Opposite Tendencies – Mads Holm

© Mads Holm


I was born (1990) and grew up in a small apartment in Copenhagen in Denmark with my mother, father and two brothers. I had practiced photography and used it for making pictures of skateboarding for 4 years before I first went to photography school. In 2009 I was a student for four months under Morten Bo at Fatamorgana in Copenhagen, the Danish School of Art Photography. In 2010 I moved to New York by myself and started the documentary photography and photojournalism course at the International Center of Photography. The year at ICP still is one of the most important years of my life. Although, I was very demotivated by the bigotry of many of my fellow photojournalists and documentarians and sought a space for my photographic experiments somewhere else and that place turned out to be at the Glasgow School of Art where I graduated with a BA(Hons) in Fine Art Photography in June this year. I now live back in Copenhagen and work from my studio in Nørrebro.

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Hi Mads. Your series “About Common Ground” has been presented at the Danish Embassy in London in March 2016 and now is exhibited as part of “Opposite Tendencies” at Arts Collective and Gallery in Glasgow. Tell us about the group show. How did it come to be?

Tine Bek and Isabella Shields were in the early stages of reopening the art space 16 Nicholson Street in the south of Glasgow. I was showing About Common Ground as my final degree show at Glasgow School of Art, where Nina Bacos came by. Nina is the drive behind the Talk See Photography at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow and hooked me up with Tine and Isabella who were planning the first show at 16 Nicholson Street. It turned out that I was going to be in the show with Scott Caruth and Alice Myers, whose work I have admired for a while. We started a long and thorough email correspondence where we developed the concept and ideas for the exhibition, planned the events and organized everything. We read Italo Calvino’s Lightness and discussed our way to the title of the exhibition, Opposite Tendencies.

What are you particularly excited to share in this exhibition?

I am excited every time I curate a new installation of About Common Ground. The project develops with every new installation of it through the inclusion of new and not previously shown older pictures, while maintaining links to the previous installations. So some of the same pictures appear in several installations but in different constellations and often different dimensions and forms of presentation.

For Opposite Tendencies I am particularly excited about the inclusion of the picture Uniform (II), 2016, as Uniform, 2016 was an important part of my degree show installation and though the two pictures are very similar and made only few seconds apart, they add something completely different to each installation. They differ in expression as the animal is looking at you in Uniform, 2016 and away behind itself in Uniform (II), 2016. They are also being presented in two very different print sizes. I am very happy with the inclusion of one of the new pictures, Carrefour, 2016, which I shot during the summer between the two installations. It adds an element to the project that I have looking for for a while. A separate part of the installation, the text work Joint Report, is presented very differently for Opposite Tendencies. This time the documents are stuck onto the wall and read differently in relation to the pictures compared with my previous table installations. And then I am thrilled to be showing my work under same roof as Scott and Alice!

“I believe more in approaches than styles. My approach is in a constant state of change.”

Hornblower, 2016, from ‘About Common Ground’ © Mads Holm

Do you see this project as finished or an ongoing series?

I am not sure I will ever be able to finish About Common Ground. The further I get with it, the more aware I become of the fact that I have started making photographic pictures that develop with my surroundings. It feels like I need to follow how things change around me and around the world and keep making pictures that convey my views. Perhaps I will get lost in this approach and this way of making and presenting pictures one day and end it somehow, but for now it feels like I am just getting started.

You first studied photography in NYC at the International Center of Photography, then moved to Glasgow to keep working and studying at Glasgow School of Art and now you are back in Copenhagen. How was experiencing these very different cities through the viewfinder?

New York, Glasgow and Copenhagen are three completely different cities and they have influenced my work in very different ways. It is hard to compare my experiences with the three cities as I have engaged with them at very different times of my life with the urge to do certain kind of work there. In New York I was completely led by my camera and living in the city made me highly productive. When I was not at ICP in Midtown, I spent most of my time in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, photographing everything around me, the neighborhood and the community. I became very close with people there and rarely felt like a stranger to anything. Constant exploration of everything was essential for my time in New York. I was really examining photography, different formats and approaches. New York left an important mark on me and I still feel a deep connection with it.

Glasgow needs time to work its way under your skin and I will admit that I almost gave up several times. It is a tough city but at the same time very wholehearted. In contrast to my time in New York I lived on the main street in the city centre, Sauchiehall Street, and never really got the feeling of being part of a neighborhood. I think that had a huge influence on my photographic engagement with Glasgow being slightly more introvert. I often felt alienated and insecure and I did a lot of dull work in the beginning. However, looking back there is no doubt that that process was as important to the work I do now as the years in New York were. Glasgow was really a bubble for me, a social and artistic laboratory, an enclosed environment, slightly claustrophobic, but extremely giving. I never made a lot of pictures in Glasgow. I only had a few months of intense picture making in the city when I was photographing Sauchiehall Street at night from my bedroom window. Even though it felt uncomfortable I believe it was necessary for me to react to the place this way. I was observing how people treat themselves and each other in the street on which I lived my life. I was looking at the vomit, the fights, the kisses, the seagulls. This sounds completely insane but sometimes I actually felt like a sniper barricaded in my window with a 500mm lens and a huge flash. Next night I would go out and be one of those people down there and through my drunken eyes look up at my dark bedroom window. It was all very weird. Living in and working from Copenhagen now is a totally new experience. Not really having lived here in my adult life I feel a connection with the city that I haven’t felt before. I feel like I can grasp the city, like I really belong. The way I work now is very different from when I moved to New York and photographing is not as much a part of my everyday life. I make pictures less often but in very intense periods so I do not really see Copenhagen through a viewfinder like I did with New York. I see Copenhagen with my more experienced eyes. That way I love getting older.

