Pentti Sammallahti’s Birds at Nailya Alexander Gallery

BY David Rosenberg, February 19, 2019

Pentti Sammallahti, Hanko, Finland, 2015. Courtesy Nailya Alexander Gallery

If our lives were a film, birds would be straight out of central casting. They’re the extras who descend upon statues, perch on power lines and trees, and, as they swarm in and out of shapes, paint the sky as if it were an Etch A Sketch.

They’re also the ultimate photobombers, ready to disrupt any photograph without notice. Pentti Sammallahti’s charming exhibition, Pentti Sammallahti’s Birds, made it clear that birds are also capable – and deserving – of taking center stage. His photographs pay tribute to their grace and the ways in which they are residents in our lives and photographs: at times quiet, at times clamorous, and at times humorous.

Many of the prints on viewfeel, at first, like landscapes.  Lake Inawashiro, Japan, and Jurmo, Finland, for example, are beautifully composed shots of dreamy water scenes. In the first, countless birds swim near the shoreline; en masse they feel like part of the land, but as their numbers drop off, they seem more like tiny pixels dotting the water. In the second, two swans glide quietly along the still water, Sammallahti’s camera providing a voyeuristic view into their private moment.

Pentti Sammallahti, Moscow, Russia, 1980. Courtesy Nailya Alexander Gallery

Many of the photographs produce a sense of envy: what other animal could so effortlessly choose to soar over pristine landscapes? To engage and retreat without warning. But it’s when Sammallahti gets closer that he suddenly feels like a street photographer, framing the birds in human-like scenarios. In Hanko, Finland, a lone bird crosses a street, a la Abbey Road. Or, in Moscow, Russia, a bird rests in the snow, its focus almost mocking as he watches a man work on his broken down car.

The photographs are subtle and small – most aren’t larger than 7 inches high and almost all are silver gelatin prints. Their delicate quality feels like a nod to the already fragile nature of Sammallahti’s subjects. The exhibition covers the decades from the 1970s to present day, and as the location shifts from India to Hungary to Namibia and more, the cars, people, and landscapes change, but it’s the birds who feel consistent, always present, yet never boring.