On the windowsill above my desk sits a postcard-sized portrait of my mother, made in a Detroit department store in 1941, when she was just one-year-old. Whenever it catches my eye, I’m always struck by how strange it is that, despite the generic studio setup, the soft even lighting, the baby-faced cheeks and the wide-eyed gaze, I can distinctly recognize her in the picture. Seventy-two years later, not only do I see a little girl with a white ribbon in her hair; I can also discern the woman she became (and is) decades later, and even perceive faint traces of myself in her features and expression. It’s as if the photograph conveys not just the present that it portrays, nor simply represents a memento from the past today, but in some mysterious way has always – ever since its making – contained very subtle intimations of the future, of her future, as well.
That said, I am fully aware that everything that I now glean from this image is entirely retrospective. And fundamentally I know that this is not the purpose of such standardized childhood portraiture, nor does it in any way reflect the intentions of the photographers who make such images. Instead, their motives are to reassure parents and relatives that the children sitting before their camera are safe, sweet, healthy, happy, and in a sense, forever young; to preserve and protect their subjects’ youth, and in many ways subdue any traces of their approaching adulthood. To prove the point, each year when my own children return from school with similar portraits of themselves – in front of the same pleated backgrounds, under the same even light – I am endlessly frustrated by the fact that no matter how hard I try, I always fail to see how these pictures might predict how my children will look, or who they will become, in twenty, fifty or even seventy-two years time. Nevertheless, with my mother’s picture in mind, I cannot help but suspect that somewhere, even in the tiniest details, they must carry within them this potential.
Strikingly, the Finnish portrait photographer Nelli Palomäki – who often focuses on similar subjects: poised children and young adults – has an uncanny gift for tapping into just such potential. Whilst acutely engaging with her subjects in the immediate present, her images also bear the feeling of perpetually looking forward, and are hauntingly pregnant with intonations of the possible future-selves of her subjects. As the artist and curator Timothy Persons notes in his introduction to Palomäki’s recent monograph, Breathing the Same Air, “Whether these photographs are of children or young adolescents they all share a knowledge beyond their years.” Palomäki has said herself, “I like to play this game, imagining where they will live and what they will look like in twenty years time,” and her photographs adamantly insist that the viewer share this curiosity, and join in the game alongside her.
Of course, it’s vital to recognize that despite their convincing nature, the ghostly echoes of maturity that reverberate around Palomäki’s young subjects are in fact both imposed and imagined; that as much as these pictures might resemble their sitters today and perhaps in future, they are also self-portraits – reflections of momentary yet intense relationships that the photographer herself has constructed and nurtured. “Each and every portrait I have taken is a photograph of me too,” Palomäki acknowledges, “What I decide to see, or more likely, how I confront the things that I see, inevitably determines the final image.” Palomäki generally hidden but subtly potent presence within each photograph, and her determination to portray something that profoundly speaks not only to the past, but also more specifically to a shared present and a potential future is the underlying key to their power, and re-positions photography’s relationship to memory and notions of possibility – the past and the future – in a remarkably affecting way. At 27 with my Dad (2009) – by no accident the opening image of Breathing the Same Air, and one of the few in which the artist herself appears – makes both the intensity of the present and the time-spanning scope found within her portraiture poignantly clear. As she herself explains it:
“I never had the courage to take a portrait of my father. Maybe something would happen to him after the picture been taken. Or maybe I would succeed in revealing something that I didn’t want to be seen…We don’t hug in our family. We’re not so close in that way…So it felt somehow so forced, suddenly to stand there, like that, him holding me. But after developing the film I realized something. My dad was actually bigger than me – a lot taller, and maybe slightly wiser too. Suddenly my role as a daughter was clear. My father’s hand on my shoulder was protective. I looked like a fifteen-year-old child. I believe my father realized the same thing…We didn’t fight after the portrait. This is a portrait of my father. This is exactly how I want to remember him.”
Nelli Palomäki is a photographer living and working in Helsinki, Finland.