A WAY OF LIFE
SWEDISH PHOTOGRAPHY FROM CHRISTER STRÖMHOLM UNTIL TODAY
by Anna Tellgren
“… for me, working with photographic images is A WAY OF LIFE. When I think of it, and when I look carefully at my images, ALL of them, each in its particular way, are nothing but SELF-PORTRAITS, a part of my life.”
This quote is from a lecture held by Christer Strömholm in 1983 at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. It was reproduced a few years later in a book about the photographer published by Kalejdoskop. The exhibition ‘A Way of Life’ presents Christer Strömholm and his friends, and brings together a group of photographers who have taken documentary photography in a more personal and artistic direction. The focus is on that which is private, intimate, intrusive, and on the subjective tendencies in Swedish photography, with the addition of a few foreign examples. The period spans from the 1940s, via the 1980s, to the 21st century. The exhibition is based on the Moderna Museet collection, presenting more than 300 pictures by 29 photographers. It highlights three contemporary photographers, Martin Bogren, Anna Clarén and JH Engström, all of whom have pursued the subjective movement in photography in different ways and on different terms.
© Christer Strömholm/Strömholm Estate, Shinohara, 1961
Christer Strömholm (1918 –2002 ) is a seminal figure in Nordic photography. He became interested in photograpy in the 1940s, via graphic art. Through the German artist Wols, he came into contact with Fotoform, a group that promoted and practised a creative and personal style of photography, far removed from the instrumental image of advertising or reportage. The head of Fotoform was the medical doctor and photographer Otto Steinert, who had begun teachIng photography at the State School of Art and Craft in Saarbrücken after the Second World War. Steinert’s ideas went back to the 1930s and the photographic experiments at Bauhaus. In the 1950s, under the collective concept of “subjective photography”, he produced three major exhibitions of modern photography that had a strong impact on many young contemporary photographers. Strömholm was featured in the first exhibition in 1951 but left Saarbrücken the following year.
While living in Paris in the 1950s and ’60s, Christer Strömholm’s style developed towards street photography. He also travelled with his camera to Spain, Japan, India and the USA during this period. He discovered and was inspired by famous French humanist photographers like Edouard Boubat, Brassaï and Henri Cartier- Bresson. But Strömholm’s photographs appear slightly more harsh and brutal in comparison, with none of the romantic or humorous allusions often found in pictures of the French capital just after the war. His motifs and approach had more in common with the revealing and personal photo-documentations of US-based women photographers Lisette Model and Diane Arbus; in Strömholm, this influence was at its strongest in the photographs of his transsexual friends at Place Blanche.
© Christer Strömholm/Strömholm Estate, Hotel Central, Paris, 1951/198
Christer Strömholm returned to Paris in the early 1970s, after a few years in Stockholm, and tried to live as an independent photographer. Christer Strömholm’s images and methods have inspired generations of Swedish photographers, but the general public did not discover him until 1986, with the exhibition 9 Seconds of My Life at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Aged 68, he was just what the public wanted, fulfilling a general desire to highlight photography as a personal and artistic means of expression. In the mid-1950s, Christer Strömholm had begun holding photo courses, together with Tor-Ivan Odulf, at Kursverksamheten’s adult education centre in Stockholm. The courses developed into the famous Fotoskolan, which was attended by more than 1, 200 students from 1962 to 1974. The curriculum was largely based on Otto Steinert’s methods, where the key theme was to encourage individualistic, creative photography; and thus, the subjective movement has long existed as a strong undercurrent in Swedish and Nordic photography. Among Fotoskolan’s students were: Bille August ( DK ), Yngve Baum ( SE ), Dawid ( SE ), Ann Christine Eek ( SE ), Agneta Ekman ( SE ), Leif Gabrielsen ( NO ), Neil Goldstein ( SE ), Kenneth Gustavsson ( SE ), C.G. Hagström ( FI ), Walter Hirsch ( SE ), Ben Kaila ( FI ), Eva Klasson ( SE ), Tom Martinsen ( NO ), Robert Meyer ( NO ), Anders Petersen ( SE ), Håkan Pieniowski ( SE ), Marco Plüss ( SE ), Jo Selsing ( DK ), Ulf Simonsson ( SE ), Gunnar Smoliansky ( SE ), Odd Uhrbom ( SE ) and Risto Vuorimies ( FI ).
