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Christer Strömholm: CHR

As the late Swedish photographer gets a retrospective at Fotografiska, we chat to his son about Parisian street photography in the 50s

Christer Strömholm is one of Sweden’s most acclaimed and notorious photographers. In the late 1950s and early 60s, Strömholm - who passed away in 2002 - lived in Paris intermittently where he captured portraits of transsexuals in the red-light district around Place Blanche. Shot at night, the resulting black-and-white photographs are gritty and glamorous. These images are being exhibited, along with a collection of never before seen prints, at Fotografiska in Stockholm this month. We spoke with the late photographer’s son, Joakim Strömholm, to learn more about the man behind the lens. 

In the 50s my father started doing street photography in France. He hung out at Place Blanche, a red light district in Paris where he befriended the local transsexual prostitutes

Dazed Digital: What can visitors expect to see from this collection?
Joakim Strömholm:
It’s a comprehensive retrospective of my father’s work consisting of over 200 photographs captured throughout his career.

DD: Your father's most notorious work was captured during a particularly prolific period during the 50s and 60s. What can visitors expect to see from that period?
Joakim Strömholm:
In the 50s my father started doing street photography in France. He hung out at Place Blanche, a red light district in Paris where he befriended the local transsexual prostitutes. Many of them hoped to raise money for a sex change by working the streets. Most of them never realised their dream but did become subjects in much of my father’s work from that period. Later he travelled to Spain, Japan and the US where he photographed images of death. A selection of his best work is being shown in the exhibition - some of it for the first time.

DD: Most of this collection is untitled. Why?
Joakim Strömholm: In general he never titled his work. Christer wanted people to draw their own conclusions about his photography and felt naming it would interfere with their interpretations.

DD: He had a similar outlook when shooting with colour film, right?
Joakim Strömholm: Exactly. He felt colours affected your brain in a way that risked influencing an audience’s reaction. If you see red maybe you’ll have a certain preconceived idea. Maybe you'll think of love or danger, for example. He didn't like that reaction. As a result of this, he shot in black-and-white for most of his career.

DD: Strömholm’s work is polarizing. How do you expect people to react?
Joakim Strömholm: Audiences usually have very different reactions so I'm confident some will love it and others will hate it. He enjoyed shocking people and provoking a reaction. That’s how it’s always been and how he liked it.

DD: Much of his street photography is upfront and personal. Taking photographs after making eye contact with his subjects must have required balls. Do you agree?
Joakim Strömholm: Street photography was much easier in the past. Nowadays, if you point a camera or even a smart phone at the wrong person you can have big problems. I pointed my camera at a sweet little kid in Paris a few years ago. It was a normal photograph. I got chased by two dogs and got called pedophile. It’s crazy how some people react.

DD: You also had a successful career as a music photographer. Was he supportive?
Joakim Strömholm: Yes in a way. My father gave me some of the tools of the trade. He gave me film and organised access to a darkroom after seeing some of my amateur photographs. But I still had to find my own way. He said: "You have something here, let’s see how you develop it."

DD: He also worked as a teacher. Was he good at it?
Joakim Strömholm: Yes. He was particularly good at showing students the practical tips and tricks needed to earn a living. He knew it could be difficult for student photographers to get access to gigs, for example, so he showed them how they could dismantle a camera like a weapon so they could smuggle them into forbidden places.

DD: Your father’s career spanned five decades. Are there any recurring themes in his work?
Joakim Strömholm: His ceaseless curiosity and stubbornness are recurring elements. Irrespective whether he made any money from it, he loved to photograph. I think that passion comes through consistently in his work.

DD: Your relationship with him had an interesting dynamic. What was he like as person?
Joakim Strömholm: At times he could be a real pain in the ass. He was moody and demanding. I got very close to him in the end - but it took me a while - about 30 years! He could be warm and loving but he did spend a lot of time locked away in his own creative bubble. 

Christer Strömholm, CHR, Fotografiska, until November 25, 2012