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photo-eye Book Reviews: How to Hunt

How to Hunt, Photographs by Trine Søndergaard & Nicolai Howalt.
Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
How to Hunt
Reviewed by George Slade
Trine Søndergaard & Nicolai Howalt
How to Hunt
Photographs by Trine Søndergaard & Nicolai Howalt. Text by Liz Wells
Hatje Cantz, 2011. Hardbound. 116 pp., 66 color illustrations, 13-1/4x11-3/4".

At first glance, How to Hunt seems anything but what its title suggests. Maybe even at second glance, with the book open to the plates. Great clusters of natty blokes in Wellies and Abercrombie gear (the real outfitters, mind you, not the perfumed perfect-body mall stuff the kids are clamoring after) wandering open fields and tidy marshes with shotguns cracked open over their shoulders, occasionally pointing one skyward in random fashion. Dogs scuttling hither and yon, no apparent mission or bird in mouth. Great skies, the vertical plane of action for any hunt.

Gradually, though, it comes to you. The photographers have a mission. What Søndergaard and Howalt are expressing bears repeating, reiterating through a series of images that develop, if not in a strictly linear fashion, as an accumulation of impressions about how they — the artists — hunt for meaning. Some reading helps in this case; Liz Wells' fine essay sets the scene by discussing the "highly organized" nature of what we see in the book. Organized in three ways: by the Danish government, which sets aside open land for hunting; by the managers of the hunting preserves and clubs; and by Søndergaard and Howalt. The last bit of organization is most germane here. Wells states up front that the photographs are "edited composites, scenarios extracted from particular occasions rather than real-time narratives documenting the progress of a specific hunt."

How to Hunt, by Trine Søndergaard & Nicolai Howalt. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
 Now it coheres. Now this book takes off, and takes on remarkable qualities. Søndergaard and Howalt may or may not care for hunting; their pictorial sensibility is judicious, holding these masses of beings (human, canine, aviary, and cervid) equally distant and comparably important. Søndergaard and Howalt conjure the hunt, construct it with an eye toward composition and tableau, maintaining a distance that is both au courant (pace Capa, if your pictures aren't good enough, you're too close and your prints aren't big enough-this is, it should be pointed out, a book graced with extra large reproductions) and entirely appropriate, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about these confluences of intentions within the dominant setting of earth and sky.

How to Hunt, by Trine Søndergaard & Nicolai Howalt. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
How to Hunt, by Trine Søndergaard & Nicolai Howalt. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2011.
 In these benign settings, what is a puff of smoke issuing from a shotgun's muzzle? Almost a non-event, indistinguishable from ground fog (lots of autumnal gray skies here), an exhaled cigarette draw, or a panting retriever's breath. Almost. Just past halfway through the plates comes a partial signature on uncoated stock that offers the unvarnished truth of the hunt. Titled "Dying Birds" (the only titles not in Danish), these close-up views bring us to the heart of the matter, which is death. But we might again refer to Robert Capa, whose falling Spanish loyalist has become, through the years, an icon both revered as a moment of death and reviled as a possible fake. The allegedly dying birds — pheasants, quail, chukkar (my eye for birds isn't as acute as it once was) — are printed as enormously enlarged details, grainy, duotone smudges of motion against blank skies. Some may in fact be dying as a result of birdshot penetrating their bodies. But the ambiguity remains; that puff of smoke may have hit or missed the bird aimed at by the hunter. The intent, though, is to knock down the birds and have a dog haul it back to you. No catch and release here. The photographers/hunters Søndergaard and Howalt, too, seek the shot they were after. How to Hunt is an admirably rich act of creation, even as it makes elliptical, etymological reference to one of photography's cherished paradigms; snapshots, after all, were first made in the fields of hunting, when a bird passed quickly in front of a hunter who responded with a quick mounting and firing — a "snap shot" — of his weapon (thank you Bill Jay). These are anything but snapshots, but all the more informative as a result.—George Slade

George Slade is the program manager and curator at the Photographic Resource Center in Boston, and the editor of the PRC’s magazine Loupe. He maintains an on-line presence at the PRC’s blog, here on photo-eye, and at re:photographica. Occasionally his writing even appears in print.