12 April 2019

THE THOUSAND EYES OF HOYTE VAN HOYTEMA

Installation photo from Here’s Looking at You at Sven-Harrys in Stockholm.

Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.

– Walker Evans

The big black hat encircled by red marigold flowers sways between the figures of death on the balconies around. Its wearer, a lofty calaca – eyes hollow, a tubby cigar, the bare scaffolding of a human carcass – slowly moves through the swarming streets of Mexico City during Día de Muertos. Soon, a sinister figure of flesh and blood appears from the wrong end of the crowd and rounds a man and a woman without the knowledge of who they are and why they are there or that the suit he is wearing isn’t going to stay that white much longer.

The eye goes with this couple who start to walk against the flow of the bony fancy-dress marchers; through a gate, a flight of stairs and the elevator up to agent Estrella’s room 327 at the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México – from Mexico City to Pinewood Studios in London and then back again in one long phenomenal tracking shot – where the cloak-and-dagger nature of the mission makes the 007 moult, and then he just as quickly unloads himself from the rooftop so that the neighbouring building and its denizens are blown to chipotle (and here of course is where the massive beauty fades and the story derails into usual Bond stuff).

For master cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, the Director of Photography for this Spectre (2015) movie, film is “an experience not very different to music”. Someone who has most certainly responded to the remarkable musicality of his films, and especially the musty glossiness of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), is Dragana Kusoffsky Maksimović who is the new Director of Sven-Harrys (Art Museum) at Vasaparken in Stockholm – a staircase-y art space (not a museum) housed in a five-storey structure sheathed in an amalgamation of metals with a Goldfinger tint. 

“It could have been a fantastic exhibition if we had invited a really good photo expert, there are lots of those who would have done something extraordinary. But I wanted the contrast between photography and moving pictures, and easiest for me was to start with some directors who I find interesting. I began with the cinema and what kind of story there was to tell. However, when I started to think about it, it was the film photographer that was dead on target here. And there was no other name than Hoyte van Hoytema. That’s it,” she says with a smile in a room jammed with photographs of people, both from the walls and mounted on a zigzag course of floor stands, and every one of them is eyeing us up. 

Heres Looking at You is Kusoffsky Maksimović’s first show under her own direction and it is really something, a feast for the eyes, and more, though she claims that it was a hair’s breadth from failure, that the exhibition almost wouldn’t happen. “A little bit, yeah,” van Hoytema fills in. “When Dragana called me, I was not really ready to do something like this. I replied that I would do an exhibition if I get a good idea, and I hoped that I wouldn’t get a good idea because I had a lot of work and a lot of things to do. I woke up the next morning and I had a kind of idea – damn! [he laughs] – so at that moment I took it upon me, and it is a very big treat for a photographer to get access to such an incredible and rich collection of photographs.”

Dragana Kusoffsky Maksimović reveals that one of her intentions with Sven-Harrys is to bring out photography, but that this show arrived by chance when she was invited to a dinner at the Moderna Museet in the Swedish capital. After the warm thrill of confusion of finding her name all wrong on the seating card she realised that she had been placed next to Dragana Vujanović Östlind, Chief Curator at the Hasselblad Foundation in Gothenburg, which soon enough accepted to make their group of works available for Stockholm. “And I can assure you, it was not easy to download three thousand photographs from the Hasselblad Collection into a PDF file and email that to Hoyte. And he actually went through each and every photo. One day he was in Latin America, another day in North America, and next time he was in Europe. So that we were able to do this is extraordinary.”

“I think it is amazing that he starts from the eyeline because it is Hoyte’s eyes that I am after,” Kusoffsky Maksimović continues. The curator of the show explains that eyelines means how the eyes are relating to the lens. “In the beginning I tried to find a connection to my own job and what images, still photos, do to me and I think I found some parallels very much related to photography language. And one of those parallels, and one of those most important tools in my work, is eyelines. As a cinematographer, eyelines is an extremely important tool in the way you tell stories for instance. It has everything to do with where you put the camera in relation to the actors, where you tell your actors to look, and with that: what do these eyelines mean, how do they empower the story points? And ultimately: how do they connect the viewer with the filmmaker?”

There are pencil marks here and there which level a great number of the eyes in the show at 152.4 centimetres from the floor. “There are many different numbers and every country is different. But let’s say that this is an average eyeline, and so if you stand in front of a picture your eyes will be at the same height as the eyes in those images. In film, if you put the camera higher or lower, it tells very different things and you can make a person stronger or weaker or sadder, or disconnect with somebody or create mystery,” says Hoyte van Hoytema. “I figured out somehow that this is a kind of experiment, even for me. I am just very curious about finding and organising photos in terms of eyelines, and putting them together in a story order and let them speak to us as a whole, as a collection.”

The one hundred and ninety-seven photographic portraits in Here’s Looking at You would blaze for just 8.2 seconds if they were frames in a film – as James Monaco writes in How to Read a Film: Movies, Media and Beyond, “There is something magical and intoxicating about the frozen moment of a still work of art that captures life in full flight” – and they are pictures taken by as many as ninety-eight photographers. “Most of these pictures are iconic and powerful and extremely interesting in their own right. It is crazy to have so many important photos in a small space like this, and it is a really cool experiment as well,” says van Hoytema in a cheerful tone. “I kind of feel that I have to apologise to every photographer in here because I cannot treat each work with the kind of respect it deserves. But, you know, this very much works for me in a group context.”

He is absolutely right. There is a telling behind-the-scenes account from the filming of The Planet of the Apes in Arizona in 1967, where the actors who played the socially differentiated gorillas (workers and soldiers), chimps (scientists and intellectuals) and orangutans (political leaders) additionally behaved and segregated themselves according to their Platonian ape castes in the canteen. Here’s Looking at You has its Richard Avedons, Irving Penns and Yngve Baums, both among the photographers and the photographed, though what this show delivers with bravura is a confident and affirmative perception of our individual and collective humanity – and without a trace of the highfalutin too-muchery of Steichen’s The Family of Man (which was presented by MoMA in 1955 and toured the world for eight years). 

Robert Frank was jailed in Dixieland for a few days in 1955 for the un-American business of just looking when he was working with his Leica on The Americans (his classic published in France in 1958). That sort of preposterous scrutiny has of course been cultivated by the Thought Police ever since the 1970s. In his book What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society, Paul Verhaeghe describes how “Hegel traced the origin of self-consciousness back to the gaze of the other. It is through that gaze, monitoring or loving, that we know that we exist. The word ‘respect’ is very important here: it literally means ‘the art of looking back at’, re-spicere.”

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues in Staring: How We Look that “whether they are a challenge or a burden, stares do not necessarily make one a victim; rather, they can make one a master of social interaction” and she speaks about the great benefits of photographic portraits: “They grant us more than permission to stare; they use the clout of high art to transform our staring from a breach of etiquette or an offensive intrusion into an art of appreciation. These portraits enable visual pilgrimages of deliberate contemplation that might be scuttled on a face-to-face encounter on the street. The invitation to look that a portrait offers precludes our skittish staring and instead allows us to look deep and long into these unfamiliar faces made strangely familiar.”

