Christer Strömholm and Anders Petersen

A few weeks ago, I took a detour to explore Swedish photobooks. As a big fan of Daido Moriyama’s blurry and raw images, it is only a short leap to Christer Strömholm and Anders Petersen, who were teacher and student, respectively. Shaped by a distinctly brooding and quietly emotive Scandinavian sensibility, I find their intensely existential documentation of outsiders completely engaging. They draw me in with their somewhat uncomfortable, but shockingly ordinary, combination of empathy and angst. Having recently held an exhibition of Christer Strömholm photographs from his photobook Les Amies de Place Blanche, the International Center of Photography has an extensive collection of books by both Strömholm and Petersen. What follows is a short opinionated survey of photobooks by both photographers available for viewing at the ICP Library.

As a photographer who happily occupied a space between admired insider and snarky outsider, Christer Stömholm’s photobooks are not always comfortable. In fact, their uncomfortable-ness is their strongest asset. They ooze with a vulnerability that is all too human and makes the reader want to keep turning pages. They are like messy and shocking train wrecks that we just can’t turn away from. We are fascinated. We secretly desire more. As a photographer who focused on his personal work and shied away from self-promotion, Strömholm was not averse to stating unpopular opinions. On one occasion, at a museum colloquium on the “Purpose in Photography,” Strömholm chastised his fellow Swedish photographers for clinging to a darkroom fanaticism that championed technique over the image itself. He challenged them to move beyond their comfort zone and learn more about photography outside of Sweden.[1] To that end, Strömholm was an inveterate traveler, taking many of his most famous images abroad.

Beginning in 1935 at the age of seventeen, Strömholm studied fine arts in Dresden and then later in Prague and Paris. After WWII, he returned to Paris to study at the Academie des Beaux Arts — only to be diverted towards photography through his discovery of a large format camera.  Later on, in the early 1960s, during a prolonged return visit to Paris, he befriended a community of transsexuals living in the northern red light district around Pigalle. His compassionate portrayal of their daily lives, mostly lived out at night in neighborhood bars and hotel rooms, is collected in his 1983 book Les Amies de Place Blanches. Presented as intimate portraits of friends, with the photographer’s role in the social circle clearly part of the equation, these images of men in transition – working to earn money for the sex change operations that will complete their gender transformations – are poignant reminders of human frailties and strengths. The book also exposes Strömholm’s photographic ethos of direct engagement. Never comfortable as distant documentarian, Strömholm fully inhabits the world of his subjects; in this case living in the same hotel and joining his friends in their daily existence. In his photos we see the pleasure and pain of their outsider status, hear their stories and learn their secrets. Strömholm wants us to know who they are and respect their struggles. He asks his viewers to see beyond the social labels that marginalize his friends, and embrace them as Cobra, Nana, Jacky, Gina, Zarah and Carmen — as individuals.

As a good overview of Strömholm images, Christer Strömholm, an exhibition catalogue produced in conjunction with his 2001 solo exhibition at the Fundació  “La Caxia” in Lleida, Spain, re-presents a selection of images from Les Amies de Place Blanches in addition to many unpublished images from the late 1950s and early 60s. With the majority of the works shot in Palma, Barcelona and Madrid, there is wider thematic reach to these Spanish images. Mixed with group shots of prostitutes in Palma’s “barrio chino” (red light district), are sensitive images of children engaged in play, the patterned display of shop windows in Barcelona and a close-up rear portrait of a regally dressed balding matador in Conca.

In Memory of Himself: Christer Strömholm in the eyes of his beholders (2006), is another wonderful book in the ICP Library collection, which is less about Strömhom’s photography and more about the photographer himself. Published after Strömholm’s death in 2002, the photos and essays collected in this volume are taken by friends and other photographers (many well-known) and reveal Strömholm’s complex personality. We see him in youth. We see him in old age. There is Stromholm the provocateur, Strömholm the guardian and Strömholm the revered teacher and founder (with Tor-Ivan Odulf) of the Swedish photography school “Fotoskolan.” But most of all there is Strömhom, the man who enjoyed life; who was always asking questions, always seeking new adventures and content in the knowledge that he wouldn’t always find an answer.

As one of Strömholm’s most famous students, Anders Petersen is now gaining significant recognition beyond Europe. As the recipient of the 2012 Paris Photo Aperture Photobook Award, his raw razor sharp images assault the viewer. They don’t bow to pleasantries, but rather go for a frontal attack. They highlight a personal form of expression that merges the subject and photographer in the photographic process. Petersen, similarly to Strömholm, gets close to his subjects – very close. He wants us to see every scar and pimple as we embrace their humanness in all its complexities. His images are the accidents on the highway shoulder that slow us down. Yet Petersen makes sure that we don’t just see the bloody victim; he also demands that we see their soul. For this reason, his images are pained and beautiful at the same time.

