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.