Short preface, long interview: Sometimes one as an interviewer does not
find out until in the interview itself, that the artist that one wants
to present anyway is even more interesting than thought first. And that
he has lots of exciting thoughts that he shares with us and you below.
Hi Samuel, thank you for taking the time to have an interview with us.
First, tell us a little about you: Who are you, what are you doing?
My name is Samuel Poromaa and I am a Swedish artist living in Stockholm.
I was born 1960 in Kiruna which is a small mining community way up north
in Sweden near the fells that constitutes a borderline between Sweden
First of all i have to say that I’m really not a photographer. Ok, I guess one could say that
I have become a photographer because I take photographs, but in my mind
I am a conceptual artist that nowadays, or for the moment, use the
camera and the digital darkroom as my principal tools of the trade.
Although I have been taking snapshots with a camera since the late 70:s,
mostly using the photos as a kind of sketchbook for my paintings, I
never thought for a minute, back then, that the camera could be used as
a principal tool for making art.
Back in the 90's after I had finished my studies there were a lot of
painting going on for me, in fact only painting, and all that I did in
terms of my work, trying to build a carrier with exhibitions in
Stockholm and all over the country was centered around colors and
brushes and canvases and stuff like that.
So today when I’m working with imagery and art using the camera and the
digital darkroom as my tools I do think more like a painter than like a
photographer, and there is a difference believe me. My experience,
meeting artist and meeting photographers, discussing common ground
issues like imagery in general, have made that difference in thinking
kind of clear to me. Today I feel that I am kind of in between two
worlds actually, but my core is and always will be the painter.
How did you actually become an artist - meaning, a painter, at first?
As a child and a teen in Kiruna my life were pretty much centered on the
art of cartoons, I drew a lot, and I was very fond of superheroes and
stuff like that, collecting comic books, mainly from Marvel Comics,
which in those days were very hard to come by at least in the part of
Sweden were I was living.
It was actually like a game between us boys in itself trying to get hold
of the magazines, importing them from the states, trading them and
sometimes even stealing them from each other, and I sometimes think that
my big interest and inspiration from popular culture today, instigated
back then in my teenage-room, in the mid 70: s reading about The
Fantastic Four or Captain America dreaming of the chance to become a
My first real encounter with the art of painting happened on a school
excursion to Amsterdam. I was 15 year of age and it was my first trip
outside Sweden without my parents. So you can understand that my
thoughts weren’t primary centered around culture and art. But we ended
up at Rijksmuseum anyway, and that visit changed everything for me. I
decided to be a painter.
So after I had completed my upper secondary education I went on to
“Sunderby Folkhögskola” where I studied every aspect of art regarding traditional
techniques but on a basic level and later I went on to study painting at
Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm
which earned me a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in 1989.
How did it happen this painter turned into a photographer?
Around 1997 I did quit painting, because I was fed up with what I was
doing, and the gallery I had collaborated with for almost 8 years here
in Stockholm closed their business. It was time for me to move on, and I
did want things to change; I did want to leave a fairly traditional way
of working with art to explore other possibilities.
So I started to travel the virtual world so to speak doing everything
else but painting. I worked with art project of various kinds for the
Internet; it was video, digital imaging, photography and even graphic
design. And I went from doing fairly traditional landscape-paintings in
an almost romantic tradition to things that was more about concept and
ideas, and as far away as I could go from the aesthetic way of dealing
with things that had been my everyday way.
But somewhere along that route I started to feel like I was doing what I
thought I was supposed to be doing in order to be “contemporary” and I
remember that I had that constant feeling of discontent, thinking of the
“whys” and what I should do to be truthful to myself.
What I did back in 2000 was to start looking for a way of doing things
that weren’t about going back to do the landscapes again, and on the
same time weren’t about following the stream of a kind of anti-aesthetic
or even anti-visual way of doing things either. So photography seemed to
me to be a media that I could use as kind of in-between what I had been
doing and what I now wanted to explore.
As an artist who has already worked with so many different media, do you
have an underlying philosophy with everything that you do?
I am an esthete. The aesthetics of an image is at the core of what I am
in terms of being an artist, but I do at the same time believe that
there has to be more than just the visual pleasures of aesthetics to
build interesting imagery or doing art.
Sometimes I think that aesthetics function as the door or the gateway
that at best leads to a room where the concept of the piece lays waiting
for its audience. One can’t get to that room without the door, but a
door that doesn’t lead to anything is kind of pointless.
Photography to me is imagery in a pure form and it is about visual
pleasures and the art of seeing, but it can also be about a conceptual
way of exploring the world or ones inner thoughts.
