Christer wouldn’t probably have been that much without Paris. It was like a great love that he returned to all the time. – Joakim Strömholm
The best day is a day of thirst. An evening at the Pigalle funfair in the winter of 1955, and life just couldn’t get any better for this little guy who is standing firm on the wooden floor closest to the stage, absolutely mesmerised by the huge allure and the certain adult danger of the chanteuse in fishnet stockings and the high heels in front of him. And the rest of course is unspoken radiance as we barely see anything else of the woman.
Only once would the photographer behind this distinctive image provide the viewer with a title (but never an explanation) for his works – “See for yourself, think for yourself. I cannot help you,” was his watchword – for this adventurous garçon and his lust for life is not just any Gallic boy but a glorious young wish-version of the Swedish-born (and Francophile to the core) photography artist Christer Strömholm (1918–2002). Here’s looking at you, Little Christer.
“There is likely a lot of the grown-up Christer in Little Christer. Above all, curiosity, which he himself thought was one of his best traits. That’s what Christer is, curious and stubborn. This is the only picture he thought should have a title so people would really know that this is little Christer, even though it’s not him. But he saw himself in this. The wide-eyed little guy is well aware that this will take place every evening and that he can go there and watch a girl. This also has a lot to do with the adult Christer’s interest in women: five marriages, two long concubine relationships and I do not know how many mistresses.”
It would be obvious to anyone how present-tense here Christer Strömholm is to his oldest son Joakim Strömholm (who, for reasons of clarity, will be referred to as Joakim for the rest of this text). The reverence and the tenderness that he holds for his father, and the dedicated supervision of the Strömholm Estate, are the kinds of sentiments that any man could only dream of garnering for his old man.
By the way, we are in Christer Strömholm’s Stockholm home, a small but cosy downstairs abode with a darkroom and the bare essentials for living: books, books, books, photographs, magazines, his (often silly) keepsakes – Strömholm was a collector of memories and Joakim shows me a selection including Spielberg’s “Be good” Extra-Terrestrial, a bulldog with a name (Bosse) and a tacky thingy in yellow plastic which too was once loved – and a shelf of negatives supporting Strömholm’s astounding series of his transsexual friends in the 9th and 18th arrondissements, Les amies de Place Blanche, which he worked on from 1959 to 1968. (This is holy ground. I only allow myself to just touch some of these binders.)
“Look at all his pictures of children, they are just reflections of his own childhood. That’s lonely Christer, the abandoned Christer, but this is still the tough little kid who is out in the open, in the big world, and making it. Les quatre cents coups  with Jean-Pierre Léaud had not been made yet, but Antoine Doinel is exactly the kid he wanted to be, and with a little more confidence than Christer had when he was that age. All his children’s pictures are self-portraits, which he also claimed. You could say that Christer’s photography was one long kind of self-therapy.”
A weird sort of happenstance is that if you zoom in on the other youngster in Little Christer (just behind the little guy), you see a teenage mirror image of Antoine Doinel – this brash and yet so responsive main character in Truffaut’s masterpiece, whose single option in his tender life is to escape the disproportionate punishments of a world of harmful grownups. There’s a charming scene in The 400 Blows involving an audience of children much younger than Antoine (Antoine and his friends are lurking in the background) as they are watching a Punch and Judy show at the Jardin du Luxembourg. They are all screaming “Le loup! Le loup!”, startled and amused by the sight of the wolf behind the woman. Christer Strömholm loved the delights and the altogether poetry of this city. All in all, he lived in Paris for possibly thirty years of his life.
“In Paris, if you are not going to starve, you need a number of assets: an open mind, an ever-curious eye, a sharp ear, a hound’s nose, a fleet foot, and a certain contempt for private property – in short, the vagabond’s usual baggage,” argues Jean-Paul Clébert in his piecemeal novel Paris Vagabond (1952) in which he discovers the hidden corners of the capital among the poets, fools and bums.
