Witness to Himself: Christer Strömholm’s Poste Restante

_DSC0539Photographers can tell all kinds of stories, and these stories emerge in many different ways; most often the preference has been to address some situation in the wider world, given the (apparent) capacity that photography has for dealing with social realities. But there is an equally important source for the stories that photographers tell, and it is to be found in their own lives, their own experience of the world. We call these stories subjective, because insofar as they are ‘about’ anything, they address a particular set of experiences seen from the perspective of the person living them: the photographer becomes their own witness. This subjective tendency is an important tradition in the medium, but hasn’t always received as much critical attention as other approaches, perhaps because of the values of specific institutions, or simply because the dominant frameworks for thinking about the medium have favoured its more ‘objective’ uses. But it is an important tradition nonetheless, and one whose influence has been far-reaching. Its origins are mostly, if not exclusively, to be found in the post-war decades, and it is this particular context that gives us a useful way of thinking about how a subjective tradition in the medium emerged.

In fact, the first volume of Gerry Badger and Martin Parr’s monumental study of the photobook includes a chapter on what they call ‘stream-of-consciousness’ works. Rather than the kind of prismatic modernism that this might bring to mind however, analogous perhaps to the writings of James Joyce, they mean it as a particular way of using photography that is “spontaneous and immediate, highly personal, echoing both the uncertain mood of the era and the characteristics that marked much of the art […] of the 1950s.” Badger and Parr consider this mode as a “visual equivalent of the stream-of-conscious writing of 1950s American Beat writers.”[i] The implication here being that such photography is, like the work of the Beat writers, intended to be a raw, seemingly unmediated transcription of lived experience, with little concern for the familiar niceties of novelistic (or in this case, photographic) construction, reflecting the conviction that established forms were inadequate to express the complexities of experience – and of the times. The geographical specificity of Badger and Parr’s (admittedly useful) comparison notwithstanding, however, we can also see this particular conception of the subjective tendency operating in a European setting; indeed, they themselves cite Christer Strömholm’s Poste Restante as one of the key examples of this tradition.[ii]

Strömholm was actually one of its founding fathers, with his influence being felt today in the work of artists such as Anders Petersen and JH Engström. Whatever might be said about national character, this subjective way of working seems to have had a particular appeal in Scandinavia, compared to, for example, the rationalism apparently characteristic of German photography. Against this, of course, is the fact that the book resulted from Strömholm’s long years of traveling, as is suggested by the title, a phrase usually translated as ‘general delivery,’ and one that conjures up an old-fashioned world of tracking between various destinations, where your mail would be awaiting collection. These restless travels sometimes took him as far-afield as India and Japan, but always circled around Paris, which he seems to have regarded as his spiritual home. Throughout the work Strömholm also displays a marked preoccupation with the darker side of life, and with social outsiders, for whom he has real sympathy as kindred spirits. His subject-matter is characterised by Badger and Parr, with some justification, as “still lives, funerals, posters, distressed walls, strip clubs, cemeteries, and naked women whom the photographer has apparently bedded.”[iii]  If such concerns now seem to verge on cliché, that is mostly due to our overfamiliarity with them. In fact, the historical context in which he worked gives some clue to the appeal of these subjects and why he made use of them.

The maelstrom of the Second World War and its aftermath gave rise to the feeling that a definite, traumatic break had occurred with existing social values. Ambitious artists thought themselves obliged to address the tragic predicament of humanity by grand gestures that could encompass its fallen state. This shift manifested in several ways, with the Abstract Expressionist painters in America being perhaps the archetypal example, while the Beat writers cited by Badger and Parr are obviously another. Much of what resulted now seems overblown because of its concern for the ‘mythic’ dimensions of human tragedy rather than its concrete reality, or with the trivialities of autobiography, as in the case of the Beat writers. But these pressures were perhaps even more keenly felt in Europe and, knowingly or not, Strömholm participated in a broader cultural shift that sought modes of expression for the newly uncertain experience of the times, an artistic language and a way of working (as well as living) equal to the sense of being cast adrift from traditional patterns, along with the exciting sense of possibility that this offered. Though only published in 1967, which seems comparatively late to have been part of a post-war movement, the work had a long gestation, with some of the pictures dating to the end of the 1950s.

What’s more, photography might well have offered a unique means of apprehending these experiences, not just because of its overt ‘documentary’ qualities, which Strömholm for the most part eschews anyway, given his lack of interest in what might be called ‘socially concerned’ themes, but just by being obliged to deal with the external, visible world in a relatively direct way; photography doesn’t allow for the more obvious sort of solipsism that now actually seems to be the major failing of the Beat generation writers, for example – the inability to see past the conditions of their own lives or to meaningfully place their experiences into a wider context. Given this lineage then, it is somewhat paradoxical, if not unexpected, or even unwelcome, that Strömholm himself should only be a shadowy, implied presence in the work. As a consequence of this, it seems necessary to modify our definition of ‘subjective’ here not just to mean describing experiences that the photographer has lived personally – what might more properly be called a ‘diaristic’ approach – but understand it as making pictures that communicate the photographer’s response to particular encounters, where feeling is somehow ‘in’ the frame.

