by Trine Søndergaard & Nicolai Howalt
In How to Hunt we use the modern hunt to explore the relationship of humans to nature. Hunting today can be seen as a ritualised performance of something that was once a basic human need. It’s also a classical theme of art history, from cave paintings to the Renaissance. We wanted to locate this historical theme in a modern context, where – at least in the affluent post-industrial West – it can be seen as a symbol of ‘the good life’ and the longing for some kind of authentic relationship to nature.
This thread is central to How to Hunt. There’s no blood, no guts – the kill itself is not in focus. Just as modern society chooses to elide the actual reality of slaughter, so our images are an aestheticised rendition of the hunt, reflecting its recreative rather than essential nature.
We chose to work digitally – to exploit the painterly potential of layering the images. Landscape painting is a source of inspiration, but our images also construct an apparently photographic reality, just as the apparently natural landscape is tamed, with reserves in a pre-mapped hunting ground and cabbage patches to feed the apparently ‘wild’ hunted. The images reflect a ‘manmade’ landscape, just as the hunt itself is carefully and predictably planned in advance. This repetitive, ritualised quality is something we choose to explore and reflect both methodically and visually. Each image is composed of multiple negatives from the same fixed p.o.v. The same frame repeated to reflect the movement of people and animals across the landscape, here represented simultaneously thus extending the photographic moment beyond a single click of the shutter. This visually condenses the period of the hunt, but also gives a far more interpretative representation of the entire experience than a single image.
We both come from a documentary tradition in which personal access and the ‘authentic’ moment of capture is central. In How to Hunt we chose not to ‘direct’, meet the gaze – or get personal. The intimacy and relationships central to our earlier individual works are here secondary. This represents a shift in working with photography for both of us – a move from intimacy to distance. Something reinforced by the choice of collaboration in which the immediacy of the one-on-one documentary tradition we both come from is replaced by a productive dialogue where nothing is ‘ours’ individually. In How to Hunt our intervention and interpretation comes not in but after the photographic moment.
How to Hunt
by Jane Fletcher
Early Morning Surprise: three men crouch by an improvised wooden structure, while another, whose presence is announced only by his protruding rag- bound feet, lies close by. Three heads in profile, as they quietly and intently watch a bear pass by their camp. The beast is partially concealed by bits of scrub and a diminutive coniferous tree, but the curve of its nose is clearly visible, and a perfectly straight line can be drawn from the fore-end of the hunter’s gun to the animal’s glinting eye. Early Morning Surprise (c.1865) is a tableau, a tour-de-force of art and artifice constructed in the studio by the Scottish photographer, William Notman, who emigrated to Canada in 1856 before opening a string of highly successful photographic studios across the land. Having discerned “a heightened interest in sports as a leisure activity” and a concomitant commercial opportunity, Notman published three portfolios in 1866: “Caribou hunting”, “Moose hunting” and “Sports pastimes and pursuits in Canada”1.
Trine Søndergaard’s & Nicolai Howalt’s recent series How to Hunt might appear, at first glance, to be an objective record of a number of hunts that took place in their native Denmark; a far remove from Notman’s Canadian constructions. In fact, How to Hunt comprises a sequence of digitally manipulated photographs, ‘faked’ as the Scotsman’s were, to portray a particular story. The comparison can be sustained at another level, too. Notman’s photographs reflect ‘a heightened interest in sport’, as opposed to a fight for survival in the Canadian wilderness. Similarly, Søndergaard’s and Howalt’s primary concern is with the manner in which contemporary hunting re-enacts what was once necessary to survival. As they explain in an interview, “Hunting today can be seen as a ritualised performance”.2. It has become “a staged activity repeating the original conditions of man – practised as a hobby within a civilized framework”.3. According to Anna Krogh, this change took place in Denmark during the 16th century, when “what had originally been a means of survival became the province of the nobility and the upper classes”, though I imagine her brief history doesn’t take account of Greenland, which became a Danish colony in 1721. 4. Hunting as leisure is, after all, the prerogative of the well-fed and well-off.
