JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against pink and light grey walls in the two room gallery space and entry area. All of the works are gelatin silver prints mounted to masonite, made between 1949 and 1962 (with some marked n.d.) and printed in 1965. Physical sizes for all the prints are roughly 24×20 or reverse, with small size variations from image to image; no edition information was provided on the checklist. (Installation shots below, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery.)
Comments/Context: Following up on his first US museum show at the International Center of Photography in 2012 (here), this survey-style show of the work of Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm should further cement his rightful place in the minds of American viewers. Using vintage exhibition prints and covering both his most famous body of work (Les Amies de Place Blanche) and a sampler of images from France and Spain, the exhibit provides a whirlwind introduction to Strömholm’s sensitive eye.
Strömholm’s deservedly iconic photographs of the male transgender community in Paris in the early 1960s offer most of the highlights here, even though many of the most recognizable images from the series aren’t on view. In hotel rooms and on the streets, we see his subjects in quiet moments of mutual support, where friends seductively vamp in furs, model skimpy underwear for each other, and lounge around at ease in their roles as attractive women. Strömholm’s relaxed acceptance fills the portraits with friendly tenderness, and his pictures are warm, sympathetic documents of searching self-expression and conscious identity creation. But even when the most confident of poses are being tried on for size, his sitters simmer with the tension of wary vulnerability, and it’s that honest, under-the-surface struggle that gives the entire project its durable vitality.
Many of Strömholm’s other images edge toward classic 20th century Modernism, with a more subjective dash of tonal richness. A dusty drawer full of keys is an all-over study in textural detail and luscious uniform palette, while an array of bird house holes creates a repeating polka dot pattern of black on white. Several subjects offer visual echoes of pictures made famous by other photographers – graffiti (Brassaï), dripping paint (Siskind), storefront windows (Abbott), up-close portraiture (Model) – but Strömholm’s images don’t suffer much in comparison; each is tightly composed, masterfully printed, and seen with a subtlety of vision that stands out even if the content is familiar. And a few of his works edge toward a nuanced version of found Surrealism, where a lonely bassinet stands in a vacant lot, a severed doll head waits on a tabletop, and a thick snake is wound around a man’s neck like a scarf, the weirdness of the city bubbling up from beneath the surface.
The connecting tissue that links all of these photographs together is a measured visual attentiveness, a consistent sensitivity to the world that is manifested in patient, often graceful images that take the time required to look closely. Strömholm was an influential teacher for an entire generation of prominent Swedish photographers, and this small show is persuasive evidence that he had plenty of talent to share.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $25000 each. Strömholm’s work has only been intermittently available at auction in the past decade, with prices ranging from roughly $1000 and $12000.