Portraits that Almost aren’t There
by Mette Mortensen
You have to make an effort walking through Trine Søndergaard’s exhibition Monochrome Portraits. Each photograph has its own muted, dark color that flows across a wooden frame hand-painted in the same shade. You have to find the right distance and angle to even see the person portrayed. Glanced from a distance, or moving just slightly to one side, they disappear into the image, leaving the viewer with a dark, monochrome surface. The portraits constantly threaten to disappear. But they also constantly re-emerge in the meeting with the viewer. These are portraits that are almost not there. And they are almost not portraits. With Monochrome Portraits Trine Søndergaard challenges and renews the conventions of the genre. The people in the portraits are photographed sitting alone with their gaze lowered or their head turned away so only their profile or the nape of their neck is visible. We are witness to a private and quiet moment, with the model meditatively withdrawn into their inner self. Unlike classical representative portraits, the images have no apparent ambition to expose the soul and personality or status and life of the individual. Instead, the series seeks to visualize a state of mind. Maybe it is connected to melancholy, maybe a kind of resignation. It is difficult to label precisely, since the state is elusive and withholds something that cannot be communicated visually or verbally.The portraits may show a mental space the individual has withdrawn into, but they also make it clear that we as outsiders have no access to that space. With this enigmatic expression, Monochrome Portraits breaks with dominant perceptions of the photographic portrait.
A True Picture?
The face is the most important symbol of our identity. This is true in our own self-perception, in our daily interaction with others, and in our cultural, social, geopolitical, and historical worldview. It is therefore hardly surprising that portraitureis the most common genre in photography. At the same time the photographic portrait has long been dismissed, not least from an art perspective. There are three reasons why this might be so: Firstly, the portrait is connected to the popular culture of commercial photographers’ package deals and the happy shots of the amateur for the family album. Secondly, the portrait was considered an anachronistic form of artistic expression throughout the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, which left virtually no trace on the genre. And thirdly and finally, the portrait is accompanied by the idea that it is capable of exposing the soul of the model, something difficult to reconcile with a complex and globalized contemporary reality where claims of absolute truths have long been modified - if not entirely abandoned. The latter point perhaps needs more explanation, since it can also provide a context for understanding recent portrait art.In the infancy of photography in the 1840s and fifties it was commonly held that the photographic image revealed a truth about those depicted that was not visible to the naked eye. The camera mediated between outer reality and an inner essence. This heritage from the earliest years of photography has, in different, historically conditional forms, been paramount in the reception of portrait photography. Even though hardly anyone today would be expected to subscribe to a belief in the photograph as a true picture, it is apparently part of the set curriculum that photography-based artists cannot avoid. This is also true of the artists who in the 1980s and nineties generated the basis for the comeback of the portrait on the international art scene proclaimed by the American journal ARTnews in 1999. 1 For example, in the eighties the American artist Cindy Sherman, with her staged self-portraits in meticulous, postmodern tableaux inspired by film, art, and popular culture, demonstrated that the self has no stable identity. Whereas the German Dusseldorf School photographer Thomas Ruff, who was a leading art photographer in the nineties,emptied the face of content, leaving a smooth surface on his large, impartial, and stringent portraits. Whereas the portrait art of the eighties focused on the theatrical and a more formalized and scientific format was on the agenda in the nineties, 2 Trine Søndergaard returns to a more intimate approach to the portrait. An approach that should not, however, be confused with the sentimental or emotional.
The Boundaries of the Portrait
Trine Søndergaard’s Monochrome Portraits is a reconnaissance of the borderland between the portrait and the non-portrait. Formally, this minimalist series is located at the boundary where the portrait ceases to be a portrait and becomes a sculptural object or monochrome image which her portraits can also be seen as. In addition, in its own detached manner, the series stands between repetition and the exceptional; between the individual and the shared; between the solitary and the communal; between the inner and the outer. Those portrayed are all acquaintances of the artist. Unlike the ideal portrait of former times, which strove to capture the “soul” of the model, here the photographer is an objective observer of individuals that are so absorbed by their inner space that they appear not to notice the gaze of the camera - or us. Their personalities do not emerge in the images. Instead the images seek to fix an otherwise transitory state of introspection and contemplation, to visualized it, and in the artist’s own words “normalize it.” Trine Søndergaard’s use of color in Monochrome Portraits further removes them from the realistic, psychological, and/or representative portrait. As Gitte Broeng points out, photographic portraits are usually either black and white or color. They are rarely one color, like Monochrome Portraits.3 The use of color is a clear conceptual strategy that also individualizes the portraits as each person emerges from the background of their own indefinable dark hue. And yet the portraits’ introverted and averted expression also seem universal, in that each individual is connected by the same color scheme, form, and square format. The series shows the solitude of the self, but also a formal and maybe spiritual community that opens itself to the viewer. In this and many other ways Monochrome Portraits probes the portrait’s boundaries for what can be shown and how it can be shown.
