Christer Strömholm (1918 – 2002) was 17-years-old when he left Stockholm and moved to Dresden where he studied at the Dresden School of Art. His interest in Modern Art led to a schism with his professors and resulted in his leaving Dresden, moving to Prague and then to Paris.
In Paris he met a Swedish painter with the fabulous name Dick Beer. Together they travelled in the South of France, a time of peace and quiet before WW II. At the outbreak of the war, Strömholm returned to Sweden. When he was 21-years-old, he volunteered to fight in the Finnish Winter War, a 15-month conflict between Russia and Finland, and continued with the Swedish army fighting the Nazis in Norway. Back in Stockholm, he served as courier and contact person for the Norwegian Resistance Movement.
After the war, Strömholm returned to Paris and enrolled at the Académie des Beaux Arts. His interest in photography came when he discovered a large-format camera and appreciated its possibilities as an artist tool. He was given commissions shooting the leading figures of the French cultural scene such as Fernand Léger, Le Corbusier, and Marcel Duchamp.
In the late-1950s, Strömholm discovered the transgender people of Paris. He started taking photographs of them in bars and hotel rooms in the neighborhood of Place Blanche. He became good friends with many of them, eventually writing a book about his experiences with the Parisian trans community, Friends From Place Blanche (1983). Strömholm worked for nearly a decade on this project. During this period, he formulated his technique as a street photographer using a large camera and his vision concerning the content and function of his pictures. He also developed his philosophy of using only the available light at the moment of exposure and the personal responsibility of the use of his pictures. He portrayed his subjects in an intimate and exuberant way, either in the street or in the hotel rooms where they were living. His work exudes fragility and beauty and take on the big questions of life: love, death and human loneliness.
Strömholm shared their early afternoon breakfasts, watched them put on make-up and clothes, went down with them to the streets as they solicited for clients. Strömholm:
“Everyone knew what I was doing.I never took stolen pictures.”
The girls of Place Blanche had a hard life fighting for survival, but in the photographs, one senses a camaraderie between the girls and between the photographer and his subjects as well as an almost celebratory defiance.
From street walks at night to everyday life, Strömholm followed their struggles and their triumphs. Strömholm:
“These are images of people whose lives I shared and whom I think I understood. These are images of women, biologically born as men. A portrayal of those living a different life in the big city of Paris, of people who endured the roughness of the streets.”
“It was then and still is about obtaining the freedom to choose one’s own life and identity.”
Here’s a selection of images from Les Amies de Place Blanche:
All photographs from the Strömholm Estate