If the contemporary hunts depicted by Søndergaard and Howalt make reference to specific cultural histories and traditions, so do the formal qualities of their photographs. They can be viewed within the context of western painting, where wealth is made visible through patronage and the meticulous rendering of detail in oils, be that the landscape or the hunt which animates it, the trophies laid out for viewing and measuring or the elaborate still lifes comprising game and other spoils. Of course, photography would in time depict all of the above. What is, perhaps, less usual is Søndergaard’s and Howalt’s deployment of a device used in painting that allows the same character to be shown more than once in a picture, thus privileging narrative sequence over a single significant scene. Their use of multiple exposures and digital manipulation works to suggest the duration of a particular hunt andgives expression to a complete experience; the beginning, middle and end. The resulting composites recreate a flurry of activity, of gunshot and bird wings and running dogs. In Sidste Såtten (The Last Beat) the same hound moves across the picture from right to left. In Flintebjerget (The Flint Hill) a hatted hunter shifts his weight from one leg to the other before standing square and raising his gun. In both cases, several moments have been combined in one frame, to produce an alternative to the decisive moment so readily attributed to photography.
Regardless of subsequent manipulation, the components that make up Søndergaard’s and Howalt’s final photographs are shot en plein air, rather than in the studio, and many are beautifully evocative of early mornings, mists and fresh air. If mankind has worked to conquer, there is a sense that the landscape can still evade domination. We see the seasons move through the series of photographs. The verdant grass becomes a snowy plain, and the earth is enveloped in fog. Indeed, the inclusion of the hunters in the landscape seems less about a time-honoured relationship between man and nature, and more like a violation of the latter. That people hunt for pleasure while looking so benignly eccentric in the process only works to accentuate the disgust such ‘sport’ provokes in me. That said, not all of Søndergaard and Howalt hunting companions look like candidates for Monty Python’s ‘Upper Class Twit’. A brief perusal of hunting websites reveals that most hunters wear luminous orange vests: a sensible health and safety precaution. In contrast, some the most disturbing of Søndergaard’s and Howalt’s images are those in which the hunters are dressed in camouflage and hidden amidst the trees. It is profoundly shocking to suddenly discover someone lurking ominously in the undergrowth, returning your gaze. A stalker, a sniper, a crazed man with a grudge: it sends a shiver down your back. This is combat, and in one photograph, it appears that at least one of the three huntsmen has his back to the camera, bolstering Susan Sontag’s observation that “a camera is sold as a predatory weapon”5. In a nice twist, suddenly Søndergaard and Howalt are the hunters and the huntsmen have become their quarry.
How to Hunt is not an overtly politicised or polemical piece of work; the photographers are apparently not in the business of either publicly condemning or condoning the activity. But they succeed in capturing beautifully the strange, distorted relationship with the land of hunting-for- leisure. Eloquently and subtly Søndergaard and Howalt engage with the exploitation and cultural commodification of nature that hunting embodies, while leaving one longing to regain an authentic relationship with the land.
2. Artists’ Statement, in dialogue with Jane Rowley
4. Anna Krogh, The Hunting Ground in How to Hunt, 2005, Artpeople, Copenhagen, no page
5. Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977, Penguin, London, p15
How to Hunt: The Photographic Medium and the Patents of the Painter
by Katrine Lykke Hansen
Hunters say that it is harder to shoot a photo of an animal than actually to shoot one, since the former has to be beautiful while the latter only has to be dead. The photographers Trine Søndergaard and Nicolai Howalt have ventured to combine the two in the photo book How to Hunt, which was followed up by an exhibition at Galerie Asbæk in the spring of 2005. The book is bound in hunting-green velour that reminds the reader of the thick, mossy carpet of the forest floor, which itself plays a leading role as the reader moves through the photographs. But strictly speaking, reader should be corrected to viewer, since the text in the book is limited to a preface written by curator Anna Krogh. In the preface Krogh explains how hunting has developed from a basic necessity for survival to a passionate leisure interest for nature-lovers, and how the activity of hunting has been depicted ever since the cave paintings. The hunting motif has typically been an expression of human supremacy over nature, which is why it has also been used as a setting for portraits meant to emphasize the power of the subject. The two photographers in the book have undoubtedly moved into an area with deep roots in the history of painting, which also incorporates ingrained bourgeois values like cultivation and power. But does this mean that with How to Hunt I have acquired a collection of pictures that tries to show me an idyllic world of the past? On the contrary, Søndergaard/Howalt have been able, in an innovative and independent way, to create a photo series that questions the framework of the photographic medium by dealing actively with a classic subject from the art of painting, and not least by using the techniques of the medium to play with the expression. The hunting motif has been given a modern, up-to-date treatment that re-narrates and recasts painting’s classic interpretation of the scenery of the hunt. What particularly interests and enchants me in these photographs is how the artist duo has captured the art of painting in the photograph without renouncing the distinctiveness of the photographic medium. But at the same time they bring to the medium a playfulness and lightness that point forward towards new horizons for Danish photography.
