The Home in the Unknown: Hanne Lise Thomsen’s Use of Photography
by Professor Mette Sandbye, Head of the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen
The idea of the veracity still clings to photography: a direct window on the world, an objective view. To which there is, after all, some truth. Since the public’s awestruck response to the French inventor Louis Daguerre’s launch of what he dubbed the daguerreotype in 1839, we have been fascinated by photography because we see the image as ‘real’ in a completely different way to a drawing or painting of the same subject. Nevertheless, this view has restricted our understanding of what photography actually is and does. Because photography does much more than merely act as a documentary ‘window on the world’. In an art context we usually encounter photography as a framed black-and-white or colour picture on the wall of the museum or gallery. This is not how Hanne Lise Thomsen works. Her multifaceted – and in a Danish art context, unique – use of the medium of photography, on billboards, posters and projections in public space brings us closer to understanding what the ‘much more’ of photography is.
Daguerre (1787-1850) was actually an amateur magician and scientist, scenery painter and master of stage lighting. In 1822 he opened his Diorama: an entertainment venue where painted backgrounds illuminated by light effects entranced viewers, transporting them to another world than their daily Parisian lives. This, more than any interest in documentary objectivity, was the background for Daguerre’s passion for photography. He saw the world not as static, but constantly changing and surprising, something he attempted to show through the spellbinding light effects of the Diorama.
One of the early, popular successes in the history of photography was the stereoscope, a special device for viewing two photographs of the same subject taken from slightly different angles, making them three-dimensional and magically real. This photographic technology had its heyday from 1860 to 1890. The German cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), who has written many insightful texts on what photography actually does, writes of his childhood experience of stereoscope photography in the text ‘Imperial Panorama’ in the book Childhood in Berlin around 1900. In the text, Benjamin focuses on his childhood experience of the magical conjuring of the ‘home’ in the ‘unknown’: the realisation of the unconscious, unnoticed sides of history discovered by and held in the open mind of the child. Through the stereoscope Benjamin sees “cities with their mirror-bright windows”. The windows are silent until the technological glasses of the stereoscope bring the photographs to life. The attentive mind can garner stories from lit windows and photographs alike.
The adult Benjamin described the experience of the child Walter as one of longing, writing that “the longing such worlds aroused spoke more to the home than to anything unknown.” Because the unknown first becomes interesting and significant when linked to ‘home’. The attentive mind can draw stories coloured by specific experiences from the photograph, just as “the images of my metropolitan childhood perhaps are capable, at their core, of performing later historical experience”, as he writes elsewhere in Childhood in Berlin around 1900.
The stereoscopic photograph’s magical ability to bring the unknown home and make us reflect on context analysed by Benjamin in ‘Imperial Panorama’ is quintessentially photographic. We might add that the word photograph simply means drawing with light. As a medium, photography is a way of viewing history that implies a ‘stereoscopic’ join – or joining of words – between the past and the present as a magical and longing-inducing image that at its best generates historical cognition – to use Benjamin’s terminology. By and large Benjamin’s philosophy of history is permeated by the idea that we sometimes need to be awoken in the present, which we try to understand through the past – but always through the lens of the present. Here the photograph can be the perfect aid if, as Benjamin does, we see it as a dialectical image.
The 1800s were witness to a large number of new visual technologies, including photography, the stereoscope, the diorama and the kaleidoscope, all of which isolate sight as the sense that establishes contact with reality and can magically evoke the home in the unknown. A more recent technology like Virtual Reality is an extension of these early inventions, but whereas people in the age of Daguerre had never experienced a photograph before, today we are virtually force-fed photographs in the incessant stream of images in street advertising, on TV, and on the smart phones many of us check hundreds of times a day.
Hanne Lise Thomsen’s long-standing, inquiring yet entirely consistent and coherent use of photography stands in opposition to what we might be tempted to call today’s visual culture on speed. Instead she reaches into the past, bringing the view and use of photography in Daguerre’s invention and Benjamin’s ideas about it in the early life of the medium into the present. And that she so consistently and persistently works with photography in public space makes her oeuvre unique in a Danish context. To find related work we have to turn to the US and artists like Krzysztof Wodiczko and Shimon Attie, who for years have projected images like portraits of the homeless and archive photographs of the everyday life of Jews in Berlin before the Holocaust onto street facades. Hanne Lise Thomsen uses both photographs she takes herself, pictures taken by other photographers, and private family photographs suffused with longing, love and melancholy.
Under the bridge leading to the Nørrebro neighbourhood of Copenhagen there is a grey, concrete pedestrian and cycle tunnel that most people usually just pass through to get somewhere. Hanne Lise Thomsen’s Passage project consisted of a 165-metre-long black-and-white photomontage mounted on the walls of the tunnel in August 2016.