Photography will always be linked to the eye in some way, and to
“reality”, which is a very interesting demarcation to have to deal with,
meaning that working with a camera always is about what you and your
camera sees. But that is not by definition the same thing as describing
reality objectively or even truthfully.
That is not possible; it is and will always be a matter of subjectivity
and the complexity of transferring a 3 dimensional vision into a flat
surface of a photograph, make the whole thing even more far from
objectivity. The truth about reality will always be an open matter and
that is an important factor and is in fact what drives me working with art.
What kind of photographer are you, what do you want to show?
I try to use what I see, exploring the urbanity that is the milieu I am
a part of, to tell another story, and I guess that other story almost
always ends up at my own doorstep so to speak.
As an example I can mention one of my first projects, and that was to
take photographs of the street, not as a street-photographer would do
it, but rather pointing the camera to the ground and shooting images of
asphalt, using the asphalt concrete as a kind of representation for a
landscape or even an alternative world map.
I often get comments on my urban photography being very empty and almost
always without the presence of life. And that is of course true, at
least superficially. I have thought a lot about that; I mean working
with urbanity; shouldn’t that be about life and the presence of humanity?
If you ask a street-photographer the answer is of course undoubtedly
“Yes”, but to me it is a question that's not so easy to answer, and if you look closely
at my images they are indirectly about life, I just try to visualize
that in an indirect way and this is actually an idea that is very
important to me.
What inspires you?
This idea, to visualize life in an indirect way, in fact originates or
at least is inspired by the gaming world, and particular a game I was
playing back in 2000 but it is also a thought or an idea that I stumbled
upon watching a movie that was broadcast on TV here in Sweden around the
The game is the first rendition of “Deus Ex”, which is a computer game
(roleplaying game) that has a kind of dark, storyline about conspiracy
and technology and the notion of God in the machine, set in an urban and
dystopian environment. And although I know now why, or at least in some
way, why the urban milieu in that game is so dark and so empty; a
consequence of insufficient technology at that time, the aesthetics of it has been a big
inspiration for me.
The movie I saw is “The Langoliers”, based on a book by Stephen King,
and it is a story about a group of people that in some mysterious way
get caught in between now and then. They linger in a kind of limbo where
everything already has happened and things to come have not happened
yet. So the world is empty except for all the traces of human activity
that can be found in the empty spaces of reality.
And this is in a way the key to the how I deal with my urban
explorations. I try to use the milieu in between events so to speak,
searching for the leftovers that to me are far more interesting than the
events themselves, and I would say that almost every image I done in the
“Urban Walk” series is a search for these in between events or traces of
life, of human activity.
You always seem to work in series of images.
To be honest I can’t remember when last I did just one image. This way
of working is of course all about me trying to tell a story and although
most of these “stories” can be kind of free in its form, more like
fragmented ideas or questions in visual form, I’m pretty sure that this
way of working originates from my teenage dream of becoming a cartoonist.
In some way I am back to where I started, but without the superheroes.
There are some of these series that are like comic-strip, short and
hopefully sweet, like for example “The Elephant Song” or “Schematics”,
and there are those that are almost like never ending stories. “Urban
Walks” is one that I always work on, and 2011 I did publish a book with
144 images in that ongoing story. The same goes with the series
“Resonance” that I’m now in the preparation to exhibit part of here in
Which function do your images' and series' titles have?
Titles are essential, and I have to say that there even been times when
I have excluded pictures that I like from a series, or even entirely,
because I have not been able to find the right angle or entry for the
title. So it is certainly a vital part of my concept as an artist.
But there were times when I didn’t put “names” on my pieces at all. I
had this idea to try to “leave the field completely open” for the
viewers to form an idea or to experience my work conceptually on their
own, completely disconnected from any ideas I might have had when I
created the work.
And because words, the written language, is so suggestive in its nature
when it comes to the mind, so much more powerful than imagery to suggest
or even to plant a specific idea in the minds of an audience, I chose
not to add titles at all. I also wanted to make things kind of clear
that I did not do literature, but that I was and is a visual artist
first and foremost.
This idea of art being a kind of open question as a necessity is of
course still at the core of what I am doing. I do believe that you as an
artist have to “abandon” your work at some point, and submit it to the
viewer, and I do believe that visual art is so much more powerful
compared to the written word when it comes to the idea of an open question.
Why then does it come you use titles in your works again today?