“He had a vagabond in him that had to get out,” says Anna Nilsdotter who has co-curated Christer Strömholm – Portraits in Paris at Nationalmuseum in Stockholm together with husband Joakim Strömholm. The exhibition is a collection of one hundred and ninety portraits, mostly never presented before and mostly showing the artists of the era (the big names and the forgotten ones) and cultural figures, but also portraits of the city itself.
There is an amatory picture of a sassy couple in which the woman rests her head on the man’s shoulder at La Méthode in 1961 – Strömholm conveniently lived on the floor above the bar, it’s the window on the right in the picture of the Hôtel de la Montagne with a 2CV parked outside (1956), the same room that Paul Andersson (a Swedish Rimbaud) had been residing in during his time in Paris – and it is the one photograph in the exhibition that has anything at all to do with the romanticism we know from another master, Doisneau.
Christer Strömholm’s Paris was more in the vein of the passageways (the real ones and the symbolical ones) and the offbeat poetry that Clébert is hankering after in his novel: “Leisurely strolls quite obviously (and fortunately) unknown to the tourist trade, for there is nothing to see on these routes except for poetry in the rough, which paying travellers would never appreciate: the poetry of […] workshops, still vacant lots, bowling alleys, bistros-cum-refreshment stands; the poetry of colours but also of smells, a different smell for every doorway. Serpentine itineraries winding on endlessly, interminable itineraries open to anyone who knows how to wander and how to look, who has the nerve to go through portes cochères.”
Joakim explains that Strömholm was “very determined about what was what, and he said that there are only four hundred pictures in a photographer’s life that are good. He very much trusted his immediate surroundings, that is to say his printers and assistants. They could rummage around with the negatives, which was great fun for him since they came out with a new classic.” The classics from Pigalle’s curious fair festivities and of his transsexual friends, pictures that made a whole generation of Swedes discover Christer Strömholm when they were published galore in ETC magazine in the early 1980s, are not on show at Nationalmuseum because this is the place where the goodness continues with other expressions of Strömholm.
Blaise Cendrars claimed that he could spend a full life contemplating the Seine flow by since the watercourse alone was “a poem of Paris”. Pages 35–41 in the exhibition catalogue make up one perspicacious sequence of hardcore early-50s Christer Strömholm: pictures terse and full of meaning, substance and gist – the uncertain beauty of two blocks of ice thawing outside the entrance to a bar, making the trottoir look like a bloody crime scene; carefree children at play under the pitfalls of life; two painted young lovers and their giggle as they bend over to eyeball the aspects of a naked woman in another painting; a streamlined car mystified by mere shapes of darkness and light; old Parisians who have found out new beginnings since the city is theirs again (and they are elegant), and rue Bernard Palissy where the street is narrow and the walls are loud with letters.
In the introduction to his translation of Po Chü-I’s poems, David Hinton elucidates that “In Ch’an [Zen Buddhist] practice, the self and its constructions of the world are dissolved away until nothing remains but empty mind or ‘no-mind’. This empty mind is often spoken of as mirroring the world, leaving its ten thousand things utterly simple, utterly themselves, and utterly sufficient.” Strömholm’s art is utterly an offspring of these three features.
In the exhibition’s “Christer Room” (designed by Anna Nilsdotter who never had the pleasure to meet her father-in-law), on the left to Strömholm’s Hermes Baby typewriter and his collection of pipes, paintbrushes, a Leica and other tools and belongings, is a little stylised shelf of two literature genres that both reflect Strömholm’s nature: Mickey Spillane and Winnie-the-Pooh. He was an ardent student of Buddhist writings and similarly adored Pooh’s philosophy, kindness and thoughtfulness. Spillane is arguably a remnant of Strömholm’s murky bloodlust youth, which would lead to dire consequences. And like Hammer he wasn’t always sure back then what he was rebelling against.
