If you encounter the series Callus at an exhibition, it is as life-sized photographs – subjects so monumental you fall silent before them. The crooked wooden structures exposed to you against a dark background seem to hover towards you. The title refers to the growth with which a damaged tree root heals itself. And the enlarged tree roots in the pictures look like bark scars. With their organic twist and soft, shiny thickening around an opening they also remind you of labia, which in the course of an average life must also grow and change. With Callus we are thus invited right into the thematic investigations of women’s bodies and the passage of time that have wound through the past twenty years of Trine Søndergaard’s artistic production.
Trine Søndergaard is probably best known for her portraits of women of all ages. These are deceptively simple-looking shots, created in the thoroughly controlled space of the studio, where the photographer creates lighting, shoots the picture and directs. Søndergaard’s models are all unnamed, and they never look into the camera. The averted gaze the viewer cannot meet is an enigma that binds the portraits together – a mystery that makes us examine them more thoroughly and ask what one can see at all in a portrait photograph that can never show us more than a person’s appearance. With her portraits Trine Søndergaard explores the actual possibility of depicting another human being with one’s camera.
The photograph is unequivocally Trine Søndergaard’s medium, while her concentrated and controlled stagings where nothing seems left to chance may recall painting. She has often been compared to the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), because her fondness for women with their backs to us and silent interiors recall his. She has also been compared to the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), whose mastery of the play of colours and light as picture-building elements has features in common with Søndergaard’s. The art historian Kristine Kern has noted that instead of identifying specific artists as Trine Søndergaard’s predecessors – something in which Søndergaard herself has no interest – it is more fruitful to note her associations with a special art-historical genre. Kern argues that all Trine Søndergaard’s pictures can be seen as still lifes. This art-historical genre, which appeared in the 1600s, involves the setting-up of inanimate objects or natural elements, which become the object of an artistic investigation. As Kern points out, Søndergaard uses the genre by isolating her motifs in closed aesthetic spaces where the background is reduced to a colour or an interior empty of human beings, without motion and markers of time. The highly limited context in the pictures opens them up for multiple meanings and interpretations.
The still life, which is also called nature morte, is as a genre associated with death. It is thought that in ancient cultures it was used to paint objects on tomb walls that the deceased could make use of in the afterlife. In the Baroque the still life often contains Vanitas motifs, meant to point to the transience of life. The awareness of death is also present in Søndergaard’s work, at least in my eyes. Melancholy, loss and aging flow as moods through many of the works, but always in a quiet, reticent form. Trine Søndergaard’s pictures never reveal any greater emotional drama than the viewer can read into them.
Among her signature portraits of young women in historical headgear one also finds specific references to grief. In the series Untitled Lace and Dress of Mourning she has photographed women behind black mourning veils and in a special costume once worn by women in mourning. These series are related to Guldnakke [Golden Neck] and Strude, which show women dressed in gold-embroidered decorative bonnets used on festive occasions in Zealand in the 1800s, and the traditional Fanø regional costume, whose masks and headscarves could protect the women from the weather and at the same time show whether they were married. The historical headgear is all the handiwork of women and its main purpose was both to protect and adorn a women, and at the same time signal her social status – for example as a widow, prosperous, unmarried – to the outside world. In Søndergaards’s calm, almost static portraits they stand out as relics of the past, in sharp contrast with the models’ own present-day dress and ornaments. The historic clothing becomes a sign for us to decipher; it contains detailed information about women’s roles and work.
Several items of the historical headgear are museum objects. On the whole there is something museum-like in the way we encounter Trine Søndergaard’s subjects, whether they are bonnets, hair, garments or tree roots. Even the many female figures that appear in Søndergaard’s work can be regarded as images of women as phenomena rather than as personalities. A museum object is also an object meant to represent a wider context. It is detached from its original context, and thus elevated into an object in its own right, while at the same time it has to be isolated, observed and presented to point to something outside itself. As a relic the museum object is a part of the past. The value of the object depends on its authenticity and the fact that it is a physical relic from a particular place in history. In this way the museum object has something important in common with the photograph: it bears a section of the past within itself.
Another word for museum object is ‘artefact’ which originally meant ‘produced by art’. Trine Søndergaard’s photographs are produced by art, and with them she lets us observe the layers of time that exist in our reality – both historical time and the body’s own time. These are layers of time we tend to overlook on a day-to-day basis because we are only able to experience the world as forward motion as we sense it with our body – the body that is constantly moving towards death.
1. See e.g. Bal, Mieke: Stasis. How to see, in Søndergaard, Trine: STASIS (Fabrikbooks, Denmark, 2019)
2. Kern, Kristine: Showing What Cannot be Seen. Four Aspects of Trine Søndergaard’s photography, in Søndergaard, Trine: 203 Works (Gothenburg Museum of Art & Fabrikbooks, Denmark, 2020).
Published in KATALOG – Journal of Photography & Video, vol 32, no.1