“We are often shameless in the way we allow ourselves to share in other people’s eyes,” says van Hoytema. The first wall in the show is like a bulwark against immoderate peepers. The people in these nineteen pictures are all turning their backs on us. Flanking them on the left is a wall full of people with their eyes turned to the right, and then vice versa on the opposite side. The sheer number of pictures to process has made the curator look at this show as a kind of “thesis”. “I think it works in quantities, the more the better,” he states. “You can for yourself decide to get to know the people in this exhibition, observe them and take them in, and you see that you get a very different kind of connection to a photograph.”

The panoply of people and their eyes continues on every floor at Sven-Harrys. The fourth wall of looking straight into the camera is broken in the next room with the big windows towards Vasaparken as a green screen to the show. It was in this park that the police helicopter crashed in Sjöwall–Wahlöö’s The Abominable Man which director Bo Widerberg in 1976 turned into one of the greatest Swedish masterpieces of all times, The Man on the Roof. Astrid Lindgren wrote all of her famous children’s books in the house next to Sjöwall–Wahlöö’s fictitious police killer. She is one of the many, many individuals in here who stare, pry and – maybe, hopefully – eavesdrop on us.

“I kind of hoping that by depriving and then giving you the eyes, you will get some sense of understanding of the mechanism of looking,” explains Hoyte van Hoytema. “And I have a feeling that if you keep going to the eyes, your initial connection with these photos is very naked, pure and intimate, and that is why I felt it would be nice to set it up like this and that is why we have images all over the place so nobody is able to step way. Everywhere you look there will be people staring at you, and they are engaging with you, and they will share some intimacy with you. Of course, this is all theory, but when I walk through this room after envisioning this in my head, I kind of feel connected to the people. And the other thing is that I feel a little bit stared at, which is a good thing. Normally you are always on the winning side and the balance is very uneven, right? But with so many eyes on you I felt the pictures were becoming a little more ‘empowered’ as a whole.”

A picture of George Bush Sr is a perfect example of how this show works and how well it works, and it is from Avedon’s series The Family for Rolling Stone magazine (issue 224) in 1976. In this venture, Avedon refused to say a word to any of the sixty-nine people of power that he portrayed, and lurched around in his studio just staring forcefully at his subjects while catching that spirit of uncertainty in an eight-by-ten-inch camera. Bush doesn’t look like a nobody, he looks like a somebody, like the rest in here. In her photobook Couples and Loneliness (1998), Nan Goldin laments that “I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.” And yet, Here’s Looking at You shows us again that there is a sorcerous quality to the best photographic images of our fellow human beings. Great photographers do not steal our souls, they capture the perpetuity of human wonder and frivolity. Us.

Compare this to Lina Mannheimer’s atomised documentary Mating (2019) in which the young man Edvin and the young woman Naomi filmed themselves for a whole year and provided the absent director with unlimited access to their Me-Myself-and-I canteens on social media. “What a disappointing 21st century this has been so far,” David Bowie told the BBC in June 2002. “I had personally really quite high expectations about the future. I had no idea it would sort of capitulate into this awful mess, and this dreadful feeling of an involuntary kind of lack of ability to be able to do anything about this impending possible disastrous series of consequences, which, you know, one has so many suspicions about what are the real reasons and the real causes to them. It’s not a pleasant way to live.”

The last space at the top contains only seven pictures and van Hoytema calls it “a kind of relaxation room after you have taken all these eyes in”. What these people have in common is that they withhold themselves from us as viewers. The human brain has honed its skills to process its verdict on a new face in fifty milliseconds but these people are hiding like elephants when they are happy.

“Here’s looking at you” is most famously a line from Casablanca (1942). It was used in another film with Bogart ten years earlier, Three on a Match, when Mike (Lyle Talbot) seeks to woo Ann Dvorak’s character Vivian with a martini and a cheer:

He: “Well, here’s looking at you.”

She: “At me?”

He: “Yeah! And liking it too!”

Christer Strömholm, The Pale Lady, Barcelona 1959. © Strömholm Estate.

Here’s Looking at You curated by Hoyte van Hoytema at Sven-Harrys in Stockholm through May 19, 2019.

4 November 2018

A CERTAIN SMILE, A CERTAIN SADNESS

Lars Tunbjörk, Skara 1990 (from Country Beyond Itself, 1993). © Lars Tunbjörk Estate.
Lars Tunbjörk, Avesta 2007 (from Winter, 2007). © Lars Tunbjörk Estate.

Each of us is more than one person, many people, a proliferation of our one self. That's why the same person who scorns his surroundings is different from the person who is gladdened or made to suffer by them.

– Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

“The moment I open my eyes reality turns unelectrified” is a nifty line from poet Kristina Lugn of Chair number 14 in the pretty vacant Swedish Academy, care of the land of milk and honey. On the contrary, there is no shortage of botched realities in Lars Tunbjörk’s (1956–2015) photography. In his wonderfully opposite way, Tunbjörk never turned a blind eye to the “powerless” algorithms of ugliness. His close affinity with bizarrely awkward circumstances and underwhelming environments creates a myriad of impressions in each of his pictures, tipping from chirpy to trenchant to conversely gorgeous, discords most often sublime. Eyes wide opened to a reality of pure galvanism.

“Lars Tunbjörk’s pictures were like falling in love, I was intoxicated! No, this is not an exaggeration. This is how it was,” avows his unconventional and ingenious editor Mika Larsson from the superlative 1980s inflight magazine Upp & Ner (ner is “down” in Swedish), which was distributed to every seatback on the domestic carrier’s beautiful Fokker F28s. “We had a continual narrator and it was Lars Tunbjörk. He was exceptional. His disarming eye made him the Jacques Tati of photographic art. He registered the hilarious in us humans, which he constantly and tenderly captured. Nobody could – or can – capture the flickering moments like he did, time and time again. Early on, he also saw our great loneliness. And by directing his camera eye to the side, he saw our dreams. His eyes could ask for permission, but his magnetism assured him of a response from those he wanted to photograph.”

The Earth sinks to its grave in Tunbjörk’s elegantly compositional picture from the belly (just forget about the heart) of a dismal Gothenburg car park photographed in a sapless green light. This cake of architecture, feng shuied as it is with thrown-in slabs of trifle Styrofoam that seem to float above the ground, a blue Way Out sign and a spiralling yellow ramp topped by the most pathetic Xmas tree, is a piece of totalitarian junk from the country’s modern history – a history controlled and contrived by the Swedes’ appointed Nurse Ratchet, the Social Democratic Party.