Christer Strömholm continued to surround himself with the most expensive art supplies years after his wishful career as a painter had come to nothing and when he indeed had established himself as a photographer in Paris. A main body in the exhibition are the many important images of artists, and the most interesting ones are those from their studios (which sometimes meant hotel rooms). “In Christer’s artist portraits there is a clear consistency as with all of his work, a density in the composition, a proficiency and a lack of affectations, which means that they possess a rare ability not to look obsolete,” declares Christian Caujolle in his catalogue text. “Encounters, eclecticism, photographic curiosity and a lack of systematic form distinguish these studio images which today are both valuable documents and witnesses of a time, freed from the nostalgia that colours most French photographers’ images from the same era.”
Nilsdotter is of the same mind: “Even if time has brought out a mystery about certain images, they still feel as if they were taken in the present, you can recognise yourself in them. This is the Tunisian artist Hatem El Mekki who became a close friend of Christer Strömholm’s,” she says referring to a large print of one of the finest pictures in the exhibition (taken in 1949) and the contact sheet it belongs to. “This series was taken with a medium-format camera that produces 6 x 6 negatives. Back then Christer wanted to remove everything that could disturb the images and he cropped them very drastically, but over time the objects have become very charged and have acquired a historical, magical value that provides the images with an exciting atmosphere. And it turned out that Christer had an eye for life drawing and the model does not feel naked but more like an icon for the artist.”
It was a young dynamo, polyglot and journalist who propelled Christer Strömholm into a career as a camera portraitist of the cultural beau monde in Paris for a few years, and it started in the late 1940s. “Christer told me that the crucial thing wasn’t really that they would get a good picture of the interviewee who they visited, but to produce a picture of Louis Wiznitzer along with the interviewee when they sent the material to Brazil. The mystery is also that there were 6 x 6 rolls that he sent away but that he also had his Leica with him and took some pictures unofficially, and luckily these are the negatives that we have. Christer has never published more than a few of these pictures,” explains Joakim.
And as Nilsdotter adds, “At that time, photographs did not have much of value for newspapers, many were actually thrown in the trash when they were published. Christer sent film rolls along with the article, and received his money straightaway, and then a lot of his pictures disappeared. We visited the Fondation Le Corbusier in Maison La Roche and there was a Brazilian secretary who tipped us about search engines to look in Brazil’s National Archives. Christer had published around fifty articles with Wiznitzer and it was incredible to see this journalist along with all the greats from Hitchcock to Jean Genet. The one who received the photo credit was not Christer but the airline that had delivered the pictures.”
Joakim says that “Christer was very proud of his portrait of [François] Mauriac and it has been in many exhibitions. I found pictures where he has been upstairs and photographed the entire workplace so this is evidently how Mauriac lived.” The portrait is most likely from 1951. The French author and future Nobel Prize laureate looks straight into the camera in a stately fashion and it is beyond obvious that Strömholm was born to be an imagemaker. He is already there, with all of his senses, photographing the essence of people that he did not know who they were.
Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Le Corbusier were three artists who really made an impact on Strömholm. (Many others were introduced to him by his friend Pontus Hultén who was the founding director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm.) His 1951 portrait of Le Corbusier is perfection. This is a painter’s treatment of the light – Strömholm only ever used natural light at all times: Le Corbusier is standing outside his rue de Sèvres studio, framed in a square within a square by two open windows; his trademark round glasses, bowtie and double-breasted suit, hand in pocket. Mind you, this is the man who wanted to rake all the beauty out of Stockholm. And still, the portrait of him is exceptional to the degree that you even lose sight of how miserable the corridor looks. It is like when Beauty floats through Beast’s hallway in Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946) with the flickering white voile curtains and the wall with the two human hands holding candelabrums, the magic of great artists.
Strömholm believed that it is your experience alone that will decide what you will see in his works, which Joakim illustrates with an episode that took place in the exhibition: “At Nationalmuseum there is a picture now of a ‘shroud’ and then there is a registration number underneath, 2102 MY75 – something that people take as somewhat very spiritual because it is together with other forms, homeless images that are just signs and traces. One person asked me why there are no titles on the works and I replied that then the pictures would be ruined for you. What he saw as a burial sheet is a blanket over a car engine. It is important to keep that secret, that you have to do a bit of guesswork.” The whole thing rises like a crimped Renaissance sculpture.
