“Thanks to its code of connotation the reading of the photograph is (…) always historical; it depends on the reader’s ’knowledge’ just as though it were a matter of a real language [langue], intelligible only if one has learned the signs.”
Roland Barthes, Image – Music – Text, 1977[1]

People say time stands still in photography. In one sense a banal observation, and perhaps not entirely true, if the concept of truth even makes sense in the context of photography. The referent “sticks” as Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucinda, but does it? Is it not possible to imagine an image, a photograph, where the actual referent is not what we see, but something more implicit?

Time is seen as standing still in the photograph because we imagine the image to represent an arrested present, frozen in time. In the work of visual artist Trine Søndergaard, however, stillness takes another form. Here there is silence. In the motifs, and behind them. Time is extended, above and beyond the present moment. Even though the photograph is in a sense a moment in time, time does not necessarily stand still. According to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, the present moment can be drawn out, imbued as it is with the memory of the past and anticipation of the future. Which is also how Trine Søndergaard’s images can be seen. There is a before and after. This is clearly apparent in a series like Callus, where the past of the scarred roots is manifest in their gnarled, wrinkled surfaces. Here the passage of time lies on the very surface, but is also present in works of an entirely different nature. In portraits, interiors and landscapes – Søndergaard’s preferred realm of motifs – we find time standing still and retrospection. Looking back – not at a specific point, but across time that has passed and the traces it has left behind. The images are full of memories. Maybe not actual memories, but associative layers open to the imagination of the viewer – to their own readings.

For example Interior #4, in which a series of doors opens further and further into the image. We are in an empty, abandoned place. Obviously an old building with carved door frames and panels. Yet devoid of furniture and people as it is, it becomes timeless or at least difficult to date. We follow the path of our own thoughts into the image, populating it with our own associations and emotions.

It is the same with the portraits, where those portrayed in series like Strude, Guldnakke and Hovedtøj wear historical textiles[2] and modern garments, physically linking the past and the present. Other than this there is nothing in the photographs that locates them in time. Here another temporality takes over: that of the photographer, the artist.

Still Lifes
“Painting and photography are not two potentially competitive systems for producing and reproducing images, which simply had arrived at a proper division of territory to be reconciled. Photography is an enterprise of another order,” as Susan Sontag writes in On Photography.[3] Photography is Trine Søndergaard’s medium. With all its historicity, and all the theories that might be relevant in terms of photography and viewing the world photographically. Yet her works are often compared to painting and its historical genres and masters. This is something the artist is fully aware of, but not something to which she attaches any real importance: “It’s not something I seek out”, as she tells me.[4] It is, however, still interesting to note the painters people associate with her work. In terms of her portraits, Johannes Vermeer (the Netherlands, 1632-1675) is often mentioned, and Vilhelm Hammershøi (Denmark, 1864-1916) is frequently alluded to in the context of her interiors. These comparisons would seem to be based primarily on formal similarities in light, composition and colour. This is something art historian Mieke Bal explores in detail in her text for Søndergaard’s book Stasis, where she writes: ”Vermeer would recognize the subtle work with colour (…) and the way light seems almost material, solid, delimited by clear albeit soft lines.”[5] Later she calls Hammershøi ”a great predecessor of Søndergaard” when comparing both artists’ use of models with their back to the viewer.[6]

We could also point to a painter like Anna Ancher (Denmark, 1859-1935), who despite her embrace of a more colourful Impressionism, often shares Søndergaard’s choice of motif, ambience and perspective. But the relationship to painting and its history is apparently not something that occupies Trine Søndergaard. When asked, it emerges that her focus is a more phenomenological approach to the photographed subject. As well as a personal vocabulary where what is represented – the motif – forms part of a personal narrative. Where the image also expresses something we maybe do not see.