The exhibition ‘A Way of Life’ includes examples of Yngve Baum’s famous ‘Shipyard Workers’ series from the early 1970s, where he gets really close to the people and environments he portrays. We also show examples from Odd Uhrbom’s Mine project from 1968, a shattering reportage from Sweden. Both photographers rose to prominence in the genre of documentary photography, a field that grew strong, not to say dogmatic, in Sweden in the 1970s. Ann Christine Eek’s long series from the former Yugoslavia also belongs to this tradition, along with Håkan Pienowski’s photographs from Poland. From Ulf Simonsson’s oeuvre we have chosen a few affectionate child portraits from various times and settings, and Neil Goldstein is represented with four images telling about the life of the last crown crofters in the village Naisheden in the North of Sweden. Eva Klasson attended Fotoskolan for a few months, before Strömholm dispatched her to Paris. In the mid-1970s, she was widely acknowledged for a series of intimate close-ups of her own body, which she called ‘Le troisième angle’ ( The Third Angle ), alluding to the three levels or states of mind she wanted to express in her photographs. Another interesting project is ‘Poltava med guds hjälp’ ( Poltava with the Aid of God ) from 1992 by Marco Plüss, in which he interpreted and reconstructed the place and the war in a series of mysterious black-and-white pictures of nature and historic artefacts. It is possible to discern two different approaches among the students: those who leaned towards the documentary photo reportage, and those who ventured in a more poetic, private, dramatic direction – towards art.
© Nina Korhonen, Kati i båten, 1987-1995
The inner circle around Christer Strömholm included a few photographers who began as his students but eventually went on to become teachers at Fotoskolan. One of these is Gunnar Smoliansky, who attended one of Strömholm’s first evening classes in the mid- 1950s. Smoliansky has been a highly consistent photographer, portraying the objects around him on innumerable walks through the city, gradually moving more and more towards an abstract idiom. For a few years around 1990, a number of photo exhibitions were held at Lido in Stockholm. One of these featured early pictures by Christer Strömholm, selected and printed by his friend and colleague Gunnar Smoliansky. These prints were later incorporated in Moderna Museet’s collection. Another photographer who belonged to the first group of students at Fotoskolan, and who later taught there, was Agneta Ekman. Her early and only published artistic project was the photo book ‘Tall-Maja’ ( Pine-Maja, 1967 ), where she used experimental photographs to enact old folk tales about the wood nymph in the Värmland forests. The teachers also included Rune Jonsson, who studied British photography in the 1970s and is represented here with a series of his own photographs from England and Wales. Rune Jonsson had a background in the so-called Photo Club movement in Sweden, and was the editor of ‘Fotografisk Årsbok’ for four years; he also taught at the Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design until his retirement.
Walter Hirsch belonged to this innermost circle, and a series of diary pictures from the early 1980s are shown here, including portraits of several of the photographers in the exhibition. Walter Hirsch, Gunnar Smoliansky and Dawid started the publishing company DOG in 1982, together with the art director and designer Mats Alinder, which published books with their own photographs in conjunction with exhibitions at Fotografiska Museet in Moderna Museet. Later on, DOG donated a photographic collection to the Museum, and we have selected a few of these pictures, including Stina Brockman’s intimate, terse self-portrait and studies of interiors in the homes of old people at Södermalm in Stockholm’s inner city. The photographer Gerry Johansson was also involved in DOG, and the exhibition includes a series of his enigmatic nature studies produced as contact prints. Denise Grünstein became famous for her innovative portraits, and we are showing portraits of Dawid at the age of 30, and of the writer Klas Östergren in West and East Berlin. Worth mentioning in this context is Johns S. Webb’s fine artist portrait of Christer Strömholm in Höganäs, where he lived periodically during the last twenty years of his life. Dawid is represented with a double portrait of Stina Brockman and Gunnar Smoliansky, but also with examples from his ‘135–36’ and ‘Rust’ series, the latter in the characteristic deepred wooden frames. ‘Rust’ was published as a book in 1983 by DOG.