Christer Strömholm was drawn to what was a bit forbidden and off the charts; call it anomalous, call it interesting. In 1965, the NK department store in Stockholm put the pictures of his transsexual noctambules around Place Blanche on show, much to the customers’ chagrin. And the following year, the Stockholmers were exposed to his death pictures at Galleri Observatorium. “The most famous of his death pictures are his grave pictures, and the one that we have included in the exhibition is the one with the large hole in the gravestone. The dead person has run off, he has escaped, no doubt about that,” says Joakim.
There is another death picture in Christer Strömholm – Portraits in Paris whose meaning is of even greater importance. It calls to mind how the head of Christ in Leonardo’s mural The Last Supper (conceived in the late 1400s) was used by Napoleon’s soldiers for target shooting. It is a photograph of a painting leaning against a wall and the man in the portrait has a sinister hole in his head. “He was very much engaged in using other people’s artwork and redoing it into his own image so that we would not forget what others have seen,” tells Joakim. “He photographed his good and bad memories. The picture that is in the first room with the gunshot in the forehead, he said that it was about his father, even though the father shot himself in the heart.”
Strömholm’s errant and unruly youth is a reason enough to holler “Le loup! Le loup!” Joakim talks about his father’s lostness and taste for extremes during his juvenile years, how he was “like a donkey between two wisps of hay”: “A guy who was twelve years old in 1930, who made sure to get himself a free pass to the Stockholm Exhibition, sold Mayflowers [a pin vended by Swedish schoolkids for charity] and became a survivor who boasted about it in his letters to his father, which his father ignored. I think that he became damn bitter, and as a classic protest befriended all sorts of bad people in the 1930s and joined a lot of Nazi crap. He thought that they had much better activities than the Scouts, and they may not have understood what would really materialise a few years later. I would think that it was with Woldemar Winkler [his first art teacher in Dresden in 1937] that his eyes were opened.”
There are three framed pictures in Strömholm’s old home in Stockholm’s Södermalm area that grab my attention. The first one is a photo of Joakim as a little boy in the arms of his father. The second is taken by Joakim, it’s his portrait of Brigitte Bardot from 1972 when he was her driver for a few weeks when Vadim filmed parts of Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman … (1973) in Uppsala, seventy kilometres north of Stockholm. And then there is The Pale Lady (Strömholm’s absolutely vital printers had their own working titles for his pictures), a lithography of a flawless print of the cake-faced Barcelona bordello madam of 1959. This was the difficult picture that Strömholm put his darkroom slaves to test with and the perfect prints are rare.
The Pale Lady crowns the small corner with a sloping ceiling where we are parked at a small table for the interview. It is here where Christer Strömholm and his lady friend, actress Ingalill Rydberg, eat chicken and chocolate one Saturday evening in the early 1990s while they are having a really good time. She asks him why he has moved the bed – the reply: “I can’t sleep at the same place each time” – then describes her longstanding infatuation to the viewers: “Christer is a true anarchist. He constantly creates new order. And this is in some way valid on all levels. He radiates a kind of security and contact with everything that is dangerous, unknown and tricky. There is an aura of adventure around Christer.”
Above scene is a few minutes from Joakim Strömholm’s documentary on his father, Blunda och se (Close Your Eyes and See), which was televised in 1996. Strömholm’s reticent nature is even reflected in this moving of the bed – and, in addition, a desire to stir up more continuity errors for the filmmaker. “There were just challenges all the time and he was fucking with us just for a laugh. Then three years later when I had cut down fifty hours to four and a half, he comes saying: ‘Was that all?’ He was still not tired of himself, he never tires [the present tense again]. This brought us a lot closer to each other. His challenging ways was a lot of his pedagogy,” says Joakim with a twinkle in his voice. “Our relationship and his way of stimulating me was a bit like that, affectionate and ironic.”
