Carl-Mikael Ström, Montöristen

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Void Publishing (here). Softcover with open spine and silk-screened cloth dust jacket (available in two different colors); 172 pages with 80 photographs in color and black-and-white, and two-double-spread fold-out pages; 5.5 x 7.75 inches. Includes English text fragments written by Carl-Mikael Ström. Designed by João Linneu. (Cover and spread shots below).

Comments/Context: Halfway through Carl-Mikael Ström’s first book, Montöristen, is a photograph of rocks encircling a cavernous opening filled with water. Looking down onto this barren, tightly framed surface, where sharp sunlight and deep shadows abstract more than they reveal, you might experience the limits of language: that words can never fully grasp what your eyes see, and what your mind imagines. How do you describe a landscape whose source of life is pushing inward, and whose actual bearings are invisible?

This sense of mute perplexity, ranging from bewilderment, wonder, and awe, to the occasional, at times, threatening air of death, is common in most images included in Montöristen. Developed during the past five-and-a-half years, the project began to take shape in 2015, when Ström’s then-partner was pregnant with their son. For the Swedish artist, pregnancy was an abstract process “which didn’t become real” until his son was born and Ström held him for the first time. Facing “the immensity of birth” and the responsibilities of becoming a father, an entirely different set of questions and doubts, most potently concerning himself, began to emerge. “Since almost everything in my life changed during this period, so did my writing and imagery. Not being able to work the way I was used to, I was forced to look in other directions, to create in new ways.”

Considering the scarcity of male accounts coping with fatherhood, Ström’s 172 pages, uniting text and images that attest to an emotional rollercoaster, are promising, both in scope and premise. Visually, this up-and-down of contradictory feelings is captured in a series of monochrome and color photographs. Taken between 2013 and 2018, and in a variety of places across Denmark, Finland, France, and Sweden, they show portraits of Ström’s pregnant partner, his son, himself, and other men and women. They show landscapes, fields, and forests, sometimes with, sometimes without, people. There are horses and fish, an animal’s skull, and assorted close-ups of arbitrary, yet evocative surfaces – recalling trees, plants, and rocks, or entirely abstract patterns, in which every now and then a human limb, face, or feature appears. Ranging from double-spread-fold-outs, full-bleed single pages, down to the size of a cigarette pack, most photographs were manually manipulated with, what I assume, includes paint, chemicals, inversions, and multiple exposures. In this way, Ström’s images experiment aesthetically with the realm of the surreal and distill the emotional chaos they simultaneously evoke and reflect. They are powerful because they succinctly balance and invert moments of fear, joy, and forceful hope, most poignantly (and movingly) captured in a black-and-white close-up of his son’s face emerging from of his mother’s womb during labor.

Montöristen’s other defining element – the one I struggle with, despite its beautiful design – are Ström’s texts, or rather text fragments. Taken from a 1700-page journal that he wrote during the first year of his son’s life (and which he originally planned to include as whole), Ström selected about 200 pages:

“I looked through [the remaining body of work] quickly and marked what I felt had a notion or trace of something that felt either important, useless, honest or hurting. I kept the manuscript with me, and I let it rest, read in it from time to time, and let it tell me what should stay.”

In May 2017, after approximately two years of repeated editing and sequencing (and twelve maquettes), Ström had also blocked out a few words on a page of his text draft, scanned it, and then traveled to Lisbon to meet his graphic designer João Linneu, from Void (the book’s publisher). After printing the entire manuscript, Ström sat down, and within an hour had made his final edit, using a black marker to block-out more text. Feeling, that by removing, he was actually revealing, and providing the viewer with a more honest reading experience, his remaining text and editing process is reproduced in the book. Alternating with, and at times joined by, Ström’s images, his text fragments are set on black pages in white type, or white pages in black type.

In them, Ström struggles with loneliness, “indifference”, “resistance”, “acceptance”, and “failure” or the fear of failing. He does not want to eat or drink, but eventually does; he remembers and reminisces (somewhere, sometime, somebody seems to have lost their virginity); he looks out of the window (dust is ever present and it seems to be raining a lot); he is present, but wants to disappear – although it is not quite clear from whom or what, and where to. There are a lot of “hands”, “eyes”, and “couples”, and many moments of “silence”.  We also learn that he has “never seen” his “own shadow with disgust” and that “The thought of self is a contradiction” (and while I would love to read why, the reasoning behind these, and many other, thoughts, remains a mystery).

There is a lot to be said for verbal rawness, lack of narrative, and well-placed leaps of grammar, especially when they aim to drive complex feelings and a shifting state of mind. But Ström’s words – the ways in which they align and create new meaning – often hive into repetition, and his metaphors and similes can be unfortunate (“Lungs drowning in a wish well – Drowning in the saliva of your denial of intimidation”). What I  miss in his writing is the same sense of deliberateness and emotional urgency that he conveys in and through his photographs.

However, there are a few moments that punctuate this overwhelming performance of utterance. For instance, when Ström writes: “The photograph is for nothing”, “To hurt and love has become a habit”, or “We are the ghosts you and me facing each other”. A similar immediacy is also present in the book’s consistent and unquestionably precious design: the silk-screened dust jacket (in salmon and turquoise), bearing a 19th century-style silhouette cut-out of Ström’s father; the thick, uncoated paper, which is a joy to touch and hold in one’s hands; the rich colors and luscious inks,; and the minute attention given to referential icons, including paragraph numbers, asterisks, and crosses, as well as the type-face. Given Montöristen’s small dimensions, it, in fact, more resembles a work of literature than a photobook – an effect that Ström and Linneu deliberately intended. This hybridity is also reflected in the book’s title, a Swedish neologism deriving from the word monteur: “to assemble” or “to put something together”.

Ström wrote me that he did not want to make a photobook per se. ” Neither did I want to do a collection of poems or prose. At the time, my motivation was to create a hybrid object, trying to break through the barrier of what already existed in the photobook/textbook sphere. I wanted to create a space where both writing and image could equally co-exist. I’m intrigued by images as words and words with images; I worked with the intention of not letting either element (words or images) being descriptive or dependent on one another. I wanted it to be open, to read the text in the book as text or as graphic imagery”.

To navigate this openness takes time and can be challenging. When I first looked at Montöristen, I expected to find a meditation on fatherhood – something along the lines of Andrea Geremia’s  loving homage to his family Tell the Children (Origini Edizioni), or the male counterpart the poetically carnal My Birth by Carmen Winant (reviewed here). Montöristen is neither, and is more self-involved, at times, selfish in scale. The more time I spend with it, though, the more I see it as an act of mourning; a meditation about ends and new beginnings; a grapple with courage. The book’s first and final image both show a black bull in an arena, first vigorously standing, then dead on the ground, while horses, rushed by torero helpers, pull him away. A metaphor of defeat or of fears overcome?

Collector’s POV: Carl-Mikael Ström does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, collectors interested in following up should connect directly with the artist via his website (link in sidebar).

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