1. Daniel Kunitz,“Changing Faces,” ARTnews 98, no. 3, March 1999, pp.106–11.
2. See also Christian Rud Andersen, Mette Mortensen, and Gertrud With, eds., Geometry of the Face: Photographic Portraits, exh. cat. The National Museum of Photography (Copenhagen, 2003).
3. Gitte Broeng, Monochrome Portraits. Exhibition text from Martin Asbæk Gallery where the series was first shown in 2009.
by Gitte Broeng
Photographic portraits are not usually monochrome. They can be in black and white or in colour. But with Trine Søndergaard’s Monochrome Portraits each portrait is focused on one single colour. The portrait and frame is a finely balanced object, where a minimalist expression mixes with the different appearance of every human being.
None of the monochrome works are identical in colour. Each person has his or her own colour – an uncertain shade of turquoise, brown, violet, etc., that continues in the surrounding frame, which is coloured by hand. The colours are not included in any colour scheme and have no default names.
In Søndergaard’s portraits the space that is entirely our own is being explored; when we do not interact or try to control our expressions. The individual is put at the centre of a search into visual spaces turned away, silent and evasive. The colour layer enhances the motifs’ introspectiveness, because the portrayed virtually disappear into their respective colour.
Trine Søndergaard creates images of a mood rather than conventional portraits. She avoids direct confrontation and observes what happens visually when a person looks down and the face is barely visible. In this way she works with portraits as a kind of mental space. She contemplates on subtle things expressed in a person’s appearance, exploring the borders of the genre – moving between individuality and the universal.
In the history of photography the portrait genre has mainly served private or representative purposes – the portrayed being a family member or a public figure. In her project, on the opposite, Trine Søndergaard examines the portrait’s potential in a deliberately anonymous space, which maybe says more about being human than a traditional outward-looking portrait.
Trine Søndergaard (born 1972) received in 2000 the prestigious German book prize Albert Renger-Patzsch for the series NOW THAT YOU ARE MINE, published at Steidl Verlag. In recent years she has especially been noticed for the series How to Hunt made together with Nicolai Howalt and this project will be shown at a major solo exhibition at ARoS – Aarhus Kunstmuseum (DK) late 2009. In 2010, Trine Søndergaard exhibits the portrait project Strude at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
af Gitte Broeng
Portrætter er sædvanligvis ikke ensfarvede. De kan være i sort/hvid eller farve. Men i Trine Søndergaards Monochrome Portraits er hvert enkelt portræt koncentreret om én eneste farve. Portrættet og rammen fremstår som et nøje afstemt objekt, hvor et minimalistisk udtryk lader sig forene med den forskellighed, hvert menneske repræsenterer.
Ingen af de monokrome værker er identiske i farven. Hver person har sin egen farve – sin egen ubestemmelige nuance af turkis, brun, violet osv., der fortsætter ud i den omgivende ramme, som er håndkoloreret. Farverne findes ikke på noget farvekort og har ingen standardnavne.
I Søndergaards portrætter udforskes det rum, der er vores eget; når vi ikke interagerer eller prøver at kontrollere vores udtryk. Det enkelte individ står således i centrum for en afsøgning af billedrum, som er bortvendte, stille og undvigende. Farvelaget forstærker den motiviske indadvendthed, fordi de portrætterede næsten forsvinder ind i deres respektive farve.
Trine Søndergaard laver billeder af en sindsstemning frem for klassiske portrætter. Hun undlader direkte konfrontation og observerer, hvad der sker visuelt, når blikket viger og ansigtet knapt er synligt. På den måde arbejder hun med portrætterne som et mentalt rum. Hun fordyber sig i spor og stemninger i personens fremtoning, men bevæger sig i denne afsøgning samtidig på grænsen af portrættets ophør – imellem individualitet og det almene.
I fotografihistorisk sammenhæng er portrætgenren især kendetegnet ved, at motivet har en “årsag” af enten privat eller repræsentativ karakter. Den portrætterede er f.eks. et familiemedlem eller en offentlig person. I sit projekt undersøger Trine Søndergaard der imod portrættets muligheder i et bevidst anonymt rum. Serien rummer en egen stille styrke ved at insistere på lavmæltheden, som paradoksalt nok kan sige meget mere om det at være menneske end et udadvendt portræt. Hun arbejder i Monochrome Portraits således med et kontemplativt udtryk, som hun har videreudviklet siden portrætudstillingen VERSUS på Thorvaldsens Museum i 2003.
Interview by Christian Lund
The subjects of your portraits are dressed differently, some with naked torsos and others wearing clothes that connect directly to the present. What thoughts have you had about their clothes?
