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.

Joggers and cyclists stopped in their tracks to look at photographs taken by or borrowed from Syrian refugees living in Denmark. The long frieze alternated between individual portraits, scenes of everyday life – like post-its with Danish words or a traditional meal – and old family photographs from Syria. Three sisters in their Sunday best, a happy beautiful woman in a flowery dress on the beach, making food in the kitchen, an old school photo of children whose future probably did not end the way they dreamed of on the day the picture was taken. On the website accompanying the project the stories of twelve individual refugees unfold. Rahab tells how her father hired a camera when she was a child because buying one was too expensive, and how her whole life she has held onto her family photograph as something precious. This kind of meta-reflection on the role photography plays in memory, identity and cognition is a thread running throughout the project. Juan takes photographs in the asylum camp to break the isolation and boredom, Husam has become a freelance photographer. The majority are well educated, have done well in Denmark, and want to give something back, tell their stories, and show their photographs. In the midst of the city rush the project opened a humane, ethically motivated space for reflection.

 If one dark September night in 2015 you walked down the street of Istedgade and past the long facade of Gasværksvejen School you could suddenly run into a fifteen-metre-high projection of photographs taken inside the apartments of a wide range of the street’s residents. Not images from exotic, distant shores, but still images we do not normally see yet recognise from our own lives: the lives we live behind closed doors. Evocative details like the light coming in through a translucent curtain or a wilting plant, interiors full of details like family photographs and knick-knacks, close-ups of bodies: sitting, sleeping, touching, kissing. The images brought something normally hidden from public view to people on the streets: impossible to overlook and at the same time with subjects that lead us ‘home’ as Benjamin would say, because they are seen and filtered through our own experiences and memories of life. That the photographs were light projections amplified their magical phantom character: the vast dimensions made their presence overwhelming, absorbing the gaze.

 The same is true of Hanne Lise Thomsen’s other Inside Out projects, as she calls them. In the Copenhagen streets of Abel Cathrinesgade and Viktoriagade in 2009, and on nine of the fifteen-metre-high end walls of blocks of flats in the street Møntmestervej, where fifty residents participated by turning their homes inside-out in gigantic photo projections, from the baby using the bed to pull itself up, to a pensioner giving her canary a loving kiss.

 The projects where Hanne Lise Thomsen’s role is more that of a curator of the work of other photographers are permeated by the same attitude to and use of photography’s capacity to tell stories and make us think. Many of the billboards in Women2003 on the streets in and around Copenhagen and Malmö were not in conspicuous spots like central and spectacular squares, but rather in unremarkable transit sites and carparks, on train platforms and radial roads and other ‘non-places. In 2015 she did a similar project in the centre of the Moroccan capital Casablanca, where the carefully selected locations resulted in the billboards and their surroundings speaking to each other in unexpected ways. In both projects the billboards presented different kinds of portraits and everyday images of women’s lives, from staged and sometimes heavily symbolic images, to more snapshot-like spontaneous family photos. Hanne Lise Thomsen’s own contribution to Women2003 was a blown-up private family photograph of her old Italian nanny Enrichetta Bandierini, who started work in a Genovese factory at the age of 16. The family snapshot shows a smiling woman wearing a bathing cap in the sea at what looks like the beach of a Danish holiday home. Private memories and a wider social history meet in the photograph, which like most of the photographs Hanne Lise Thomsen works with is black and white. Unlike colour photography, the heavily reduced colour scale of black and white conjures up the magic of photography as an equivocal representation of something, rather than merely a reality we meet with our eyes.

 Even though Enrichetta Bandierini looks carefree in the photograph, she represents the kind of unheroic woman we so rarely see pictured, and especially not on advertising billboards on the streets. The people portrayed in Hanne Lise Thomsen’s projects are all such unheroic figures: the homeless of New York, Syrian refugees, children in asylum camps, the residents of apartment blocks usually classified as belonging to the lowest social class, street hawkers in Damascus, women portraying themselves in public space in Muslim cultures where such representations are rare, if not non-existent.

A photograph is a meeting between the photographer, the photographed, and the viewer, and its meaning is generated within this triangle. Hanne Lise Thomsen shows everyday life in many different ways: through interiors, sound recordings, the small overlooked details of lived lives. But most recurrent is the photographic portrait, where the feeling of a meeting is at its strongest. When we look at another person. Face-to-face.

The encounter with ‘the other’ in Hanne Lise Thomsen’s photographs takes place at a slow pace. Pioneers like Daguerre and then Benjamin saw photography as a medium spanning magic and realism, lodged between affect and historical insight, and they both had an eye for photography’s infinite potential to generate meetings between people that simultaneously make us dream and wake up in a flash of knowledge, as Benjamin puts it. Today we live in a world of digital images where we are constantly bombarded by a multitude of photographs that we barely manage to actually look at, feel, or think about. Which is precisely why it is important to not only ask what the photographic medium can do, but also deploy its unique invocation of the past in the present, absence and presence, personal experience and memory connected to a concrete political and historical reality out there among social classes or in places in the world we might not usually be confronted with. Through her long-standing work with photography in public space it is this unique photographic realm of possibility the precise work of Hanne Lise Thomsen invites us to experience.