Rather than specific painters, painting genres might provide a more interesting approach to Søndergaard’s photography. One could argue that all of Trine Søndergaard’s works are still lifes in a formal sense: the way the motifs are photographed, often without context, against a neutral background or without any location in time or place. It is the ‘objectness’ of the motif, to borrow Husserl’s concept, that is in focus. But this is also something that lies in the content of the works. Or rather form becomes part of their content. There is a semiotic connection by which the sign, a young woman for example, not only refers to herself, i.e. this specific young woman, but to ‘young womanhood’ in a broader sense. Similarly, Søndergaard’s interiors and landscapes do not only represent the specific place where the photograph was taken, but are also images of ‘a landscape’, ‘an interior’, etc. The actual object perceived becomes an image of a more general state of mind or condition. Or as Merleau-Ponty writes in Phenomenology of Perception: “It is in the experience of the thing that the reflective ideal of positing thought shall have its basis. Hence reflection does not itself grasp its full significance unless it refers to the unreflective fund of experience which it presupposes, upon which it draws, and which constitutes for it a kind of original past, a past which has never been a present.”[7]

As a genre, the still life ranks lowest in the painting hierarchy.[8] The genre emerged and had its heyday in the 1600s, when it spread from the Netherlands to the rest of Europe, particularly Spain, Northern Italy and France. Since then artists have recurrently resumed and reinterpreted the genre. As Norman Bryson writes in Looking at the Overlooked: ”Still life’s potential for isolating a purely aesthetic space is undoubtedly one of the factors which made the genre so central in the development of modernism,”[9] which is precisely how Trine Søndergaard uses the genre. She isolates the photographed object in an aesthetic realm. Here, severed from any specific context, it becomes open to meaning. Or the interpretation of meaning. There are also more concrete references to the still life as a genre: Nature morte. In the new series Borgherre 1654-2020 we see apples perish and crumble. Slowly. Changing colour, shrivelling and changing day by day in a protracted process of disintegration embodying time and temporality. A single photograph for each day. Simultaneously still life and film, stasis and change, the transition from one state of being to another. Memento mori – “remember you will die” – as the rotten apple in an otherwise perfect display of fruit serves to remind us in Dutch Baroque painting.

Callus (2019) is also a series of still lifes. In a sense. The motifs in the series appear as fragments: parts severed from or taken out of context. Tree roots, roots that have been wounded and are in the midst of a healing process. They look almost human, like old body parts or faces wrinkled by the passage of time. Death is close, as is life – and survival. Akin to the series Megafossil (2012), one of the projects dealing with nature made in collaboration with her husband, the photographic artist Nicolai Howalt. Here too the tree looks dead, almost withered. But Kongegen (‘King of Oaks’), Northern Europe’s oldest tree, is still alive. The way the tree roots in Callus are shown – excised from their surroundings against a dark background – is highly reminiscent of Søndergaard’s portraits. Especially those in the series Monochrome Portraits (2009), where the same method is used with a range of dark colours extended in the matching colours of the frames. The connection between Callus and Søndergaard’s portraits was underlined in the exhibition Nearer the Time, where the series was exhibited together with the portrait series Nearer the Time and Aegis. The women are portrayed more as ‘types’ or models than individuals, more as abstract images of the concept of ‘woman’.

She averts her gaze, turns her back, hides her faces, lowers her eyes. Take the first image in the series Hovedtøj (2019). We see a young woman, barely an adult. Her body is turned towards the viewer at a slight angle. But she looks down, looks away, does not meet the gaze that so eagerly seeks hers. The image, a portrait, looks like a classical 19th-century portrait of the Danish Golden Age, such as those by C. A. Jensen. The difference lies in the gaze. In traditional portraiture the subject often meets the viewer’s gaze. Here she looks down. The young woman in Trine Søndergaard’s photograph refuses to meet our gaze, the gaze so central to photography – not only seeing the image, but making it. Eye contact is cut off, contact between the viewer and the viewed broken. Rather than seeing the young woman in the image we see ourselves: our own thoughts are mirrored by the figure turned away from us. We look with her rather than at her.

The fact that none of the figures in the Trine Søndergaard’s portraits look directly at the camera, let alone face it, and that we usually see them either from behind or partially turned away from us or with lowered eyes, opens the image. That we as viewers have no direct eye contact with the portrayed strips her of personality, of individuality, making her an object for the gaze of the camera rather than the viewer. Or as Mieke Bal writes in Stasis: How to See they are: ”anti-portraits, challenging the individualism of that typically ”Western” genre.”[10] In Søndergaard’s works the portrait is not a representation of the individual depicted, but rather the representation of a feeling, a state of mind.

