> Sylvia Grace Borda: Farm Tableaux

Dr. Katherine Parhar / Sylvia Grace Borda: Farm Tableaux

July 2016

Over a coffee, Sylvia Grace Borda tells me Finland is big on growing lettuce and beet sugar. It also manufactures tyres and tractors. Somehow, I can’t see it. When I think Finland, I think flat plains, forests, a coast latticed with lakes and cabins. I think of the Helsinki School – of Elina Brotherus’ self-portraits under vast white skies or the strangeness of Jorma Puranen’s icy blue reaches.

In other words, Finland, for me, calls up an austere Romantic sublime cultivated by the artists of northern landscape into the early twentieth century and still alive in Finnish photography now, in the Helsinki School’s pursuit of what Puranen calls ‘the poetic possibilities found in silence,’ [i] historical time, and the mysterious.

Brotherus adopts the sublime to shift its masculine gaze and assert female presence in the land. Puranen uses it to explore how art and history combine to exercise power over indigenous groups like the Sami. So the Helsinki School is hardly unthinking in its treatment of the Finnish landscape or the ideological tensions it bears. But in their search for an exquisite aesthetic of ‘silence,’ the actual conditions of life – and industry – this land sustains remain largely out of frame.

Sylvia Grace Borda, a Canada-born photographer based in Scotland, is working on a three-year project in Finland to widen the visual definition of its land and economy, making totally contemporary portraits of the nation’s agricultural life and industry by reviving the rural typology – or aides memoire – in the mode of Atget, Sander and the Finn I.K. Inha.

Atget’s earliest works, made with tripod and plate camera, were rural scenes from the north of France – ploughed fields, close botanical studies, items of agricultural technology. Even once established in Paris, he was drawn off its streets in the early twilight to canals, to orchards, and gardens, and to the edge-lands of his expanding city, still semi-rural in nature.

He intended this ‘visual index’, as Borda puts it, to aid city planners (as well as artists) in understanding how people used and inhabited such communal terrain, not least as a space of production. Like Atget, Inha – who travelled Finland expansively by bicycle – published folios of unsentimental images depicting his native topography.

Specialising in panoramas, which required several plates and great technical precision, Inha aimed to recreate the experience of being embedded in Finland’s vast landscapes. In the process, he made visual records of farms, illustrating their scale, labour forces, and types of production. These Finland’s government presented at international events like the 1900 Paris Expo, tying the land – and Inha’s work – to a vibrant discourse of Finnish self-awareness and national pride fostered over the late nineteenth century.

August Sander, too, in pursuing a collective portrait of the German people, linked nation to land, and thus to farming, in a kind of ‘origin myth.’ The first folio of images in his life’s work People of the Twentieth Century, indeed, is titled The Farmer. This opus follows a narrative arc through to urbanisation, which, by the 1920s, had supplanted agriculture as a locus of prosperity in Finland’s photography (if not Germany’s).

Borda, in her work, is neither nostalgic or nationalist; nor is she really modernist, but rather postmodern, in that she investigates the ways in which culture assimilates the land – and vice versa. A number of Finnish photographers – Esko Männikö, Ilka Halso, Kapa – do this by building bodies of work that often occupy an ‘uneasy space between critique and romanticisation.’ [ii]

Kapa, for instance, examines the scars left on the land by depicting barren ski-slopes out of season; but he does so in black and white, and his prints often bear marks reminiscent of nineteenth century processing. By contrast, Halso, who once enclosed trees (sacred emblems of the Finnish landscape) then photographed them, now does this digitally.

Borda’s work combines cutting edge digital technology with nineteenth century image processes, specifically the tableau vivant, to record Finland’s working farms in hybrid images that immerse viewer, subject and photographer, digitally and physically, in the land. All three, in this way, become vital participants in a complex nexus of debates about how we shape, work, and represent land for the future.