Initially I wanted to erase all references to the present so each image was stripped as bare as possible, giving it a more iconographic status. But then in the beginning I photographed my sister wearing different clothes, and when I started looking at the images I could see that the photograph with the hoodie expressed something about the present. That was a quality I liked. Small details, like a tattoo, can suddenly become key in how you experience an image, because they relate to your immediate present and not to all humanity across millennia. For me the images should balance between being connected to our time and being so minimalist that they turn inward. I usually photograph people in whatever they’re wearing, so I don’t have to speculate about what they should wear. I like to take what is and do what I can with it, instead of thinking I should change everything. I like to set limits for myself. And sometimes things just grow on you. A small zipper becomes the punctum of the image, you see the fineoutline of eyelashes, or fixate on the pleats of a shirt.
Did you know immediately that the images should be so dark?
This is a project I’ve been working on for a long time. I had an exhibition at Skagen Museum a year ago, which was akind of trial run for this show. I was really focused on the colors then, and it wasn’t until I saw the images hanging on the wall and saw the light colors contrasting with each other that I thought “This is just not going to work. This is just not what I should be doing.” Not because they weren’t good, it’s just that the images here have such resonance for me. It also fits the subject better—they’re very quiet and the darkness makes them even more hushed. The images balance between the darkness, the color, and the introspection that are their subject —or rather it’s where they balance between all three elements that I think they work best.
Is who you photograph significant?
Yes. I choose people intuitively. They’re friends and acquaintances, people from my world who I feel connected to but don’t necessarily know that well. They’re people I had the opportunity to be with—to be quiet with. I can’t be quiet with everyone.
You say that the exhibition is not portraits of the people in the images, but that you have used them to explore your own mental space. How?
I know the people in the images, so who they are as individuals isn’t my focus. I try to depict a mental state by directing the person I portray to a point where they turn inwards. An introspective state that encompasses feelings like confinement and depression, but also meditative reflection. As one of the people portrayed in the exhibition, I was surprised that the photo sessionwas so short. There was no time to “feel” anything … I had no intention that you should feel something specific. I’m also reticent about what I should say to people. I can’t get myself to tell them that I want them to retreat totally into themselves and …
Is that what you really want?
No. I don’t think that’s important for me. Because then it would be an exchange between you and me in a very private place. Instead I place people in this specific space and explore what it looks like when other people are in that mood. To normalize it, look at it, discover what it is.
Yes, and I think other feelings and moods emerge due to the visual aspect. The feeling is one I know really well, and that I direct the subjects —purely physically—to express. I don’t care what people are thinking about. I mean I don’t sit down and ask them how they are feeling and then photograph that. So the portraits don’t depict individuals. There is no intention to generate recognition or identification. When I first started working with photography I did a project where I photographed the people who lived in the same building as me. I drank tea, talked to people, and really tried to get a sense of each individual—to get as many stories and details as possible and get all of that in the image. It was a totally different process. For me photography is an investigation of something outside myself, but it’s also always been a lot about myself—and about the ”me“ in it.
What exactly do you mean?
I’ve used photography to understand my own life, like who was lying coughing on the other side of the wall of my flat? Who was sharing the same physical reality I found myself in? There were people who were physically very close to me, even though I didn’t know them. If they’d lived three streets away it wouldn’t have worked in the same way. It wouldn’t have worked without that personal link.
When you photograph people it becomes an investigation of and confrontation with something in yourself?
Yes, especially with this project. What I experience is that I’m like this, like these images, and I’ve been like it a lot in recent years. The challenge for me is to look it in the eye and admit it.
So they’re self-portraits?
Yes, in a way. Everything you do is. The other projects I’ve done are too. That’s what’s fascinating about photography. When you look at a series of images or a photographer’s entire oeuvre, what’s been noticed says a lot about who’s behind the camera. There’s always that duality—the viewer looking at the image and the presence of the photographer looking at the subject of the image.
These images are the first series with the same feeling, where you say: this is how I am. You haven’t done that before.
No – not as directly. But Now That You Are Mine (a series of images of prostitutes in Copenhagen, ed.) also had a lot of resonance for me.
It’s difficult to explain. There’s a lot of myself at stake. I want to depict reality in a way that is exactly as I experience it. I’ve always had the feeling that there are parallel universes. There’s my world, and then the world everyone else experiences. And I’ve always felt that they are not the same.
In Now That You Are Mine I focused on the images having a feeling of something I experienced. Or having something I transferred onto the women and that was about how they experienced it and not about what it looked like from the outside.
Why do you have the feeling that these worlds don’t fit? Where does that come from?
I don’t know.
Have you always felt that way?
