JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against grey walls in a single room gallery space on the lower level of the museum. All of the works are lifetime gelatin silver prints lent by the estate, taken between 1955 and 1968. No dimension or edition information was provided for any of the works on view. A glass case in the center of the room contains 4 gelatin silver prints, 3 contact sheets, 4 books, 1 catalogue, and 1 address book. A catalog of the exhibition is available from the museum for $55 (here). (Installation shots at right © International Center of Photography, 2012. Photographs by John Berens.)
Comments/Context: Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm has long been well known in European photography circles, but his exposure here in the United States has generally been limited to the circulation of his sought after photobooks. The ICP has taken a first step toward ameliorating this situation by giving Strömholm his first US museum show, a one room summary of his best known body of work – the transgendered and cross dressing men of Place Blanche in Paris from the late 1950s and early 1960s. It’s a classic example of a well executed photo essay or tightly self contained project.
The reason that these images have been so well received over the years is that they are built on the combination of trust and empathy that is the hallmark of nearly all superlative portraiture. Strömholm captures his subjects in bars and on nighttime street corners, lounging in hotel rooms or vamping for the camera, consistently finding moments that waver between aspiration and vulnerability. There are confident blonde bombshells, beehive wigs, sultry looks with an excess of mascara, and plenty of fur coats. For the most part, he sees his “women” as they want to be seen, and does so with a sense of respect for their complicated lives (physically and psychologically) rather than with a leering voyeurism. He moves through their environment with the acceptance of an insider, tenderly documenting supportive friendship, best efforts, and haunting insecurity. The desire for a different future, regardless of its costs, can be found in nearly every picture, but the path to this self-determination has clearly been anything but easy.
Admirers of Arbus and Goldin (who both came later) will find much to connect with in this group of photographs. There is a similar unvarnished consideration for the uniqueness to be found in those outside the mainstream and an authentic, up-close attentiveness to their struggles and overlooked triumphs. In the dark, gritty streets of the Paris red light district, Strömholm has reaffirmed the basic human freedom to define one’s own identity, and his pictures remain a solid example of how a carefully constructed photo essay can capture the spirit of people quietly striving for a different way of life.
Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Strömholm’s work has only been intermittently available at auction in the past decade, with prices ranging from $1000 and $5000. The artist/estate is represented in New York by Marvelli Gallery (here).