It is perhaps not much known that Susan Sontag lived in Stockholm during the late 1960s, as a guest of the Swedish Film Institute. In her lengthy piece ”A Letter from Sweden”, published in Ramparts magazine in July, 1969, she examined an alien nation “deeply ambivalent about the fulfilment of its sensuality”: “Sweden is the only country I know of where misanthropy is a respectable attitude,” she argued. “Who wouldn't be misanthropic, if one’s personal relations were habitually stifled, loaded with anxiety, experienced as coercive. For most Swedes, human ‘contact’ is always, at least initially, a problem – though in many cases, the problem can be solved, the distance bridged. Being with people feels like work for them, far more than it does like nourishment.”

On the facing page to the car park fiasco in this screamingly magnificent new book from the Stockholm publisher Max Ström – Lars Tunbjörk: Retrospective, which collects two hundred and fifty full-page images of the Swedish photographer’s most precious moments – is a picture of an environment simply too gloomy for any scene in the DDR drama The Lives of Others (2006), and it is from the same year as the Berlin Wall went down: two unsociable people in their time of mandatory fika and an orchestra of two dark-suited undertakers playing a few steps behind – half of this congregation is dimmed by a hapless plant. Tunbjörk’s pictures are like a Theatre of the Absurd: the sweetest, grimmest, most critical, yet most sympathetic postcards of obscure sorrows, pitched to the brink of the surreal. (Sort of, “Greetings from Jollyland – May We All Get Better Together.”)

In the book Absurd Drama (1965), Martin Esslin writes that the Theatre of the Absurd operates as an assault on comfortable certitudes which “aims to shock its audience out of complacency”: “But the challenge behind this message is anything but one of despair. It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly […] The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.”

Tunbjörk had merely left his Södermalm apartment building to meet up with his friend Göran Odbratt (the main essay writer in Retrospective) at a Kungsgatan cinema on April 8, 2015 when his heart, out of nowhere, just stopped. A neighbour saw him and called the ambulance. Lars Tunbjörk was declared dead at 2:28 that afternoon. He was fifty-nine years old.

Paul Moakley accurately called him “one of the most influential visionaries in contemporary colour photography” in his Tunbjörk obituary in Time magazine (April 14, 2015): “I’ll always remember the photos he made of [Republican] Rick Santorum at a Buffalo Wild Wings. That day, December 30, 2011, which Lars spent driving for hours to follow the various candidates, Lars lingered after the event had ended and all the press had left. Santorum, surrounded by his staffers, stayed for dinner and Lars was able to photograph him praying over a mountain of nachos. The resulting photography perfectly demonstrated all the artifice and craft of the political theatre and showed something real about the candidate. This was Lars’s approach – subtle and without judgement.”

A retrospective, both as a comprehensive book and a show at Fotografiska in Stockholm, was in the making in the spring of 2015. “He was reluctant to do it, however, because he felt that this is something that you would do as a conclusion, and he felt that he wanted to add something new in order to do a retrospective. So he was struggling with it, but he had started to put pink notes in his books,” explains the photographer and documentary filmmaker Maud Nycander as she hands over a scrapbook chockablock with coloured paper strips. “I thought he had done enough for a retrospective, but his demands on himself were just incredible. I can understand that a retrospective is a kind of conclusion, but he thought of it as a halfway phase as well. It was also that his previous books had been out of print for years and that his images were unavailable.”

Nycander, who married Tunbjörk on her fiftieth birthday, says that two years passed before she was able to pick up her husband’s work again. “In a way it has been burdensome, but also very meaningful, and what is meaningful is gratifying to me. It is a privilege to take care of and process his photos, also for the sake of my own healing. We met in 1992, so after that I know every job he has done. Lars always sat at the kitchen table with his work. So it’s also like I have been going through our common life.”

“In working with the retro book, I sent Lars’s earlier books on referral. I made my choices first, and then others made theirs. If many people liked a certain picture it got a second chance. My selection was maybe ninety per cent of how things worked out, but oftentimes it is the ten per cent that will make it great in the end. My ambition with both the book and the show is not to make any new interpretation of his work, or do my personal interpretation, but to try to put it as close to Lars as possible, so that one should be able to follow his art over time.”

Lars Tunbjörk – A View From the Side is the name of the show at Fotografiska, curated by Maud Nycander and Tunbjörk’s older colleague Hasse Persson who shared the same photographic background as Tunbjörk at the local morning paper Borås Tidning. The show is a little bit too tightly presented to be on the same perfect level as the organic elegance of the book, though the prints are lush and of the original intended sizes. Something that is lost in the book is the complete visualisation of a waitress’s pale but pretty face in Karlskrona 1996 from Tunbjörk’s profoundly personal series Winter (published in 2007).

In this picture, in the show, you see the photographer in her pupils, raising his homemade flashgun featuring a plastic globe from a bathroom lamp as a diffuser. Tunbjörk said that he was kind of lost without his hallmark flash – on display along with a power pack, a light meter and his favourite camera, the brass-bodied Makina 67 – which was a clever and effective arrangement for his handheld method, and one of the secrets behind his democratic principle that everything in his pictures is of equal importance.

In Sinclair Lewis’s novel Main Street (1920), Carol Kennicott contemplates how an escape from one American small town to another would be a “flight from familiar tedium to new tedium” but that it nonetheless would provide “for a time the outer look and promise of adventure”. It is the “Village Virus” of these places that she fears the most: “The contentment of the quiet dead, who are scornful of the living for their restless walking. It is negation canonised as the one positive virtue. It is the prohibition of happiness. It is slavery self-sought and self-defended. It is dullness made God.”

Lars Tunbjörk could never quite agree with the anti-drama of life’s commonplace routines, and had, in Nycander’s words, “a hard time with the usual, rather boring things that we have to do and which occupy quite a bit of our everyday lives. Because he was so talented, he was early on assigned to do the most satisfying jobs. And he had grown up as the only child and was a bit spoiled.” The irony of this is that wherever these fine assignments took him, he somewhat (to some degree or another) always photographed the ho-hum preoccupations and the proud dullness of small-town living. But the beauty in this is that Tunbjörk photographed it like Paul Thomas Anderson filmed the disconnected Barry in the Honolulu phone booth in Punch-Drunk Love (2002). It’s so ugly, it’s so sad – but the moment that Lena picks up the phone, the booth becomes luminous. 

The rosso corsa frames that Tunbjörk chose for the pictures in his international breakthrough series Country Beside Itself, published in 1993, were an affirmation to the red colour of the buses in the small city where he was born. He moved to Stockholm when he was twenty and of course later worked all over the world but Borås was always the inception. (As Göran Odbratt puts in his essay, “Lars left Borås but Borås never left him.”) When an artist habitually returns to his or her place of origin it is generally related to grand-style trauma, but Tunbjörk really had a good life there and was properly schooled at Borås Tidning during his teens. In Stockholm he joined a cooperative of photographers and moved on to the morning paper Stockholms-Tidningen until its demise in 1984. His photojournalism was so special (some of these black and white pictures are featured in the Retrospective) that he became the Photographer of the Year in Sweden in 1982.

