Sweet Song of Harlem

By Carley Townsend and Beatrice Antonie Martino

Finnish photographer Jaakko Heikkilä doesn’t travel – he stays. Sometimes, he lingers long enough that you’ll fall asleep to the low hypnotic hum of the camera. At least, that’s what happened when Heikkilä photographed Jill, normally lively and hyperactive, suddenly still, quiet, untroubled. With a panoramic camera in hand, each shot takes a full minute, if not more, to develop, imposing a necessary stillness on each moment – a collection of fleeting eternities. Coaxed by a rhythmic repetition of “Lie down” – Click – “Rest your eyes” – buzz – “be still”– silence, Jill turns posing into repose. Heikkilä elicits a sense of magic as focus dances from detail to detail. Time stops, and the stillness deepens the relationship between viewer and subject. 

Jill in Her Living Room, 2003

I have been sitting a lot in kitchens with people, when nothing happens. Total silence. I like to meet people in that silence. It is more intensive, more intimate. I can come closer when nothing else is happening around. That sense of silence, that sense of slowness, it is the same as the photograph. The panoramic lens is rolling like that, silent, slowly. One image taking one minute.

We live in a world where everything is always moving, moving, moving. Everyone is racing to be better than the next. In a society where life is all about motion and distraction, silence and emptiness are revolutionary, radical acts. What does it mean to simply be

Heikkilä has mastered the act of radical stillness, connecting to the inherent beauty, integrity, and inner magic of the other – sitting opposite his camera lens. The subjects of Heikkilä’s photographs live whole and multifaceted lives with or without us – we are simply invited to linger in their presence, while we are here. Heikkilä’s oversized matte prints invite the viewer to pause, to rest in the humanity of stillness, stepping into another’s world. The matte quality removes the barrier between viewer and viewed, allowing for full immersion to transcend. It takes time to get in and time to get out, a necessary slowness. 

Something I need in my art is a lot of light. I take measure of the light from the shadow.

Heikkilä always uses natural light in his photography, never lamps, flash, or overexposure. The mechanics of overexposure are already inside of him. Heikkilä works skillfully to coax this source of light to achieve each humane moment, much like the masters of the golden age of Dutch painting. 

It is inside me – keeping a lot of light.

Perhaps this sense of inner light comes from the environment in which he lives – expansive open spaces, bathed in natural light, with a sense of magic. Heikkilä was born in 1956 in Kemi, a small village in Northern Finland, where he has spent most of his life. Heikkilä didn’t begin his professional career as a photographer, but he was always a storyteller. 

There were many signs in my old diaries that reflected a hope to be a novelist. 

Leaving school with a degree in civil engineering, Heikkilä worked as a scientist when he gradually fell in love with photography. In 1989, he began freelancing as a photojournalist for local newspapers and building a portfolio. When he realized he could earn an income by capturing the everyday through his lens, he saw an opportunity to explore his artistic interest. 

Photography took me. 

Heikkilä’s first major project was spent documenting Finnish minorities at the Swedish border. Riding the momentum of his passion, he brought his work to marginalized communities across the world, from Armenia to the bank of the White Sea in Russia, from cold landscapes of Serbia to the temperate climate Brussels, Belgium. Soon, he would embark on a journey to New York that would characterize the next twenty years of his artistic career and personal life. 

In 2001, he completed a three-month residency with the New York Finnish Cultural Institute, exploring the neighborhood which he learned had been dubbed the “Mecca of African Americans” since the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. For Heikkilä, Harlem carried a mythological, legendary history and culture in stark contrast to the fierce intensity of the rest of Manhattan. Heikkila refused to experience Harlem through the one-dimensional lens of hardship and social conflict as often characterized by Western white voyeurism; rather, he developed relationships and community, becoming the adopted son of one Harlem family and returning each year for a month’s time to visit his adopted home.

Harlem Baroque JayJay in His Room, 2009

It was a feeling. A good feeling. It was something quite remarkable. Right at the beginning, I met David. I felt good meeting him, and I felt good being in that area. There wasn’t an exact reason for choosing Black Harlem, it was a feeling inside. I followed my intuition. That is the way. When I met David, I started to see the possibility of making a project. He was so kind. At the first meeting, I felt like we were old friends, sitting and having coffee, and laughing together. When you meet people, it is very sensitive. You can feel very quickly if it feels good or not. 

After several weeks of observing the neighborhood’s movement, mood, habits, Heikkilä set up his camera on a Harlem corner and began photographing an adjacent wall. Curious passersby were introduced to his project and invited to be involved. Soon, the lens was capturing the charm of an elderly man in his sherpa coat, the ease of a young girl dribbling a basketball down the sidewalk, people with laughter and softness in their eyes, returning home from work. Alongside his durational panoramic shorts, Heikkilä also captures ‘facial landscapes,’ through extreme close-up profiles, revealing every little detail of the person’s face – every groove and pore. 

