Christer Strömholm Exhibition Review : ‘Les Amies de Place Blanche’

“It is the art of seeing that is the starting point for all creativity” [1]

Gina and Nana‘Gina and Nana’[2]

In Paris, the birth place of street photography[3], the renowned photographer Christer Strömholm photographed and interacted with prostitutes in the Parisian red light district; they became the sole focus for his collection entitled ‘Les Amies de Place Blanche’.  Through this endeavour to photograph citizens on the fringes of society, Strömholm developed for himself a rather unique version of street photography.

Strömholm’s collection of portraits interact with the expression of identity, gender and sexuality. Aesthetic considerations such as the composition and tonal contrast of the photos may disturb our understanding of the photograph – what we may, for a short while, miss are the masculine features of the models. Strömholm in this collection exclusively photographed transsexual prostitutes.

The distinction between men and women is deeply ingrained into our understanding of the world and personal relationships. Physical differences are explained to us as children, we then separate the world and its population into two very different, very well-defined categories – men or women. However, Strömholm sheds light onto those who inhabit the margins of society, bringing into view the transsexuals of Paris who stand astride both genders and inhabit a form of grey zone in between. The grey area of gender identity that these transgender women inhabit may lead the viewer to question our most basic, simplistic and fundamental view of the world, impacting how we understand gender identity. Strömholm places a significant amount of importance on the issue of identity in this collection of photos:  “It was then—and still is—about obtaining the freedom to choose one’s own life and identity.”[4] The overarching message Strömholm presents with the series of portraits is one of the need for tolerance and the acceptance.

Under the strict Catholic social regime of Charles de Gaulle, transsexuals in Paris at this time were forced to confine their identities to within their hotel rooms, fearing the brutality of the police and imprisonment.[5] Against this political backdrop Strömholm delved into the harsh world of sex work; Strömholm pervades this intimate and world of prostitution and deconstructs the division between private and public. The image of Susannah and Mimosa pictured below provides an insight into their private lives; the playful depiction of the women contrasts heavily with our contextual understanding of the photograph, of the hard life transsexuals endured in Paris. Strömholm reveals a dynamic sense of sorority between Suzanne and Mimosa in this portrait, personal interactions emerge which portrays the women as vibrant characters, a contrast against the grim reality of prostitution in Paris. Strömholm reveals a close bond between the women which goes beyond simplistic definitions of the women solely as exploited sex workers. Whilst Strömholm’s work can be viewed as a social commentary of the transgender women of Paris and the struggles they faced in daily life, there is a rather more emotive and delicate edge to Strömholm’s work which is a stark departure from the work of social documentary photographers.

Suzanne and Mimosa‘Suzanne and Mimosa’[6]

Photographer Nadar upheld the belief that portraits should not be a purely mechanical reproduction of the subject which could be captured by anyone, but should create a “resemblance that is most familiar and most favourable, the intimate resemblance”.[7] It is evident that Strömholm is attempting to achieve this in his work; sympathetic towards the women, Strömholm portrays his subjects as they would desire to be perceived by the public, as the females they aspired to be. Only a minority of the photographs in the collection definitively reveal the biological gender of the women; predominantly, Strömholm’s collection of portraits displays the femininity of these women, in the portrait entitled ‘Sabrina’ in particular. The heavily made eyes and facial expression of the subject seem to exude a feminine sensuality, which is further perpetuated through the concealment of her chest.

It is the sympathetic nature in which Strömholm captures the image of these women that somewhat contradicts the accusation of voyeurism in this series of portraits. Strömholm’s work is more than a simple voyeuristic exploitation of these extraordinary subjects, the relationship that developed between Strömholm and the women of Place Blanche became one of mutual trust; Jackie commented that on viewing the photos a “trust between us had been born. He had understood our narcissistic side.”[8]

Sabrina‘Sabrina’ [9]