A personal failure was his pictures from Liverpool two years later. Tunbjörk spent six weeks in the company of alternative Liverpudlians for a set of stills that were used in a film on the Swedish public television broadcaster (SVT). However, when he went back to the UK and showed the result, people just thought it was pretty awful. “Although I tried to explain that they themselves had taken me to the places I had photographed, they didn’t think that my pictures represented reality. It was probably something with the imagery that made them think that the city looked as if it had been observed through the eyes of a stranger. It was an eye-opener and I decided to only photograph what I knew,” he told a photo magazine in 2011. “For a while I thought about only photographing Borås. But I pretty soon realised that I wouldn’t tolerate it. Still, I have essentially been lingering in the Swedish small town and the everyday life there. That is what ultimately interests me, the most common. I want to turn and twist what’s most obvious.”

In his book A Philosophy of Boredom, Lars Svendsen dips deeply into life’s principal threadbare staple: “Boredom lacks the charm of melancholy – a charm that is connected to melancholy’s traditional link to wisdom, sensitivity and beauty […] Boredom is not just an inner state of mind; it is also a characteristic of the world, for we participate in social practices that are saturated with boredom. At times, it almost seems as if the entire Western world has become like Berghof, the sanatorium Hans Castorp stayed at for seven years in Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain [1924]. We kill time and bore ourselves to death.”

Tunbjörk enchanted boredom, his pictures hack our brains with dopamine. But he needed the colours, and a bold editor in the 1980s, to make it happen. “Tunis”, as his friends and colleagues called him, was the first person that Mika Larsson engaged when she took over the helm of Upp & Ner magazine. “Tunis was very determined about colour – it was not his tool. Colour was only surface. But he had seen a portrait of August Strindberg in a passage in one of the capital’s metro stations, a black and white photograph against a burning, scorching deep red background. He went back there again and again. The colour photography of ‘Sweden’s biggest fire’ actually became Lars Tunbjörk’s first published image in Upp & Ner. It was in late spring, 1983.”

“We had many conversations about this new ‘fad’ – colour photography – and of course I respected his attitude: the Strindberg picture was an exception! I think I have located what was Tunis’s game changer at Upp & Ner: the portrait of the author Klas Östergren. It was unthinkable for Lars to take a portrait in colour. Maybe it was a friendship gesture, I am not sure about that, but he accepted my proposal to take the portrait both in black and white and in colour,” Larson recounts. “I remember his surprise when he saw the result. It was Lars Tunbjörk who chose the portrait in colour that was to be on the cover in the late summer of 1983.”

“‘The Mirror of Us’ was published in the next issue – a story entirely in colour about a workshop in Södermalm in Stockholm where mannequins were manufactured, and it was Tunbjörk’s own decision. In the beginning, he treated his colour photography as if the images were taken in black and white. Shadow play and midtones were an important part of the story. But with each new story, his curiosity added to the possibilities of colour photography. The black and white image was soon the exception, despite the fact that the theme of the narratives was increasingly approaching Country Beyond Itself. He found expression in colour for the raising melancholy, the growing darkness.”

The beliefs of the world are hanging in suspension in Country Beyond Itself, Tunbjörk’s masterful multipack of unflattering Swedishness – bagged during the era when Nurse Ratchet’s almost unlimited control over everything and everyone was weakened and Sweden’s grim outlook vacillated between familiar tedium and a new tedium in the early 1990s. “It was very exciting to travel around Sweden at the time, it was almost like travelling around the US sometimes. It was brand new colours, plastic and glitter that had emerged during these few boom years of the 80s. And it was a kick to shoot at first, till you are fed up with the whole thing.” According to Tunbjörk it was like having too much candy to eat. “I just got angrier and angrier as the project progressed, at the dismantling of the welfare state. And it had only just begun then, it has become worse and worse ever since.”

A living room in Borås: the eyes go from the legs of a person sitting in a hideous sofa and a big window with a jungle out there, to a fireplace with a fake flame and a white TV set with Sweden’s Maggie Thatcher, a Count who made a political career in the early 90s together with his sidekick “Servant”, the latter who has ever since lined his pockets with money from the very migrant business he despises. Country Beyond Itself is a peepshow of sorts, a multifaceted portrait of a monotonous nation, a phantasmagoria quite like Ari Aster’s marvellous first hour of Hereditary (2018) in which we enter a cabinet of curiosities where reality is just a little different and things occur with a passel of incertitudes. So how are the Swedes doing in Tunbjörkville? They are living la vida loca, in the sole company of themselves, or with others, doing exactly the same things.

Sweden as a spiritual desert and the Swedes as a people of a totalitarian temperament are the key themes in the former Stockholm correspondent Roland Huntford’s book The New Totalitarians (1971). Sweden was the first nation in the world to embody “scientific” Fascism, and the National Institute for Race Biology was founded in 1922 in Uppsala. But Sweden’s worst crimes in the name of “racial hygiene” went on for decades after World War II. Sixty-three thousand people (mostly women) were subjected to force sterilisation and four thousand were lobotomised. There was also at least one locality that had the prerequisites of a Gulag in the Swedish welfare state, folkhemmet

“Difference in the Swedish world has always been something undesirable, half sin, half disease. In the modern Welfare State, its eradication has become an obsession, because its continued existence is a flaw in the system,” Huntford argues. “Personality has been suppressed, the collective worshipped at the expense of the individual. Given the European ethos, this might be expected to arouse rebellion. But not among the Swedes. They love their servitude […] It leads to the paradox that, while the Swede is immersed in the collective, and looks upon community and solidarity as the most desirable of attributes, he is locked up in himself, isolated from other human beings.”

Maud Nycander pronounces that what Tunbjörk portrayed in Sweden were also things that took place throughout the Western world. “Alas, in my brief search for the authentic England I did not discover it,” lamented the wonderful Brian Sewell in “A Weekend in the Country”, from his column in the London Evening Standard (April 25, 2000), featured in The Orwell Essays: “It is true that I found byways and backwaters of pedestrianized conservation, but these were self-consciously neat, clean, re-processed and deprived of meaning, reduced to the authenticity of ornaments advertised in Sunday supplements as limited editions and bought for her mantelpiece by Hyacinth Bucket.”

“For £99 a night what does one get in provincial England? A building that in its cheap and bleak design (it cannot be called architecture) is as hostile to the soul as a block of workman’s flats on the outskirts of Zagreb […] The ubiquitous McDonald’s is next door, and one step up from it is TGI Friday’s, staffed by terrified mutant bunny girls with fluffy tails sprouting from their shoulder blades, where wild Antarctic salmon is lovingly seared with sticks of glowing charcoal by thigh-looted, whip-cracking kitchen maids especially for you-hoo; in such a place the simple refreshment of a plain vanilla ice cannot be had – one must choose a Chocolate Chunky Monkey or a Strapping Strawberry Wench.”

