Some Enchanted Evenings
When nobody else would, Christer Strömholm treated the transexuals of Paris with dignity.
The façades of gray stone buildings hover behind her. She stands arrow precise, wrapped in an oversized leather jacket, her one hand, large and fleshy and grasping at the label, reveals a long painted thumbnail. But it is her face — her gaze, composed and calm, floating underneath a bouffant that circles her head like a dark halo — that draws you into this photograph. And just below this gaze, two thin white gloves hang on a thread that cuts the image in half.
- "Christer Strömholm: Les Amies de Place Blanche." Through September 2. International Center of Photography, New York.
The photograph, entitled “Pepita” and taken on a Paris balcony in 1963, is a highly staged scene, playful and serious. It is layered with the paradoxical pleasures of intimacy and theatricality that characterizes so many of these portraits of young transsexuals and transgendered inhabitants of Montmartre that the Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm took in the late 1950s and ’60s. Using the neighborhood’s atmospheric lighting, Strömholm turned the casual, private worlds of these marginal figures into seductive cinematic spectacles.
In this small but engaging show, Strömholm documents these women’s lives in public and private. He gives us intimate scenes from inside drab hotel rooms and claustrophobic bathrooms, where the women stare at the camera through their reflections in the mirror, a double image that underscores the residue of theater present even in such private moments. It is the gaze that is a constant. These women turn to us again and again with a direct and unashamed pleasure at being viewed.
But the more striking photos are taken on the streets of Montmartre, in the cafés and brasseries between Pigalle and Place Blanche, all within the swirl of the area’s mix of nightclubs and sex shops, dance halls and freak shows, which had given the area its aura of bohemian excitement for bourgeois pleasures since the late 19th century. Strömholm used the artificial light of the city’s nighttime scenes — the interior bars and exterior street lamps — to create images that hold a precisely noir feel, transforming his subjects from sidewalk denizens into intriguing icons of beauty and allure. The lighting creates harsh shadows and glittery sparks that accentuate the playful gestures or serious looks of these women. At times I thought I could detect fragments of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s eye in certain photographs. But with the dark shadows and artificial light, these images present a much more theatrical effect, recalling experiments in French cinema in the period. One photograph, “Little Christer” (1955), shows a small boy standing in front of a make-shift elevated stage. We can only see the legs of the men and women on stage. But the image is about the light that floods the stage floor and spills onto the boy, who stands alone, enthralled with the stage and the light. The crowd behind him vanishes into the darkness of the evening. This is the theatrics that shape much of Strömholm’s work. We seem to sit there, with him and his subjects, mesmerized by the light of the moment, while darkness is all around.
Take “Gina” (1963), for example. The figure poses on the cobbled street, her tightly tailored white dress contrasting with the darkened background, her hands resting on her left knee as her body slightly bends forward. Her face exudes a comfortable pleasure in front of Strömholm’s camera. You look at such a photo, taken with charm and elegance on the streets of Paris, and you forget that it was illegal in de Gaul’s France for a man to wear a dress.
Strömholm, who died in 2002 at the age of 84, had a long career as a photographer and instructor of photography, but he has been relatively unknown outside his native Sweden. This year is clearly the year of rediscovering Strömholm, with gallery shows in London, Rome, and Berlin and a major retrospective of his work planned for this fall at the Fotografiska in his native Stockholm. The IFC’s well curated show of these portraits is the first exhibition of his work by a major institution in the United States, and comes on the heels of the republication of his book Les Amies des Place Blanche (The Girlfriends of Place Blanche) — originally published in 1981 — which offers a collection of these Paris portraits with an essay by Strömholm and new interviews with the women he befriended and captured in evening light with delicate care.
Strömholm moved to Paris just after World War II to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. He studied art in Germany before the war, but his studies were cut short when he served in the Swedish military. He settled in the artistic and circus excitement of Montmartre, where he encountered transsexual and transgendered neighbors who would become his circle of friends and his subject matter. Like Brassai’s images of the Paris nightlife of a different era, Strömholm’s photographs capture a mood as much as a person, a moment recorded in time and place as much as a scene framed for the camera’s eye. But unlike Brassai’s distant and often voyeuristic visions of Paris, Strömholm’s images turn what was deemed strange (and illegal) into a simplicity of beauty and charm.
Consider “Belinda” (1967), whose subject reclines amidst a pillow of white, the soft skin of fur wrapped around her torso, her face playful and seductive. It is true that many of these women worked as prostitutes and dance hall objects of attraction. They trafficked their powers of performance and play toward bodily and visual pleasures for eager patrons. And it is perhaps this theatricality of life that merged public image with private imaginings that makes Strömholm’s work so intimately appealing. Images of the women in more casual moments together and alone, half-naked, but always in makeup underscore not only Strömholm’s trusted place in the community, but also a compelling quality to his portraits that explore the line between documentary and scrapbook. These portraits so often make the private so attractively public.