Apart from their fashionable gloominess, however, Stromholm’s pictures are not formally or stylistically expressive; he uses photographic materials in a fairly straight-forward sort of way. What connects all the pictures, then, is the unifying consciousness – the subjectivity – of the photographer at the moment in which they were made, by attempting to link in each frame the immediate reality that occasioned the picture – its ostensible subject – with whatever response it has provoked as a manifestation of the photographer’s own emotional or psychological life.  In Poste Restante he works to establish a metaphorical vocabulary through which he can express his inner experience of the world, providing that ‘link’ between what the picture is of and his own response; it is precisely this displacement that enables such an outward directed medium as photography is to be used for expressive ends. So in that sense, the work also a summarises a particular conception of how the medium might be used to encounter life and to communicate that encounter to the viewer, seemingly without the intermediary of a conventional, authorial voice.

Likewise, the individual pictures are not held together by the imposition of what Badger and Parr call a “cinematic flow.” Instead, Strömholm relies on “metaphorical and aesthetic comparisons between the images,” as a kind of visual free-association.[iv]  The structure of the work has to also be understood as subjective then, in the sense that there is no necessary criteria to determine its narrative sequence, which there would be if the photographer had some specific point to communicate, as with traditional ‘picture-stories’ for the press, or in the case of documentary, where a certain amount of information about a given subject has to be conveyed. Strömholm is hardly the first photographer to dispense with such conventional narrative supports, of course; there are many examples from all different areas within the medium that also use comparatively free-form visual story-telling. What makes Poste Restante so singular, and so influential, however, is the extent to which it centres the viewer of the work as a kind of surrogate protagonist who can share the experiential – and even, dare I say it, Existential – journey of the artist. The story, in that sense, becomes a shared space, though the form of a photobook, with its essentially linear progression, is perhaps still too fixed to qualify as what Umberto Eco called an ‘open work,’ where multiple, often widely divergent interpretations and encounters with an artwork can coexist as a result of its deliberate structural indeterminacy.

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At the same time, with a ‘subjective’ narrative like Strömholm’s, and indeed to a certain extent with all photographic narratives, we might say that there isn’t any single ‘perfect’ sequence to unlock all the meaning from the pictures that make it up. Forming a narrative is not like solving a puzzle with only one ‘correct’ answer; its structure is based on a set of possible combinations that the artist can choose from in order to communicate according to their intentions. Some choices – some sequences – will obviously be more representative of those intentions than others. Of course, it stretches credulity that any artist, however in control of their materials, and however prescient, would ever be able to fully intend or imagine all the possible interpretations of what they’re doing, let alone build these into the very structure of their work. Instead they create a situation (a narrative) where certain interpretations are more likely than others; the defining criteria here should be that the narrative manifests the artist’s own experience of the world and that it makes this experience legible in the same way, perhaps, that a novel might place us inside the thought process of a character, rather than merely have it be narrated by an omniscient observer.

In fact, Eco describes how the very form of a work, its structure, carries a meaning all of its own, that it can suggest, indeed, a mode of feeling and knowing uniquely conditioned by its historical context, one that he says “implies a certain vision of the world.”[v] And with narrative forms in particular “the rejection of a plot signifies recognition that the world is a web of possibilities and that the work of art must reproduce this physiognomy.”[vi] Eco considers that employing a classical formal order no longer makes sense in a period where the social certainties that this order depended on for its legitimacy have been overturned, so new forms of expression – of subjectivity, even – will be necessary to give voice to the experiences that result from each new context. “The open work,” he says, “assumes the task of giving us an image of discontinuity. It does not narrate it; it is it.”[vii] So, however personal Strömholm’s story might seem to be here, as it certainly is, he also uses his own deeply felt response to the world around him – his self-witnessing – as much to account for the times that he was living in as to relate the trajectory of his own life, given in the very form of the work. In this respect, the distinction between public and private is, if not irrelevant exactly, at least shown to be largely porous. This is also recognised by Badger and Parr when they remind us that for these subjective, stream-of-consciousness narratives “the politics were perhaps turned inward but were nonetheless very much a part of the rhetoric.”[viii]

On that basis then, what can we divine about Strömholm’s understanding of the time he was living in, and his own place in it, from how he organises the pictures in relation to each other? To answer this it will be useful if we consider the group of pictures that opens Poste Restante. The first of these shows a gorilla reaching with disturbingly human-like fingers through the bars of its cage, a plaintive gesture redolent of enclosure and the longing for escape, as well as for connection. This motif of bars is carried through to the next image, showing what is perhaps the shuttered front of a shop or commercial establishment, its darkened interior suggesting that the recognisable longing of the first image has been turned inward, perhaps a subtle critique of petit bourgeois materialism and its attendant repressions. The next picture repeats the flattened, head-on view of the one previous to it, with the bars of the first two images finding their echo in the vertical pattern of the wall in this one. Several painted advertisements have been affixed to this wall, which might seem to give it a more documentary character, if not for the fact that one of these has been placed in such a way as to make the door behind it, a putative means of escape, virtually useless.

