of the story is simple: Stay on the fucking bus. It’s where we wanted to be in the first place when we started the journey, even if we didn’t know it.

Christmas Eve, Fosters Pond, 2015, ©Arno Rafael Minkkinen/Courtsey Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Christmas Eve, Fosters Pond, 2015, ©Arno Rafael Minkkinen/Courtsey Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

PATHWAY PHOTOGRAPHERS

The Power of Three does not award gold, silver, or bronze medals to individual images. Every photograph is essentially on equal footing. We simply create from within, no longer seeking winners, and no longer in search of a visual signature. We have that. It’s how Norm Diamond sees the objects at the estate sales he attends that define his pathway, not the concept of his lovely project. As he moves on to other subject matter, the irony, humor, and tough love he shows may well surface among the leading hallmarks of his vision, of the way he works, not what he shoots.

Norm Diamond Everything Must Go

Norm Diamond Everything Must Go

Norm Diamond Man of the House

Norm Diamond Man of the House

Norm Diamond Yellow Airplane

Norm Diamond Yellow Airplane

In my own case, perhaps I came to this understanding from the work of my teachers Harry Callahan, George Tice, and Aaron Siskind, all pathway photographers in this sense. Fosters Pond in Massachusetts has been my outdoor studio for nearly three decades. Ironically, my closeness to the pond is also the reason why I travel so much. Plane tickets buy new backgrounds. Otherwise, little changes in my work: the same body grows older, the same funny ribcage and collar bone anomalies, the same height and weight, the same count of fingers and toes, the same split upper lip with varying lengths of mustaches and beards to hide the deformity. This consistency of persona perhaps allowed me to master the Power of Three and create the pathway that defines my photography.

Maroon Bells Sunrise, Aspen, Colorado, 2012, ©Arno Rafael Minkkinen/Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Maroon Bells Sunrise, Aspen, Colorado, 2012, ©Arno Rafael Minkkinen/Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

ART IS RISK MADE VISIBLE

It was George Braque who anchored my pathway: “Out of limited means, new forms emerge.” That meant making a contract with myself about what I would not do. I would not photograph someone else to make my kind of picture for fear of putting them in harm’s way. I would not use an assistant to check my position in the frame or the result would be collaborative. I would not wear clothes so that I could preserve timelessness and avoid fashion. I would not manipulate anything in the camera or darkroom so that the image would correspond exactly with the reality before the lens.

Put simply, I work alone. I see the image in the viewfinder without me and imagine what the lens will see some nine seconds later. I trust my camera to finish what my imagination started. Whether analogue or digital, negative or RAW file, the unequivocal truth of the reality in the viewfinder rules, and yet, in the best ones, mystery still prevails.

As a twenty-something copywriter on a camera account, I wrote: “What happens inside your mind can happen inside a camera.” I believed it, and turned my life over to the lens. Later, I wrote: “Art is risk made visible.” The audience for our work expects to see our challenge, the risk we’re willing to take to do the work we do. We will know when we have veered off our pathways, and so will our audience, most of whom we never meet—the people who see our photographs on websites, in exhibitions, or in books. Their appetite for the work is as insatiable as our own because such audiences recognize in pathway work that a lifetime vision is underway and possible, even starting with just three photographs. 

This article first appeared in Issue 6.

Arno Rafael Minkkinen is a Finnish-American photographer with exhibitions, publications, and collections spanning 45 years. He is a recipient of the 2013 Lucie Award, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship. His work is represented by Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York.