Photographing the sublime

Carita Laamanen's hand-printed photographs undermine London's well-known façades

‘Façades’ by Carita Laamanen, 2010

Unusually for a young contemporary photographer, Carita Laamanen works solely with methods that are fast becoming consigned to the history of photography. Preferring to work with 35mm, medium format or slide film, Laamanen self-processes her own negatives wherever possible and hand-prints her photographs. “I like the materiality of film and the aspect of chance involved. The process of working in the dark room and waiting to see what I’ve taken is infinitely more gratifying than the delete or download process of creating digital images”.

Working with 3200 ISO film, which is eight times more sensitive to light than regular film, Laamanen purposely ‘pulls’ the negatives to make the fine grain in the film’s texture more noticeable. Standard practise would have been to avoid a grainy effect since it can be an indication of a photograph being enlarged too far. Laamanen, however, cherishes it: “The grain in black-and-white film clearly shows that it is a photograph rather than a straight window into the world.”

Photography’s ability, or inability, to represent reality is a preoccupation in Laamanen’s work. Her latest series of photographs, Façades, raises doubts over an image’s ability to represent a city, in this case London.  A two-and-a-half year project, Laamanen started work on Façades when it was pointed out that she photographed everywhere (she’s photographed Buenos Aires, Helsinki, Istanbul, Paris and the remote North of Norway) but the city in which she lived. Accepting this as a challenge, Laamanen set out to confront London and with it, photography itself.

The atmosphere in Laamanen’s photographs is palpable. Citing among her artistic influences Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographic Seascapes and Caspar David Freidrich’s painting Monk at Sea, Laamanen manages to capture equally sublime landscapes within London’s city grid. A jumbo jet is suspended alone amid Laamanen’s immense and silent London sky.  Adjacent city tower blocks take on the depth and awe of a rocky ravine.

Laamanen’s view is strikingly different to that of London’s commonly perceived image. L’effet papillon, which beautifully describes the potential power and fragility of a butterfly’s wings, Laamanen successfully ascribes to a vast steel and glass railway station hall. A series of familiar stone steps on Southbank become anonymous, surrounded by intrigue and silence. Laamanen’s skill is not so much in deconstructing well-known images of London, nor in capturing what is ‘truly’ there, but in using the city’s facades to reflect her personal experience.

“Despite its name the city is anonymous, for its identity is nothing but a sum of its benefactors’ amplified words … What is a city but a human construction? It is filled with buildings like it is filled with people and therefore despite its concrete grid it is human through and through. Without its inhabitants the city is a ghost and with them it is an array of their façades.”

Laamanen commits to no particular view of London and instead presents us with a deeply personal and beautifully poetic depiction of the city and its elusive façades.

Find out more about photography and its influence on our lives

Read Susan Sontag’s seminal book On Photography. Hear contemporary thinkers and practioners Peter Galassi, Blake Stimson, Joel Snyder, Douglas Nickel, Vince Aletti, Corey Keller, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia discuss Is Photography Over? at SFMOMA.