Nicolai Howalt (b. 1970) is a Danish artist, whose photographic work spans across documentary, conceptual and installatory art. He is interested in duality, connections and relationships, and while death is an aspect of his work, he sees mortality as part of an ongoing investigation of life and its fragility. Howalt’s work is marked by the absence of a decisive moment, focusing instead on the heartless quietness of the anticipation and aftermath of a situation, devoid of any narrative cues.
The work Light Break has previously been presented at exhibitions held at Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art, Medical Musieon and Martin Asbæk Gallery in the spring of 2015 in Copenhagen.
Nicolai Howalt graduated from Denmark’s prestigious Photographic Art School, Fatamorgana, in 1992. He is the recipient of honorary grants from a number of benefactors and institutions, such as the Hasselblad Foundation, The Danish Ministry of Culture, The Danish Arts Foundation and The Danish Arts Council.
Throughout his career, Howalt has had the opportunity of exhibiting work at various prominent venues at home and abroad, most notably with solo shows at ARoS in Århus, Martin Asbæk Gallery in Copenhagen, at the Centre for Photography in Stockholm and at Esbjerg Art Museum. Howalt's many other contributions to exhibitions at the National Gallery of Denmark, Skagen Art Museum and Vendsyssel Art Museum, among others, along with presentations of his work in galleries in China, England, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Korea, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, Turkey and USA, further cement Howalt's current status as a prolific and important contemporary international artist.
Image captions
(Cover & 1-3) Nicolai Howalt, different wavelength from the series Light Break, 2014
(4) Nicolai Howalt, Lupus #4, 2013
(5) Nicolai Howalt, Light Break, installation view at Medicinsk Museion, 2014
(6-7) Nicolai Howalt, from the series Boxer, 2009
(8-13) Nicolai Howalt, from the series Car Crash Studies, 2009
(14-16) Nicolai Howalt, from the series Metal & Elements, 2016

On a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, while sleepily leafing through the pages of Politiken, one of Denmark's major newspapers, I came across an article titled Fotografiet er altid usandt (Photography is always untrue). My attention was immediately awaken by such a strong statement and a smile of appreciation veiled my face when I twigged that the article was actually an interview with Nicolai Howalt, a Danish artist that has made his name known in the international scene by a clear-cut approach to photography. 

At Yet magazine, we have followed Nicolai's work for a while, and last year we published a review of his book Light Break, so it came natural to me to contact him for a meeting as soon as I landed to Copenhagen on last March. In front of a snugly warm cup of coffee, we spanned throughout his practice - which is never a straight mirror of reality, even when it reflects an existing event. It should rather be seen as a form of expression, always determined by practical, cultural and technical contexts.


Your work slides away from the depiction of the "decisive moment", linked to a very specific kind of photography and moment in history. If Robert Capa, just to say one, could believe in objectiveness and truth, we don't have any of these certainties left today. Postmodernism has blurred all our references out, and photography echoes this change. How is it possible for you to find a larger view to reality, a wider standpoint, through such a mechanical medium?

I'm not working with the decisive moment at all, I’m totally ignoring it. What I do is not about the "here and now", but it’s still photography, even though it stands on other premises. I’m moving more and more into phenomenology, which means that nothing of what I do can be wrong. It has a meaning anyhow.

Let’s take Light Break as an example: here, my starting point were some lenses invented in the Nineteenth century by the physician Niels Finsen, whose research was my inspiration for this project. I transferred the sun light directly onto the photographic paper through these lenses. I couldn't see the light while I was capturing it, so I constantly tested like an alchemist, blindly. Each picture was out of my direct control and I got to know the result only once it was developed. I discarded many of these shots in the end, but none of them was worthless. The whole project was an experiment, where every action I took could somehow work and therefore had the right to be tested out.

Another aspect that has been changing a lot is the conception of the photographic error. Photography, for many years, has been conceived as the reflection of reality and had therefore to be "correct", but now the mistake is not a taboo anymore...

Well, I still see so much photography where everything is sharp and perfect and each centimetre of paper is controlled and supervised. We have to give it up! And do something without any control!
I think we can compare what’s been happening in photography in the last ten-fifteen years with the moment in which the drum machine was introduced in the music world in the Eighties. Back then, the reaction was: “Ok, drums are dead, nobody needs a drummer anymore!”. But actually a new way of using drums came out of this: you could have a drum machine and a drummer, and create a new mix between those two...
Personally, I think I had a reaction to this kind of computer-based way of doing. The How to Hunt series, for example, that I did in collaboration with my wife Trine Søndergaard, was all based on a long and detailed digital process - it was fantastic to do it, but at one point I just felt I needed to do something else. And I think it’s interesting that a growing part of the photography scene is going towards this direction.

Many of your photographic projects are connected through a fil rouge, a constant look that tries to make visible something that is actually not possible to see. How did you come to adopt this perspective, and why?

To me, working with photography means looking for the primitive and basic essence of things. The Boxer series, for example, is based on double portraits showing young boys just before entering the boxing ring for their first time and then right after the match, but it’s not so much about this sport in itself. The idea came because I boxed when I was a kid, and fifteen years later I realized that I've never forgotten my first match. Something more than a sport competition was at stake when, at the age of 13, I had my first boxing encounter...

There's a space between the two images that holds an entire drama, even if the portraits don’t show the boxers to be particularly mauled with bloodstains and bloody noses and split eyebrows. Most of the times, there is almost no difference except for the expression in their eyes, that tells us we are witnessing a loss, the trace of an innocence that is gone forever. The whole project is basically an attempt of photographing something that is missing, it's about the traces of a strong immaterial energy.

A similar description can be applied to Car Crash Studies, even if the image's "cathartic meaning" is here condensed in a single shot.

In Car Crash Studies, the mystery and its invisibility lie in the distance between horror and beauty. I wanted to investigate why this most frightening of events, a car crash, did also intrigue me. What we see is not a documentation of the accident scene, but rather an impersonal universe, emptied of its private connotations. The pictures are informed by a certain level of neutrality and they become symbolic.
Like in Boxer, this project is actually not about car crashes. It's neither about our desire to feel safe. What I was trying to understand was maybe what it means to be a human being - to be, at the end of the day, all alone. It's these kind of thoughts that follow me and that I try to understand through photography.

What are you working on at the moment?

The project I'm carrying on right now is about the most basic thing in the world, that is, pure elements. How do they look like? I’m trying to answer to this question by transferring their presence directly onto materials that are different from the usual photographic paper. I transfer them on plates of various metals that are also elements themselves - iron, aluminium, gold foils, copper. The process of working with these plates is as important for the final image as the subject itself.

In its meaning, this project still goes in the red line of the previous ones, but it's simply developed in another strategy – both because it works better and because it’s too boring for me to do the same things over and over again. It's such a funny thing to find new ways to do what you like, why should I renounce to that?