Country Beyond Itself was on show at Hasselblad Center in Gothenburg in 1993, at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm in 1994, and opened at the International Center of Photography in New York on December 1, 1995. Nycander mentions a trip to France in the summer of 1994 that was more than a holiday. “Lars had little international jobs or contacts then and only worked for the Swedish press, and we were passing through Arles and he stood in line to show his photos for Christian Caujolle – and then he joined Agence Vu directly. By Xmas, I was pregnant and we swapped flats with Joseph Rodríguez in New York, he has kids in Sweden, and Joseph gave him a list of people who should receive the book. Lars got a show at the ICP after a year. It was quite overwhelming for him. Kathy Ryan gave him a job at The New York Times Magazine that fall, and Lars worked for them regularly until he died.”

Six of Tunbjörk’s first pictures for the Times are in the book (one less in the show), like the one of the cowboy guy who looks like he has lost his human proportions until you see that he is hovering over a trampoline. This was one of the few pictures that Tunbjörk arranged, and how he got the cowboy to bounce like that with his arms tight to his body over the course of five rolls of film is a happy mystery. “I was over the Moon when I saw the 1995 pictures of the rich ranchers because I thought this is clearly an extraordinary eye at work. I love the way Lars cropped his pictures – for me it was an early sign of how he would organise the world in his frame, which was often to create a frame within a frame,” tells Kathy Ryan, picture editor of The New York Times Magazine since the mid-1980s, in a text based on the speech she gave at Borås Art Museum on October 13, 2017, during the inauguration of the Lars Tunbjörk Room. “It makes me feel bad that he was so worried, because everything he did would end up great.”

Next to these pictures at Fotografiska (as well as in the book) are some odd and sad and great samples from Paris Fashion Week in 2004 for the French magazine Libération. This batch of photographs combines Tunbjörk, the photojournalist with Tunbjörk, the ironic observer of human behaviour, and it is surely the only time he pictured people with dark sarcasm in the classroom. There are no glam catwalk pictures in this series, only the turmoil and confusion backstage at the fashion shows and scraps from the dejected afterparties with the fashion pack. In a self-portrait in the mirror by some model’s (Monica) clothes rail, Tunbjörk erases himself with his flash. In 1981, when he photographed a Moscow boy wearing a suit jacket big as the one in Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense (1984), that was also a self-portrait.

Nycander: “He looked a little bit lost as a person, and somewhat it was true that he could be confused, though he had total control of the situation. So there was a duality. He was absolutely not a person who anyone was intimidated by, which is a huge advantage as a photographer. We did a documentary [Road’s End (2013)] together in Latvia, and Lars was filming. I have worked with many film photographers, but he was the one who could get a person to love to re-enact a take for the fifth time. Lars was so sincere about what he was doing that people felt that they wanted to help him and that they too would take it seriously.”

He had photographed Paris before, for Paris 200 Years Afterwards (1989). The idea came from this great lady Mika Larsson during her “honeymoon” at a publishing house of popular literature, and she engaged the then-Paris correspondent of the national broadcaster Sveriges Radio, Herman Lindqvist, because she needed a renown figure to sell the book of this no-name artist. “Herman did not know about Lars Tunbjörk. He had never written about history, he was a columnist and a news journalist. I asked them to give each other a week together in Paris at our expense. Then they could make the decision. I knew that they would say yes and they said yes.” Unlike Country Beyond Itself, and what came later, these diapositive pictures have a clear sense of the “street” and outside – hence not the enclosed dioramas that would follow – but they are unmistakable tunbjörkers, pictures that no one else could have taken.

Herman Lindqvist remembered Tunbjörk as “one of the greatest photographers that I have met” on his Facebook page on April 11, 2015, and described the outcome of their almost wordless meetings in Paris in the late 1980s: “The week afterwards he showed incredible unique fun pictures that never had been taken before in Paris. This he did without speaking a word of French, just a kind of Borås English, loaded with his seriousness. Everyone obeyed him, even the French models who realised that here was a great artist. Rarely have I been so saddened by the news of someone’s demise.”

“Tedium …” wrote Fernando Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet (published posthumously in 1982), “It is suffering without suffering, to want without desire, to think without reason … It’s like being possessed by a negative demon, like being bewitched by nothing at all.” This is the sense that purveys Lars Tunbjörk’s Office (2001), the boredom of life made manifest by “white-collar” workplaces chiefly in New York, Tokyo and Stockholm. And the latter takes the cake of course. The picture of the far most spacious office, called Stockholm 1994, shows a man behind a boxy grey computer in an unintentionally creepy setting, a half-“lost-in-the-woods”-half-“shack-in-the-archipelago” funhouse (mind the chopping block with the missing axe). Tunbjörk was attracted to these things because he thought “they looked like small prison cells but also like beautiful objects”.

“He had a funny relationship towards ugliness,” says Maud Nycander. “He often thought that the ugly was beautiful. Often he didn’t think that what others thought was beautiful was beautiful. He could buy absolutely crazy things, incredibly kitschy – but kitsch with finesse. I learned how he saw a difference between one and the other. Lars did a project about flowers. He was fascinated by flower fairs and how we try to subdue and organise nature.”

The world is a no place without the people you love. Home (2002) is Tunbjörk’s bleak elegy to his father. Its centre is the house where Tunbjörk grew up, with bits of Borås and the rest of the country. These pictures are flashes of an afterlife, an overexposed heaven; playgrounds without kids and domestic gardens void of people, places where nothing ever happens.

The Happy Nation returned a few years later with a book of “leftovers” from Country Beyond Itself – this time as a wilder form of bacchanalia – and they are a cure for wellness, all right. As Odbratt suggests, “In the book I Love Borås! (2006) Lars invites us all home, certain that what resounds in me resounds in you.” I Love Borås! has a thing or two in common with the Strapping Strawberry Wench reality of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), one of the greatest films of the decade, with the people in the purple Magic Castle Inn and Suits at US Highway 192, just scraping along in the tacky dusk of Disney World Orlando.

Tunbjörk was tormented by the merciless Swedish winters. Winter, his masterpiece, is a mournful composition of pictures about the depressions that took over his life during this never-ending season. “It was almost like therapy,” he explained. “I usually end up in some kind of darkness in January. With Winter I somehow tried to attack it. It was difficult because I had previously been dependent on the bright and clear light to be able to photograph. But once it worked, I renewed my imagery well and truly. It became faster and harder. On the other hand, it took a year before I thought I had something going on.” Tunbjörk was on an assignment for the morning paper Göteborgs-Posten in 2004 “to travel around Sweden and pretty much do what I wanted for a few weeks”. But it was in the middle of the winter and he was ready to give in when he arrived in the country’s darkest city, north of the Arctic Circle, with its constant nights during midwinter. And he started to click away.

The Victorians’ reaction to the world becoming industrial and mechanical was to create dream spheres and fantasy worlds. Some of the pictures in Winter look like Colette’s old snow globes where flakes are falling restfully in self-contained worlds with picturesque fir trees or a dirty snow-cake road junction. However, Tunbjörk makes no attempt to court and spark any of this with hints of whimsy and zestful enthusiasm. You just have to cope. There is no Way Out in this suffering. This time, Sweden is just the backdrop for a shrunken world where the debauchery of ugliness generates disease and everything seems to have grown like this by accident, the isolation too. 