The film is a game of cat and mouse and all the kinds of questions that Strömholm could never ask his father are here surveyed by his own son, who calls him “my postcard dad”. There was another reason for making this documentary. In 1984 a film was made in which Strömholm “is just playing games, the stuff you would expect, it wasn’t genuine. He said the same things in all interviews, he had his readymade phrases. I was so pissed at that film – that is not Christer Strömholm.” In 1988, Strömholm agreed to talk in front of a home video camera to leave a viable recording of himself for his three grandchildren, his other son Jakob had just got his second one. And besides, Strömholm’s speech was worsening after his stroke. The four and a half hours were pretty good, and when Joakim suggested a real piece, Strömholm replied: “You do that … if you dare!”
The postcards that Joakim received every week depicted art and culture of worlds unknown to him. The day that he was born, his father was away in in Tunisia. He was always away. Strömholm had brushes with the law, he thought his boy stank of rotten diapers and though he had no idea why he ended up in Paris, he said that it was the obvious place for him. Joakim explains that “There was a bit of escape in his behaviour, very often during this time. He was worried, they had done things during the war. There was always a bat, a knife or possibly a gun nearby so that he could defend himself if needed. However, that was not why he went to Paris but because it was nicer to live there than in Stockholm. Especially in the 1950s, which was the most important period of his life, I think, when he became a photographer.”
All through his life, Strömholm was fuelled by his need for pedantry (for instance, packing a car for the next trip meant days of preparation and repeated rehearsals till people just shook their heads). “He was ever so militarily interested and there was a military order for everything. All his camera bags were specially made by saddle makers and tailors who sewed holsters for him – it was more like weapons, where he could have a camera body in one armpit and a lens in the other. Belts he had as many as possible, everything in military green. He was completely manic about that.”
As a young man this mania led to confrontation with the Russian Army in the Winter War of 39/40 in Finland, and hush-hush Resistance engagements in Norway and Spain – he had got himself some new friends – and especially in Stockholm years after the war where quislings were executed in drive-by shootings. “They were doing different kinds of agent activities that contained as much tall tales as truth. Christer loved myths and welcomed new myths about himself – if they carried on, they just got better and better. And in all this was a bit of what they were up to during the war: disinformation. That was very important. There were many problems with the Swedish Security Service, and if you go to the National Archives you can read about all the bloody stupid things that he was engrossed in before he became a photographer.”
In the real documentary there is a short father–son conversation about this particular time in Stockholm in 1947 that is as hilarious as it is wretched – JS: “Did you drive hand grenades in my stroller?” CS: “No, it was probably a little surplus ammunition that we tried to get away with that lay in your stroller.” JS: “Where did I lie?” CS: “On top of it, of course!” JS: “‘Thank you’.”
It was Anna Nilsdotter’s idea to dedicate Christer Strömholm – Portraits in Paris to Strömholm’s mother Lizzie Clason. There are two pictures from 1938 in the exhibition: one that shows his mother at the Piazza San Marco in Venice and the other Strömholm’s one true educator with his back against the camera, a shadowy figure by his easel in the company of a chimerical white horse in Arles, and the handling of the daylight is quite fantastic. The painter Dick Beer died in June that year, he was only forty-five, but his teachings about life, philosophy, language learning and his understanding of the light were instrumental to Strömholm. The other saviour was his wealthy mother who supplied him with the money needed for a maverick life that would turn into something extraordinary.
Strömholm’s first sniff of the perturbing actualities of the Third Reich happened at Woldemar Winkler’s art school when he was nineteen years old. In a letter to mamma (dated April 6, 1937) he describes what is going on by taking the state-approved life drawing classes as an example of the absurdities: “All this Heil Hitlering every other minute is driving me crazy. As soon as someone opens the door, everyone (even the model) shouts HH. The result is that the model’s shadow changes and one is unpleasantly awakened to life and reality.”
