Although revered as the father of Scandinavian photography in the second half of the 20th century, Christer Strömholm (1918-2002) is relatively unknown in the US. The current show at Pace/MacGill is only his second solo exhibit in the US. In 2012 I had the pleasure of seeing the first, “Les Amies de Place Blanche,” at ICP.
The twenty vintage black and white photographs on display are actually a reprise of “Till minnet av mig själv” (to the memory of myself), the first show of his work in 1965 at a department store in Stockholm. The images range from 1949 through 1964, providing an overview of his work during that period. All the photos are dated but untitled, leaving it to the viewer to imagine where they might have been taken during Strömholm's travels through Europe in that period. (Although the print quality is good, a couple of prints show the need for some spotting.)
Strömholm came to photography from a graphic arts background, evident in the images from 1949 (designs scratched onto a wall, a simple box full of keys), as well as echoes of Atget and Evans in the two storefront photographs. The sense of design continues in a pair of photos from 1955 of domestic items, a bassinet and a console TV minus the picture tube abandoned in an urban wasteland. Both items are centered in the foreground, dominating the apartment blocks in the distant background, calling to mind the continued economic straits of Europe in the 1950s while the US enjoyed a post-war boom.
However, portraits account for almost half the images on display. While a few are street portraits (an old lady, a stern officer in full dress uniform), the majority is of transgender males in the Place Blanche district of Paris, “working” to fund their eventual surgeries. Strömholm titled this series “friends of Place Blanche” and presents them in a matter-of-fact manner despite their position at the edges of society at the time. Shown in their chosen identity, they are neither sensationalized nor glamorized, but seen as individuals controlling their own bodies and how the world would see them.
Published in book form in 1983, at a time when transsexuality was still controversial, “Les Amies” appear primping in their rooms or walking out on the streets, in one's and two's. Clothed or not, they appear female at first glance. However, on closer inspection a viewer might notice a face that is a bit too masculine, buttocks that are not quite feminine. Strömholm accepts this ambiguity, accepts them as they prefer to be seen, and presents the viewer with a sympathetic portrait of their life in the early 1960s.
While Strömholm continued to photograph for many years, receiving the 1997 Hasselblad Award, his major influence on Scandinavian photography came from his years as Director of the Fotoskolan in Stockholm, where he trained over 1200 students, mentoring many of today's leading Swedish photographers.
Christer Stromholm Pace/Macgill Gallery 32 E 57th St.
9th Fl Midtown Map 212 759 7999 pacemacgill.com Jan 7 through Sat, Feb 20, 2016 Hours: Tue-Fri, 9:30 to 5:30; Sat 10 to 6