Mikko Kerttula, Transcendence

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Kult Books (here). Staple bound, 22.5 x 28 cm, with loose, screen printed board cover. 64 pages, with 38 black and white reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 100 copies, all signed and numbered by the artist. Design by Janne Riikonen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Even in these times of increasingly systematic artistic promotion, an understated and self-contained photographic project executed with care and attention can still cut through the noise. The mundane everyday action of waiting at the main bus station in Sundsvall, Sweden – the subject of the images in Mikko Kerttula’s recent photobook Transcendence – could hardly be more humble or forgettable. People stand around, leaning against benches, shelters, and concrete walls, generally trying to keep warm. Buses come and go. Some folks rush by; others are stuck with little to do except wait; crowds form and then dissolve. Nothing much happens.

But the Finnish photographer continued to make patiently photographs in and around the transit hub, and ultimately he discovered that the unexpected interruptions and distortions found in the images shot through the grimy plastic windows of the bus shelters could become something intriguing. Of course, Kerttula isn’t the first to realize that making photographs through glass can be interesting, or is he even the first to find inspiration on public transportation. In recent years, Michael Wolf has memorably noticed the packed crowds and fogged windows of the Tokyo subway, Nick Turpin has looked through the windows of the London night bus, and Anthony Hernandez has used the perforated sun sheeting on Los Angeles bus shelters to veil his views, to name just a few who have made durable photographs from this kind of subject matter. But Kerttula finds his own fleeting magic at the bus station, making his images a worthy addition to the subgenre.

The cover of Transcendence does an excellent job of setting both the scene and the tone of what will follow. An image of an anonymous man, lit from behind and largely turned into a silhouette, is dappled with spots of light that seem to hover and fall like magic dust. A black and white silkscreen of the photograph further breaks the image up into tiny dots, and when printed atop orange cardboard, the entire effect is uncertain and somehow pleasingly wispy and mysterious.

When Kerttula’s vantage point is just right, he can both capture an indirect portrait of a passenger through the glass and interrupt that same face with a layer of reflected imagery. He uses a bulletin board to cover a man’s eyes with a sheet of paper, interjects a street light into a woman’s neck, lays billowy clouds over a guy with a backpack, and places a reflected storefront over an older woman in a winter coat, and in each case, he’s smartly controlled the placement of the interrupting imagery. Several images use the same technique to reflect the bright line of a fluorescent light bulb, using it almost as a mark making tool across the faces of Kertulla’s subjects.

Other works take an even more raking angle, where the flash off the glass overwhelms (or simply covers) the figures underneath. Depending on how stained, scratched, or dripped the glass is, the effects range from veils, fogs, spots, and mists to brighter blasts of sparkle and flare, with scraped cuts turning into something approximating lines and streaks of rain. These effects give the portraits a squinting indeterminacy, like fleeting glances that don’t quite coalesce into recognition.

Multiple exposures offer Kertulla another approach for creating uncertainty or implying movement. In most cases, the portraits take on a sense of shifting impermanence, like ghosts sliding from one moment to the next. And in a few, the effect is more pronounced, like a repeating jitter, the subjects seemingly caught in between states, perhaps about to disappear entirely, like mirages. Kerttula then applies some of these same ideas to the architecture of the bus terminal and bus shelters, turning the arches and supporting steel bars into layered abstractions of overlapped edges and reflected lines.

Only a handful of photographs in Transcendence move away from visual distortion, opting for crisper views of closely observed details. A pair of photographs captures the non-space between two nearby shelters, first as a pared-down composition of verticals (made from pipes, wires, and the two edges of the shelters), and then later as a hiding place from the wind, where a family in hooded winter jackets waits out of the blustery weather in a personal pod of sorts. Other images capture the toe of a boot around concrete corner, the placement of resting hands, and the squished form of a jacket pressed against glass, the details singled out from the flow of passersby and given surprising resonance.

The last images in the photobook are tucked behind the back flap, hidden for those who go looking for more. Paired pictures of the side of a bus, the two offer a there-and-not-there diptych of a shadow figure on one bus and not on the other (likely just a moment later). The two photographs feel like a fitting end to Kertulla’s project. Even on the side of a forgettable white bus, there seems to be enchantment taking place, at least if we slow down enough to notice it. Transcendence subtly reminds us of the power of photography to transform our perspective, turning the everyday rhythms of a bus depot into something firmly out of the ordinary.

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

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