Winter 2015
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Pauline Vermare on the Early Work of Christer Strömholm

Tanger, Marocko, 1951 by Christer Stromholm

Tanger, Marocko, 1951 by Christer Stromholm

Pauline Vermare is a Curatorial Assistant at the International Center for Photography (ICP) and last year organized “Les Amies de Place Blanche” by Christer Strömholm, a ground breaking exhibition for the photographer whose work had never before been shown in a museum in the United States. While well-known and celebrated in his native Sweden, Strömholm (1918-2002) remains a relatively obscure figure in the United States despite his wide influence on both European and American photography. Perhaps this is due to the highly individualistic nature of his work, which transformed over his long career. Strömholm photographed an array of scenes and subjects with subtlety and restraint—never did he impose himself on what he captured with his camera a characteristic style, and so it is hard to say what makes a Strömholm photograph. Certainly his compositions are stark and his symbolism clear and strong, but these are fairly discursive, general observations.

Strömholm’s early photographs of vagabond children, abandoned objects, haunted cemeteries, and prison-like carnivals of the 1940s gave way rather suddenly to intimate, seductive portraiture of a group of lovers and friends whom he befriended when he settled in Paris in the 1950s. He photographed these marginal characters, a melange of glamorous but bohemian transsexuals, in every aspect of their lives. These are the photographs of “Les Amies de Place Blanche” (Girlfriends of Place Blanche), originally published in a book in 1983 and reissued last year commensurate with the ICP’s exhibition. Following the production of this series, Strömholm returned to Sweden to continue developing his ideas from the early 1950s in new work and to teach at Stockholm University for several years, until retiring and then dividing his time between Sweden and Provence where he kept a country home.

Here are my questions concerning Strömholm’s early work leading up to “Les Amies,” its reception then and now, and Vermare’s rich and insightful answers which place this work within the story of his personal life:

Saint Marie de la Mer, France, 1948

Saint Marie de la Mer, France, 1948

AK: I am curious about Strömholm’s work prior to “Les Amies” and what he discovered from the photographs he made until settling in Paris. Do you know what compelled him to leave Stockholm and how he started photographing the Girls?

PV: Christer Strömholm had quite a dark and rough life before he became a photographer in the 1940’s: his parents divorced when he was very young, his father committed suicide when he was 16, he engaged against fascism during the Spanish Civil War, then fought during the Second World War in Norway. Death was always close. It is impossible to know if by nature Christer Strömholm was attracted to dark subjects, but surely what life brought to him at a very early age must have had a strong impact on him, and on his art. In the beautiful documentary that his son Joakim made about him, “Close your eyes and see,” Christer comes across as an extremely intelligent man, and inherently drawn to the margins—the fine line between life and death. When he met the girls of Place Blanche by chance in Paris in the late 1950’s, he met his equals: people who were fighting, misfits who were managing to find light in the roughness of their lives. It was actually the first time that Christer was able to take photographs of (facing, really) living beings. From then on, he took more and more portraits and became one of the greatest portraitists of his time, creating iconographic images of artists and Paris proper.

AK: What initially drew me to Strömholm’s work was the content of his early street photographs of abandoned objects and uninhabited spaces—the dog’s leash, the grave, the cemetery. Do you believe that the simplicity and straight-forwardness of these photographs initially caused his work to be overlooked? When did he begin to receive recognition?

Montmartre, 1949

Montmartre, 1949

PV: It is hard to tell, perhaps Christer was only experimenting with his camera at the time, for his own sake, not really trying to be known, just like Cartier-Bresson in the 1930’s. His early work was more of a metaphysical wandering. And then he met these girls. Indeed many photographers and art critics discovered Christer Strömholm in the 1980’s, when “Vännerna från Place Blanche” came out in Sweden. It quickly sold out and became a cult classic at the time. It is almost as if “Les Amies” had brought Christer (back to) life, and with it, the recognition from his peers.

AK: It seems that he was shooting only with available light from the beginning of his career. How did his theory on light develop?

