In short

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Published in 1967, in its design and construction Poste restante foreshadows a number of contemporary photography publications. Autobiographic in nature, the book is composed like an existentialist diary and offers snippets of Christer Strömholm’s great world voyages.

Juxtaposing, in a depraved world, the agreeable and the macabre, and combining portraits and street scenes with abstract photographic fragments, the book makes use of visual metaphors and word-play. While Strömholm explores the dark side of places and people, he sides with the marginalized and the lonely, and offers a profoundly tolerant vision of humanity.

The book begins with a text by Tor-Ivan Odulf which reconstructs five days of interviews with the artist conducted in Paris in January 1967. Strömholm’s autobiographical narrative, entitled Before Photography, is fragmentary and non-chronological. He describes his childhood spent in a reactionary, militaristic environment and, with cold distance, his father’s suicide. As a teenager, he met the painter Dick Beer whom he remembers very fondly. In 1936, aged 18, he went to Berlin where, in a country he qualifies as being 99% Nazi, he frequented a small community of dissidents and first became aware of the importance of the freedom of individuals.

As soon as World War II broke out, he volunteered to fight in Finland in winter, then joined the resistance in Norway. Dispassionately, he describes the assassinations he took part in. He describes his life after the war, headed for Paris, as one of an adventurer and an outsider; he recalls the friendliness of prostitutes to whom he would teach the few English words necessary to exercise their profession. He never mentions his training as an artist, instead focusing on his turbulent life and activities at the boundaries of the law with which he made his living. The only thing in his story that links up with photography, his future mode of expression, is the emphasis on the exchange of glances. Even though a few portraits are included at the end of the book, nothing is said about the photographer’s work with transsexual “ladies of the night” around Place Blanche, Paris’s red light district, who were the subject of his best-known book published in 1983.

At no point does the text help situate the images geographically, either through captions or elsewhere in the discussion, as the title indicates, of what came “before photography.” We can only guess we are looking at Paris, Calcutta, or Tokyo, and assume the order is chronological; Strömholm offers no clues. The reader has no choice but to follow the poetic stream of thought while considering the themes recurring in the artist’s work, such as the black and white images of death, daily life, the private sphere, and friendship. The first image in the book, the nearly human hand of a gorilla grasping the bars of his cage , directly engages the readers, propelling them into the narrative that follows.

Irène Attinger

Irène Attinger is the manager of the library and the bookshop at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, in Paris.

Christer Strömholm, Poste Restante
Reissued by Strömholm Estate and The Eyes Publishing

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