This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes Issue.3, Spring 2014.
“I gave myself permission to photograph whatever I wanted; however I wanted.”
Heikki Kaski's restless independence has created an original body of work culminating in his latest series of off-kilter documentary photography, Tranquillity. His delicate film images, with faded colour and subtle light, contain a fragile and unearthly free spirit.
Kaski is from Finland, but for the last few years has been hanging out and taking photographs in California. One town in particular, Tranquillity (spelt with two ‘l’s), caught his attention. It is the subject of the book that won the Unseen Dummy Award for unpublished photobooks at the Unseen Photo Fair in Amsterdam last September. Heikki initially went to photograph a street sign that said Tranquillity after spotting it on a map: “To me it was bliss to plant a town with that name in the middle of the desert – at that time I thought the area was desert, which it would be without the irrigation.”
Tranquillity lies between San Francisco and Los Angeles in the San Joaquin Valley. Part of California’s Central Valley known for its agribusiness, its flat and arid landscape is carved up by a network of irrigation canals stretching all the way to northern California and beyond. It is surreal and desolate, one of the poorest counties in the country. As an outsider, Kaski initially found access difficult to come by. Undeterred, he kept going back, sleeping in his car or a tent outside the only bar in town to meet people and find a window into their world.
“It may be important that I am from somewhere else with a ‘fluid’ global identity. Finland means absolutely nothing to most people. I can only imagine what I look like, lugging around big cameras and pointing them at the strangest things.” Kaski describes being overwhelmed at first as he tried to keep sight of what he was doing there in “the heat of the valley that the winds never reach”.
“Doing this kind of thing, you expose yourself to the possibility of another kind of reality other than your own. With that comes the inevitable change of your perception through learning; the subject changes and the photos change. The book depicts this process as much as the real life subjects.”
With no narrative as such, the book is far from a conventional collection of photographs; it makes “a point of complexity and refuses a cadence”. It is peppered with various still-lives and landscapes that describe the remoteness of place. Usually only one person features in a picture at any one time, their purpose veiled and uncertain, their face often blurred.
Tranquillity is the embodiment of personal experience. With a moving sense of loneliness, Kaski uses the language of documentary photography to create something that is self-reflective: “I hope there is still a place in our culture for something that is slow, difficult and private. That something exists even if it’s not posted to a stream. Right now, at least for me, it’s hard to bear something that’s not stimulating in the immediate sense of the word – to just sit it out.” Kaski’s work is a stream of life in which human beings are not the sole focus, yet are present in every picture.
Images by Heikki Kaski
Words by India Windsor-Clive