Heikkilä’s project, entitled “Sweet Song of Harlem” is a 20-year-long collection of wide-lens multifaceted, human narratives. Each is emphasized by his use of light – strictly natural, intentionally overexposed – eliciting a certain ethereal stillness, each detail promoted to a pedestal as a central focus in the narrative. The panoramic lens expands the space, reducing the human scale, thereby drawing attention to the intricate details of the image, giving a humanizing focus on the whole. 

Heikkilä constructs emptiness within the photographic narrative, allowing the viewer to float into the space, weave in and out – not intruding, but sharing in an invitation to stillness, to quiet the noise and stay for a while. His work embodies metaphysical aspects of time, space, and an expanded perception of the self and others as he depicts two decades of the Harlem community. 

Jaakko seeks silence when choreographing his photography. In the absence of noise, he allows the stillness of the room to invite a certain closeness between almost-strangers. His photographs extend this closeness to the viewer, the lens translating for us the relationship developed in the silence that separates us from the time and space in which the photograph was taken.

There is a lot of dust in the air and strong feelings in light of Black Lives Matter and police brutality. “Sweet Song of Harlem” is acting as a medicine, a balm, a healing. There is a gentless, strength, healing quality – humanity and integrity brought to the forefront. That silence, brought here in a time of chaos and turmoil. Whoever sees the show is touched by it – touched by the silence of which we have so little.

Venice Baroque N.H. Marino Zorzi in His Room, 2010

Today, Heikkilä’s Harlem photography work is on display for the first time in New York. Part 1 of his show, “Sweet Song of Harlem” is hosted by, and in collaboration with, El Barrio’s Artspace PS109. Part 2, “Harlem Portraits / Venice in Harlem” lives in WBX’s transitory storefront gallery space across from a tile mural of Latinx Harlem cultural matriarch Julia de Burgos in East Harlem.

Heikkilä premiered at a Finnish group show circa 2005 at the nonprofit artspace WhiteBox (WBX) Chelsea, curated by Raul Zamudio. Thereafter, Heikkilä contacted artistic director Juan Puntes, who engineered the current double photography exhibition in East Harlem. WBX invited Heikkilä to a virtual kitchen table where he could share his perspective on storytelling through the camera lens:

Q: I want to talk a little bit about metaphysics. The emptiness, the void, that is constructed out of material, out of time. The images give us a sense of time. Quiet buildings opposite of the action. I see a piece of an emptiness, a metaphysical void if you will. You build the piece with time. A conversation in the kitchen with silence.

A: I’ll tell you a little story – I was working on my second book dealing with minorities in Sweden, called “Bright Humanity.” I visited one woman very quickly, an old woman in a village very far away. I visited in October 1994 with a friend. She was sitting at the kitchen table with a blue apron, looking out the window. 6 months later, April 1995, I was in the village and I thought, ‘Today, I will see Katerina, if she is home.’ I stepped into, and looked into the kitchen, and she was sitting, just the same place, the same way, looking out, wearing the same apron. I went in and asked if she remembered me. And she said, ‘Yes, you were here last year.’ And then I said, ‘What do you think if I take the picture that I didn’t make last time?’ And she said, ‘Yes, of course.’ So I went to the other side of the table and picked up my camera. I saw that she was really beautiful in my camera. And while I had my camera up to my eyes, she said to me, ‘I was born in a forest, I became a human being.’ A poem stuck inside of her. And that is the meeting that has been following me the whole time. Respecting who I am meeting, those who I am photographing. 

The Street, 2006

We also asked Heikkilä about his unusual choice to pair Harlem and Venice together in one space:

Q: I want to come back to this show and your work with marginalized communities. The Venetian royalty are marginalized in a different way – they are on the outskirts of their 

society / culture because of their unique status. What is the intended effect of bringing the Venetian royalty into the same space as Harlem communities in this exhibition? 

Are there margins in the center? Nobility was in the center of things for many generations. The characters in both of these photographic series, akin to late Rembrandt’s oeuvre, exude nobility that were embedded in the local community. 

A: Yes, there are margins in the center. Thinking of Venice, underpinning this, is the question: are they rich or not? Many of the people in my photographs are no longer rich, but they are rich in background. Somehow, by meeting those people, by being in their presence, I got to know a lot about 16th century and 17th century Venice. It is inside of them. Same with Harlem. Being in the presence of the people, you feel the history. You get to something else. When I work on these projects, I don’t travel around. I stay in one area. Stay in the community. That is my method of working.

150 str. Billy.O. in his room

Part 1 of Jaakko Heikkilä’s show, “Sweet Song of Harlem” is currently on display until September 25th, 2021, at El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 215 E. 99th St, New York, NY 10029, Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm.

Part 2, “Harlem Portraits / Venice in Harlem,” will be on display until October 8th, 2021, at ChaShaMa Artspace, 1791 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10029, Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm.

Please visit www.WhiteBoxNY.org for more information.