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