Consider Gina and Belinda
Little Christer, 1955
From The Smart Set:
In this small but engaging show, Strömholm documents these women’s lives in public and private. He gives us intimate scenes from inside drab hotel rooms and claustrophobic bathrooms, where the women stare at the camera through their reflections in the mirror, a double image that underscores the residue of theater present even in such private moments. It is the gaze that is a constant. These women turn to us again and again with a direct and unashamed pleasure at being viewed.
But the more striking photos are taken on the streets of Montmartre, in the cafés and brasseries between Pigalle and Place Blanche, all within the swirl of the area’s mix of nightclubs and sex shops, dance halls and freak shows, which had given the area its aura of bohemian excitement for bourgeois pleasures since the late 19th century. Strömholm used the artificial light of the city’s nighttime scenes — the interior bars and exterior street lamps — to create images that hold a precisely noir feel, transforming his subjects from sidewalk denizens into intriguing icons of beauty and allure. The lighting creates harsh shadows and glittery sparks that accentuate the playful gestures or serious looks of these women. At times I thought I could detect fragments of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s eye in certain photographs. But with the dark shadows and artificial light, these images present a much more theatrical effect, recalling experiments in French cinema in the period. One photograph, “Little Christer” (1955), shows a small boy standing in front of a make-shift elevated stage. We can only see the legs of the men and women on stage. But the image is about the light that floods the stage floor and spills onto the boy, who stands alone, enthralled with the stage and the light. The crowd behind him vanishes into the darkness of the evening. This is the theatrics that shape much of Strömholm’s work. We seem to sit there, with him and his subjects, mesmerized by the light of the moment, while darkness is all around.
Take “Gina” (1963), for example. The figure poses on the cobbled street, her tightly tailored white dress contrasting with the darkened background, her hands resting on her left knee as her body slightly bends forward. Her face exudes a comfortable pleasure in front of Strömholm’s camera. You look at such a photo, taken with charm and elegance on the streets of Paris, and you forget that it was illegal in de Gaul’s France for a man to wear a dress.
Like Brassai’s images of the Paris nightlife of a different era, Strömholm’s photographs capture a mood as much as a person, a moment recorded in time and place as much as a scene framed for the camera’s eye. But unlike Brassai’s distant and often voyeuristic visions of Paris, Strömholm’s images turn what was deemed strange (and illegal) into a simplicity of beauty and charm.
Consider “Belinda” (1967), whose subject reclines amidst a pillow of white, the soft skin of fur wrapped around her torso, her face playful and seductive. It is true that many of these women worked as prostitutes and dance hall objects of attraction. They trafficked their powers of performance and play toward bodily and visual pleasures for eager patrons. And it is perhaps this theatricality of life that merged public image with private imaginings that makes Strömholm’s work so intimately appealing. Images of the women in more casual moments together and alone, half-naked, but always in makeup underscore not only Strömholm’s trusted place in the community, but also a compelling quality to his portraits that explore the line between documentary and scrapbook. These portraits so often make the private so attractively public.