I must read the Helsinki Bus Station Theory at least two or three times a year. It’s an important piece of work that every photographer, artist, writer or any other creative person should be aware of. It could also be argued that the theory applies almost equally to business and life in general as it does to creative pursuits.
The theory originates from a speech given by Finish-American photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen at the New England School of Photography in June 2004. Long before I became familiar the Helsinki Bus Station Theory (and long before it was published) I had held a similar view about sticking to my guns with what I do. I use it as a form of affirmation should any disillusionment, as it often does, set in. Which is at least two or three times a year it would seem!
Minkkinen sums up the need to stay true to yourself far better than I ever could. So, here we go. Welcome to the main Helsinki bus station…
Some two-dozen platforms are laid out in a square at the heart of the city. At the head of each platform is a sign posting the numbers of the buses that leave from that particular platform. The bus numbers might read as follows: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19. Each bus takes the same route out of the city for at least a kilometre, stopping at bus stop intervals along the way.
Now let’s say, again metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer. Meaning the third bus stop would represent three years of photographic activity. Okay, so you have been working for three years making platinum studies of nudes. Call it bus #21.
You take those three years of work to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn. His bus, 71, was on the same line. Or you take them to a gallery in Paris and are reminded to check out Bill Brandt, bus 58, and so on. Shocked, you realise that what you have been doing for three years others have already done.
So you hop off the bus, grab a cab, because life is short, and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.
This time, you are going to make 8×10 view camera colour snapshots of people lying on the beach from a cherry picker crane. You spend three years at it and three grand and produce a series of works that elicit the same comment. Haven’t you seen the work of Richard Misrach? Or, if they are steamy black and white 8 x 10s of palm trees swaying off a beach front, haven’t you seen the work of Sally Mann?
So once again, you get off the bus, grab the cab, race back and find a new platform. This goes on all your creative life, always showing new work, always being compared to others.
What to do?
It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the f**king bus. Because if you do, in time, you will begin to see a difference.
The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line, but only for a while, maybe a kilometre or two. Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. Bus 33 suddenly goes north. Bus 19 south-west. For a time maybe 21 and 71 dovetail one another, but soon they split off as well. Irving Penn is headed elsewhere.
It’s the separation that makes all the difference and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire, that’s why you chose that platform after all, it’s time to look for your breakthrough.
Suddenly your work starts to get noticed. Now you are working more on your own, making more of the difference between your work and what influenced it. Your vision takes off. And as the years mount up and your work begins to pile up, it won’t be long before the critics become very intrigued, not just by what separates your work from a Sally Mann or a Ralph Gibson, but by what you did when you first got started! You regain the whole bus route in fact.
The vintage prints made twenty years ago are suddenly re-evaluated and, for what it is worth, start selling at a premium. At the end of the line, where the bus comes to rest and the driver can get out for a smoke or better yet a cup of coffee, that’s when the work is done.
It could be the end of your career as an artist or the end of your life for that matter, but your total output is now all there before you, the early so called imitations, the breakthroughs, the peaks and valleys, the closing masterpieces, all with the stamp of your unique vision.