AHO & SOLDAN
Documentary and photographic modernists
Heikki Aho and Björn Soldan founded the Aho & Soldan film company in autumn 1925. Documentary film-making and photography, which had been virtually unknown in Finland up until then, had arrived. Aho was an expert in post-production work and Soldan Finland’s first professionally trained cameraman. The brothers and the films they produced during the 1930s made Aho & Soldan a name to be reckoned with and took Finnish documentary work into the international league. Alongside their classic documentaries, they produced nearly 400 black and white shorts.
Heikki Aho and Björn Soldan belonged to the avant-garde ABISS group, which wanted to turn Finland’s studio-based photographic tradition on its head. Their thousands of photographs documented a wide range of subjects, ranging from the natural world to modern industry and Helsinki preparing for the summer Olympics.
Born into an artist family
Heikki Aho was the eldest son of the artist Venny Soldan-Brofeldt and the writer Juhani Aho, while Björn Soldan was Juhani Aho’s son from an extramarital relationship. Venny Soldan-Brofeldt was one of Finland’s leading artists of the time and a dominant figure, both at home and in cultural circles, and despatched both boys to study in Germany.
The daughter of a German mother who had gone to a German-speaking school herself, Venny Soldan maintained close links with Germany, and the latest developments in science, art, and technology – not least the Bauhaus movement – were to have a profound impact on the brothers.
Inspired by his mother, who was herself interested in photography, Heikki Aho took his first photographs at the age of eight. After graduating as a paper machine engineer and encouraged by his mother, he left for Germany, letters of recommendations in hand, to study with the colour theorist, Wilhelm Ostwald. After a short introduction to Ostwald’s theories, he continued on to the Zeiss optical works in Jena to put his teacher’s theories into practice.
Heikki Aho was the first Finn to approach the film and printing process and the opportunities it offered from a scientific standpoint. Björn Soldan, who had been brought up by Venny, soon followed him. Soldan completed a degree in cinematography at the Institute of Photography in Munich in 1923-24.
On their return to Finland, Aho and Soldan were keen to set up a documentary and photography company that could make use of the European expertise that they have been exposed to. Founded in autumn 1925, Aho, Soldan & Co. began life in the combined home and studio in the centre of Helsinki occupied by Venny following the death of Juhani Aho. The company’s office, cutting room, and laboratory were all initially housed there.
Venny Soldan-Brofeldt had a major impact on Aho and Soldan, both practically and emotionally. Following in the footsteps of Maggie Gripenberg, a star of the Finnish dance world and an artist’s model that Juhani Aho had written an exotic dance drama for, Heikki Aho married a Lithuanian dancer, Dinah Selkina, while he was in Germany; and Björn Soldan married a stunningly photogenic English dancer, Vivien Birse. The two wives often embodied the beach and physical fitness culture typical of the interwar years in many of Aho & Soldan’s shorts and photographs in the 1930s.
The close relationship between Venny and the two boys, together with their shared tastes, was also reflected in Aho’s and Soldan’s imagery, such as their impressionist seascapes bathed in sunlight and bird shots. Venny Soldan-Brofeldt’s palette had been strongly influenced by the summers she spent in Tvärminne on the shores of the Gulf of Finland; and the natural world, birds, the sea, the seashore, ships, and boats became trademarks of Aho & Soldan’s nature and travel images.
A new style
The latest new technology played an important part in Aho & Soldan’s work and their modernist approach. The movie camera equipped with a set of interchangeable lenses that Björn Soldan had brought back from Germany enabled them to shoot virtually any type of scene. Villilintujen parissa (Among Wild Birds), completed in 1927, was the pair’s first full-length documentary. The telephoto shots used to capture the birdlife of a wilderness lake in Äyräpää on the Karelian Isthmus had never been seen before in Finland and captivated audiences. A light meter designed by Heikki Aho also broke new ground, as it enabled them to take impressionist-style, high-contrast shots outside in even difficult conditions.
Aho & Soldan’s documentary film work extended from impressionist depictions of Finland’s forests, waterways, and land to the industry that made use of them. Suomen puu- ja paperiteollisuus (Finland’s Timber and Paper Industry), Suomen metsät ja maatalous (Finland’s Forests and Agriculture), and Suomen maatalous (Finnish Agriculture) were completed at the end of the decade. Raudanjalostusta Suomessa (Iron and Steel in Finland) completed a series of major industrial documentaries that marked Finland’s emergence from the depression years of the 1930s and represented a Finnish variation on the Bauhaus ideal of combining applied science, art, and industry.
T.J. Särkkä, the Managing Director of the Suomen Filmiteollisuus film company and a prominent advocate of Finnish industry, praised the “romanticism of the machine” contained in his competitor’s industrial documentaries, and ranked Soldan & Aho’s film on mining in Outokumpu on a par with a good art film.
Eino Mäkinen, one of the leading names in modern Finnish photography and a film theorist, highlighted the film’s “poetry of light and shadow”. László Moholy-Nagy, the leading light of the Bauhaus photographic avant-garde, was a clear inspiration, and Björn Soldan was one of the first to have a hands-on relationship with his absolute art of ‘light, line, and surface’. Soldan kept his finger very much on the pulse of the time and boldly experimented with a number of new ideas in Aho & Soldan’s 1933 feature on the timber industry, Tempo. He made use of the camera to reveal what Walter Benjamin described as the ‘optical unconscious’, employing conscious distortion to create “a mathematically faultless perspective that appears unnatural to the eye”. Soldan cut his material in a fast photomontage-like style, using panning camera shots and rapidly switches of camera angle, in the spirit of the master of the experimental documentary, Walter Ruttmann.
