Photobook Review: New Danish Photography

Greenlandic youth, bizarre spice-based rituals, and what it means to be a Danish model in China, these are just some of the stories on offer in New Danish Photography 01, a photobook that surveys ‘the scope of contemporary Danish documentary.’

Stinus Duch started the Danish publishing house Disko Bay (named after a bay off the coast of Greenland) in 2018. At the time there was nobody who specifically published Danish photobooks (Jacob Aue Sobol’s publishing arm is dedicated to publishing his own books).

It was a gap that Duch noticed. In a country famous for hard-edged photographers like Mads Nissen,  Joakim Eskildsen, or Jan Grarup, more gentle photographers such as the brilliant prolific photobook maker, Krass Clement, or those more focussed on the gallery such as Trine Søndergaard or Asger Carlsen, Duch wondered why there were no dedicated publishers of photographs.

Seeing the gap in market, Duch launched Disko Bay books. It’s a book that has punched above its weight in the years since it was launched. While current photobook trends are for a kind of poetic, unmoored narrative where vague feelings of unease are expressed through moody sequences of rocks, twigs, and the elemental, Disko Bay makes books which have a solid narrative core where person, place, and storyline create a foundation for our reading of the images.

New Danish Photography 01 is a reprise of this solid narrative core. Made in collaboration with Sigrid Nygaard and Emil Ryge, authors of the Dansk Documentarisme (Danish Documentary) newsletter, it’s a book that further expands our ideas of what documentary can be.

Expanding our ideas of what documentary can be is nothing new. People have been questioning the language of documentary almost since its creation myth in the films of Robert Flaherty. There have been works that question the truth values of documentary, that highlight the flaws of genre, the limitations of the photographer, the contesting narratives of different participants in the documentary making process.

Yet many of us still cling to the idea of what  Paloma Atencia-Linares calls the ‘standard features’ of documentary; that it’s black and white, it’s observational, it’s not staged, or harshly lit, that it’s real.

This book presents a more complex view where the lines between truth and fiction are blurred, where elements of rhythm, time, repetition and materiality create their own truth, where references to art, pornography, and popular culture influence how we see and influence images.

The book starts with the beautiful images of Luca Berti’s Jordfast, images that link landscape, history, and identity on the very special island of Samsø. The standard view of documentary continues with Sofia Busk’s tragic Daughters of Nairobi, reportage that tells the story of how sexual and domestic violence, poverty, and lack of infrastructure impact women who give birth to children after rape, work where a directness of factual and emotional truth is fundamental to the project. There are works on a Mexican hospice by Oscar Scott Carl, on women and body (I am fat) by Maria Hald, and Mads Holm’s meditation in the conflation of the imaginary and real in security in HRTLND.

Holm is introducing the element of doubt into affairs and this is echoed by Nicolai Howalt in Old Tjikko, a series of pictures of the world’s oldest tree (it’s 9,600 years old) exposed on 97 different varieties of out-of-date photographic paper. What exactly is it we see when we look at a photograph, be it on photopaper, newspaper, in the darkroom, or on a phone? And does what we see affect what we understand.

Petra Kleis’s Girlification also looks at body by portraying Mja Malou Lyse ‘as both object of desire and desiring subject’. Here the question is how the interplay between photographer, subject, and dominant representations and ideologies of sex interact.

Asger Ladefoged introduces the element of time into war reportage, with his before and after images of the Ukrainian town of Bucha following Russian attacks, begging the question of what remains of the bodies, burnt-out cars and screams in the years and months that follow. The theme of the aftermath of war is also evident in Kent Klich’s A tree called home, a series on the Russian ‘psycho-neurological institution’, work which looks at the ‘hierarchisation of disability, work where collaboration with patients is apparent in the drawings they produced for him.

The spectacle of documentary, the use of ‘contra-standard’ elements such as cinematic lighting and the fictionalisation of the process is to the fore in Tobias Nicolai’s The Ritual. The ritual in question takes place in Jutland and involves ‘capturing’ men and women who are unmarried at the age of 25,  tying them to trees, swings, crosses or vans, and bombarding them with cinnamon. A lot of cinnamon. It is very strange and looks surprisingly violent!

More strangeness comes courtesy of Matilde Søes Rasmussen and pictures from her photobook Unprofessional, a book where through brilliant snippets of a diaristic (and possibly at times unreliable) text, Rasmussen has us musing on what it is to be a white, Danish model in 21st century China. It’s a book where the commodification of the body, the absurdity of fashion, and a community of women all struggling to make a living combine.

The final selection comes from Innuteq Storch and his book Keepers of the Ocean. This is a brilliant book in which Storch documents his community in the small Greenlandic village of Sisimiut. It’s a book about the openness of the outdoors, the claustrophobia of the interiors, the freedom and the climatic and solar extremes of winter and summer. It’s a reminder that sometimes it really does matter who tells the story, because very often they’ll tell a better story.

The book ends with an essay by Mette Sandbye where she discusses what documentary photography might be; ‘…allow me to set the record straight once and for all,’ she writes. ‘Documentary photography is an art form. Photographers who identify with it glean their material from the real world …, but capture, order, interpret, sort, and present it in photographic form on the basis of a personal position or point of view… They tell stories about reality in a new way, guided by an artistic ambition. Sometimes stories about the familiar, or what we thought we knew and have seen many times before. And sometimes about the entirely unknown.’

Published by Disko Bay Books

Available here

20 × 27 cm

264 pages

193 images in full color offset

Text by Mette Sandbye and Emil Ryge

Editing and layout by Stinus Duch, Emil Ryge and Jacob Haagen Birch

Language: Danish and English

First edition 1000 copies

Published 8 June 2023


New Danish Photography was established in 2023 by Disko BaySpine Studio and Dansk Dokumentarisme and is set to be published every other year. The aim has been to look beyond the dichotomy between art and documentary photography as a place to gain our bearings and take stock on the Danish photographic scene today.  

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, Sofa Portraits is available here.  Follow him on Instagram.

Photobook Review: New Danish Photography
Photobook Review: New Danish Photography
© Luca Berti

© Luca Berti

Photobook Review: New Danish Photography
Photobook Review: New Danish Photography
Photobook Review: New Danish Photography
Photobook Review: New Danish Photography
Photobook Review: New Danish Photography
Photobook Review: New Danish Photography
Photobook Review: New Danish Photography

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