It is the burden of photography that, over a century and a half after its birth, it is still regarded as a new medium for art. Over the last twenty-five years we have even had to rethink its framework as digitalization has gained a foothold and created new possibilities for artistic expression. Over the years, especially here in Denmark, a number of obstacles have been placed in the way of considering photography as an independent artistic genre, since it has tended to be overshadowed by the aesthetics of painting or reduced to nothing more than a truth-teller and a mechanical production technique. Against these odds, many Danish photographs of international format have been created, testifying to both creativity and innovation. How to Hunt is a new offering that mixes all the things that photography has been subjected to, voluntarily or involuntarily. The Søndergaard/Howalt book marks a playful lightness in the medium that can help to re-articulate our wayof thinking about photography. On the face of it, the photographs in the book seem realistic, with their nature scenery, sometimes populated by hunters and their dogs; but on closer scrutiny of some of the photographs we discover that the scenery is not natural. For example the first photograph in the book exemplifies how Søndergaard and Howalt have intervened to reformulate the motif, since the hunters are quite illogically shooting in different directions, and one hunter even appears twice in a reflection. Yet one cannot see the manipulation in all the photographs, as some of them appear to reproduce the landscape as it is. Precisely the process surrounding the rendering of the subject is challenging to the viewer, because when we are presented with photographs that are sometimes clearly manipulated, we are stimulated to recall how hunting scenes have been shown throughout the ages. It is as if we sit and dredge our memories for the painting that could be the original of the photograph. But that painting does not exist; what we recognize in the photographs is rather an artistic strategy. The museum curator Krogh mentions in the preface that the Dutch genre painting of the seventeenth century used the hunt as one of its subjects, and this tradition was followed up all the way into the nineteenth century; that is why the viewer sees a re- mediation of painting – a recreation that takes place within the framework of the distinctiveness of the photographic medium, no longer in the shadow of painting. This is not to say that Søndergaard/Howalt are the first photographers to play with models from the art of painting; that idea has always been a more or less explicit element of the photographic medium. A recent Danish example can be found in the 1980s, when two prominent tendencies in the treatment of classic art history made their impact. The traditionally trained photographers took pictures inspired by the history of art, while the artists experimented with the medium and its tradition. Another example is Erik Steffensen, who in the 1990s photographed motifs inspired by the subjects of the time-honoured Danish ‘Golden Age’ painters.
What is it, then, that distinguishes How to Hunt from earlier couplings of the photographic medium with the world of painting? The simple answer would be that it is the unequivocally manipulated digitalized photographs; but the method of producing the photographic expression does not seem to play any role for the immediate contract into which viewer and subject enter – an attitude that is now shared by most theoreticians as well as artists who work with the photographic medium. What is crucially innovative in How to Hunt is the unique mixture of the aesthetics of painting and the insistence of photography on being its own medium and genre. It is as if the photographers claim their right to be inspired by other genres without allowing the photographic medium to be exhibited as a younger form of expression. The photographers do what the painters have done for centuries – they borrow from or are inspired by the styles and subjects of the past. The photographs have been created on the basis of the possibilities and diversity of the medium without the artist duo trying, by way of titles or text in the book, to explain how the subjects have arisen. The ambiguity is allowed to hang in the air, or viewed from another perspective; the subjects are left nonchalantly untouched in a way painting has monopolized for many years. This underlying demand to function on premises as autonomous as those of painting is further emphasized by the choice of subjects, inasmuch as painters have depicted the scenery of the hunt innumerable times.
How to hunt?
I read the title, How to Hunt, in two different ways, both of which concern the overall shared expression of the subjects. How does one go hunting from the point of view of the photographers? And how does one hunt on the premises of painting? A classic answer to the first question is that photographers hunt with their cameras, and the quarry is the photograph that most realistically reflects reality. This is a common metaphor that has been associated with photography ever since its invention, so it has become so ingrained that it must more or less be regarded as a part of the culture with which the photographic medium is surrounded. Yet this does not necessarily mean that it is the only correct way of viewing things – especially if we consider the limits of the metaphor. In terms of the subjects of How to Hunt, it is clear that the metaphor is inappropriate, unless we choose to turn it around to mean that Søndergaard/Howalt’s photographic method misses its mark. This cannot be recommended, since it would mean that we must renounce a large number of photographs that pursue this way of capturing the world. In addition, the mimetic motif is not privileged over the more experimental forms of realism, although at times it still haunts our view of photography.