That these signs should be advertising drinks is telling though, first because it helps to locate us, and also because of how it leads on to the next image, which is in fact structured somewhat differently to the previous three. We see the front of a nightclub on the Rue Pigalle in Paris, its neon lit for the moment only by the sun, but promising no shortage of illicit thrills during the hours of darkness. That the specific place should be identified so clearly is perhaps unusual for Strömholm, but is in this case a knowing acknowledgement of the bohemian demimonde where he thrived, as well as being an explicit counter to the motifs of enclosure (and implicitly, repression) in the preceding images, promising that freedom from deadening conformity might still be found on the margins of society. For the last picture in this grouping he returns to a closed off, frontal view, centred on a tattered billboard, which seems to consist merely of disordered fragments. Perhaps the implication here is that the existing social order, exemplified by the needs of commerce, is being taken apart and remade in strange new forms.

As is perhaps apparent from this brief excerpt, the structural principle underlying the narrative is a state of tension describing the balance of opposing forces, visualised here as freedom and enclosure, inside and outside, meaning and nonsense, in this case premised on the alternation between representing flatness and depth, along with the specific subject-matter of the pictures. This ‘tension’ is elaborated visually, by the flow between the individual images, as well as thematically, from the material provided by Strömholm’s responsive, intuitive picture-making. Individual metaphors – the pictures themselves – are spun out into the “certain vision of the world” that Eco described. This can’t help but also be a kind of social ‘vision’ as much as it is a personal one, and the tensions or oppositions we can read into the opening sequence will be repeated and varied throughout the book. That the source of this conflict must be understood as at least implicitly social is also intimated by Strömholm’s repeated use of existing imagery to make use of the socially current ideas that they embody, only to undercut them, either in the pictures themselves, or with the sequencing of the visual narrative, as a way of dramatizing this underlying, perhaps not even consciously articulated tension.

We can see the first of these strategies, for example, in the picture showing a portrait of some moustachioed old pater familias that has not only been abandoned, but also apparently shot through the head for good measure – killing the (cultural) father and the authority that he represents, just as another portrait hangs over a crack that threatens to split it down the middle. Similarly, Strömholm works imagery of discarded male clothing into the sequence, a different kind of received image, but also one personifying a social role. It is often ostensibly ‘formal’ clothing as well, such as a shirt in one image, spread out like a shed skin, or the tuxedo hanging incongruously from a window frame. This last outfit is matched on the preceding page by the idiotic blankness of a boxed up mannequin, the ‘gentleman’ as literal dummy. That he is discarded and reposes in a coffin-like box, suggests a burying of the past, but the fact that the picture could also be read as him bursting back out is telling of the ambivalence about the possibility of change that runs throughout the work, a contest of forces that could easily go either way.

Depictions of woman – and of femaleness as a cultural idea – also follow this pattern. Strömholm invokes the staid bourgeois matron only to offer a subversive gloss on this image by comparing her (painted) portrait with a series of pictures detailing the lurid iconography of carnival or circus hoardings. The first of these is a kind of spotted ‘leopard’ woman who we might think can claim a freedom her more respectable counterpart cannot, but she is shown as essentially submissive, and indeed all the painted depictions in this short sequence suggest demeaning social roles – woman as femme fatale (at least figuratively, by being shown as a crocodile from the waist down) or damsel-in-distress, menaced by phallic snakes, which become actual snakes on the following pages. Even the snake-woman in the next picture who we suppose might have ‘tamed’ them, is placed in a sort of box or enclosure, like Snow White in her glass coffin, just as, tellingly, the leopard woman is also visually boxed in. So the implication here is that woman have their freedom undermined by the roles that society assigns to them, even in spaces where traditional mores might be thought to have a far weaker grip, such as the carnival. Again, it is the structure of the work that offers some insight as to how these conflicts might be resolved.

