Nicolai Howalt

Nicolai Howalt, 42 years old, is a Danish autodidact photographer. He was born and lives in Copenhagen. We published the book Car Crash Studies in September 2012 (out of print), and we are glad to introduce you his creative approach and work.

First of all how did you manage to make the Car Crash Studies series, in terms of production and realization? 

I did a show at Martin Asbæk Gallery in 2009 and I had been working on it since 2006-2007. I started inside the cars to do the Interiors, what I also see as a key part of the work. Then I moved on to work on the more abstract works later on.

In several ways, it has been my conscious effort that the crashed cars were to be seen more as a metaphor for the ubiquitous trauma I both fear and am fascinated by. I wanted to explore this through the cars.

Car Crash Studies could be cut in 3 parts: Bodyworks / Airbags / Interiors.  The 2 first parts look abstract and contrary to what we could call the Interiors which is more “concrete.” Why did you choose to treat the subject in such a way?

I do not think that concrete and abstract as starting points are far from one another. In my work with the Car Crash Studies, I wanted to show the interior as a private and maybe a little sacred place in its state of distortion, having been smashed, but also as a way of penetrating into this space, without really permission. It was, in many ways, a cross-border work, as I did not know the destiny of those people at a human level. The outside presentations were more superficial and carried a much more direct beauty, which in many ways stands in contrast to the interior.

The pictures of bodyworks, because of their abstract look, could be translated visually like paintings. What is your relation to painting in general?

I work with photography as a foundation, which is characterized by the media and other similar forms. This also informs the way I look at paintings. It is often not the abstract painting that I focus on, although I often work with an abstract angle to create a visual intensity in my work. In fact, I am simply very fascinated by going into the world with only the camera and with the purpose of reflecting its reality.

I would like to draw a parallel between Car Crash Studies and 141 Boxers. It may seem that the notion of deformation, deterioration or physical transformation affect you, could you tell us more about that?

Yes – agreed, there are several words and parameters in both works that are similar: vulnerability, curing, violence, clash, anxiety, beauty / repulsive, redemption, resistance, transition, transformation, reaction, tightness, striking, confrontation, imposition, masculinity, invariably, typological and concept.

The Danish word for collision is ‘sammenstød’ – the word I have chosen as the title of an exhibition I had in 2011 at Esbjrg Art Museum in Denmark. In English the word can be translated as ‘collision’, but also ‘clash’ and ‘crash’. And whilst collision is more physical, clash is often an immaterial conflict between individuals, digital data, or civilizations. ‘Crash’ on the other hand is a word that can be seen to refer not so much to the collision itself, but to its consequences: the destruction and the sound of destruction. It is an onomatopoeic echo of something sizeable being smashed.

SAMMENSTØD – is, in itself, a collision – if you pull it apart. The first part, ‘sammen’, means together, gathered – close. Whereas the second part ‘stød’ (punch/blow/shock) reflects movement in opposite directions, repelling and breaking the closeness. Uniting the two in the Danish word for collision – sammen + stød = sammenstød – juxtaposes sudden proximity with the damage it causes. The closeness is too accelerated to be intimacy. It becomes – instead – violence.

Each photographer or artist have a different process regarding the making of their work, can you explain how you built this body of work in general? 

In my work, I always start with a theme I want to explore. Something that I want to understand at some level, something that I would like to communicate through my artwork. It is often a banal idea, which I perceive in a concrete environment, which I seem to be only able to observe further through my work. This idea usually changes quite a lot, even though the concept is relatively fixed from the start and even when I follow it slavishly, I try almost always to break down the concept in order to include a resistor in the work. So time and process are essential for the work to form in its finality.

You are used to collaborate with the artist Trine Sondergaard, who is also your wife, on series as How to Hunt, Tree Zone and Dying Birds.

Trine and I met through our work. We were actually colleagues around the mid-nineties. When we became a couple we photographed each other and everything that happened around us, which felt very natural. All photographers photograph each other and themselves, and at one point we exhibited a number of these photos. They were partly a reaction to pictures of the time, appearing more general than actually private. And they had a perfect harmony with the exhibition theme and form. That we later made a more real cooperation based on a study of nature, landscape and culture, is something that we have worked more or less up to, especially in our work How To Hunt. But for both of us, it is crucial that we can work individually and then sometimes work together. It offers a nice and dynamic way of both developing and changing some trends at an individual level, while finding partnership at other levels.

Could you explain to us what is your work process in this case and how you consider this collaboration? As far as you are concerned what are the requirements for working together?

Our cooperation is not as such defined by a set of rules. It is more something that occurs through a natural dialogue we often have about our work when we discuss ideas, inspirations or simple invitations we get to make an exhibition. Often we are working on more nature-based themes.

You’ve made various printed publications ( 3X1 , Boxer, How to Hunt, Car Crash Studies…. ).

In your production you have faced different types of possibilities, from independent publishers to self-published books and also a major publishing house like Hatje Cantz (How to Hunt).

Could you tell us a little bit about your experience with all these different types of publishing and publishers?

In all my publications, it is I who defines the shape, size and the design. However, that being said, on most of my books, posters and other works, I work with the Danish graphic designer Rasmus Kock. The difference between this kind of process and other publishing processes is perhaps that most big publishers have a distribution network where the smaller publishers really bleed to get their books ahead in the world. It is not a bad cooperation if, as in my case, you are working with a very narrow product which is generally well known by the larger public.

Is the movie Crash by David Cronenberg an inspiration for the series? Can you mention any references that you could link to your series? 

I saw Cronenberg’s film Crash after my work with my exhibition. Good movie, although I probably enjoyed his previous films more. But I knew the book by J. G. Ballard, which really was an eye opener because of Ballard being a great writer – a genius really. But my work with Car Crash Studies had in fact already started when I became aware of his set of books from the seventies. But this particular book was a great opportunity to understand the gap between the beautiful and the hideous, one can say that he articulated some of the ideas I went on to work with.

How do you consider words or texts regarding your photography work?

It depends of what kind of work it is…. It can be needed in some projects and open up the concept of the works….. It’s not a simple answer!

Conversation with Nicolai Howlat, Copenhagen, March 2012.