After quitting Dresden, he did a bit of travelling and it was then that Strömholm fell in love with Paris on a grand scale, however then of course a global war was in the making. Before the outbreak of WWII, Strömholm’s journeying was vivid and what he registered made him shun the dominant isms that made the world fall apart. He made sure to obtain some thorough art schooling in Stockholm as the war was raging everywhere else.
Strömholm moved to Paris when “Paris was the place”, shortly before his second wife Dagny was giving birth to Joakim, and he didn’t move back to Stockholm again until 1956. “I think that he arrived there during a very good moment in life – young and hungry, Paris was as most creative in the late 40s, and he had matured a lot after the war with all the experiences that he had gained,” says Joakim. In 1948, Strömholm was enrolled at the Académie des Beaux-Arts (where he domesticated himself until he took on further art studies in Florence in 1952 and onwards). It became apparent that the popular areas of the Paris Academy “belonged” to the French students, or so they acted, and he began to explore the premises all by himself:
“This stupefying institution piqued my curiosity. The whole thing was like behind the scenes at the Opera – half the place was empty! When you would sense a fellow human being, the next glance revealed that it was just another marble statue. In desolate halls and dark corners there were these marble arses and big-eyed busts with chisel cuts in their pupils,” Strömholm told Timo Sundberg in 1986 (and this helpful interview is printed in the catalogue).
The explorer from Stockholm found a Dutch friend and they ensconced themselves in a remote room at the Académie. “The second day we put our names on the door. We were doing fine in our room and thought, ‘Why not occupy the next room too?’ There were all the graphic presses, they were abandoned and dusty but since we lived among them it was not many days before they came into use. To some extent they contributed to our livelihood.” This was also his first encounter with a large-format camera which too was put into service, Strömholm-style.
“Everyone has two homelands – his own and France,” he wrote to his mother. Paris and the perched little village Fox-Amphoux in Provence were the two places where Strömholm lived when he wasn’t travelling. (He said that Fox was the place where he could be himself.) His contact with the German group Fotoform was good for Strömholm in the sense that it made him realise that photography is about something else than what he was trying to achieve in the art schools. The other thing was an understanding that he had to be a present narrator with the pictures that he made with his cameras.
Just listen to Strömholm when he speaks with much consideration in the documentary: “I think that you could say that the most important thing about photography and photographic image is personal responsibility. I think that life is possible to explore with the help of image. Without participating in life, you never get pictures. You cannot walk around and photograph other people’s experiences. You have to have your own experiences. You have to be there yourself, with all your senses.”
A day in Paris, at least during the days when Strömholm had set himself up in his room at the Hôtel de la Montagne, began a couple of hours after noon. Strömholm told Sundberg that during this period he “also learned the swiftness with the camera. I had it constantly with me. Everyone recognised me, they saw that the camera was hanging by my side all the time. During all these years I never encountered any problem when I wanted to photograph something. It was obvious that we photographers worked. The camera was always in order, the film advanced, the distance set at three meters, the shutter speed at a thirtieth of a second and I constantly fingered on the aperture ring, kept myself à jour with the light. When a moment affects you, there is no time for doubt.”
Such a moment was the dead dog in Tarragona in 1959. It was the picture that Strömholm regarded as the new step in what was possible to achieve with the camera as his tool, and it is the picture on the cover of his photobook Poste Restante that came out in 1967. The second Strömholm spotted the animal (or what was left of it) lying by the roadside, he slammed on the brakes. His new wife, and the mother of Jakob, was in the car. Anna-Clara was a flight attendant and thanks to her occupation Strömholm was able to travel vast distances. In Stockholm he supported himself by odd-job employments and one of them would lead to the formation of Strömholm’s legendary Photo School in 1962, with himself as the guru headmaster for the next twelve years and his colleague Tor-Ivan Odulf as the school’s extroverted aide-de-camp.