To be honest, I like ideas, I like to suggest things, I like to tell
stories. I am a conceptual artist, and ideas come with the territory so
to speak. So if you’re not doing pieces that comes in the form of art
installations, which is almost like a mantra to conceptual artists in
general, and instead are doing imagery, and imagery alone, the series
and the titles can be a way to enhance the experience of an idea being
told, or to be more precise, a question being asked.
Titles to me do function in the same way for the concept of a piece as
aesthetics do to reach that concept; thus also being kind of gateways
for the mind. And although I’m still not sure if this really is
necessary, I find it kind of intriguing to use titles as a part of - or
an enhancement of the experience, or even as means for problematize
things, making the question more at the core.
With all this in mind you can understand the complexity of the process
of putting titles to a series or to images and how hard it can be, but
on the same time how interesting it is to me to balance these kinds of
contradictions; having an urge to “talk about” ideas, asking questions
or at least making them visible and on the same time not wanting to tell
the viewer what to think or give them the answer, or the whole story,
mine that is, on a plate.
The series themselves as well as the images within the series have own
titles - this way you ask a lot of questions!
There is a slight difference in how I think when I put titles on my
series and when I do it on the individual images. The series is the body
so to speak and the titles of these bodies almost always emerge from
things that not necessarily have to do with the obvious.
“Urban Walks” is of course a title that is what it is; me walking the
urban landscape trying to visualize these walks in some way, but even
here there is a glitch in the title because of these visualizations not
being of a documentary kind. But if you take series like “The Village”,
“The World Map” or “Resonance” thing are more on the open- ended side of
Can you say some more about these examples?
When I did “The Village” I first thought I would call it something along
the lines of “The Ghost Town”, because I had this notion of the place
where I was shooting to be just that; a town of ghosts, and I imagine
all the graffiti on the walls and in the environment to be some kind of
ongoing discussion between the spirits of the place and that the tags
and the scribbles and the fragmented messages where written in an
language of the ghosts or even where a visual representation of the
presence of them.
But when I started the post-production of the images in the series I
felt a striking resemblance with the place and how I remembered the
milieu depicted in the movie “The Village”. The movie is set in a place
surrounded by high walls in the middle of a big forest, and the place
where I shot my images also is surrounded by high walls with the forest
“watching”. The light and the ambience of the place also reminded me of
my experience of the movie and the idea or the underline story in it was
not too far away from my original thoughts but being more open-ended as
far as similarity goes.
“The World map” is a title that is all about an alternative way of
perceiving the world as landscapes or places. And the visuals of this
series are also about shifting the view so to speak. It is images that
on the surface are about pointing the camera to the surface of asphalt
concrete, or sometimes just to the ground, but I have always seen these
images as almost topographical views of an alternative universe, an
alternative world map.
“Resonance” originates from an idea of sounds and music. I remember that
I thought a lot about the different sounds, and the kind of industrial
music that the containers emits when taping them, whether they are empty
or contains something. That was the initial and fairly simple thought I
had and it has functioned as a fundament since, although this series is
about so much more than just the sound of metal echoing thru silence.
But the title is as open-ended as I want it to be, so I have kept that
even though I rarely ever think in terms of sound now when I add new
images to that series. When one works with a series for a long period of
time it tends to move and shifts, have a life on its own and that I
guess is the interesting thing about it really.
Do you sometimes hide certain twists or hints in your titles in order to
slightly push the viewer into a certain direction?
When I put titles on my images I tend to use any means possible to give
hints or to problematize, or to try to take the viewer’s mind off the
obvious and a bit on the side from “reality” into the more imaginative
world, linked in some way, but not with a dogma in mind, to how I use
imagination when I see things.
It can be everything from irony or humor to more poetic reflections or
mere nonsense; it can be about saying something that kind of contradict
the visuals, and it can also be about something I pick up directly from
the image, maybe not always the obvious, but rather the things that kind
of is waiting in the wings, the smaller things so to speak.
As some examples I can mention the two images “Happy Days” 1 and 2 and
“It’s a Living”, images from the “Urban Walks” series where the titles
are kind of ironic or to be more exact tragi comical reflections on what
I saw or experienced.
In contrast to that, “The Ballad of Yang Ming” from “Resonance” has a
title that sets a different more romantic and poetic tone, a sense of
time and travel; the echoes of now and then.
And from “The World Map” I can mention the image “There is a Zebra
outside My Window” where the title is almost a direct reflection of what
can be seen in the image, but implicating something else.
And finally from “The Village” I can mention “Let Us Enter” where the
title is very much linked to the idea of ghosts. It is about my
impression of the spirits materialized in the form of graffiti urging to
enter, maybe just the room behind the metal door, or perhaps into your
mind. Who knows?"