For Farm Tableaux, she has collaborated with Google Trusted photographer John M Lynch to make portraits of Finnish farmers at work, which are then embedded into Google Street View, a public resource that creates ‘multi-point panoramas for explorative viewing,’ much as Inha did, arguably, with the technology available to him, in his farm typologies.

To make Street View images, multi-lens cameras move through space, recording both video and geo-data simultaneously. To embed her work successfully into Street View, Borda worked closely with Lynch by mapping a range of locative points that were photographed to create ‘an illusion of continuous time and space as the user moves seamlessly through the scene.’ (Borda)

This technique of photographing multiple views from a node for use in Google Street view demands that Borda’s subjects, farmers, pose motionless for up to forty minutes, mirroring the protracted sittings of early portrait photography, or the ‘live freeze’ of the travelling dioramas and tableaux vivant that staged scenes of rural life (among other things) to entertain – and educate – the nineteenth century public across Europe.

Her hybrid approach, then, necessitates a prolonged interaction long disposed of in the camera’s historical development. A ‘reverse-engineering’ of sorts, it acts out Brecht’s dictum that ‘nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new,’ in that the farmers’ stillness, staging their everyday labour with Borda, allows her to build three-dimensional, experiential portraits of them in time and space, breaking (a bit like Cubism) with Susan Sontag’s notion that the photograph is a single significant moment ‘taken’ and fixed by the camera’s frame.

Recent viewers at Helsinki Photomedia week have picked up on this, suggesting that by breaking out of the flat photographic surface, Borda’s Tableaux create not a binary ‘text cube’ in ‘black and white,’ but an ‘e-cube’ of fully dimensional content. For some, this ‘e-cube,’ when viewed on a small mobile or tablet, mirrors some of the intimate viewing mechanisms of early photography – magic lanterns and stereoscopes (some of which were close to pocket sized).

Farm Tableaux is rife with such meta-puns on established – and new – systems of representation. For instance, Borda inscribes herself into the portraits, inspired by the likes of Breughel (the Elder), who painted himself into studies of work on the land, like Hunters in the Snow (1565). Though she places herself on the periphery of her vistas, not at their centre, Borda – like Brotherus – asserts herself as both witness and co-author to her unfolding tableaux of the land.

But once embedded in Street View, the Farm Tableaux exist outside the authorial bounds of conventional exhibition or publication (virtual or actual). Borda could not put the work in Google without her collaborator, John Lynch, in a partnership she likens to that of Hill and Adamson. While Lynch, who pioneers Street View for the use of business, is professionally rooted in Google, Borda is not, so in this context – this new virtual territory – her physical presence stands as a visual signature to the work, which is both unique art and a networked mass of public geo-data. Photography’s ‘mapping’ of physical reality, in these Tableaux, is both a ‘truth’ and a creative composite.

I.K. Inha worked as Borda does – in situ, recording en plein air a land in which he was physically rooted. She treats the farming world with as little sensationalism, or romanticism, as he did. When she records the Sami of the Arctic Circle, herding, tagging, and slaughtering reindeer, the still images that result show groups of men in high visibility vests, working slowly, methodically, through a mass of grazing beasts.

The sky is flat, grey, as is the scrubland beneath it. The trees are sparse. The traditional costume of the Sami, their blue-eyed dogs, skin aprons, and home-forged knives are absent. Even the pristine wastes they traverse in the popular imagination are denied. This makes Borda’s work as radical and critically incisive as Puranen’s. Because this is land as work, not as symbol.

It is work that we, the viewer, can walk through, almost as if it’s live. Inserted into an ever-growing, changing seam of data that exists in a digital space between photographic and actual terrain, it is purely contemporary, not timeless. The rural work Borda records exists not as an abstract concept or an idyll, but – literally – in a networked relationship to the culture (and land) it supplies.

This is the point of Farm Tableaux. By accumulation, the still images Borda draws from her Street View works reveal linked labour processes: a slaughter occurs in Lapland, as, elsewhere, an abattoir is cleaned; crops are harvested on a farm as accounts are checked at a flour mill. As her cameras pan, creating sweeping arcs of ice and arable land, barn roofs and hanging carcasses, these sites of production take on a monumental, almost cathedral-like form.

