nicolai howalt

Stillness and thought

-       On the photography of Nicolai Howalt and Trine Søndergaard


 …in the case of the photograph one is dealing with a symbolic complex made up of abstract concepts, dealing with discourses re-coded into symbolic states of things.

Vilém Flusser: Towards a Philosophy of Photography

(Reaktion Books, London 2000 / 2007, p. 44)


She is turning her back to you - like the figures in Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes. You see her neck and the cap. It is a very beautiful cap with a special, golden pattern. The young woman is placed in a dark room as in a Caravaggio painting. The image also carries strong connotations to Dutch painting from the 16th century, particularly to Vermeer. And yet you never doubt it is contemporary photography. The Danish artist, Trine Søndergaard, plays with a number of references in her work – especially to the tradition of painting – but she always also insists on the image being a photography, and as such a representation of reality.

In the new series, ‘Guldnakke’ (Golden neck), she depicts a number of young women wearing gold-embroidered caps from the 19th century, the so-called ‘golden-necks’. The images carry strong connotations to the tradition of portraiture with the figure seen in (breast perspective?) against a dark background. But they are not portraits, since the beholder never gets to see the women’s faces. Rather, they are a kind of still life images with the strong emphasis on the caps underlined by the light in the pictures. Or maybe a kind of anti-portraits where the distance and the images’ objective qualities replace the subjectivity and empathy of traditional portraiture.

The same could be said of Søndergaard’s series, ‘Strude’, from 2007 – 2009 which must be considered a forerunner for ‘Guldnakke’.  In a similar way, ‘Strude’ depicts a series of women wearing traditional folk costume from the Danish island Fanø. The costumes include a hood which protects the face against hard weather and thus hides the women’s features completely. About this series Trine Søndergaard has stated: “I’m interested in what lies beyond the direct gaze (…) My focus is the introversion and mental space that lies beyond the image”.


Nicolai Howalt’s series ‘Endings’ certainly also depicts what lies beyond the image. The photo series is about death, but in a very abstract sense. The series consists of 14 large-scale color prints. What you see is beautiful, almost black and white images of different, textural patterns. It is impossible to guess the source of these images. They could look like a close-up of the center of a storm or some microscopic material seen enlarged. The title ‘Endings’ gives a clue, but not the whole story, which is exactly the point. Reading the exhibition text and finding out that what you see is in fact ashes from dead and cremated bodies clashes with your pre-perception of the images as beautiful. It is a feeling close to what Edmund Burke in 1756 describes as one of the characteristics of the sublime; a painful, ambiguous emotion split between attraction and repulsion. But there is more to the story. ‘Endings’ are representations of death beyond presentation, they are imaginative images which refer to the signifier in a for photography very unusual way, since there is no visually obvious link between the image and the photographed object. Rather, the motive seems to dissolve in an iconoclastic unknown, where the concrete image is replaced by a mental one.

In this way, the series is a radicalization of themes previously adapted by Howalt. As his ‘Car Crash Studies’ from 2009, where the motif is also abstract, although still recognizable. In ‘Endings’, the gap between index and sign is still wider, leaving more room for the thoughtfulness of the beholder.


In addition to their individual works, Howalt and Søndergaard has also done several projects together, the book and large-scale photo series, ‘How to Hunt’, from 2010 being the most widely exposed. Where ‘How to Hunt’ and to a certain extent also the series ‘TreeZone’, 2009 and ‘Dying Birds’, 2010 has to do with photography in relation to the tradition of painting, the new series, ‘Mega-fossil’, is more about investigating an encyclopaedic gaze, and how a museological framework affects our perception of things/objects. Shown in The National Museum of Denmark, a series of black and white large-scale serigraphies depicting close-up details of ‘Kongeegen’, one of Denmark’s oldest oak trees, was juxtaposed with a small box containing a little twig from that same tree. In this way, the tree was transformed into a series of fossils with which the artists seemed to create a parallel between the “objective”, encyclopedic gaze of the museum and the “objective” representation associated with photography.

Trine Søndergaard and Nicolai Howat belong to the generation of younger Danish photographers born in the 1970s who entered the art scene in the 90s and succeeded in merging photography and visual art. Besides their importance in a Danish context, they are now gaining considerable international attention.


Kristine Kern is an art historian and the director of Photographic Center in Copenhagen, Denmark where she lives and works. She has worked previously as an art critic and has written extensively on contemporary Danish art.