Les amies de Place Blanche / Christer Strömholm

Les Amies de Place Blanche
/ Christer Strömholm (2011)
Transgender women of Paris in the Fifties and Sixties

These beautiful photographs of transgender women, in Paris from the late 1950s and early 1960s were taken by Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm, who traveled to Paris in the late-fifties, where he hoped to create a new kind of night-life street photography. Strömholm lived in the Red Light district, around Place Blanche and Pigalle, where he made friends with many of the young transgender women who worked the streets and hotels to make a living.
In 1983, Strömholm published many of these photographs in his book Les Amies de Place Blanche. In his introduction to the book he wrote: “This is a book about the quest for self-identity, about the right to live, about the right to own and control one’s body....These are images of people whose lives I shared and whom I think I understood"

Christer Strömholm, who died in 2002, is known as the father of Swedish photography both for his abiding influence and for his role as a teacher. In the late 1950s and early 60s, he lived in Paris intermittently and it was there that he created his most famous book, Les amies de Place Blanche – portraits of the often glamorous transsexuals who comprised a subculture within a subculture in the red-light district around Pigalle. It has now been reissued with newly commissioned essays by two of the women featured in the book, Jackie and Nana.

Les amies de Place Blanche brought Strömholm both great acclaim and a degree of notoriety. The black-and-white photographs, shot at night in available light, merge street photography and portraiture and are, by turns, glamorous and gritty. They capture a lost Paris, sleazy yet stylish, subterranean yet flamboyant, at a time when General de Gaulle was in power and intent on creating an ultra-conservative France that echoed his strict Roman Catholic values. To this end, he reintroduced a long-forgotten law that allowed the state to seize the property of landlords who allowed their premises to be used by prostitutes.

The "night birds" Strömholm photographed worked the streets around Place Blanche at considerable risk, hoping to raise money to travel to Casablanca for the expensive operation that would complete their gender transformation. Most of them did not realise their dream.

Strömholm was initially drawn to the area's edgy subterranean nightlife: the peep shows, the strip clubs, the prostitutes and their pimps. Like his subjects, he worked into the early hours, trawling the streets, befriending and photographing his subjects. For a time, he lived on the fifth floor of the Hôtel Chappe, where six of the transsexuals featured in the book also lived. As Christian Caujolle, the owner of the Vu photography agency in Paris, notes, 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". This was a kind of insider reportage based on trust and friendship. "Everyone knew what I was doing," Strömholm wrote later. "I never took stolen pictures." It shows.

The transsexuals of Place Blanche led a hard life of often dogged survival, but in the photographs, one senses a camaraderie – between the "girls" and between the photographer and his subject – as well as an almost celebratory defiance. Gina and Nana pose like glamorous film stars, Martine like an exotic circus performer, and Jackie like someone who could just as easily have hung out at Andy Warhol's Factory in New York in the late 1960s. Strömholm offered them total self-expression and they responded accordingly.

Les amies de Place Blanche is, as Strömholm wrote in his original foreword, a book "about insecurity… about humiliation… about the quest for self-identity and the right to live". These themes are not immediately apparent in these wonderful portraits, though, which often have a glamour that befits their subjects' exaggerated self-image, their often unrealisable dreams and desires. A book of longing, then, and a true classic of postwar European photography.

Bron: International Center of Photography

Les amies de Place Blanche by Christer Strömholm – review / Sean O'Hagan    
The Guardian – The Observer

Christer Strömholm: Les Amies de Place Blanche

International Center of Photography, New York – 18 mei – 2 september 2012

Het boek Les Amies de Place Blanche is te koop bij de Guardian Bookshop, prijs: £28.00

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