The picture you see above is of Helsinki Railway Station, a Jugendstil masterpiece built by Eliel Saarinen in 1919. I present it to you for three reasons, the first two being that it is a stunning building, one of the world’s finest stations, and that I took the photograph. That’s not showing off, it just means I don’t have to pay anyone for the rights. The third reason is that it’s the closest thing I have to an image of Helsinki Bus Station, which is where I want to take you today. We only need to cross the road and we are there, in a somewhat more prosaic setting than the one available to rail travellers, but that’s life, and that’s bus travel.
In 2004, Finnish photographer, Arno Minkkinen, himself clearly no stranger to a bus ride out of the capital, put forward his theory on what makes for a fulfilling creative life and career. It’s called Helsinki Bus Station Theory and illustrates the importance of persistence in pursuit of one’s own voice and of creative success. It goes like this:
There are around twenty four platforms at Helsinki Bus Station and all buses leave the city by the same route for at least the first kilometre. There are intermediate bus stops on the main road out and each bus stops at these too. Taking his own profession as his example, Minkkinen thinks of each of these stops as the first years in the career of a photographer. After,say, three stops,when you have built up three years’ worth of work, you hop off the bus and present that work to a gallerist (insert publisher/ producer etc. as appropriate). That gatekeeper knocks you right back by telling you your work is just the same as that of someone else who’s come along the same bus route before. Gutted, you jump a cab straight back to the bus station, because life is short, and you get on another bus. Three years/stops later, you hop off again, with a new body of work to show and the same thing happens. It turns out it’s just too similar to somebody else’s work and they don’t want it. Another tearful cab ride back to town to start the whole process again. And it keeps happening, always being compared to someone else and being rejected.
What’s the solution, how do we break the cycle? Minkkinen is very clear here. ‘Stay on the bus. Stay on the f***ing bus.’ After a kilometre, the buses diverge, taking different routes out of the city. So, stick with the journey you’re on and you’ll find your own unique way, your own path.
Persist and thrive.
As I’ve talked about before, we all start out imitating or inspired by someone else. That’s OK. We need to do that. ‘Derivative’ is a much-derided concept, but, to me, it means we started with an idea used by someone else and then changed it a bit. Maybe not much, but that little bit is what makes it ours, and we can keep changing and refining, and at some point put forward our own ideas.
Remember the ‘What If?’ question I mentioned before? (See blogpost from May 3rd) If you stay on the bus, you give yourself time to ask that, as the road winds on before you. The twists and turns as the bus moves deeper into the suburbs or the Finnish countryside, well, they can shape our ‘What If?’ questions.
Arno Minkkinen also went through this process himself, finding his work compared to other contemporary photographers who had gone before, so he knows whereof he speaks. Personally, I think his work is beautiful and unlike anything I have ever seen. You can visit his website here to see some of his astonishing photos of the human body integrated with nature.
So, dear friends, if you are nervous about getting on the bus, it is understandable. To decide to create a single work or a body of work is to risk rejection and accusations of non-originality. But, get on the bus, then stay on the bus. Remember, just because one person finds a reason that the work is wrong for them, doesn’t mean it’s actually wrong, or that it couldn’t be made better.
Go on, take the ride. But do stop to admire the lovely railway station first.
PS: You can read Arno Mikkinen’s speech in which he first put forward the theory here.