The prints let us see Borda’s ‘e-cubes’ unpacked, wound out on a flat plane, like a spool of continuous film. They are beautiful. But beauty isn’t the point. Borda isn’t channelling the modern photography of Sander’s era, through which artists like Renger-Patszch sought beauty in the new forms of mass consumption, aestheticising in close-up its factories and the things they made. Her panning style, necessitated by the technical requirements of Street View, demands veracity by default – she can neither avoid nor elevate (aesthetically) the details of the work at hand: cluttered shelving in a lambing shed, neon strip lights, or blood-soaked snow.

This is one sense in which the ‘objectivity’ of photography remains intact in Farm Tableaux. For Borda, indeed, ‘By slowing down the art-making process…the artwork becomes more real.’ The results are intimate – clear-eyed – portraits of contemporary enterprises, often run by families, which are linked, as a wider economic ecology, by their everyday practices. This ecology emerges as we walk through Borda’s work, embedding (even implicating) ourselves within its dense interdependencies, as consumers of food produce.

For Borda, whose practice is socially engaged, this effect is vital. She reclaims agriculture as a subject for art to make a point about the contradictory way we perceive farming today – we consume more, and more variously, than ever before, yet our vision of rural work remains timeless, bucolic. Tesco now labels its tomatoes the harvest of ‘Nightingale Farms,’ while its grapes are the pride of ‘Suntrail Farms,’ and its potatoes hail from ‘Redmere Farms.’ None of these farms exist. They are collective names – marketing spin – for products Tesco sources from multiple countries around the globe.

Against this backdrop, Borda’s Tableaux set out to create a neutral platform that facilitates public dialogue around sustainable, localised practice and its social value in Finland and around the world. Borda worked with conservation and farming unions, national and localised, to access the farms she photographed. All the farmers whose portraits she makes are, in some way, recognised leaders of best practice.

The intensity of her collaborations with them, over long periods on their land, watching them work, has helped Borda participate with them in a coalition to construct new ways of seeing Finnish food production – and to create new ways to legislate for it, too. With her partners in Farm Tableaux, Borda’s work has led directly to the drafting of a Food Act, outlining a set of national standards for food production, to be presented to the Finnish Parliament in 2018.

This powerful outcome was not one Borda expected for the work. It has sprung, I would argue, from the fact that the work is not pre-scripted by her with particular political or social messages. Though a typological approach like Borda’s is never truly neutral (indeed she presents best practice only), it provides for a wide spectrum of Finland’s farmers to engage freely, and multi-laterally, as the viewer does, with their place in the wider ecology of food production. In the next year or so, Borda plans to bring Farm Tableaux to Scotland. Perhaps Tesco should watch out.

 – essay by Dr. Katherine Parhar


For further viewing:


[i] Jorma Puranen quoted in Timothy Persons, The Helsinki School: New Photography by TaiK (Ostfildern, 2007), p. 223.

[ii] Liz Wells: Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity (I.B. Tauris, 2011), p. 247.


Sylvia Grace Borda image selection at right, please visit the following URL links to view online:


Niina Leskelä tending to Texel sheep at Viskaalin Farm, Muhos, Oulu

Mise en Scene: Farm Tableaux Finland


Reindeer herding and separation at Maltiolan Jaloste Oy, Salla

Mise en Scene: Farm Tableaux Finland


Portrait after Brueghel’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565), Maltiolan Jaloste Oy, Salla

Mise en Scene: Farm Tableaux Finland


Reindeer herding and gathering at Maltiolan Jaloste Oy, Salla

Mise en Scene: Farm Tableaux Finland


Heikki Räinä sweeping the cow barns at Viskaalin Farm, Muhos, Oulu

Mise en Scene: Farm Tableaux Finland