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Best Regards, Christer Strömholm

They are heirs to a time in suspension, and their images continue to enrich the world history of photography and our own impatient eyes. Blind shares the memories of some magical encounters with these virtuosos of the camera, soloists in black & white or in color, artists faithful to gelatin silver photography or bewitched by digital technologies. Today: Christer Strömholm, the underside of life.

Because my flight arrived late, I ran breathlessly through the Stockholm airport to catch the connection to Höganäs, Christer Strömholm’s hometown. 

It was in September 1992, ten years before his death on January 11, 2002. He was waiting for me at the airport, from where we drove quietly in his Volvo to his house-slash-workshop, with a quick stop at a Viking, one of the three supermarkets in Höganäs, to pick up nothing but desserts: nougat ice cream and plain yoghurt. 

It was my first meeting with Strömholm. I had been fascinated by his pictures, especially the one of the woman’s head covered with the hair clips, taken in Santa Monica in 1963, which encapsulated the sixties with their exaggerated hairdos. In November that year, he’d had an exhibition at the Swedish Cultural Center (SCC) in Paris—a magical, openminded place—and the CCS had worked to make the meeting possible. I was through the roof. 

The upstairs guest room had many art books (Degas, Wols) and a handful of photography books: this was lucky, because I didn’t have much to do. Whenever we crossed paths at his house in the evening—me a little worried about the passage of time, but reluctant to rush him—he would repeat: “Yes, yes, we’ll talk tomorrow.” 

One day, a poet showed up at the door, then dropped to his knees and offered me a bouquet of flowers. Another day, a librarian invited me to a lunch at a pizza place. On other days, I hung out at the seaside, where I watched, intrigued, the incessant, nonchalant ballet of his Volvo, which I imagined endlessly rolling along until it ran out of gas. Höganäs seemed empty during that season: a landscape awaiting the sun.

Strömholm was a man with an impressive physique, as if sculpted by Rodin. He was a night owl, and I could hear him walking slowly, like a barn owl in an attic. He used a cane for support, having been released from the hospital shortly before we met. It wasn’t until the eve of my departure that he declared himself ready for the interview. His surreal studio was illuminated by ubiquitous candles. He spoke to me with confidence, as if we were to meet again. I liked his courtesy and was amazed by everything he told me. When I returned to Paris, I understood the effort he had made to host me during his convalescence. 

I’m not sure whether all photographers are like their photographs, maybe that’s just something one says. But he was. He truly loved mystery, and his photography, as a whole, seems to be a confrontation with the mystery of art, of death, of love, of dreams, etc. His enigmatic photographs offer no answers: Strömholm never tried to explain. And even less to seduce. Everyone is free to interpret the twists and turns of the world he crisscrossed with curiosity, of the reality to which he lent something not quite naturally supernatural. This is how his photographs became his roots, his inner experience, his avowed resistance to convention, his shield: he was an intractable man.

WORK / WORK / WORK: the word, written in capital letters and repeated three times, was one of his maxims, one that suited this man of the present, who had been a lonely child (“a real little horror,” according to his nanny) preferring to play with his dog Bob, “a snarling bulldog,” than with his friends. We didn’t talk about his childhood that evening, a subject too intimate, but I discovered at one of his exhibitions in France, thanks to a wonderful documentary made by his son Joakim Strömholm, Blunda och Se [Close Your Eyes and See] (1996), and through the journals he had given me. 

One of these journals printed a picture of Strömholm’s mother, Lizzie, born in Gothenburg in 1885: a hand-colored portrait, tinged with nostalgia. He had found it when she died, tucked into a copy of the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet (year 1908) and locked away in a metal box. The mother could be seen wearing a very tall red hat and a striped jacket in subdued colors. 

His father, an officer from an upper middle-class family, had shot himself in the heart in 1934 with his service weapon. Three years later, on April 18, 1937, Christer Strömholm, aged 19, arrived in Paris, “a city that, more than any other, had shaped my life. […] I had begun to take an interest in images and the concept of freedom, but I was still a young snob dressed in tailored suits.” 

The dandy would vanish in 1939, when the Finnish army enlisted him as a tank commander. After the Second World War, he moved to Paris and traveled back and forth to Sweden. By his own admission, that’s when he seriously took up photography: first as a photographer, then as director of the first photo school at the University of Stockholm, so-called Fotoskolan, founded in 1962 with Tor-Ivan Odulf, the author of the preface to Poste restante (Strömholm’s cult book published in 1967).

He headed the school until 1974, instilling in 1,200 students of twenty-eight nationalities the precept that “seeing is a duty” (“voir est un devoir”): “Photographs are created inside the photographer’s head, never inside the camera.”

Fond of quoting August Sander (“he tried to do his job with irony”) and Otto Steinert (1915–1978), the father of subjective photography, Strömholm was a rigorous photographer, using, first, a Rolleiflex (his early photos, in the 1930s) then a Leica (taking portraits of artists, including Alexander Calder in Auxerre, in 1963!) and a Polaroid camera (to create bizarre collages).

Rigorous, even while destabilizing his own frontal vision, mixing death and life, suffering and joy, he was like no other. His photographs always showed the underside of life: the incoherence of the past; the plurality of love; the vertigo of coincidence; the chaos of creativity. And the shadows that follow us here and there, obstinately, like a dog without a master.

After my stay in Höganäs, I never saw Christer Strömholm again. His memory accompanies me, maybe even his ghost. He belongs for eternity to the Paris I love: to Pigalle with its snake charmer and the male-females Gina, Jacqueline, Nana, Cobra, Marie-José, Les Amies de la Place Blanche, whose names he recited with fervor, eyes closed, in a singsong voice. 

Strömholm: the one who transformed a ruin in Fox-Amphoux, Provence, into a modern country house (water, electricity, dark room!), a house close to the subtle abode made of junk by the brilliant Louis Pons (1927–2021) in Sillans-la-Cascade. 

Strömholm: the one who could decipher the language of stones in Draguignan or Tangier. Strömholm: the one who was immortalized in 1995 by Tuija Lindström (1950–2017): sleeping, at Fox-Amphoux, under a mosquito net like a baby in a crib. The portrait is a very chaste (and very beautiful) nude, in which the photographer’s sculpted body appears peaceful, as if tempered by the southern heat. 

Christer Strömholm (1918–1992) was for a long time a photographer little known in Europe, as attested by William Messer in issue 33 of the Belgian magazine Clichés, published in February 1987. The title of Messer’s contribution: “La reconnaissance, enfin” [“Recognition, at last”]. “I don’t want to be mummified alive,” the photographer said to me as he was filing some black-and-white prints into cardboard boxes under a backlit table.

One of Blind’s favorites among Christer Strömholm’s books: In Memory of Himself/ In the Eyes of His Beholders, Steidl. Louis Pons Retrospective, in Nice (until February 26, 2023), then in Marseille (from March 25 to September 3, 2023.

Cover photo credit : ©JoakimStrömholm

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