Christer Strömholm, Pepita, 1963. © Christer Strömholm/Strömholm Estate.
Raising issues about identity, sexuality, and gender, “Christer Strömholm: Les Amies de Place Blanche,” on view at the International Center of Photography (1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street, New York City) through September 2, presents 40 photographs, historical publications, and ephemera documenting young transgender people in the heart of Paris’s red-light district in the 1960s.
Arriving in Paris in the late 1950s, Christer Strömholm (Stockholm, 1918–2002) settled in Place Blanche, home of the famous Moulin Rouge. There, he befriended and photographed young transsexuals — “ladies of the night” — struggling to live as women and to raise money for sex-change operations. In President Charles de Gaulle’s ultraconservative France, transvestites (as they were usually called then) were outlaws, regularly abused and arrested by the police for being “men dressed as women outside the period of carnival.” Some of these women had tragic fates. Others, like “Nana” and “Jacky,” eventually fulfilled their destiny and led happy lives as women. Living alongside them for 10 years, Strömholm photographed his subjects in their hotel rooms, in bars, and in the streets of Paris.
“These intimate portraits and Brassaï-like lush night scenes form a magnificent, dark, and moving photo album, a vibrant tribute to these girls,” says ICP curatorial assistant Pauline Vermare, who organized the exhibition. These photographs were first published in Sweden in 1983, and the book Vännerna Från Place Blanche (The Girlfriends of Place Blanche) — which will be reissued this year in French and English — quickly sold out, becoming a cult classic and solidifying Strömholm as one of the great photographers of the 20th century.
As Strömholm wrote in 1983: “These are images of people whose lives I shared and whom I think I understood. These are images of women — biologically born as men — that we call ‘transsexuals.’ As for me, I call them ‘my friends of Place Blanche.’ It was then — and still is — about obtaining the freedom to choose one’s own life and identity.”
Christer Strömholm is a lesser-known artist but may well be the father figure of Scandinavian photography. This exhibition is the first presentation of Strömholm’s work in an American museum, and it features his most powerful and acclaimed body of work.