INTERVIEW WITH OLA KOLEHMAINEN
"The project has radically changed my artistic identity." ⸺ Finnish photographer Ola Kolehmainen's work is a visual journey through space, time and light. In his new series, he showcases places where faith is practiced. Inspired by his explorations of Islamic architecture and mosques in Istanbul, he then took portraits of synagogues, mosques, churches and cathedrals across Europe.
Ola Kolehmainen spent three years traveling through Europe, photographing sacred places. He told Spiegel Online about the tricks he used to light the enormous interiors—and why the guards at Hagia Sophia are like siblings to him.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Kolehmainen, you usually photograph façades. Now you’re showing us the interiors of synagogues, mosques, and churches. How did that come about?
Ola Kolehmainen: It wasn’t even my idea. A collector in Istanbul asked me to make some portraits of the mosques designed by the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. He fundamentally altered the way that mosques were built. His buildings have no pillars; he allowed himself to be guided by religious requirements. The eyes of the faithful should not be obstructed, regardless of whether they’re looking at the imam or toward Mecca. And Sinan turned out to be the ideal starting point for my project: he was an Armenian Christian, influenced by Romanesque, Byzantine, and Persian architecture.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Difficult to imagine today. In recent weeks the tension between Jews and Muslims has grown; added to that is the increasing distrust between Muslims and Christians in the so-called West. Is your series of works, It’s All One History, Almost, political commentary?
Kolehmainen: I wasn’t thinking at all about the political part when I started in 2014. I had simply realized that Sinan was a contemporary of the other great church builders, Michelangelo and Andrea Palladio, but they had never met. So I decided to expand my focus. Meanwhile, relationships among the religions became more tense, and even more so after the terrorist attacks in Paris. The world was changing all around my work. The project radically altered my identity as an artist.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In what way?
Kolehmainen: My perspective expanded. One of the turning points was my visit to the Capella Scrovegni in Padua. I fell in love with the space. Because even though the human beings there are only parts of frescoes, I had strictly avoided the figural up until then. Above all, though, I had to devise a new photographic vocabulary.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?
Kolehmainen: In order to capture the sheer volumes. The trick: I lit a space in sections and afterward reassembled them, slightly offset. A tool that I lacked for a long time. I’d already tried it before, in Paris, around 2000. I knew that there were one hundred churches in the 18th arrondissement alone. After number 78, I realized that it wasn’t going to work.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But why didn’t it?
Kolehmainen: It didn’t look like anything. I couldn’t manage to capture these incredible spaces in two dimensions. You could say that all of the years I’ve spent working with architecture since then have been my training for the current project.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The British artist David Hockney has been working with this kind of cubist photography for a long time—for instance, in his Polaroid collages. Did he inspire you?
Kolehmainen: I think his new video works are particularly strong. I hope to be able to discuss them with him someday. I’m fascinated by them, because we’re seeing things in exactly the same way: in fragments. It’s our brains that first assemble the fragments into pictures. I want to evoke this sense of space, not churn out some oversized postcards.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Thanks to these collages, you’re also showing us details we can normally never see. Do you want to democratize the buildings?
Kolehmainen: I want to make them accessible. My first photograph of Hagia Sophia, for instance, shows the way the ceiling really looks, thanks to the long exposure time. Otherwise, it’s simply too dark. By the way, that picture is not in the book—I realized that I had exhibited it so much already. There are others; I did thousands of photographic studies there. I worked in Istanbul for seven months and was always in Hagia Sophia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you manage to capture a moment in which it was empty? Usually, it’s packed with crowds of people.
Kolehmainen: I was allowed to go every Monday, when they were officially closed. I had a special identification card. By the way, Hagia Sophia is now mostly empty. Due to the political situation in Turkey, due to Erdogan, due to the terrorist attacks, tourists are staying away. Otherwise, there used to be twenty to thirty thousand people per week. I fell for the building. Even after I was done, I still went there every Monday; I couldn’t do otherwise.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You must have been on a first-name basis with all of the guards there.
Kolehmainen: They all thought: this guy is crazy. Seven months—and he keeps coming back! Afterward, the security guards and I were like siblings. Everyone laughing, greeting each other when I arrived. After all, I spent a lot of time there. Imagine that you want to make a long exposure, and then someone somewhere turns on a light. The building is huge; it takes time to find the person who can turn it off again.
An Interview by Anne Haeming. You can read the entire interview in Spiegel Online.. In this context we'd like to thank Allison Moseley for the translation.
The exhibition It's All One History, Almost can be seen until March 4, 2018, at the Helsinki Art Museum.