Harri Pälviranta, Battered

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Kult Books (here). Perfect bound hard cover with a tipped in photograph, 29.5 x 29 cm, 64 pages, with 32 color photographs and a brief text by the artist. Design by Janne Riikonen. In an edition of 300 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Finnish photographer Harri Pälviranta has tackled a series of projects over his career, almost all of them involving violence. His studies began initially as youthful forays into self-portraiture and masculine body image. Those interests gradually expanded to encompass broader conflicts, most of them testosterone fueled. In the current millennium, he’s rapid fired a stream of male-adjacent brutalities. Photo subjects have included weapon play, war sites, prison cells, border tensions, the Irish Troubles, school shooters, bullet holes, and more. As sensory assaults, their aggression belies more genial career goals notched along the way. Pälviranta has steadily climbed the degree ladder, earning his BFA, MA, and in 2012 a PhD in photography. Clearly he is a deep thinker, but his photos leverage baser instincts.

One of the galvanizing projects of Pälviranta’s disparate studies is the long-term series Battered, which collects portraits of public fighting victims. Almost all are young men. Most were shot in the mid-2000s in Turku, a small city in southwest Finland. Pälviranta stalked the town center regularly on weekend nights where, by his own reckoning, drinking and fighting were common. “People have a strong tendency to get rather intoxicated when partying,” he writes, “and, once drunk, they are released from their inhibitions. Aggression turns into physical acts.” A ready formula for photo ops. Hanging around the scene—and occasionally escorted in Turku police cars—he encountered a ready supply of such acts, which he documented from close range with square format color film and flash. He captured cuts, bruises, blood, and drunken belligerence of all sorts, crystalizing them from fleeting assaults into permanent records, the rough cultural equivalent of battle scars.

Battered has been widely exhibited in various forms and venues over the years, beginning in 2007 and continuing to the present, supplemented occasionally with new photos. Finally last fall the project was published as a monograph by Kult Books. The handsome hardcover includes 32 photographs from the series, pulled from various years and sequenced by time of incident. They fill the book’s right hand pages, where they face Pälviranta’s tantalizing captions across the spread. “3.15 Second beating that night,” reads one. “1.55 Hit by a young man,” says another. “1.05 Kicked in the head.” “00.10 He told me I owed him money.” “20.15 Tried to help his colleague.” This last one appears on the book’s rear cover, describing the obverse front photo of a man in a bloody shirt.

The captions hint at backstories —an unbroken chain of broken people—but it’s the photographs which do the heavy lifting. They document bodily traumas with unrelenting force, recalling the bloody carnage of Alexander Chekmenev’s Pharmakon (reviewed here) or perhaps the drunken hi-jinks of Maciej Dakowicz’s Cardiff After Dark. But Pälviranta’s compositions are cleaner and more ambiguous than either of those. His square frames generally contain one person each. They are subconscious studies of a sort, peering into the psyches of strangers with Winograndian penetration. 

Most subjects depicted are rather pale. Lit by garish flash against blackened backgrounds, their pasty Nordic skins (almost all are Caucasian) are an ideal canvas for blood and bruises. Splotchy red pigments cover the lower face of a young man caught “In the main square.” A closely framed head “Outside a bar” is crimson where the skin has been scraped away from a man’s temple. A young reveler with a mohawk was hit with a bottle. His head is a network of bloody rivulets. Collectively Battered’s portraits exude the voyeuristic magnetism of an auto accident or slasher flick. Like the best of Weegee or Metinedes, they can be difficult to look at, even through clenched fingers. But it’s even harder to turn away. 

What the heck is going on in Finland? The country just topped the World Happiness Report for the sixth consecutive year (here), buffered by a strong social safety net and easy access to nature, culture, and recreation. Finns may seem content, but darker currents stir below the surface. It ranks among the highest gun-owning countries in the world. A current show of Helsinki School artists is entitled “The Veneer Of Happiness” while Finnish photographers such as Jouko Lehtola and Maria Lax have poked at the nation’s underbelly. Is the status quo too stable perhaps? Do the long dark winters take a toll? Is the occasional bloody brawl just par for the course?

Well, yes, at least according to Pälviranta. “Assaults and street fights are everyday activities on weekend nights in Finland,” he explains. Apparently the “utmost banality inherent in violence” is so normal that Finnish society no longer bats at eye, a laissez-faire attitude bemoaned by Dr. Pälviranta. Like any good doctor, he intends Battered as social medicine. His photos are geared, at least partially, as a tonic to awaken Finns to their violent streak. Written polemics carry weight, but a picture is worth a thousand words, and apparently they’ve been lacking to date. “There are no images from these happenings,” reports Pälviranta, at least until Battered.There is a social awareness on this topic in Finland,” he writes. “But the discussion has mainly literal dimensions, it appears in news headlines and it is discussed in seminars…By photographing assaults and batteries, I wish to show the real faces of street violence in Finland.”

So this work has a remedial dimension. But, for me at least, it functions just as well as purely aestheticized imagery. Pälviranta presents his image/caption pairings as tidy little mysteries. Most are shot long after the incidents, after the mood has settled into weary calm. These men look resigned and tired. It’s hard to imagine raising a fist. Cropped closely around dazed and drunken bleeding torsos, these pictures create more questions than answers. Their workaday regularity defies belief. What the heck just happened? Did it really come to blows so easily? 

Toward the end of the book, the pictures are more forthcoming. Pälviranta’s stands back a bit to capture a broader vantage. Meanwhile his clock hits rewind to capture three actual fights. One is outside a bar, another outside a kebab and pizza cafe, and the third outside a grill. Men clutch and grope wildly on paving stones while bystanders gawk or attempt to separate the parties. The scenes are chaotic and frantic, and also depressingly routine. Men skirmishing. Tomorrow they’ll sleep it off.

If these three pictures reveal more information than the close portraits, they’re also less compelling. Somehow it’s the battered images which hold more interest than the battering. This might be the secret sauce of Battered as a series. By largely removing himself from the incidents in question, Pälviranta abstracts his characters into blunt symbols. These poor bloody saps represent the everyman, and make us wonder about our own violent potential. The social contract is only skin deep. Peel it back and raw reality can be grisly.

Collector’s POV: Harri Pälviranta does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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