The fast food place in Avesta 2007 has been demolished but lives on as a well of loneliness and tastelessness in Tunbjörk’s unglamorous version of Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942). Winter is altogether graced by the Groke and severe vitamin D deficiency, and the pictures are as dismal as Swedish small-town pizzas and their pervertible all-together-now toppings of you-wouldn’t-believe-it (there is one depicted in Stockholm 2004), but Tunbjörk attacks and balances his nightmare spheres into sheer excellence. This is a photographic master’s unyielding portrait of his own depression, at his barest human self.

How would a Country Beyond Itself have looked today when the lunatics have taken over the asylum? A Creative Mornings event with Fotografiska’s co-founder Jan Broman at the Stockholm venue this year (August 24) attracted one hundred and thirty-one attendees, the bulk of them women with eyes wide shut to everything but their cell phone vanities, a congregation of Your Highnesses unfit to communicate in any way that would require effort or style. “Fotografiska is all about creating conversation,” announced Broman before he pushed a button on his Apple device which presented a slideshow with an ugly Americanised speaker voice:

“The Swedish Museum of Photography have [sic] been deeply engaged in issues concerning democracy, justice and gender equality ever since it opened in 2010. Sweden is one of the most equal countries in the world, but there is [sic] still differences to be found between men and women. For example, men earn, on average, thirteen per cent more than women. To create awareness and to spark debate about the pay gap, the Museum decided to adjust its entry price in an unequal way on International Women’s Day of 2017. This meant raising the price by thirteen per cent for men.”

This sales talk went on, unashamedly, with an account of the massive impact that this stunt of bogus Feminism had generated in the press and on social media. Compare the wage gap fallacy to the fact that nine out of ten human beings who die in work-related accidents are men. How about Fotografiska raising the price by ninety-three per cent for women in the name of “democracy, justice and gender equality”? No, go on, tell another lie, and make it huge. This is, after all, the country beyond itself.

Mika Larsson describes Lars Tunbjörk as a low-key character with a magnetic presence. “The years when I knew him he almost always walked with a smile on his face. Except when he was working. He was extremely receptive, extremely focused and extremely demanding with himself. Often when I saw him and his work, I thought of the cello. Tunis was like a cello tone.”

Lars Tunbjörk, USA 1995 (from The New York Times Magazine). © Lars Tunbjörk Estate.
Lars Tunbjörk, Times Square New York 1996 (from The New York Times Magazine). © Lars Tunbjörk Estate.

Lars Tunbjörk – Retrospective published by Max Ström, and Lars Tunbjörk – A View From the Side at Fotografiska in Stockholm through December 2, 2018.

1 October 2018

MARVELLING

Robert Doisneau, Mademoiselle Anita, Paris 1951. © Atelier Robert Doisneau.

Seeing sometimes means constructing a little theatre with the materials at hand, and then awaiting the arrival of actors … From experience, I know that the show is always livelier on the poorer outskirts of town. These settings testify to mankind’s struggle. They’re full of nobility because everyday acts are carried out simply, and the faces of people who have to rise early in the morning can be very moving – what a lesson in vitality we get from young women heroically putting on make-up at dawn every day before rushing to the metro. It’s enough to melt your heart.

– Robert Doisneau

The octaves leaped from clapper to clapper as all the church bells of Paris poured out their splendid shakes. Now, for the first time since the summer of 1940, the city sang, it really sang. This Thursday evening, on August 24, 1944, General von Choltitz telephoned Berlin with the handset raised against the sonorous Parisian sky. Close to midnight there was only one bell left chiming, the mighty Emmanuel in the south belfry of Notre-Dame, our Lady.

A newspaperman from Le Figaro witnessed the city’s overnight transition as he was leaving the Hôtel de Ville – the City Hall where the Allied troops strategically camped out – the following morning, and found himself “submerged by an enormous crowd that was everywhere, on the streets, the quays, the boulevards, the passages. They applauded. They shouted. They stamped their feet. They cried. On one of the tanks, surrounded by the din of motors and smoke, a cat, a miniscule little cat, calmly sat surveying the scene. The crowd roared their approval. That was what this unique day was like: one part exuberant celebration, exalted, delirious, an incredible lightheartedness that poured out in song, kisses, in unbound joy; the other part, a climate of civil war.”

“Paris was imagined as a heroic society, a place of extraordinary deeds,” argues Rosemary Wakeman in her book The Heroic City: Paris 1945–1958. “The media spectacle crisscrossed between journalists and participants. Celebrity was for the taking. Public space became a stage for outpourings of public emotion and zany performances that were impulsive, reflexive, and fame seeking. In the photographer Robert Doisneau’s visual portrait of the Liberation, spontaneous rumba lines snake through the streets, young men stripped down to their shorts frolic in the fountains at the Place de la Concorde, people dance impulsively – together, alone – and wave, wrap themselves in, parade with the French Tricolour. The Liberation was […] a seizing, a dizzying transformation of the everyday. Life was reformed, reformulated in a playful speculation on what it might be.”

Susan Sontag noted in Regarding the Pain of Others that, “We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and death.” Robert Doisneau (1912–1994) was much rather like that cool cat on the army tank, part of the scenery, basking in the hubbub of life, extracting its unknown beauty. For half a century he wandered through the city and its forgotten suburbs. It was in the areas of life where people were doomed to carry on and accept the lousy plots they were given that Doisneau acquainted himself with humanity’s most imaginative powers. The object of Doisneau’s photography is in itself a dizzying transformation of the everyday. “Marvelling is a mission that few photographers have chosen,” he told Frank Horvat in November 1987: “The world I was trying to present was one where I would feel good, where people would be friendly, where I could find the tenderness I longed for. My photos were like a proof that such a world could exist.”

Some existential juice from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952) to begin with: “A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well – or ill?” You only have to go to Kulturhuset (the House of Culture) in Stockholm to see Robert Doisneau – The Poet of the Paris Suburb – a show sharply and lovingly curated by Atelier Robert Doisneau in Montrouge (where he lived) and produced by diChroma Photography in Madrid – to conclude that this champion of humanist photography did incredibly well. As William Blake put it in his days: “As a man sees, so he is.”

“Robert Doisneau is one of the modest masters in the history of photography. He is also a photographer with a lot of humour, and he is of course very, very famous for his romantic Paris pictures – the famous The Kiss picture that everyone is asking for – but this exhibition presents Robert Doisneau in a different light,” says Maria Patomella at Kulturhuset, who likewise had a poster of this well-known/hackneyed Doisneau picture Le baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville in her teenage room. The Kiss was an arrangement with two paid actors smacking away on Rue de Rivoli (with the City Hall and Notre-Dame in the background) for a series of kissing couples for Life magazine in 1950. The Kiss is luckily concealed in the only showcase, where you can contemplate the two ominous “faces” that appear in the picture’s lower left corner.