Based on the way that the book is divided into three unequally sized sections we can speculate that its development actually follows a rather conventional progression: thesis/ antithesis/ synthesis. A look at the subject-matter of the different sections would seem to bear this out. Though admittedly varied, if the first section deals with what I have called received images, signifying the burden of societal expectations and the struggle to be free of them, the second section with its predominant imagery of death, implies the necessary transformation of a (symbolic) death in order to facilitate a social rebirth. The third section then suggests what form this might take. Much shorter than the other three, the majority of the images here are portraits featuring a group of what we would now call trans woman that Strömholm came to know in Paris.[ix] Apart from the intimacy the pictures, what’s striking is how familiar many of the poses are, a vocabulary drawn from popular culture and society at large. It seems clear, however, that Strömholm understood these (apparently) stereotypical forms of female self-expression were being used to voice an authentic identity. While it would be wrong to attribute contemporary notions about gender to Strömholm, this progression between the confining – literally flattened – female archetype and what amounts to a statement about how such roles and representations might effectively be reclaimed, is consonant with Strömholm’s interest in the struggle for self-realisation and the forces of convention that are arrayed against it.

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Of course, the idea that the individual is bound to come into conflict with stifling social constraints has long been a staple attitude of avant-garde milieus, expressed, for example, by an often dubious mythologizing of the outsider, but this rhetoric of personal freedoms went mainstream, for want of a better phrase, in the post-war decades. What makes Poste Restante interesting as both a contemporary statement of this trend, and a manifestation of it, is how the exposition is structural as well as thematic. If the three-part division I have very briefly outlined seems conventional, it has to be remembered that within this framework the narrative is intuitive and discontinuous, as Eco would have that it must be, because Strömholm’s subjective experience is a story he can tell only within a form defined by the social and psychological realities of his own historical moment. Even then, the development of this overall structural division can be linked to the desire for transformation, represented by how the conventional self is effectively ‘killed off,’ only to be (potentially) reborn in the conclusion. However, the dominant mood of anxiety in the work, the sense of being pulled in different directions, might also be understood as a presentiment of how the keenly felt desire for a more open society was ultimately frustrated, leaving behind the political and economic turmoil of the 1970s.

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As we’ve seen, Poste Restante begins with an image of a gorilla reaching through the bars of its enclosure, an affecting representation of confinement and the desire for connection. It finishes with a draped, vaguely human figure on the back of a truck, but visible through the open door. The movement from the gorilla attempting to reach past the bars of its cage, to the evocation of an as yet unseen, but implicitly human form emerging into the light from its own cell-like enclosure speaks to a broader cultural shift that Strömholm both anticipated and belonged to, the attempt to break free of past repression and to live authentically, whatever that might mean. This conclusion is, of course, a confirmation of the intervening journey that the photographer takes us on in the course of viewing the book. In fact, what prevents the whole thing from tipping over into a sort of minor-key romanticism, dead dogs and all, is the mastery that Strömholm has over his material, the sheer wit and dynamism of the sequencing, his attention to mood and – figuratively speaking – to narrative colour. This is a whole, integrated work, rather than simply a collection of pictures, and must be understood as such.

Whether or not Strömholm could have intended or would even recognise the kind of reading I have outlined here is largely beside the point; an artist can create a situation where certain meanings exist as a possibility to be realised by the audience, in common with Umberto Eco’s idea of the open work, even if the ‘openness’ of a photobook is of a relatively qualified sort. And Strömholm clearly understood the potential that such forms have for communicating compound meanings, allowing for multiple and or even seemingly divergent interpretations to coexist. By observing his reaction to the world so closely, he was able to dramatize a wider set of conflicts, without ever disavowing the essential subjectivity of his account. As abstract and poetic as it is socially astute, plumbing the depths of our fears and desires, Strömholm has left us a profound statement about himself and his own time, one which speaks with equal clarity to the present. Returning obsessively to oppositions of light and dark, life and death, self and other, trying all the while to reconcile them, he offers scant reassurance that this can even be done. But no matter; in this context, the struggle is all.

 

[i] Gerry Badger and Martin Parr, The Photobook: A History – Volume 1, Phaidon, 2004/2014, pg. 232.

[ii] Christer Strömholm, Poste Restante, Art and Theory, 2016 (originally P.A. Norstedt & Söners Förlag, 1967), a very good contemporary facsimile edition, demonstrating once again how important these are to our understanding of the medium.

[iii] Badger/ Parr, pg. 251. This perception that he ‘bedded’ the women he photographed is partly tongue-in-cheek, probably based on the interview with Strömholm that opens the book, an amusing but ultimately self-defeating bit of Hemingwayesque bravado. In fact, nothing characterises his portraits as much as their sensitivity, though of course one doesn’t preclude the other.

[iv] Badger/ Parr, pg. 251.

[v] Umberto Eco, The Open Work, trans. Anna Cancogni, Harvard University Press, 1989, pg. 115.

[vi] Eco, pg. 115.

[vii] Eco, pg. 90.

[viii] Badger/ Parr, pg. 238.

[ix] The original introduction to Poste Restante notes that Strömholm had been working on a book about the ‘transvestites’ of Paris. This would eventually become his Les Amis du Place Blanche.

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