In How to Hunt the photographs are often a mixture of different photographs, as can be clearly seen in those that depict hunters and animals; as we have seen, they exhibit illogical positions compared with the hunts of reality. Nevertheless as a spectator one is in no doubt that the photographs are taken from the universe of modern hunting, even without the certainty of the telling title. The fragmentary presentation of the recognizable means that for the viewer the photographs are decoded as hunting, even though the composition has been created by manipulation. What Søndergaard and Howalt show us is their experience of hunting. Thanks to technology they have been able to manipulate their photographs by processing them and inserting elements until they have arrived at an idiom that shows their experience of hunting – a strategy that separates them crucially from the imagery of capturing the sublime photograph by clicking at exactly the right time. Digitalization has enabled them to create photographs that start with how we remember and perceive the world (not how it approximately happens to look), which is a way of creating pictures on which the painters have otherwise taken out a patent. This is not to say that the painters have not been subject to various wishes and currents in terms of creating their own quite personal view of a subject. One current that Søndergaard and Howalt consciously or unconsciously recall for me is the branch of Dutch art in the seventeenth century that refined and adapted motifs from nature, an area where Jacob van Ruisdael must be singled out as one of the foremost exponents. Particularly characteristic of this genre is the mixture of empathy and precision in the painterly expression, which means that the paintings do not look like approximate copies of nature; a strategy that can be see in a re-mediated version in How to Hunt, where the photographic lens guards against a precise impression of nature, and the personal point of departure is mainly produced by the subsequent manipulation of the subject. One could of course claim that it is straining things to call How to Hunt a re-mediation of a seventeenth-century style of painting, when the only connection the book has with it is Anna Krogh’s brief remarks on the tradition of the hunting motif in painting. But in the first place the choice of subjects is not new, and therefore points to the whole tradition from which the representation of the hunt and thus landscape motifs arose; and secondly I am entitled as a viewer to build my impression of the photo book on my own experiences and associations, and these involuntarily direct my thoughts back through the history of art – not in the sense that I see Jacob van Ruisdael’s subjects reformulated in Søndergaard/Howalt; but I do see an artistic strategy that has been introduced to the photographic medium and launched into a new epoch – yet another example of how the two photographers play with the classic genre categories in the world of art. But the similarities do not stop there, since the time perspective also plays a role. With both paintings and photographs, the viewer has the chance to dwell on them as long as he or she likes; but traditionally there is a classic difference in the time perspectives of the two forms of expression. In the nature of things the painting is created over a long period during which the subject has been able to change a little, and it has been possible to include new elements in the composition and omit others, such that in the end the painting consists of a number of fused elements that represent several different times. The photograph, on the other hand, disregarding double exposures, is a very precisely defined section of time. In How to Hunt time has also been stretched, inasmuch as there has been a post-processing that has embedded more actions.
This is not a ground-breaking idea that the artist duo has come up with; over time it has become inherent in the way one can express oneself as a photographer. What makes it notable in this context is the number of stylistic features suggesting that How to Hunt represents a new departure in Danish photography, where the medium can be manifested in earnest on its own terms and takes strategies from the art of painting as a matter of course – a showdown with painting’s patent on a number of expressive resources and creative processes. But patents lapse, and after they have spent several centuries in the domain of painting the time must now be ripe for the photographic medium to make free and equal use of them.
Figures in a Landscape
by Liz Wells
How to Hunt invites us to contemplate Danish hunting scenarios. Since 2004 Trine Søndergaard and Nicolai Howalt have been joining bird and deer hunts. At first glance places where hunting occurs appear orderly, in some instances austere. This is because they are highly organized in three respects: first, areas have been set aside for hunting; second, the hunt is a managed event; third, because the pictures in How to Hunt are edited composites, scenarios extracted from particular occasions rather than real-time narratives documenting the progress of a specific hunt. As such they relate as much to painting as to photography. The artists stand back from the action, making photographs that will subsequently be used as the basis for digitally composited images. The process and the summary scenarios constructed have more in common with studio paintings based on drawings or photographs than with “straight” photo-documentary, although the photographic basis of the imagery lends a crucial sense of authenticity.
The “Golden Age” of Danish painting, early to mid-nineteenth century, was characterized by a new detailed mode of depiction and by focus on everyday subject-matter that can be seen as proto-photographic. This was a century of social and political change across much of Europe, initiated by the Napoleonic Wars (1800–15); Denmark experienced two major battles in Copenhagen during this period. Expanding empires, intensifying industrial revolution (particularly in Britain), and the 1848 social revolts in many parts of Europe were among many factors inducing a sense of social unrest. Artists, as historical witnesses, became interested in exploring everyday phenomena that included countryside and rural pursuits. This was the era of Realism in France, centrally concerned with the painting of everyday life, and of Constable’s naturalistic explorations of the English landscape.