“Those inspired by Christer’s world of imagery were also stimulated by his lifestyle,” writes Johan Tell in the main text to Post Scriptum – which should be regarded as the major publication on Christer Strömholm, issued by Max Ström publishing house in 2012 – and this book was made by Joakim Strömholm and designed by Patric Leo in tandem with that year’s CHR exhibition at Fotografiska in Stockholm. “Despite the tall tales, the theoretical base at the college was thorough. Christer’s ability to break down complicated contexts to concise and categorical observations created a guideline format for his students. The three recurring principles were: Responsibility – take personal responsibility for the truth of the image; Insight – dare to draw conclusions from experiences; Presence – be aware of feelings, experiences and imagination.”
When I met Strömholm’s most famous student and lifelong friend in the summer of 2019 for an interview, Anders Petersen was describing some of the magic that took place at the Klippgatan 19C address, as they gathered around their teacher “and he initially just talked about his photography. This was not a man of many words, he was more Hemingwayan. It was short sentences and his stories were more like statements in which he mentioned what he had done. And his presence on the scene was … yes, it was electric in some way. We were quite smitten. Especially when you saw his pictures from Poste Restante which is a fantastic collection that tells a lot about his life and upbringing and about his fears. And he shared this with us, briefly and distinctly.”
“He wanted to be a little master who sat there and shared the tricks of life. It was not so much about how to hold the camera. It was more about how you might be able to take the train for free or to dine and dash or to run away from a hotel bill. When the film Myglaren came out [in 1966 with Strömholm playing the Wheeler Dealer], everyone said that it was just right for Christer. But then he had his real-life experience: to know beforehand what will come to pass. He had an incredible observation ability, much remained of the secrets from the war,” explains Joakim.
“At the Photo School he could tell the students that among the eighty, only two would become photographers. And the next day many had given up. He just tore up prints right under the nose of people and told them that they were crap. But most of them who made an effort to produce even better prints actually became photographers. His pedagogy was very brutal, but very useful and as close to reality as one could just come.”
Joakim has been to Paris at least once a year since 1964, when he arrived there for the very first time with a guide certificate and a group of thirty tourists in tow. His father gave him a map of Paris and drew a circle around the Pigalle district, and that was that. For that summer and the next, Strömholm’s teenage son brought groups of tourists back and forth between Copenhagen’s Central Station and Gare du Nord. “We came down to Paris at seven in the morning and Christer met us. And then we guided each group around for a week in a lot of different places. It was Moulin Rouge, bars and catacombs. Christer places? Absolutely.”
“Christer couldn’t make money on selling pictures. He asked me a lot of times how the hell I was able to survive as a photographer. We had great use of each other,” says Joakim. “Christer was in Paris during the entire 1970s, and was not so talked about here at home. And not so popular either, after the school had been terminated. Everything in Sweden became so political and he was as apolitical as anyone could be. Poste Restante came out and that was enough for a while. Later the death pictures went on tour, but then nothing really happened until Lasse Hall at Camera Obscura [the long-gone photo gallery at Kåkbrinken 5 in the Old Town] exhibited him in 1978.”
“I think that Christer felt that he pretty much got his needed break from pupils, student revolts, all kinds of left-wing movements, the Vietnam War – he got so much war in his face! He had been there for so many people, and then they stabbed him in the back. He got tired of everything and just took off. And then he met Angelica [Julner] who was a good artist and photographer, and he was given the opportunity to start assembling all those collected objects – the objects without value, he called them – and photographed them with the help of accomplished studio photographers.”
In the late 1970s you could buy an Irving Penn print for a few hundred dollars. As a consequence of photography’s low market value and down-the-ladder status in the art world, Strömholm declared (stubborn as he was) that his pictures were not photographs anymore but art. When Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm – which was then a separate department at Moderna Museet (and not to be confused with the venue where the CHR exhibition was shown in 2012) – wished to make a presentation of Strömholm’s work in 1986, he let them understand that this would only happen in Moderna’s name. 9 Seconds of My Life, Photographs 1939–86 consisted of two hundred and fifty prints that filled up much of the national Museum of Modern Art.