When the fallen major-league gangster Henry Hill goes to Hell in Scorsese’s definite masterpiece Goodfellas (1990), he doesn’t end up in prison but in suburbia. In the film’s end scene, he opens the door to his Witness Protection Program nest to retrieve the morning paper in his light blue bathrobe, makes eye contact with the camera while his voiceover says: “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life as a schnook.” The saints and the sinners of suburbia were the people most worthy of Doisneau’s camera eye: “I look like them, I speak their language, I share their conversation, I eat like them, I am completely integrated into that milieu. I have my own work which is a bit different from theirs, but perhaps I am sort of representative of that class,” he said. “In those ordinary surroundings which were my own, I happened to glimpse some fragments of time where the everyday world appeared to be freed of its ugliness.”

There are one hundred and one prints in the show, fifty-six of them are from the 1940s and thirty-seven from the 1950s, Doisneau’s greatest decades. Les pavés (1929) is a close-shot cubistic flow of cobblestones, the first picture he ever took and an evidence of both his original eye for the unoriginal and of his early diffidence, notably when it came to approaching other human beings, even kids. There are two tentative photos in the show from the 1930s of children (boys) who are playing alone, or just framed as solitary souls, in which you sense the photographer’s uneasiness about achieving more than a distant frame. La chambre de Gentilly (1930) is a fine composition, lonely and dejected as a Hopper painting, of the room of his younger days in this southern Parisian suburb, just across of what is now the Boulevard Périphérique.

“My own suburb was one of two-storey houses, rather grey and dumb, but full of nooks, recesses, makeshift repairs, inhabited by people living between the street and the bistro. Here and there a small workshop, like my father’s plumbing business. From my window, in the early morning, I watched the workmen coming to be hired, then going out on their assignments. If they had a few minutes to spare, they would have a drink in the bistro, then walk out slightly dizzy, fetch the handcart and be on their way to the job, which was sometimes far off.”

The intention of Baron Haussmann’s renovation of Paris (1853–70) was not just to make the city more beautiful and airy, but also to clean away the so-called classe populaire from the heart of Paris. The southern suburbs were a little less unattractive than the banlieue nord with its heavy industry. The wastelands of Gentilly were young Robert’s playground – places like the funky Bièvre, a stream straightened up to a canal that the pious used to follow on their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and the Zone (where “you went to play, to make love or to commit suicide”) on the “wrong” side of the fortifications that encircled Paris until the late 1920s. It was Doisneau’s mother who gave him the sense of the marvellous. He was eighteen years old when he photographed La chambre with the eyes of the seven-year-old boy whose mum had just died.

Peter Hamilton, who worked with Robert Doisneau for the retrospective at Modern Art Oxford in 1992, writes in his book that a “combination of creativity, chance, play, even désobéissance [disobedience], contrives to produce a magical effect” in Doisneau’s photography: “His vision of Paris is concerned with how it works on a human level […] as an organic whole, a mass of individual activities which generate the life and energy of this city, what makes it real and distinctive, yet at the same time magical and strange, unlike any other place on Earth.” Yes, and Walter Benjamin was right to argue (in The Arcades Project from the 1930s) that, “Parisians make the street an interior.” 

“[Parisians] imagined new photos to both capture the world and operate in the viewer’s mind,” suggests Catherine Clark in Paris and the Cliché of History: The City and Photographs, 1860–1970, “photography, photographs, and modes of understanding them changed how people understood, saw, and acted in the world”. For Doisneau to photograph the city he loved, and the people who acted out their lives there, was a means of possessing Paris as a whole magical theatre: “I feel a vague sense of ownership. I’d nevertheless like to remain one of those rare, broadminded owners who always leaves the door wide open.”

The camera entered Doisneau’s life as an attempted shortcut device for his shyness when he was studying figure drawing in Montparnasse and wanted to snap people on the street in order to draw them from these photographs he nonetheless did not dare to take of them. Doisneau’s callous aunt put the orphan thirteen-year-old in a backwards crafts school for the printing industry. At seventeen, Doisneau was working with professional photo equipment at a graphic art studio in the city. In 1931, he started as an apprentice for André Vigneau in Quartier Latin. This modernist artist and photographer became a very important source of inspiration for Doisneau, “for Vigneau talked to me of another painting, another philosophy, another cinema”.

Robert Doisneau was an avid reader throughout his life and Vigneau introduced him to a host of writers. One of them was the great Jacques Prévert: “Prévert taught me to have confidence in the discovery of everyday objects which people didn’t see any more, because they were contemptuous of them, too used to them. He found ordinary words, used every day, and presented them to people as if they were precious jewels. And he loved to play, to discover new things […] Jacques would ring up and say, ‘Do you know the street where they unroll the big lengths of plywood near the Faubourg St Antoine?’ I would say, ‘Yes,’ and he would say, ‘No you don’t, come and get me and we’ll go there.’ So we would go and look at this, there would be whole logs of this stuff, we’d take in the sound of the work, the colour of the wood, the smell of the sap and the look of it as it came out.”

Doisneau did not “shoot” people. Although he could photograph Paris and the Parisians with divine reckless abandon (and thankfully he did), he was at the core of it all – and in his own words – a pêcheur d’images. That the gentle fisherman of images was fascinated by Brassaï’s Paris de nuit, which came out in 1933, is evident from the selection at Kulturhuset. The essence of the pictures in Robert Doisneau – The Poet of the Paris Suburb is an almost metaphysical day-for-night mood. From the time he met his favourite drinking buddy Robert Girard in the late 1940s (Girard was a poet of sorts), there was a change to real-night photography where Doisneau was moving with grace through some darker areas of life among the nocturnal animals of lowlife Paris: “When I am in horizontal position, my brain gets irrigated, like the cork of a wine bottle that’s laid flat. That activates my imagination and stimulates my desire to go out and use my mind. So I rise and go out, eager to see and to marvel.”

From 1934 to 1939, he was hired by Renault as a photographer at the factory on the Île Seguine, not far from where he lived, a period that Doisneau claimed was “the true beginning of my career as a photographer and the end of my youth”. It was not the outbreak of the war that got him fired from Renault but his constant late arrivals (a common theme in his professional life). There were always too many photographic distractions occurring on his way to the plant, and besides, at home, he was rather perfecting his method of doing colour prints in the kitchen lab than getting a good night’s sleep. Doisneau and his wife Pierrette had moved into a new building at 46 Place Jules Ferry (the little park in the middle bears his name today) in Montrouge, a suburban area just south of the Périph. This was where he, true to his mission, was to live for the rest of his life. 

Doisneau had just joined the Rapho agency when the Boche began to march in September 1939. His more than dormant nature of disobedience, in combination with what was developing as a case of tuberculosis after six insufferable months as a foot soldier, made the army decide that they had had enough of him too. Assailed by Stuka dive-bomber planes, Robert and Pierrette Doisneau and two million other Parisians, two-thirds of the city’s population, formed the exodus towards safer areas of France in June 1940. The couple returned to Montrouge near the end of 1940.