© Anders Petersen, Zigeuner-Uschi with her third husband. From the series Café Lehmitz, 1967-1970
Anders Petersen, however, is perhaps the one photographer who and has most distinctly continued in Strömholm’s spirit. He studied at Fotoskolan from 1966 to 1968, and it was during this time that he started on his series from Café Lehmitz in Hamburg ( 1967–70 ). This is still his best-known work, and it was published a few years later by Schirmel & Mosel, Germany. Throughout his career, Petersen has continued to seek out people and environments that are challenging or interesting in various ways. He has published a dozen or so books, on themes such as the Gröna Lund amusement park, circuses, prisons, mental institutions and the carnival in Venice. His approach involves making contact and being accepted – photography as a way of relating to reality; a way of life. ‘City Diary’is a work in progress which involves travelling to different cities and staying there for a while to experience and explore, before moving on. He enlarges his images to 70x100 cm, and in his most recent exhibitions he has let the pictures cover the walls almost entirely, like wallpaper, to achieve the desired effect. Anders Petersen started the Saftra group in 1967 with Kenneth Gustavsson, and in the years that followed, they made several widely acknowledged photo reportages. Moderna Museet has a collection of some 30 Saftra images that were donated by Mira Galleri. Saftra merged with Mira Bildarkiv, which was founded in 1979 and eventually represented some 40 independent photographers in Scandinavia. Among them were Ann Christine Eek, Nina Korhonen, Maud Nycander, Anders Petersen and Håkan Pieniowski. Mira, with its collective darkroom, became a meeting place, but also managed sales for its affiliated photographers, and produced several exhibitions in its own gallery.
One of the photographers who were inspired by Anders Petersen and worked alongside many male photographers in this tradition, was Catharina Gotby. Her first book, ‘Evigt brinnande tid’ ( Eternally Burning Time, 1992 ), was the result of many years working at mental institutions in Sweden and Nicaragua during the second half of the 1980s. Gotby had a distinctly documentary approach. Over time, however, she has become more interested in social issues and psychoanalysis, and her pictures examine female identity and the underlying causes of violence. Another photographer worth highlighting in this context is Nina Korhonen, whose book Minne, Muisto, Memory ( 1997 ) portrays her childhood summers in Finland in soft black and white images. In her second book, Anna, American mummu ( 2004 ), Korhonen delivers a portrait in words and images of her grandmother, who went to New York and stayed there for 40 years. For this project she used colour and larger formats.
© Kenneth Gustavsson Estate, Berlin, 1983
At the time of Christer Strömholm’s exhibition at Moderna Museet, he had attracted a following of photographers, copyists, designers and journalists from a new generation. Johan Ehrenberg and the magazine ETC carried reportages by older and younger photographers. For a few years, they also published the photo magazine ‘Picture Show’. Its first issue was devoted to Christer Strömholm and was produced in conjunction with the 1986 exhibition. The ensuing issues were about Finnish photography, polaroids, Russian underground, Spanish Harlem; the tenth and final issue included a series of photographs from Paris in 1989 by Lars Tunbjörk. Issue No 7 was also a catalogue for the exhibition of Swedish photography at FotoFest in Houston, Texas in 1988. Six photographers took part: Håkan Elofsson, Kenneth Gustavsson, Tuija Lindström, Anders Petersen, Gunnar Smoliansky and Hatte Stiwenius. Kenneth Gustavsson presented a series of new photographs in a slightly larger format, in which he continued his probings into the darkness, beauty and ambiguity of black-and-white images. Several of these photographs are now in the Moderna Museet collection, and they are featured in this exhibition. Tuija Lindström was represented in Houston by a series of female nudes – a theme she explored and elaborated on for several years, and which developed into the conceptual suite ‘Kvinnorna vid Tjursjön’ ( The Women at Lake Tjursjön, 1991 ). From 1992 and ten years onwards, Tuija Lindström was a professor at the School of Photography, University of Gothenburg. During this time, the curriculum changed in a more theoretical and artistic direction, which had a great impact on the students.
