Worth a Look: Pentti Sammallahti / by Graham Dew

Pentti Sammallahti, Solovki, White Sea 2, Russia (1992)

Pentti Sammallahti’s retrospective book Here Far Away was one of the best books to be published last year. If you have read any online or magazine reviews in the past six months you will almost certainly have seen this book glowingly praised in reviews. I have a copy (a very nice Christmas present); every word of praise for this book and the pictures within is fully justified. I have seen Sammallahti’s photographs in the past but never as a large collection. This book puts together some 300 images drawn from an impressive number of books that he has had published over the years.

Pentti Sammallahti, Solovki, White Sea, Russia (Dog with Bag), 1992

Sammallahti is famous for his pictures of snowbound, bleak Arctic environments, sparsely populated by brave people in heavy coats and thick hats. Always he seems to have his lucky dogs wherever he goes. These dogs that act as people substitutes; dogs bringing in the provisions, dogs enjoying the breeze, dogs hanging out with their mates. As Mike Chisholm commented, Sammallahti seems to be a dog whisperer who can conjure them up when needed and get them to perform a vital pictorial role. When dogs are not needed he seems to be able to muster similar assistance from almost any other species; cats goats, monkeys, you name it.  Sammallahti has travelled to many other places other than his native Finland and snowy wastes of northern Russia. Indeed, there are pictures from every continent within the covers of the book. I particularly liked his pictures from Morocco and some lovely group portraits of Roma.

Pentti Sammallahti, Solovki, White Sea, Russia, 1992

One obvious, striking feature of his photography is his wonderful use of the panoramic format. His images often read as mini cinematic sequences or Chinese scrolled pictures. In some pictures he manages to capture two decisive moments in the same elongated frame, with critical actions happening simultaneously on the both the left and right of the image. His pictures have a consistent elegance, sparseness and humanity. In all my reading and research about him and his pictures I’ve not found out which camera he used for his wide format pictures. No matter, the important thing is the eye and his sense of design.

Pentti Sammallahti, Cilento, Italy, 1999

It’s worth a word or two about the manufacture of the book. This book is a fine example of the book maker’s craft.  Given the large number of panoramic images it is hardly surprising that the book’s designers have chosen a landscape format for the layout. At 242 by 300 mm the book sits nicely on the lap when opened. The pale blue cloth binding with tipped in photo on the cover is nicely understated and the paper is a nice cream heavyweight mat that works well with the neutrally printed monochromes.

Pentti Sammallahti,
Solovki, White Sea, Russia (Man Walking Away on Snowy Road), 1992

The first edition of Here Far Away seems to have sold out from most online retailers, but is currently being reprinted and should be available again in a couple of months. If you would like a copy it might be worth pre-ordering. 

Here Far Away by Pentti Sammallahti is published by Dewi Lewis Publishing ISBN: 978-1-907893-26-1