It is possible to establish a connection between the works of Diane Arbus and Strömholm; using their association to urban street photography, the Moderna Museet Gallery presented the two iconic photographers work in the exhibition ‘See the World!’[10] The title of the exhibition connotes a degree of curiosity, which Strömholm cites as the reason he took an interest in the transsexuals as subject matter: “It was because I didn’t understand it myself… as soon as you ask yourself why their lives are the way they are, it becomes difficult not to take pictures”.[11] Both photographers explore a voyeuristic dimension in their work, by using those who could be defined as ‘abnormal’ in society as a subject for the creation of art. Arbus and Strömholm used subjects who were not a prominent part of ‘normal’ mainstream culture and through their work they become a visible part of society, freeing them from the margins.[12] Arguably, there is something morally ambiguous or exploitative in utilising those who Arbus herself described as ‘freaks’.[13]  Inevitably there is a danger in this kind of photography to devalue the subjects and devolve the photo to the representation of a circus freak show. However, the text from Strömholm that accompanies the portraits of the women reveals that he is more compassionate than a passive onlooker taking a snapshot of a novelty, for Strömholm “these are images of people whose lives I shared… As for me, I call them ‘my friends of Place Blanche”.[14]

Strömholm’s photo entitled ‘Place Blanche’ deviates from the playful and elusive images of the women in its portrayal of the transsexual prostitute. Strömholm’s positioning of his subject in the centre of the shot emphasises the subjects’ masculine attributes; freely displaying the biological gender of the subject, Strömholm diverges from the style of his more subtle shots which serve to somehow obscure the gender identity of the subject. The mirror in essence reveals to the audience the gender of the subject; there are a limited number of examples in this collection in which Strömholm utilises the mirror as a tool to overtly disclose the true gender of his subjects. Images which avoid the clear depiction the subject’s face are infrequent in this series of photographs; the concealment of the face often arouses connotations of embarrassment and humiliation, these implications are contradictory to the discourse of self-acceptance and pride in Strömholm’s accompanying text. The caption of this photo also reveals a degree of shame; the anonymity of the subject is perpetuated, whereas the images of the named women exude a self-assured, confident and glamorous demeanour.

Place Blanche[15]

In conclusion, Strömholm challenges our preconceptions of identity and gender; by creating aesthetically beautiful and unconventional depictions of Parisian society he disregards popular notions of normality.  Ultimately the power of the images resides in the text, without the conceptual perspective the ‘studium’ of the photographs cannot be fully realised,[16] and would not fulfil Strömholm’s purpose: “what’s important to me is what the picture says. The impression of the picture is what matters”.[17]


[1] Christer Strömholm,’Opinions about the modern photography’, in Subjektive Fotografie, <http://www.modernamuseet.se/en/Stockholm/Exhibitions/2009/Reality-Revisited/Photographers/Christer-Stromholm/&gt;, [accessed 20th December 2012]

[2] ‘Gina and Nana’, Christer Strömholm, date unknown, ‘Les Amies de Place Blanche’ <http://www.stromholm.com/bild/bilder/place-blance/0120.html&gt;, [accessed 15th December 2012]

[3] Clive Scott, Street Photography: From Atget to Cartier-Bresson, (I.B.Tauris, 2007), p. 1

[4] International Centre for Photography, ‘Christer Strömholm: Les Amies de Place Blanche’, <http://www.icp.org/museum/exhibitions/christer-stromholm-les-amies-de-place-blanche&gt;, [ accessed 5th January 2013]

[5] Anna Nilsdotter, Christer Strömholm går igen, <http://www.stromholm.com/index2.htm&gt;, [accessed 20th November 2012]

[6] ‘Suzanne and Mimosa’, Christer Strömholm, 1962, ’Les Amies de Place Blanche’, <http://www.stromholm.com/bild/bilder/place-blance/0030.html&gt;, [accessed 15th December 2012]

[7] Nadar, Photography Speaks: 150 Photographers on Their Art, ed. by Brooks Johnson, (Aperture Foundation, 2004), p. 30

[8] Anna Nilsdotter, Christer Strömholm går igen, <http://www.stromholm.com/index2.htm&gt;, [accessed 20th November 2012]