PV: It is indeed very interesting. Strömholm was working with day light, street lights, car lights, neon lights.… Working with what was available in order not to disturb the natural order of things, or the subjects–dead or alive. No violent artifact. This was one of his mottos and one of the main lessons he taught his students. One might argue that it had something to do with the light he grew up with in Sweden—or the lack of it most of the year, which you learn to live with and see with. And perhaps it also had to do with his eye, which was really that of a painter. In fact, in many of his photographs, especially his portraits in the dark hotel rooms of Place Blanche, you can see that he uses light like a Renaissance master, composing with an incredible subtlety. The available light is where the beauty and the authenticity of his pictures lie.

AK: Can you explain his relationship to the artists in Paris (Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Le Corbusier, etc) whom he was portraying while a student at the Beaux Arts? Was Strömholm searching for a subject matter at this time?

PV: Yes, absolutely, interesting subject matter, but also looking for pocket money and friends! He developed strong relationships with some of the artists he photographed then, spending a lot of time with them and their circle of friends. He introduced some of the Girls to them, too. It was also a nice way for him to make a living in a more conventional way: a story like “Les Amies” was a personal one, from which he would not make money. On the other hand, his portraits of artists would sell to the magazines very easily.

AK: Was Strömholm influenced by Robert Frank? It seems that not only does “Les Amies” tell a story of survival in the way of Frank’s “The American,” but that both photographers shared a similar preference for sharper contrasts and harder edges over the softer, more tonal photography running its course through Europe. They seem to me unique in their pursuit of a harder edged truth.

PV: Many people see Brassaï’s “Paris by Night” in “Les Amies,” while others see Ed van der Elsken’s “Love on the Left Bank.” There is definitely a similar form of melancholy in “Les Américains” (first published in France by Delpire in 1958, exactly when Christer met the Girls), and a break in the conventional form of photography—darker, and somewhat closer to a movie, especially the New Wave (somehow his photograph “Little Christer,” and the overall atmosphere in “Les Amies,” remind me of “Les 400 Coups” by Truffaut). But who knows whether Christer knew or loved Frank’s work then? In a way I think Strömholm was far more involved in his subjects than Frank was: Strömholm spent years with the Girls, developed very strong human ties with them. Today Nana and Jacky, two of his favorite subjects, attend all of his openings and talk about Christer with deep friendship and emotion. It is a very different approach, all in all, a more personal one, closer to Nan Goldin’s, really.

Place Blanche

Place Blanche

AK: Why is it that Strömholm’s work was not shown in an American museum until last year and what compelled you to organize the exhibition, was it the reissuing of the book or was the book a product of the exhibition?

PV: It is a good question as Christer’s work had been widely exhibited in Europe, especially in France and Spain, over the past twenty years. The publication, a bilingual (French/English) reprint of “Les Amies de Place Blanche” in 2011 by Aman Iman Publishing, definitely helped bring this master work across the Atlantic. Paris Photo 2011 was also a key event during which our Chief Curator, Brian Wallis, met with the people of Galerie Vu, who represent Strömholm in France, and also with Nana and Jacky, two of the main protagonists of “Les Amies de Place Blanche.” He was deeply impressed by the strength of this body of work, and decided that ICP should absolutely show it. I had the immense privilege of being asked to organize it. So, I suppose there needed to be momentum. 2012 was definitely the Strömholm year, with this show in the US and all over the world, including a major retrospective in his native Sweden, at Fotografiska, now traveling throughout Europe. The essay had never been shown by itself before the ICP show, and it made an extremely strong impression on the American public. I think it was really a coup, and a fantastic one.

Strömholm’s retrospective is currently on view at C/O Berlin, and his work is also presented at the Kicken Gallery, Berlin.

—Ashley Booth Klein


PAULINE VERMARE grew up in France, Japan, and Hong Kong. In 2001, after earning a Masters of International Relations at Sciences Po, Paris, she joined the Paris bureau of Magnum Photos. In 2002, she started working for the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, where she worked until 2009 with Agnes Sire on the production of the catalogues and exhibitions. In February 2009, she moved to New York to work on the Cartier-Bresson retrospective curated by Peter Galassi at MoMA. In May 2010, she joined the Capa archive at ICP to work on “The Mexican Suitcase” with Curator Cynthia Young. She recently finished organizing a Chim (David Seymour) retrospective, which opened in January, 2013, and is now preparing the exhibition “Capa in Color”, which will open next year.