Immediately distinguished by their vibrant palettes and inventive compositions, Osma Harvilahti’s photographs stem from a willful resolve to aestheticize the world to the point of abstraction, with his subjects —whether plant, person, or object—assessed and portrayed entirely on the level of color, pattern, arrangement and form. Though based in Helsinki, the majority of Harvilahti’s personal work is documentary in nature: vivid shots of strangers and places captured during his frequent travels. In looking through his images, however, it becomes clear that regardless of setting, Harvilahti’s approach remains consistent in its discriminations, his only concern being the continuous refinement of his increasingly singular graphic vocabulary. Responding in real time to the surrounding environment, he scans each new scene for points of pure visual interest, translating both the natural and man-made worlds into readymade arrangements of tone and shape that function primarily, if not entirely, as formal exercises.
In his efforts to find aesthetic potential in every phenomena, it seems inevitable that Harvilahti would eventually turn his attention to cars—and indeed, motor vehicles routinely appear in his images, characteristically treated not as objects of consumption or status, but rather as yet another subject to be broken down to its fundamental visual elements. Consider the selection of photos on view here: in one image, a car’s paint both reflects and echoes the hazy tones of an Icelandic sunset while the curves of its body mimic the slopes of nearby shoreline rocks; in another, a yellow air freshener is complemented by a ripened banana which the photographer has placed beneath a windshield wiper (and which has enticed a monkey from the nearby Kenyan forest). As we continue to scan, we see the perforated decals on a windshield serve as both compositional partition and optical pattern; the reflective properties of window glass used to create an abstract shape out of a knit cap and coat; the colors and design of a taillight activated by a balance of sunshine and shadow. Throughout, Harvilahti’s tone is calm and unaffected, implicitly warm but somehow distanced, as he appropriates the basic methods of both street and travel photography but denies those genres’ ambitions of objectivity or meaningful description. Whether discovered or arranged, Harvilahti’s images eschew any pretense of lending insight into a given person or place, let alone the broader surrounding culture(s): there is only the aesthetically-charged fragment, vibrant in its formal ingenuity but entirely unconcerned with notions of context or narrative, exoticism or ubiquity.
Still, to stress the aesthetic function of an artist’s work is not to imply a lack of content, and in discussing Harvilahti’s output, one ultimately recognizes as his true subject the very act of seeing itself. Rife with visual layering and unusual vantage points, his images are decidedly—and deliberately—less about representation than about interpretation; regardless of where he aims his lens, the results always tell us far less about his subjects than about how he’s chosen to view them. The work thus looks to vision not as a means of comprehension, but rather as a process (conscious or not) of selection and exclusion—an idea which reinforces both the fragmentary nature of photography and the utter relativity of perception itself.
“The pattern of the thing,” Vladimir Nabakov once wrote, “precedes the thing.” This, it would seem, is as true in the assessment of experience as it is in the creation of art, and in considering these ideas as translated in Harvilahti’s work, one finds that although his approach may initially suggest some degree of detachment, the larger implications of his output ultimately point to something far more personal and directly engaged.
The work thus looks to vision not as a means of comprehension, but rather as a process (conscious or not) of selection and exclusion—an idea which reinforces both the fragmentary nature of photography and the utter relativity of perception itself.