[9] ‘Sabrina’, Christer Strömholm, 1987, ’Les Amies de Place Blanche’, <http://www.stromholm.com/bild/bilder/place-blance/0688.html&gt;, [accessed 29th December 2012]

[10] Moderna Museet, ‘Arbus Penn and Strömholm in See The World!’, <http://www.modernamuseet.se/en/Moderna-Museet/PressRoom/Press-releases/Stockholm1/Arbus-Penn–Stromholm-in-See-the-World1/&gt;, [accessed 6th January 2013]

[11] Gunilla Knape, Interview with Christer Strömholm, Autumn 2000, (Published in the “La Caixa Catalogue” 2001), < http://www.stromholm.com/texter/text_knape.html&gt;, [accessed 10th January 2013]

[12] Michael Hoppen Gallery, ‘Christer Stromholm’, <http://www.michaelhoppengallery.com/exhibition,upcoming,2,0,0,0,157,0,0,0,christer_str_mholm_.html>, [accessed 20th December 2012]

[13] Diane Arbus, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, <http://www.masters-of-photography.com/A/arbus/arbus_articles2.html&gt;, [ accessed 30th December 2012]

[14] Christer Strömholm, 1983, <http://www.agencevu.com/stories/index.php?id=783&p=150&gt;, [accessed 5th January 2013]

[15] ‘Place Blanche’,Christer Strömholm, date unknown, ‘Les Amies de Place Blanche’ <http://www.stromholm.com/bild/bilder/place-blance/0358.html&gt;, [accessed 20th December 2012]

[16] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, (Hill and Wang: New York, 1981)

[17] Knape, Interview with Christer Strömholm, < http://www.stromholm.com/texter/text_knape.html&gt;, [accessed 10th January 2013]

Bibliography

Books

Nadar, Photography Speaks: 150 Photographers on Their Art, ed. by Brooks Johnson, (Aperture Foundation, 2004)

Scott, Clive, Street Photography: From Atget to Cartier-Bresson, (I.B.Tauris, 2007)

Online Resources

Arbus, Diane, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, <http://www.masters-of-photography.com/A/arbus/arbus_articles2.html&gt;, [accessed 30th December 2012]

Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, (Hill and Wang: New York, 1981)

International Centre for Photography, ‘Christer Strömholm: Les Amies de Place Blanche’, <http://www.icp.org/museum/exhibitions/christer-stromholm-les-amies-de-place-blanche&gt;, [ accessed 5th January 2013]

Knape, Gunilla, Interview with Christer Strömholm, Autumn 2000, (Published in the “La Caixa Catalogue” 2001), < http://www.stromholm.com/texter/text_knape.html&gt;, [accessed 10th January 2013]

Michael Hoppen Gallery, ‘Christer Stromholm’, <http://www.michaelhoppengallery.com/exhibition,upcoming,2,0,0,0,157,0,0,0,christer_str_mholm_.html>, [accessed 20th December 2012]

Moderna Museet, ‘Arbus Penn and Strömholm in See The World!’, <http://www.modernamuseet.se/en/Moderna-Museet/PressRoom/Press-releases/Stockholm1/Arbus-Penn–Stromholm-in-See-the-World1/&gt;, [accessed 6th January 2013]

Nilsdotter, Anna, Christer Strömholm går igen, <http://www.stromholm.com/index2.htm&gt;, [accessed 20th November 2012]

Strömholm, Christer, ‘Opinions about the modern photography’, in Subjektive Fotografie, <http://www.modernamuseet.se/en/Stockholm/Exhibitions/2009/Reality-Revisited/Photographers/Christer-Stromholm/&gt;, [accessed 20th December 2012]

Stromholm, Christer, ‘Les Amies de Place Blanche’, <http://www.stromholm.com/index2.htm&gt;, [accessed 29th December 2012]

Strömholm, Christer, 1983, <http://www.agencevu.com/stories/index.php?id=783&p=150&gt;, [accessed 5th January 2013]

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