Eino Mäkinen draw particular attention to Soldan’s unconventional framing, which reflected the advice given by Aho’s teacher, Ostwald, for achieving spontaneous artistic images: “Cropping is freedom, and gives images edges. The viewer only sees what the photographer shows him. He does not need to know what is outside the picture.”
Heikki Aho often filmed together with Soldan or came along with a camera to take stills of the same subjects. As a photographer, Aho had a direct and fast style. Modern photography for him meant a neorealist approach, free of artificial lighting, that jumped headfirst into the romanticism of the machine age out in the field. He declared himself one of the standard-bearers of a new photography in the avant-garde ABISS group, which took its name from the initials of its members: Heikki Aho, Björn Soldan, Hans Brückner, Heinrich Iffland, and Vilho Setälä.
While Aho’s realism perhaps did not catch the eye in the same provocative way that Setälä’s or Eino Mäkinen’s images did in the group’s joint exhibition held in 1930, Aho & Soldan’s photographs reached their apotheosis in the books that the two produced to celebrate their country and its people, industry, countryside, modern towns, and sights.
Following the introduction of legislation designed to promote Finnish short films in 1933, Heikki Aho, who had been one of its prime movers, extended his scope to the cinema. The era of the silent film, with its expressive language rooted in the world of still photography, was over. Aho became a pioneer of the montage documentary and the new aesthetic that was being developed in the avant-garde Projektion film club in Helsinki. In addition to Aho, the leading lights behind the new movement included the architect Alvar Aalto, the photographer Eino Mäkinen, and Nyrki Tapiovaara, a film director versed in the montage style visual language of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov.
Nyrki Tapiovaara’s film version of Juha, a novel by Heikki Aho’s father, Juhani Aho, was Aho & Soldan’s only full-length fictional film. Shot by Björn Soldan, the film is a Finnish cinema classic. Aho & Soldan began work on Suomi Kutsuu (Finland Calling), a 25-minute short originally intended for a tourism fair in Stockholm, in 1936. Aho used music from Sibelius’ symphonies to provide the underlying rhythm of the piece, which took viewers on a journey of discovery from Finland’s past as a largely subsistence rural economy to the gleaming factories of the present day and the clamour of the streets of Helsinki. By the 1940 version, however, the idyllic journey was intercut with the sound of bombs falling on the city during the Winter War.
Helsinki and the glow of black and white
Heikki and Björn spent their childhood in the Aho family home in Tuusula outside Helsinki and only put down their roots in the capital in 1911. By the 1920s, however, they were already recording the first signs of the new age making itself felt there, such as Ford cars being unloaded in the harbour. The official opening of the city’s new airport in the 1930s was also captured in much the same spirit, despite the storm clouds that were beginning to loom on the horizon, and in the autumn of 1939 Aho & Soldan’s Finnish Reviews showed a city preparing for war. Other memorable scenes captured on film by the two in the lead-up to the outbreak of war included the departure of J.K. Paasikivi to Moscow to negotiate with the Soviet government and the return of President Kallio from a meeting of Nordic heads of state.
During the winter of 1940, Heikki Aho and Björn Soldan worked in Stockholm for the Finlandia News Agency, but Helsinki remained the focus of their attention. They produced the first series of images of the bombing of the city to see worldwide distribution in the cutting room of Swedish film industry icon, Svensk Filmindustri, as well as the Aho & Soldan film, Suomi puolustaa Pohjolan vapautta (Finland, the Defender of Nordic Freedom).
The ‘Moscow siesta’ or interim peace after the end of the Winter War ended in the summer of 1941. Following the start of the Continuation War, Aho & Soldan worked on a short designed to bolster popular morale known as Sireenien kukkiessa (Flowering Sirens) for the Governmental Information Centre. Its images of Helsinki waking up to the reality of war at Midsummer were specially screened for the President and Parliament. After working as a war photographer in occupied East Karelia, Heikki Aho returned to Helsinki, which became the main setting for the brothers’ Finlandia Reviews in 1943 and 1944; and the two played an irreplaceable role in documenting events on the home front until the armistice.
The 30-year collaboration between Heikki Aho and Björn Soldan came to an end in 1945, when an exhausted Björn left to work for the BBC in London. Here, he devoted himself to the post-war London landscape until a long drawn-out illness finally ended the career of this photographic pioneer in autumn 1953. Claire Aho, who had photographed and edited photo books for Aho & Soldan since the 1940s, took over as her father’s collaborator and continued working for the company until the 1960s.
The company captured Helsinki as it prepared for the summer Olympics of 1952 on 16mm Eastman Color stock, although Laulu meren kaupungista (Song of a City by the Sea) was shown at the celebrations held in honour of the 400th anniversary of the city’s founding in black and white. The actress Ella Eronen was chosen by Heikki Aho as the muse for the piece, and her voice-over highlighted a city emerging from the shadow of two wars. The film was symbolic in other ways too, marking the end of an era during which Aho & Soldan’s images had captured the spirit of a nation at war and at peace.
- Ilkka Kippola
City Life - Views of Helsinki in the 1930`s (WSOY 2011)