Nineteenth-century Danish painting can thus be seen as part of the broader Counter-Enlightenment that followed the Napoleonic Wars. Philip Conisbee argues that Danish art contributed to subverting the classicism, universalism, and mythological themes that characterized post-Renaissance European culture. He remarks that Danish painting featured a concentration on “present virtues: the pleasures of a well-ordered daily life; the quiet beauty of their country, with its islands and cliffs, woods and dunes, meadows and beaches; and the silent ships, moored in the harbors or plying the coasts.”1 Amongst the various ideological shifts and re-configurations of the political map of Europe at that time, Denmark - formerly the principal imperial power in the Nordic region - ceded Norway to Sweden in 1814. Conisbee proposes that “in spite of the reduced circumstances of their country, the Danes were nurturing a positive sense that they had much for which to be grateful, both in their heroic past, mythic or historic, and in the continuity provided by their native landscape.”2 Interest in nature and in small-scale farming could be seen as a return to rural roots and a source of replenishment of national pride. In Nordic Landscape Painting in the Nineteenth Century, Torsten Gunnarsson remarks that across Europe the middle classes had emerged as a significant social group and had become influential as buyers of art. If one of the functions of art is to draw attention to social circumstances, then naturalistic styles underpin focus on everyday surroundings. He characterizes Danish painting in terms of “bourgeois realism, expressed mainly in a classical idiom.”3 Denmark was Lutheran; engagement with everyday realities also fitted the down to earth values associated with Protestantism. There are many examples of paintings of the Danish landscape from that era, for example, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg’s View from the Three Crowns Fort towards Copenhagen (1836) or Christen Købke’s Copenhagen Seen from Dosseringen (1837), that look out over water bounded on both sides, reminding us that Denmark is configured from islands and peninsulas. The literalness of the titles reinforces an anti-classicist and anti-mythological focus on actual vistas. Where people figure they are going about their daily activities as, for instance, farm workers or oarsmen. This is a calm environment, orderly and reassuring. By contrast with the symbolism that became associated with the Danish style towards the end of the nineteenth century, the painting mode of the Golden Age was primarily naturalistic and observational.
The Danish landscape is relatively unassuming; land blends into sea. Topographic paintings typically depict flat fields, gentle slopes, and clear views spread below expansive, often cloudy, skies. Denmark shares the distinctive light qualities and broad horizons of the Baltic region of northern Europe. As a flat peninsula jutting up where the Baltic and the North Seas meet, Denmark is particularly subject to the elements as winds rage across the country bringing rain, mist, or intense clear Nordic sunlight. The horizon is wide and, inhabiting a network of peninsulas, most of the population live by or near coastal or inland waters where they experience the enhanced intensity of skies reflected in the water. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that in Danish painting the movement, effects, and affects of light feature significantly both as indicators of mood and as subject-matter itself. For instance, Eckersberg’s Study of Clouds over the Sea (1826) is a small (twenty-one by thirty-one centimeters), intense examination of cloud forms over a dark sea in which the sky area fills three-quarters of the picture (fig. 1). In the mid-nineteenth century, a number of artists started visiting Skagen on the northern coast of Jutland (hence, the Skagen painters). They were likewise intrigued by the effects of the elements, especially the changing sky and clarity of cool daylight reflecting on the land. How to Hunt relates to this painterly lineage not only in terms of subject-matter—rural areas and pursuits— but also in terms of bourgeois realism and an aesthetic wherein the affects of climate and weather contribute to the poetics of the imagery.
Landscapes represent the inter-relation of natural phenomena with human intervention in the organization of land and that which is built on it. The contemporary Danish landscape is highly managed; there is no wilderness. The migratory patterns of birds are well documented, and animal roaming is contained. During the second half of the twentieth century the small-scale (family) farming economy was largely supplanted by agro-industry fuelled by the demands of supermarket chains across Europe. Within this, however, areas of land have been set aside as places of leisure, including a number of estates and coastal regions designated and planned as hunting areas. As a rural pastime, hunting has roots in ancestral hunter-gatherer modes of existence. It is a largely male pursuit, and, as such, is associated with masculine pleasures of stalking and conquest. It is a pursuit legitimated through an ideology of the hierarchy of species wherein it is deemed not simply acceptable but also instinctual for humans and animals to prey upon the weaker. Within this model hunting is viewed as innate to the human condition. Given the agro-industry that permeates much of the Danish landscape, there is a certain irony in the notion of hunters pitted against the forces of nature. This is a region of Europe wherein “wild” life is managed and land as “nature” has long since become organized and tamed.