A Swedish woman with an Edward Scissorhand of paintbrushes is posing in a series of pictures from 1949 at the Académie André Lhote in Montparnasse (where Strömholm too had been a student). “I think that there is a nice atmosphere in the picture of Gunnel Heineman,” says Anna Nilsdotter. “This was an assignment for [Swedish daily] Dagens Nyheter and it is quite amusing because we have printed the whole article, and it says: ‘What would the artist colony be without cute painter girls?’ And that was the spirit of the time – they were like jewellery.”
The curators behind Christer Strömholm – Portraits in Paris met Heineman in 2015 after she had sold a number of these “Christer Christian” pictures to an auction house in Stockholm – where the best one in the series was picked up by Magnus Olausson at Nationalmuseum, who then contacted the Strömholm Estate to see if there were more of these artists pictures from Paris. He had already seen a clutch of these works in the autumn of 2013 at the Institut suédois, where Nilsdotter used to work, without giving that exhibition much thought.
“We showed him the pictures. He replied that he would like to do this for real, at Nationamuseum after the redevelopment was completed , which meant that Anna’s idea of making a small exhibition at the Institut suédois suddenly jumped into something huge,” explains Joakim. “Anna and I started working properly in 2017. We looked through every damn box and we had to figure out who was who and who had done what. We got to know a lot of artists in Paris and one thing led to another. We met Daniel Spoerri. He was very happy and we understood how much the period with Christer had meant to him.”
With a background as a picture editor for many years, and as a sideman in a number of films, Nationalmuseum became a playground for Joakim when this exhibition began to materialise with a true touch of mid-century Rive Gauche, assisted by a bunch of floor symbols of dogs that point the way through the exhibition (and as a reminder of the seven tonnes of caca they leave on the streets of Paris every day). “It was one of my first thoughts when I saw how big that space was, ‘Now I can finally build streets!’ I love to come up with picture ideas and I wanted to build these alleys so that you would feel how narrow it was. These pictures are chronologically correct. It was so fun to do the enlarged wall pictures, the view from the hotel room and Christer on the bed in natural size. It is believed that the woman who looks out of the window is a singer in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.”
“I panicked when I entered that room when it was empty,” he continues. “I had only seen it in connection with a lot of exhibitions. We had drawn the whole room on the computer, and before the opening the room looked so large. Without our scenographer Joakim Werning, it would have been much more difficult. He was involved in creating these spaces, the rhythm and the colours.” (This minor commotion aside, the curators were readily prepared with a few possible pictures to add and several larger prints which had been made in advance.)
Christer Strömholm – Portraits in Paris is an exhibition that enchants, elates, takes you back to a dirty, scruffy centre of the world where things looked very different and occasionally so much better. And in the end and by more than just implication, this is a portrait of the great man himself.
Twenty-six days before Christer Strömholm passed away on January 11, 2002, Le Monde published a piece about him headlined “Christer Strömholm, le grand suédois” in which Michel Guerrin called him “one of the greatest living photographers, one of the freest in his research”. Strömholm could die happy for a number of reasons besides a life of pictures that would have been impossible for anyone else to create or recreate. In 1993 he was appointed Professor of Photography by the Swedish government and in 1998 he received the Hasselblad Award.
From Cartier-Bresson he had personally learned to closely observe his contact sheets, to study his movements and choices behind each picture in a series, and to always improve from that. The Strömholm photograph that his sons chose for the funeral card however was a picture that was composed to perfection with just three frames. Strömholm was driving from Stockholm to France that day and was out to set his old speed record and no longer breaks than fifteen minutes were allowed. That is until he spotted the black Cadillac sprinkled with fallen white flowers outside Lyon and stopped with a screech because here was a picture that had to be made.
Christer Strömholm – Portraits in Paris at Nationalmuseum in Stockholm through January 8, 2023.