Yes. I’ve always believed that what I thought and felt was not what others experience. I had an emotional life that wasn’t expressed. And I grew up in an environment and a family that found the expression of emotions difficult. I was reserved and shy and didn’t share much with anyone. And I didn’t know what other people were thinking. When, as an artist, I’ve felt I’ve managed to create something, been able to visualize and create resonance — where I could feel a harmony between something inside me and what was outside—it has felt fantastic! When I applied to Fatamorgana (The Danish School of Art Photography, ed.) I did a series of images of a girl who stripped in nightclubs in the small harbor town of Svendborg. Once I photographed her when she was wearing a few clothes. She was sitting on a chair and then she spread her legs wide. It looked insane. And she just sat there, totally exposed. That’s an image that came to mean a lot to me. I used to paint, and it was the kind of picture I could have painted. Even though it was documentary, it had a connection to something in my own life.
In terms of exposure?
In the photograph she’s extremely open physically, but she doesn’t reveal what she’s thinking, what she’s feeling. There’s a duality. It’s extremely brutal and extremely open at the same time.
So you work with images to generate a connection between reality and what you yourself experience.
My entire life has been about establishing a connection between the inner and the outer, and photography has been my means of expression. I’m good at photography— am visually precise—but I find talking about it really difficult.
You say you create images to explore yourself as well. How?
By basing my work on something in myself, here and now. In every project and every exhibition I have different things I want to explore. It’s a process, and I take a small step every time.
Your use of color here is a conscious and clear departure.
Yes, my earlier projects were more documentary or realistic. Here nobody can doubt that these colors come from somewhere else, because they are made visible right to the edge of the wooden frames. It’s a strong aesthetic choice. Working with color in this way is a new development for me and therefore very exciting. The colors open up something else in the images. They also look very different depending on whether they’re pink or dark grey. We all have our own perceptions of different colors, so it also depends on how you perceive them. While not wanting to over psychoanalyse it, I’m also interested in that dimension. The colors accentuate the image, add a mood or atmosphere. It’s the different people and different colors that create the dynamics in something that would otherwise be really repetitive.
How did you choose each color?
I asked the people in the portraits to choose a color for their image, introducing an element of chance that I took as a source of inspiration. For example, my old friend said he wanted black. His portrait ended up dark grey. So there are elements I bring, but there are also outer elements that influence me—that are gifts. I really like that. That’s the role the colors have played—another way of thinking.
Colors, are also a way of covering up.
Yes, which works well with the other elements. I wanted to make images of what was hidden. I’m interested in how far I can turn people away from me and get them to focus inward—on their own inner space. I’m investigating how much they reveal and how much they keep to themselves, at the same time as capturing everything that is not spoken—everything that is hidden by the color and darkness. If I had to pinpoint why I’m doing this project that would be it. That’s what absorbs me. Being inside yourself and not being able to get out. Whether you reveal yourself or show something else. It’s about breaking down inner boundaries.
The images are highly minimalist. Isn’t it also about stripping things down to create the space to respond to something else?
It’s about hearing a pin drop. About investigating how quietly I can say it and yet it still be heard. I’m curious about it but am also anxious, because of course I want to shout it out loud to make sure it’s heard. And the entire process of deciding how large the images should be is part of that. At one point I really wanted to make the images huge! So here I’m insisting on quiet. A lot of large images are getting produced right now. And that’s also a way of creating stature and getting attention. These images are easy to miss. They demand that the viewer take an active role.
Is the process more important than the finished work?
No, it’s a combination of the two. The portraits, as I said earlier, are about introspection and inner states. About finding calm and putting a stop to the thoughts that keep crowding in on me.
How can this kind of image do that?
For me as the artist by making them. But I also think I’ve felt the need to make things stand still. In photography things stand still. Photography freezes time, and that’s something you can work against or work with. In recent projects I haven’t resisted but instead let the images be still —become a kind of still life. It’s been important for me to let things assume a position and just be without having to make it interesting. To endure that stillness, emptiness and boredom. And acknowledge that there’s never more. It’s been good to dare to say that. I struggled with whether to say it or whether I should say the images were about something else.
But you’ve also talked about finding personal resistance to something fascinating. You don’t aspire to what you find easy, but strive for what you find difficult.
The wonderful thing about photography is that reality. You can stand there and I can stand here and we look at the same image and I can see a lot of things that I don’t need to say but that are there for me. And that’s how I feel about many of my images. It’s been a huge drive to make them—being really personal without having to express it verbally.
What has it meant for you to do this exhibition? What has it changed?
Here I show something of myself with an honesty I haven’t shown before. That just makes life easier.
It has something to do with hidden spaces and where I come from. Because you hide some things, reveal some things, and struggle with the rest. Working with these images maybe there’s one less thing to fight. It’s a confession. And as such gives a kind of absolution.