Hunting is now a purposefully organized leisure pastime. This is not new; the organization of hunts in season figured historically within the social calendar not only for the aristocracy and upper classes as a ritual part of the round of visits and house parties, but also for estate managers, game-keepers, and workers (including cooks and housekeepers along with land laborers) for whom this was a busy season, integral to land management and also to kitchen provisions. It was part of the round of culling, harvesting, transformation, and storage of food for use through the forthcoming winter. However, the contemporary hunt differs as it is largely based not on necessity, but on leisure and pleasure, which perhaps includes the reassurance offeeling a link through such traditional pastimes to a rural heritage. A day out would seem incomplete without a catch, even though it would be easier to buy the already plucked bird or jointed venison from a butcher or supermarket. Making sure that there will be birds or deer to shoot involves deliberate strategies. For example, if a wild bird habitat is in one area then a food trail may be laid to entice them to another coppice, thereby encouraging a habit of visiting this second woodland place for food from whence they return to their original sanctuary (fig. 2). When disturbed (by hunt beaters) whilst out for food the flock rises en masse and flies overhead back to their “home,” thereby creating an ideal opportunity for hunters, standing in wait, to shoot them down.
As partners Søndergaard and Howalt sometimes work together, sometimes independently. Neither would define themselves as documentary photographers; rather, as visual artists, they observe people and phenomena. Søndergaard has pursued a number of projects wherein staged portraits relate to art-historical themes and styles. This is most evident in Versus (2003), wherein contemporary individuals are juxtaposed with and echo the poses of classical statues, or in a series of small, square-framed Monochrome Portraits (2009), flatly lit and slightly indistinct, thereby perhaps referencing fading daguerreotypes. Strude (2007–09) expresses the artist’s interest in the culture of Fanø, an island off the west coast of Denmark, where the strude, a mask-like headdress, was used by women to protect their faces from the wind, sand, and sun (fig. 3). Only the women’s eyes can be seen. As traditional costume it is now only worn for an annual fête. The artist visited three years running, photographing the women by a window in a small attic as they dressed for the festival. Shafts of daylight flatten the textures of clothing, drawing attention to the whiteness of skin. The series is not a specific study of place or of costume; rather, the artist is concerned with ways in which folk costume becomes specifically coded as a bearer of meaning within local histories. Light is crucial to the mood of Søndergaard’s imagery, whether in staged portraiture or in un-staged workssuch as Interieur (2008), a series of three tableaux depicting empty rooms in a large and, it seems, abandoned stately home.
Howalt similarly works through staging, although his references are more contemporary. The imagery in Car Crash Studies (2009) is abstract: air bags, inflated, appear as large sculptural forms, and close-ups of the colors and textures of crumpled metal refuse identification of parts or types of cars (fig. 4). In Boxer (2001), attention is drawn to physicality as young male boxers are photographed twice—before and after their first fight. Howalt was interested in boxing as a ritual transition from adolescence to manhood. Both series concern activities within which the threat of injury or death is never far away. Existential questions relating to masculinity and to mortality quietly resonate. The series also show physical tension in the eyes of the boys, or, more evidently, in the contours and textures of dented metal.
Physical tension and atmospheric light come together to characterize How to Hunt, which dates from 2002 when Søndergaard and Howalt moved to a part of Copenhagen that was close to a nature reserve on the edge of the city. This was a place where wild birds came into their garden. Søndergaard started buying meat at the wildlife reserve and became curious about its source and about the organization of animal rearing. Howalt’s interest emerged slightly differently. As a visiting art school lecturer he found himself contributing to a series of briefs whereby photography students explored everyday pastimes under the rubric of “How to . . . ” within which “How to hunt?” was one.4 This turned into a working title and the starting point for researching the business of hunting. Søndergaard and Howalt decided to work together. Although they are not always both able to be present on the same occasion, collaboration is crucial to the overall project as each artist brings slightly different interests, skills, artistic sensibilities and judgments into play. The series also represents a shift for each of them. As the artists comment in their exhibition statement:
We both come from a documentary tradition in which personal access and the “authentic” moment of capture is central. In How to Hunt we chose not to “direct,” meet the gaze - or get personal. The intimacy and relationships central to our earlier individual works are here secondary. This represents a shift in working with photography for both of us - a move from intimacy to distance. Something reinforced by the choice of collaboration in which the immediacy of the one-on-one documentary tradition we both come from is replaced by a productive dialogue where nothing is “ours” individually. In How to Hunt our intervention and interpretation comes not in but after the photographic moment.5
Such collaboration perhaps harks back to early renaissance artists’ studios wherein family members and work associates would share responsibilities for the production of a painting in response to a specific commission.