Reformational, 2015, from ‘About Common Ground’ © Mads Holm

What fascinates you more about cities?

For me cities are the concentrate of society. Cities can get very tensive because they are places where most things meet and where a lot of energy is directed. Countries are ruled by central powers seated in big cities often turning them into political arenas, places where one can feel the tension, happiness, concerns and hope of people. Photographically cities are, for me, scenes where life plays out in front my camera. Those scenes can contain elements of completely unimaginable absurdities and ambiguity. Turned into pictures those moments become symbols of states and changes on a larger scale, a kind of hyperreality. It all comes down to the act of observation. I believe we can learn so much from properly looking at things instead of taking them for what they immediately seem to be.

How would you describe your style?

I believe more in approaches than styles. My approach is in a constant state of change. Sometimes I need to use a different camera, format or lens for a specific thing I want to make pictures of – e.g. for the pictures of Sauchiehall Street I needed to use a 35mm film camera and very sensitive film because I couldn’t find a 500mm lens for a digital camera. Choice of camera and medium obviously affects everything about the picture and should always be considered, but what really matters is how you look at things. My approach to photography right now is very much affected by a desire to make pictures that suggest more than they manifest. I believe pictures that invite reflection can challenge presumptions. It’s a risky kind of communication because those pictures are full of ambiguity and demand engagement from the reader. I am very interested in establishing unexpected comparisons and juxtapositions of elements. The right installation can open up for new ways of thinking of things.

I am never aware of the final picture and its potential when I am in the process of photographing. When I set out to make pictures I usually make a lot and I spend time trying out many different ways, without knowing which one is going to work best. Often the unexpected pictures are the ones that work. I am also looking for things I find important to point to. It’s a way to call for attention.

As an example, I was photographing onboard the Danish frigate HMDS Niels Juel when 36 warships were docked in Copenhagen in early September this year. Families were having a fun day out where kids could hold machine guns and see the ship’s torpedoes. Everyone was having a good time but the pictures I made there somehow revealed elements of extreme absurdity of the whole spectacle. One picture isolates a 12-year-old boy wearing helmet and vest looking through the scope of a genuine killer machine. Is that really how we want to inspire our kids? The picture isn’t sensational and dramatic, it just observes. It doesn’t tell the reader what to think but offers the time and space to start reflecting on what is looked at.

“Photographically cities are, for me, scenes where life plays out in front my camera. Those scenes can contain elements of completely unimaginable absurdities and ambiguity. Turned into pictures those moments become symbols of states and changes on a larger scale, a kind of hyperreality.”

You just came back from travelling in the US, Detroit specifically. Were you there photographing and can you tell us a bit more about the project?

Yes, I travelled along the Rust Belt in the Northeastern United States from New York City to Detroit, through Ontario and back down through New York state. I wanted to make pictures in the old industrial cities of Pittsburgh, Detroit and Buffalo, important places that rose and fell within just one century. Subject to outsourcing and automatization of production, workers in these cities were ungratefully left behind by the steel and car industry in search for expansion of profit in a globalized world of free trade and labour. Speaking of cities there’s something about the format of bigger cities in the United States that attracts me. It’s as if their structure becomes a caricature of an urban environment. It’s extremely fascinating.

The work I did in the States in April is all connected and integrated with About Common Ground. Without knowing exactly how this will develop I see the project evolve into chapters and sections over time, so all work I do is somehow an element of the larger body of work.

What is next for you?

On the 4th of November two installations of About Common Ground open, one at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh as part of the Jill Todd Award for which I am one of the three receivers. The other is at Fotografisk Center in Copenhagen. Both installations are different but contain a few of the same pictures, linked to the previous installations while moving forward. In February the next installation will be up at Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh for the New Contemporaries 2017 exhibition. For that show I am planning to include the newest work I have done at the German Army Battle Simulation Centre, Schno?ggersburg, which when finished will be a simulation of a typical European urban environment where Bundeswehr and NATO troops will practice waging war in the city.

‘Opposite Tendencies’ At 16 Nicholson Street, Glasgow

8th October-6th November 2016 / Friday to Sunday 12-6pm

Thanksgiving, Bed-Stuy, 2010 © Mads Holm