Petersen’s well-known photobook Café Lehmitz, first published in 1978, exemplifies the gut-wrenching essence of his photographs.  Taken nearly ten years prior to the books publication, the images collected are of lives lived at the borders of what is socially acceptable. Petersen took time off to visit Hamburg just as he was beginning his studies at Strömholm’s school in Stockholm. While there, he met up with a friend at the Café Lehmitz, a down and out “watering hole” at the end of the Reeperbahn, the main thoroughfare in Hamburg’s infamous red light district. Frequented by prostitutes, pimps, transvestites and patrons of the various sex services on offer in the surrounding neighborhood, the Café Lehmitz was a microcosm that polite society chose to ignore. Similar to Strömholm, Petersen befriended his subjects. As he began to take photographs in the café, he made sure to share the resulting images with those posing before his camera. He wasn’t judging what he saw, rather he captured their essence as a community. Here are the scarred and compromised in moments of joy as they share drinks and camaraderie. Often shot with a roughness that is akin to the are-bure-boke (rough, blurred and out of focus) style that is the hallmark of postwar Japanese photography, Petersen’s high contrast gritty images are a visceral collection of scarred couples embracing, and dancers punctuated by the errant exposed butt or breast. All is acceptable and all is enjoyed. Any blur of his camera is not used to soften what he views, rather to help bring it into focus. The soul of the room is palpable.

This sensation of a living breathing soul seamlessly translates to the wonderful show currently on view at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Comprised of images that are from 45 years of photo-taking, it is the rare situation where I find that photographs on the wall are as engaging a sequential narrative experience as the intimacy and linearity of books. Either grouped in over-sized grids or smaller framed collections, the show highlights Petersen through his many distinct photographic bodies of work. Often shot within specific locations, many of these series take place in institutions: a prison (Fängelse, 1984), nursing home (Ragang till kärleken, 1991), or mental hospital (Ingen har sett allt, 1995). As in his Café Lehmitz book, there is a sense of community – but it is not the one championed by social do-goers, rather it is a dysfunctional and complex variation that is associated with life within “locked communities.”

Also among the groupings are images from several books in the ICP Library collection. These books tend to contain photographs that move beyond enclosed spaces – life on the streets. Still showcasing otherness, these raw, almost ugly images couch human interaction within the detritus of urban life. Roma, A Diary (2005) intertwines close-up shots of hanging animal carcasses with blow-up lawn Santas followed by bare feet on stained bed sheets. A tabby cat growls opposite an image of a truncated female torso in a chiffon evening gown. It is the contrast that makes it all work. As a small softcover book, it is something that is quickly viewed and lends itself to fast page flipping. Normally, this is not a good way to view a book, but in the case of Roma, it feels exactly right. Petersen immediately draws the viewer into his world. He allows for either a fast or slow read. All options work. Images of half-eaten food and rain-slicked streets collide. A man with a long vertical scar down his left cheek is simultaneously intense and serene. Again, Petersen champions the ugly and familiar as he finds within it an essential beauty. These are images that inevitably require return readings. Never static, their layered interpretations are as complex as their subjects. They reveal as they obscure naked truths.

Another “city book” by Petersen is his Frenchkiss (2008). This is not the French kiss of cliché tourist images. This is a French kiss that reaches halfway down its partner’s throat. It opens with a tattooed man on all fours whose weathered face turns toward the viewer as if caught in the act of something unspeakable. The next page shows a woman with hands covering her face. A dog is caught barking against a stain-spattered sidewalk. A few pages later, a bride rushes by with a bouquet; her face obscured by her veil. A close-up image of oysters and mussels feels sexual. Everyone and everything in Frenchkiss is revealed, but also not. There is a defiance and fragility as they stare into Petersen’s camera. This dichotomy is best elucidated by the image of the young baby being kissed by his mother as he is cradled against the hirsute body of his father. Opposites are the driving force within this book. Petersen feels very much a part of these images, but he is a bit more removed. There is a sense of exhibitionism that takes pleasure in shock value. Perhaps this is a reflection of changed social attitudes since the time of his Café Lehmitz images? The subjects in Frenchkiss dare the viewer as they put up walls – but these walls are paper-thin and easily crumble with a poke. As they crumble, our flawed humanism is glimpsed. In all of Petersen’s images, we feel their souls; their emotions are raw and right below the surface. We want to connect with them as we stare at them. Although less obviously on the margins than the outcasts of his earlier Café Lehmitz, the inhabitants of his city books are just as fragile and vulnerable. Petersen connects with them, and through his vision, the viewer also connects.

Both Petersen and Strömholm give us windows. They aren’t the windows of modern psychobabble, rather a view of what is real, what is raw and what we all know exists – whether we like it or not. Both photographers ask the viewer to optimistically confront the beauty of a highly flawed humanism that is often surrounded by decay. Their photography is a form of self-therapy – one that requires direct involvement with those in their photographs. It can be unpleasant, but the reward is a connection to a naked truth with all its contradictions. They force us to stare at the familiar and accept its beautiful discomfort.

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Books Mentioned:

Christer Strömholm, Les Amies de Place Blanche (2011 reprint).
TR681. T7 .S769 2011

Christer Strömholm, In Memory of Himself: Christer Strömholm in the eyes of his beholders (2006).
TR681.P56 .S769 2006

Christer Strömholm, Fundació “La Caxia” (2001).

Anders Petersen, Café Lehmitz (1978 / 2004 reprint).
TR820.5 .P45 1978
TR820.5 .P48 2004

Anders Petersen, Roma, A Diary (2005).
TR647 .P47 2005

Anders Petersen, Frechkiss (2008)
TR680 .P48 2008

[1] Gösta Flemming, “Not everyone is granted having but friends.” In Memory of Himself: Christer Stromholm in the Eyes of his beholders (Göttingen: Steidl, 2006) 147.

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