The source photographs were mostly taken at large hunts. Establishing access to various venues was not easy at first; in common with other parts of North-West Europe, in Denmark there is a wariness of green activism on the part of hunt organizers (although there is no organized anti-hunt movement unlike, for example, in England). Whilst audiences might interpret the imagery in terms of sympathy or antipathy to blood sports, this is not at all their motive. Rather their interest is conceptual; as artists, Søndergaard and Howalt stand back and observe everyday phenomena. Now that this has become clear to the organizers, they have reasonably regular access to places where hunts occur, some of which are private estates. Access to estates is not in itself an issue since in Denmark, as elsewhere in Scandinavia, there are rights to traverse privately owned lands - although walkers are usually required to stay on footpaths. On the whole, however, people do not go there, precisely because they cannot explore the woodland, picnic, or camp. How to Hunt shows areas of Denmark - estates, landscapes, and views - that, despite being technically accessible, are rarely visited.
For the artists, following the hunt - attending briefings, talking with participants, observing events as they unfold, as well as discussions with those who manage the killing fields - obviously requires cooperation with the organizers. Their work method developed pragmatically in response to what was possible under the circumstances. They shot from tripods, standing still and at a distance, in order not to disturb the hunt. More particularly, they did not want to be in the line of fire. The conditions of working influenced point of view and photographic form as shots were inevitably medium or wide, not close-up. It also retained anonymity for the hunters who are never depicted as individuals but rather appear as figures in a landscape, thereby avoiding overt social documentary. The limitations of what could be achieved photographically on-site contributed to their decision to edit through digital compositing, allowing them to build a scenarios with a degree of detail that would not otherwise be possible. It also contributes to constructing a sense of distanced observation rather than emotional involvement; as viewers we are invited to spend time figuring out what is going on.
Typically, each scenario is developed from about ten separate photographs, although some are based on up to fifty source images all of which will have been made at one location and during the course of a single hunt. When the two photographers are both present their tripods are well apart, offering differing viewpoints. On occasion we discern a figure (a person or a dog) appearing face-on as well as in profile, sometimes multiply within the same picture. That the source is a single event links their imagery to documentary tradition, lending a sense of authenticity. The first image to be composited is an “empty” environment constructed to create a sense of harmony and beauty; this links the work to a landscape pictorial, perhaps reminding us that “landscape” is constructed through land management and through aesthetic form. Their landscapes have been stitched together to create an illusion of seamlessness as the foreground is harmonized with the middle distance and the background, and attention is paid to aesthetic qualities. Then a set of questions about reality and illusion are addressed. How many birds might there be? At what point do numbers of people or animals and repetition of the same figures stretch credulity to a point where the image denies the actuality of the source event, becoming a technical exercise in digital construction rather than a picture that, as a construct, retains a sense of fidelity to types of place and circumstances depicted? Titles locate places. These are not cartographic designations but rather names given by land owners, sometimes as a reference to personal histories: Hans Jørgens Lykke, “The Happiness of Hans Jørgen,” Tyskervejs Såtten, “The German Beat,” Svigerindens hævn, “The Revenge of the Mother-in-Law,” or a literal description such as Rævebakke, “Fox Field.” The composites typify scenarios, but the titles remind us that places are imbued with local histories.
That hunting is seasonal means that the work is largely made in the autumn and winter. Light and colors are muted. Soft milky light and mists evoke the chill of early mornings and the cold of winter. There are no highlights from the Nordic summer sun; rather, gray light is dispersed through blankets of cloud or mist, or blended within snowy landscapes to the extent that figures in the distance are dreamlike rather than distinct (fig. 5). This is a romantic pictorial - soft, idealized. This might seem paradoxical given the focused thrills of hunting and harshness of the kill. But there is a long tradition of depicting the hunt in painting in, for example, seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting or in British popular art. Animals at bay may be glorified, often within stark settings. Paintings of capture, taming, and killing romanticize pursuits historically associated with masculinity, implicitly reinforcing notions of a hierarchy of species. The wash of light softens that which might otherwise seem too blunt a statement about wildlife as human prey. Dreamlike qualities are enhanced through the dulling of luminosity and, very often, lack of specified location. Imagery testifies to the superiority of man through the quelling of the mythological “beast.”
