Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen (b.1948) grew up in Myllykoski, Finland. Inspired by her aunt Oili who was a skilful amateur photographer, she began taking photographs at the age of twelve and from that time on developed a keen interest in documentary photography. Later she decided to study filmmaking in the UK, enrolling at the Regent Street Polytechnic film school in London. Whilst there, she met up with Murray Martin and a like-minded group of fellow students, with whom she formed the Amber Film and Photography Collective. In 1969 the group moved to the North East of England and began its in-depth creative documentation of the region’s working class and marginalised communities, which continues to this day.
In 1977 the collective established Side Gallery on Newcastle Quayside, dedicating it to socially engaged documentary photography. Whilst a full participant in most aspects of Amber/Side’s work, Konttinen’s central involvement has been in the production of a number of long term photographic projects, resulting in exhibitions, books and documentary films.
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s seminal documentation of Byker, the close-knit community of Newcastle that was her home for seven years while destined for wholesale redevelopment, became a touring exhibition, a book (Jonathan Cape, 1983) and the award-winning Amber film. The work led to national recognition as a key photographic and filmic account of a rich working class culture on the eve of its destruction. In 1980, her Byker exhibition was the first photographic exhibition from the UK to be taken to China by The British Council after the Cultural Revolution.
The Hoppings, once reputed to be the largest fair in Europe, is an annual meet for most of the itinerant fairground people of Great Britain. Konttinen photographed its live sideshows on Newcastle’s Town Moor during the 1970s and 80s, the last years before their demise. The dimly lit tents with their alluring hand painted façades showcased The Living Half Woman, The World’s Smallest Man, Mr Jink’s Mouse Circus, Knife Throwing In The Nude and The Fabulous Queens of Striptease among their attractions.
Step By Step (1989), a project spanning six years, explored the aspirations and relationships of a community of mothers and daughters at a North Shields dancing school. This was part of a broader engagement with the fishing town of North Shields undertaken by the Amber collective during the 1980’s.
Writing in the Sand, both a book (2000) and an award-winning film (1991) made with Konttinen’s photographs of the northeastern coast, celebrates the exuberance of the local people on their unspoilt beaches. The book was published in the UK by Dewi Lewis.
In her first project in colour, The Coal Coast (2003) Konttinen explores the ‘terrible beauty’ of Durham’s coal-scarred coastline, the strewn wreckage and 'memorabilia' of its deceased mining industry. The exhibition and book form part of ‘Coalfield Stories’, Side Gallery’s documentation of post industrial experience in County Durham.
In 2003, Konttinen returned to Byker. The visionary Byker Wall Estate that replaced the original terraced streets was to have rehoused the old community intact, but inevitably didn’t. In the course of the next six years she invited the residents of the now widely multicultural estate to imagine their lives in 'just one picture’, resulting in the book Byker Revisited (2009) and the Amber film Today I’m With You (2010).
Further exhibitions include River Project, Interiors, Mixed Feelings, Quayside and My Finnish Roots.
In March 2014, nominated by the public, Konttinen was awarded a bronze plaque in the Local Heroes Walk of Fame trail which celebrates twenty of NewcastleGateshead’s most inspiring people from the past 60 years. In 2011 The UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register inscribed the narrative of Konttinen's photography and Amber's films as being of ‘outstanding national value and importance to the United Kingdom’.
Amber has produced five films based on Konttinen’s photography: Byker, Keeping Time, The Writing in the Sand, Letters to Katja and Today I’m With You. These have been widely screened including, in recent years, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Le Bal in Paris and the Tate Modern in London.
Solo exhibitions of Konttinen’s photographs have been presented throughout the United Kingdom as well as in Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Slovakia, Hungary, Mexico, USA and China.
Her photographs reside in the permanent collections of the Tate, UK; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the New York Public Library; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Finnish Museum of Photography. The most comprehensive body of her work is located in the AmberSide Collection.
EXHIBITIONS (available online):
Step by Step
My Finnish Roots
Writing In The Sand
The Coal Coast
Byker, Jonathan Cape, 1983; Bloodaxe Books, 1985; Bloodaxe/Amberside, 1988
Step By Step, Bloodaxe Books/Amberside, 1989
Writing in the Sand, Dewi Lewis/Amberside, 2001 (also: Swedish & French editions, Schultz Forlag/Amberside; Finnish edition, Kustantamo Pohjoinen/Amberside)
The Coal Coast, Amberside, 2003
Byker Revisited, Northumbria Press, 2009
AMBER FILMS LINKED TO SIRKKA'S PHOTOGRAPHY:
Keeping Time (1983 - linked to Step by Step)
The Writing in the Sand (1991)
Letters to Katja (1994 - linked to My Finnish Roots)
Today I'm With You (2010 - linked to Byker Revisited)
The life of beaches in the North East of England, captured between 1973 and 1998.
Family portraits and home interiors from North Shields, 1979/80, developed as part of the broader photographic project, North Tyneside.
The seminal documentation of a threatened and eventually demolished working class, terraced house community in Newcastle upon Tyne’s East End by a founder member of Amber, who lived there when the collective first moved to the North East of England in 1969. Book available. See also Amber's film, Byker.
Extensive documentation of a dancing school in North Shields, in the North East of England, developed in the mid-1980s, exploring the relationships between mothers and daughters and between school and community.
A documentation from 1979 of the area of Newcastle where the collective is based, then under threat of redevelopment. The exhibition and publication (full text included here) featured photographs by Sirkka and, fellow Amber member at the time, Graham Smith. The work is linked to Amber's film Quayside.
The travelling fair that visits Newcastle upon Tyne’s Town Moor every year, the largest in Europe, documented in the 1970s. Fairground art was also documented for the Lambton Visual Aids slide collection.
A project in which the photographer explored her return to Finland in 1992 after 23 years in the North East of England, linked to the Amber documentary feature, Letters to Katja.
Photographs of the coal industry and shipbuilding on the River Tyne, 1970s. They are linked to Amber's films High Row, Launch and Bowes Line and Amber's The River Project, which brought together photography, film, visual art and writing.
Landscapes exploring the legacy of the mining industry in the cliffs and along the beaches of County Durham, 1998 to 2002, part of Side Gallery’s ‘Coalfield Stories’ programme of production, exploring post-industrial experience.
40 years ago Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen came to Byker as a founder member of Amber. Her photographs from the working class Tyneside terraced streets became an exhibition and book;