Christer Strömholm (1918-2002) was ‘the father of Swedish photography’. A talented and influential photojournalist, he favoured direct contact with his subjects. He never ‘stole’ candid pictures and instead always had a relationship of some kind with the person or people he was photographing.For over a decade, beginning in 1958, Strömholm documented the lives of a group of transsexual women (male-to-female) living in an area of Paris called the Place Blanche. His body of work is remarkable. In 2011 Aman Iman Publishing in Paris republished it as as Les Amies de Place Blanche. The price is a very reasonable 45 Euros.There is no other body of work that compares to Strömholm’s in this field. His work with transsexuals lasted over ten years and he involved himself so deeply in their lives. They remembered him fondly and two of the survivors, who were by then elderly transwomen, attended his funeral; they had kept in touch with him throughout his life.
This contrasts with, say, Cartier-Bresson’s approach. While Strömholm used the camera as a tool of social inclusion, bringing the subject’s life into the lens and through that to the viewer, Cartier-Bresson saw humanity in a much more detached manner; people were just a part of his grand artistic scheme. Strömholm had the passionate eye of a journalist while Cartier-Bresson’s was cool and detached, like that of a designer.
The finest years.
Arguably the finest years of Strömholm ‘s creative life were those he spent living in Paris from 1959. During this time he studied many areas of the city, he was fascinated by sex and sexuality throughout. As a result of this he gravitated to the Place Blanche, an area where transsexual prostitutes and showgirls lived and worked.
Strömholm photographed people he knew and who agreed to be photographed. This meant that the subjects of his pictures were only a few of the area’s complement of what would today be called ‘gender non-conforming’ (gnc) individuals. These ranged from effeminate gay men, through feminine gay boys to transsexuals and even a few autogynephilic transgenders and transvestites.
It’s an all-too common fallacy that transsexualism is somehow a recent phenomenon. Actually it’s ancient and has been recorded since the beginning of writing. Strömholm followed in the traditions of earlier photojournalists like Brassai, Cartier-Bresson and Charbonnier. Like them he was attracted to and photographed the glamorous transsexual and homosexual people of Paris. However, Strömholm was the only one to focus on them so deeply and for so long.
Good journalism is never just a technical exercise, nor is good photography. As journalists, we tell stories, and as photojournalists our pen is a camera. While each picture tells its own story, together they form a narrative.
Strömholm recorded a lifestyle full of vibrancy and brilliance that somehow managed to survive the exigencies and social pressures it was under.
The pictures in this portfolio are made with more than journalistic passion for narrative and more than a photographer’s precision in composition, exposure and focus too. There is an intimacy and a warmth in these pictures that only comes from deep sympathy. They are like pictures of our beloved ones.
The reality of life.
Transsexual people today, in the West, are beset on all sides. Paradoxically, in some ways this is worse now than it was in the 1960s.
From ‘mainstream society’ they face discrimination, incomprehension and opprobrium. At the same time ‘egalitarian’ cloned, accommodationist gay ‘men’ regard them as traitors to the cause. Perhaps most galling of all, autogynephilic transgenders and transvestites colonise their identity and erase them whenever they can.
Yet when they are free to be themselves they are the best company there is and the best friends that could be. They are beautiful people. I think, looking at these pictures, that Strömholm really loved them.
Buy the Book!
The collected pictures were published in 1983 as VÄNNERNA FRÅN PLACE BLANCHE but this edition is now a collector’s item. It was republished in 2011 as Les Amies de Place Blanche by Aman Iman Publishing in Paris, priced at a very reasonable 45 Euros.
All Pictures © Christer Strömholm & Estate
This post has been updated and republished.