There is resistance here, too, and not just play. Some of the more striking images are those that present a defiance in posture and manner. “Jacky” (1961) stares directly at Strömholm’s camera, her back slightly arched. She pushes her chest out and tilts her head, a large cross around her neck. Her teeth bite the fringe of tangled silver trinkets from her earring. This image holds a seductive resistance, a woman composed not as character but rather as a force. As this show well documents, Strömholm’s camera sought a complex range of emotions and portraits of these men who lived as women. He once wrote, “These are images of people whose lives I shared and whom I think I understood.” In this sense, these photographs lack the distance between subject and photographer, and instead hold an emotional range absent from the public perception of such women at the time.
What to make of these photographs today? In our time, when the image of transgendered and transsexual men and women circulate in camp moments of popular culture, these photographs may feel much less dangerous then they once were. It is easy to forget today how very risky it was for a man to wear a dress. Or, for a photographer to turn his camera upon them, to turn them into subjects to be admired. In this sense, these photographs have little to do with camp spectacles. These images, I find, are much more humane than what you can find today.
We need to keep in mind that many of these women were abused by police, arrested and jailed. They were charged as “men dressed as women outside of carnival,” violating the legal and social codes that were often enforced in the shadows of the Moulin Rouge. They lived lives on the margins, for the margins gave them enough space to live as they would like to. “The only thing [these women] demanded was to have the right to be themselves,” Strömholm writes in his 1981 essay in Les Amies des Place Blanche, adding that they did not want “to be forced to deny or repress their feelings, to have the right to live their lives, to be responsible, to be at ease with themselves.” It was, he concludes, “about attaining the right to own one’s own life and identity.”
Strömholm came to appreciate the power of the photograph as a tool of social importance in his studies in Paris. In these photographs, he not only experimented with light and framing, but also with the responsibilities of a photographer to his subject. Strömholm believed in photography’s political potential as much as its aesthetic value. And these portraits attest to these ideas. It would be easy to see these photographs only within the confines of Montmartre, within the sexual illusions of Pigalle and Moulin Rouge. But as Strömholm wandered the early morning hours, through the café’s and bars with these women, their nights were lived amidst a country at war with itself.
The same year that Jackie stared into Strömholm’s camera with her defiance, thousands of people protested in the streets of Paris in support of Algeria’s independence. Many were young Algerian immigrants or children of immigrants. The protestors were met with violent resistance by the Paris police who, by many accounts, shot indiscriminately into the crowds that had massed around the city in separate rallies. Some protesters were thrown into the Seine where they drowned. Bodies were found along the shore for weeks to come. One of the most violent confrontations occurred on Saint-Michel Bridge in the heart of Paris, where several protesters were shot or drowned or both. By some estimates, nearly 200 people were killed that night, though official reports put the number much lower.
Known as the Paris Massacres, these events came at the end of Algeria’s long and divisive war for independence from France that ended 50 years ago this fall. The war was felt in violent ruptures in Paris including civil protests, bombings against the Paris police, murders of pro-Algerian activists, and political turmoil that resulted in the dissolution of the French parliament in 1958 and the creation of a new constitution.
This history hovers at the edges of these images, reminding us that these are not simple photographs but rather intimate moments with their own political importance. At times, the larger social history is embodied in the subjects themselves. Nana was born in Oran in Algeria but moved to Paris in the mid 1950s. She became a favorite subject of Strömholm’s camera. In an interview in Les Amies des Place Blanche, she notes that in August of 1957, “there was a great roundup of queers in Oran,” and they were sent to a camp near the city to suffer violence and torture. She had already left the city. Strömholm photographed Nana in subtle, beautiful portraits. Her dark mascara outlines her wide, almond eyes. Arched black eyebrows give her face a precision and clarity. In one image, Nana stands poised on a market street, her body angled to the side, wearing a dark black coat, high heels, and small black gloves. She looks off toward the distance, and behind her stretches the narrow street filled with shoppers. But it is the older woman just to her left, basket in hand, who stares up at Nana, her face a mixture of confusion and disdain, that gives the image its tension. Strömholm and these women created small moments of normalcy in a city and era that were quickly changing.
These images do much in presenting an intimate and complex portrait of transsexuals at a time of political and social violence and unrest. But they do more than just offer a lost world of Parisian nightlife, for they are brave photographs capturing women who were realizing with much difficulty a life so fully beyond social norms. (Let’s not forget that transexuality was only declassified as a mental illness in France in 2009.) Strömholm’s vision and skill show us how even these quiet, photographic moments can do more than document. While we may not look at these images with the same power they once had, these portraits of transsexuals staring at the camera, looking back at us with defiance and charm, remind us how useful such personal images can be in resisting an oppressive world. • 10 August 2012
James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.
All photographs © Christer Strömholm/Strömholm Estate.