Even though they depict something else, Søndergaard’s works are in part images of herself. Or at least her inner life. Again, in a sense. According to Søndergaard, “[t]o photograph is to make something concrete”, a way to “create visibility.”[11] Just as different temporalities co-exist in her works, we also encounter different worlds – different perspectives on life. The images unite an inner and outer world. The artist herself says she uses photography to explore the world we see and experience, and use what she discovers in this outer world to visualise and give concrete form to an inner world.

Women are a recurrent motif in Trine Søndergaard’s art. Just as the perspective, the eyes that see, is clearly that of a woman. Yet gender is not an explicit theme in her photography – except perhaps in the early series Now That You Are Mine (1998 – 2000). Gender is usually more of an underlying presence, a realm of experience behind the voice expressed in the works. And the motif, the woman in the image, is the object not of what film theorist Laura Mulvey calls the male gaze, but of identification. At least for the viewer who like myself is a woman. Maybe it is more about identity than gender. Maybe the two categories cannot be separated. In the series Untitled reflection (2015-2016) we see different girls (the artist’s daughters) holding a mirror that covers their face either partially or entirely. Their identity is literally erased or dissolves to make way for another – perhaps that of the viewer.

Mirrors have been present throughout the history of painting, often to reveal something not immediately visible. The mirror in Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (1647-51) and Las Meninas (1656) reveal or show people that would otherwise not be in the picture. Søndergaard, on the other hand, uses the mirror to hide or cover people we can actually see. Whereas the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage gives the child a feeling of apperception and selfhood, the opposite can be claimed of Søndergaard’s works. Here identity is shattered. The image renounces any embedded meaning to become what Umberto Eco calls an “open work”: the young woman or girl, or the emotion or feeling she represents for the viewer, is what the image shows. At the same time the motif is anchored in the photographer, or rather by the photographer.

Søndergaard herself says that as a woman she finds an interest in women’s history natural. She describes a female perspective as “a direction, an extension of being present, a base.”[12] She is interested in untold stories, the hidden and unseen – and in finding and granting these stories visibility and significance. Maybe not explicitly, but as an underlying premise: giving a voice to the unspoken. This life basis, this realm of experience, is present in her works as a perspective and/or particular ambience. As in Monochrome Portraits. Here the pose of those portrayed and the colours used generate a sense of deep melancholy, whereas many of the series using historical textiles, like Guldnakke and Hovedtøj, are lighter – albeit still avoiding our gaze. Mourning is a recurrent theme in several of the series, including Untitled Lace (2015) where women’s faces are covered by lace like mourning veils.[13] Their faces are covered, their identity hidden. It is precisely this sense of absence – the literal and symbolic darkness of the image – that opens them to the sorrow of the individual viewer. The darkness we meet is our own.

All Trine Søndergaard’s works are about feelings. Or that, at least is one way to interpret them. But again, nothing is explicit. They are open images we as viewers can read meaning into. And feelings.

Our own.

Kristine Kern

[1] Barthes, R., Image – Music – Text, Fontana Press London 1977, p. 28

[2] The historical textiles come from Furesø Museums (Guldnakke), Skive Museum (Hovedtøj) and the Fanø Foundation, Gammel Sønderho.

[3] Sontag, S., On Photography, Doubleday, New York 1990 (1973), pp. 48 – 49

[4] Conversations with the artist, autumn 2019.

[5] Bal, M.,”Stasis: How to See” in Søndergaard, T., Stasis, Hatja Cantz, 2013 p. 8

[6] Bal, M., p. 15

[7] Merleau-Ponty, M., Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1962, p. 242

[8] The hierarchy of painting genres usually given is: historical paintings, portraits, genre paintings, landscapes/cityscapes, animal paintings and still lifes.

[9] Bryson, N., Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, Harvard University Press (Reaktion Books, London), 1990, p. 81.

[10] Bal, M., p. 7

[11] Conversations with the artist, autumn 2019.

[12] Conversations with the artist, autumn 2019.

[13] The antique French lace used in the works is from the collections of Count Axel of Rosenborg and Tønder Museum. The largest piece of lace was originally worn as part of mourning dress, probably as a shawl.

  • text: Kristine Kern
  • published in: 203 Works, Trine Søndergaard
  • Fabrikbooks and The Gothenburg Museum of Art
  • year: 2020