© Tuija Lindström, Maria i en båge. From the series ‘Kvinnor vid Tjursjön’, 1991
Lars Tunbjörk has recounted the powerful effect that Christer Strömholm’s book ‘Poste Restante’ ( 1967 ) had on him, and he later became one of the many young photographers who visited Strömholm to ask for advice, show their photographs, and discuss image production and life’s great questions. Tunbjörk is featured with a few examples from his breakthrough, ‘Country Beside Itself. Pictures from Sweden’ ( 1991 ), but also from his morose series Winter, which was originally shown in a solo exhibition at Moderna Museet in 2007. One of Tunbjörk’s close friends is the Latvian photographer Inta Ruka, who belongs to a generation of Baltic photographers who have documented the post-Soviet era. She has strong ties to Sweden and is one of the prominent Baltic photographers in the Moderna Museet collection of photography.
JH Engström made his breakthrough with the book ‘Härbärge’ ( Shelter, 1997 ), which has a short preface by Robert Frank. For several years, he documented the women in an institution for the homeless, portraying them in uninhibited black-and-white images. Engström has progressed from classical black-and-white documentary photography to colour. His motifs have grown increasingly personal – and revealing – over the years, with nude portraits of friends and girlfriends and pure self-portraits. In this exhibition, we show works chosen from his latest project, ‘Tout va bien’, a tale of his life and the people around him.
© JH Engström, from the series ‘Tout va bien’, 2014
In Swedish photography we often refer to a succession, where Christer Strömholm is followed by Anders Petersen, and JH Engström is a successor of both. All three are represented by Galerie Vu in Paris, where owner Christian Caujolle early discovered and exhibited Strömholm. French photography, and France/Paris as a setting, has impacted on the output of all three. The legacy of Christer Strömholm has largely been that of the independent ( male ) photographer who travels, exposes himself to life, in search of himself, and who has a secret, bohemian existence thanks to his camera. But the women photographers have, as we have seen, always been there as a strong force and tradition in Nordic photography.
© Anna Clarén, from the series ‘Holding’, 2006
Anna Clarén, like JH Engström, belongs to a generation of photographers who made their debut in the late 1990s. Her major breakthrough came with the book ‘Holding’ ( 2006 ), a project that encompasses some 50 pictures, and with a narrative that builds on an existential crisis. In bright colour photographs – dominated by pastel blue and pale skin tones – we meet people and places close to the photographer. Anna Clarén has been one of the principal teachers at Nordens Fotoskola on Biskops-Arnö. The school has an explicit policy on image production, stating that it strives to promote the authenticity of editorial pictures and that it is the photo journalist’s responsibility and subjective choices that give the image authenticity. This has of course grown even more important in our digital era, but the question of responsibility has always been paramount in documentary photography. It also reflects Christer Strömholm’s many statements on responsibility and veracity in connection with his own photography.
Martin Bogren is the third contemporary photographer highlighted in this exhibition. In ‘Lowlands’ from 2011, his atmospheric black-and-white images tell of a small rural village in Skåne, his memories, his friends, and his longing to get away. But he returned, and through the people and surroundings he experienced and photographed his own childhood and upbringing. Thus, his project is exceedingly personal and, ultimately, a self-portrait.
© Martin Bogren, from the series ‘Lowlands’, 2011
In several interviews, Nan Goldin has emphasised that she was influenced and inspired by both Christer Strömholm and Anders Petersen. One of JH Engström’s inspirations, a photographer he has collaborated and exhibited with, is Nan Goldin. She also came to Nordens Fotoskola as a guest teacher in 1992. These are some of the reasons why Nan Goldin is included in this exhibition of Swedish photography. Her entire oeuvre focuses on documenting the people and places she loves and has a special relationship to, deeply private experiences encompassing the lighter and darker aspects of existence. Christer Strömholm said that all his images were, in some way, part of his life – a perspective that is significant for all the photographers presented here. Our selection also includes several self-portraits, friend portraits, and portraits of the photographer Christer Strömholm. Through the photographers in this exhibition, we have the opportunity to see a large range of fantastic photographs that show different ways of life.
Swedish Photography from Christer Strömholm until Today
Stockholm 6 September 2014 - 15 February 2015