Scenarios in How to Hunt fall broadly into three types. First, locations where hunting takes place. Attention is given to geometric form: the contours of fields, hills, and woodland areas. For example, in Tvedelykkemarken (2007) a diagonal row of trees bisects the flatness of the fields (fig. 6). Second, some pictures particularly emphasize people and animals within the landscape.
Here the figurative aspects draw attention not to individuals, but to shapes, body language, and implied movement. As such, people, deer, birds, decoy ducks, trees, and bushes are handled similarly within the composition (fig. 7). The mode is typological, not specific. Only where we see coastline or wild grasses do we get a clear sense of particularity of place, perhaps for the technical reason that it would be almost impossible (or very time consuming) to composite the movement of the tide (fig. 8). Selected scenarios have been developed as diptychs or triptychs, emphasizing again the specifics of place by contrast with the story-telling aspects of those pictures in which animals and people figure. Third, there are a number of close-up shots of birds dying which, without dramatization, detail the effects of flight arrested.
Exploration of the inter-relationship of humankind and nature is a longestablished theme within Western art. In terms of subject-matter How to Hunt clearly fits within this. What is more distinctive is the way in which mood is expressed through naturalistic rendering of light, stylistically echoing Danish landscape painting. For example, the soft light over the gentle hillside leading up to a cluster of trees in Rævebakke Syd (2005, fig. 2) seemingly echoes the muted clouds and even understated light of the rolling fields and coppices in Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Landscape from Lejre (1905, fig. 9) and the horizontal geometry of Nordskansen (2008) bears obvious formal similarity to examples of landscapes looking over water by Eckersberg, Købke, or Johan Thomas Lundbye (fig.10). Lundbye’s Landscape at Lake Arre with a View of the Shifting Sand Dunes at Tisvilde (1838) is typical of the genre as the shapes of clouds and effects of light dominate, diminishing the figures of the animals and the land worker in the foreground (fig.11). However, in Lundbye’s study the summer light is intense, reminding us of the visual joie de vivre heralded by sunlight. How to Hunt reflects more muted moods of autumn and winter.
How to Hunt was included in the Scandinavian exposure section at Paris Photo in 2006, and shown in New York the following year. Gallery prints are one hundred sixty by two hundred centimeters, allowing more detail to emerge than can be discerned when reproduced smaller-scale, as, for example, in this book. The experience of the larger prints is much more immersive and visceral as we imagine ourselves within the scenario, rather than held at a distance as we thumb through the pages of a book within which the pictures are framed and contained. An eight-page section features single birds falling, apparently shot by the photographers as accurately as if they had held a gun. Freedom of flight is implied, yet our attention is drawn to the trauma of death. As with the book overall, the order and juxtapositions are intended to avoid any sense of narrative unfolding. Rather, repetitions and differences between the various scenarios accumulate to create an overall sense of hunting as a particular sort of pastime and occasion. This accumulative method builds not only in terms of thematic connections but also through mood - to the extent that we can imagine the chill in the air or the last squawk of a dying bird. The order of the book is largely dictated by formal decisions, not narrative ones, although the triptychs are time-based in that they trace the gentle rise and fall of decoy ducks in response to the movement of the tide. In a gallery we might be absorbed by the scale of the individual pictures; by contrast the book draws us in through accretion of the affects of the many images.
Søndergaard and Howalt are not interested in socio-political statements; rather, their work results from curiosity about the everyday extraordinary. As such, How to Hunt belongs equally within the tradition of still life - rendered less elliptically in French as dead nature (nature morte) - as within landscape as genre. Life and death are staple themes within art practice. Here the artists weave tales of events that echo romanticism in painting and invite us to reflect on mortality whilst considering the morality of the transformation of killing, once a necessity for survival, into a leisure pastime. As constructed scenarios the narratives are poetic rather than literal. In line with the Danish tradition of observational painting, the artists deploy soft light and muted natural colors to entice us to reflect upon the cycle of seasons and traditional rural pursuits. With metaphorical eloquence How to Hunt invites us to contemplate human behavior and the enduring pursuit of conquest.
Liz Wells writes and lectures on photographic practices. She is Professor in Photographic Culture, Faculty of Arts, University of Plymouth, UK.