In 1942, Doisneau was commissioned to photograph the country’s foremost scientists for a book – Les nouveaux destins de l’intelligence française – committed to show that la France, in spite of the Nazi Occupation, was not on its knees. The same year he took the metaphorical Resistance picture Le cheval tombé with his Rolleiflex camera, an image so beautiful and perfect in everything that it has the looks of a tableau vivant. The passersby are gathering on the street in a communal spirit to help the fallen horse get back on its hooves. The white horse, gleaming with light, is almost like a Christ figure here, like the severely abused donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966). The thing about Doisneau’s photographs is that they almost never resemble the imagery of the French masters of film, whereas “Doisneau” vibrates all over in their greatest pieces essentially from the 1930s and the 1950s.

The Boche called Paris “the city without eyes”. The Parisians refused to even look at their oppressors. “Every morning the Germans paraded down the Champs-Élysées in full uniform with military bands playing and flags flying. Huge swastikas hung from buildings and monuments. In a slap in the face of French sensibilities, even the city’s clocks were set to Berlin time. Street and direction signs were in German. But scenes of hideous repression – neighbourhood hunts and arrests, unmitigated violence and cruelty, the roundups of Jews – were the real public spectacles,” writes Rosemary Wakeman. “Suffice it to say that the graffiti, the jeers and taunting of German officials, the public singing of the ‘Marseillaise’, the distribution of tracts, the surreptitious honouring of key dates in the nation’s history, the displaying of the V sign for victory, the protest marches and demonstrations constituted an extraordinary and highly dangerous public theatre in their own right.” 

The French term for the early stages of World War II was the Drôle de guerre. The French army outnumbered the Wehrmacht’s divisions by far but the Gallic rooster was all pomp and circumstance, ignorance and inertness. On June 10, 1940, the Government retracted to Vichy in the midst of France and declared Paris an open city. Four days later the Boche owned the city. They put a big V and a huge banner on both the Eiffel Tower and the Palais Bourbon: “Germany Wins on All Fronts.”

In 1941, Doisneau found something that was “guiding me to my seat during the horror film of the German Occupation” – his place in this Phoney War was to produce fake documents (“identity cards, Ausweisen, passports, false papers for Jews”) for the underground Resistance movement. There are only a few pictures in the show from the days of the Occupation. From 1944 and on, it is like Doisneau was processing this horror film in his mind through his camera; the pictures are as mournful as they are masterful.

The incredibly melancholy La pleine lune du Bourget (1946) depicts a steamy locomotive on the turntable in this railyard with nine other iron horses behind, all panting and waiting to be turned around, for these engines could only go in one direction. That these kinds of locomotives were about to disappear at the time when this picture was taken is only half of the story. Gare du Bourget was the station from which the French Jews were deported to Auschwitz.

He cherished the mishmash of these northern suburbs as well: “I always came back to Saint-Denis, even though it’s a long way from my own suburb. This community is an extraordinary mixture, exactly the kind I like: people from all origins, a basilica where the kings of France lie buried, a Communist town hall twenty metres further, a canal, a motorway, some huge public housing projects and endless rows of small suburban houses. It’s the juxtaposition that fascinates me – in fact, all my photos are self-portraits, in the sense that I always show people living in the same absurd surrounding as myself.”

Somehow Doisneau belonged to the “Bohemian nation” that Jules Romains was describing in his eight-thousand-pages strong Les Hommes de bonne volonté (Men of Good Will, 1932–1946): ”In contact with the enclosure, all around it, a singular swarm had developed, and almost fixed itself. A membrane of population, just half a kilometre thick, but stretched out over thirty-six; a sort of annular city stuck to the other and alive with its residues. The military zone, which forbade houses, tolerated hovels and barracks. A people of irregulars, nomads, fallen, or immigrants waiting, had taken the opportunity to settle there, clinging to the clay, muddy, clandestine, still half-floating, which was gradually sinking into the soil of habits, traditions, rights.”

Doisneau’s 1940s photography is full of extramural life, populated with people living from day to day, half-floating yet fully alive, as the luminous two in La dernière valse du 14 juillet (1949), a tender couple waltzing under the stars. At some other “end” of the city, a group of sideline gardeners is working in a deserted moat in Dans les fosses du Fort d’Ivry (1949). Others, in Doisneau’s considerably more sombre pictures, do what star-crossed people have to do – they live to fight another day.

A highline RER train cuts through the “green” industrial landscape with the Eiffel Tower far off in the distance in La ceinture verte (1949), a picture taken near the Renault plant, and the realism is almost magical here. Doisneau photographed the waterways of Paris – sandwiched between rundown factories and impermanent football grounds or (with a bit of juvenile imagination) African plains, territories annexed by neighbourhood imps – with the embodied feelings of the lovers in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934). Juliette wants to escape the barge, she wants the lights of the city, but for Jean this is life itself.

Doisneau photographed houses and buildings like Charles Marville photographed houses and buildings in the 1800s, as if they were (lonely) individuals in their own right. La maison d’Erik Satie (1945) is like a posthumous portrait of Satie himself, twenty years after the composer’s demise. Eighteen thousand residential buildings across Île-de-France (the Paris region) were destroyed during the war, and Doisneau’s pictures of the French capital’s gaping holes have a strong resemblance to how the central parts of Stockholm looked like in the 1960s when the Social Democrats wrecked everything in their way. Doisneau’s 1940s are also full of contrasting vistas of good old Paris versus Soviet-style residential blocks for a dull new world.

“Erecting a barricade meant collectively performing an act that would exorcise the bad old days. There was an explosive desire for joy in the air, one that made every single woman in the stone-passing chain seem beautiful to the beavers building the insurrectional barricade,” Doisneau remembered. “As I pedalled from one working-class quarter to another, from Saint-Michel to Belleville and from Ménilmontant to Batignolles, I noticed how barricades, like mushrooms, always grew in the same spots. Strangely, the chic neighbourhoods of Passy and Monceau were completely free of them – the soil there must have been completely devoid of the spores required for spontaneous germination.”

Doisneau’s Barricade Place du Petit Pont (1944) shows one of those germinated barricades at the beginning of the narrow Rue de la Huchette near Notre-Dame. On August 18, the workers of Paris went on strike. The following day people all over Paris openly joined the Resistance forces together with the police and the Garde mobile to erect barricades and fight the Boche as the Allies were nearing the city. A week later, General de Gaulle paraded down the Champs-Élysées as if he singlehandedly had eradicated the Krauts from the capital. In any case, Paris was free again, if still a turbulent place for years to come. The North American author Saul Bellow called Paris of the time “one of the grimmest cities in the world”. “It was also a moment of vengeance and retribution,” as Rosemary Wakeman explains in The Heroic City:

“German stragglers were dragged out of buildings and beaten by bystanders. French women caught with German soldiers were publicly stripped and their heads shaved, and they were paraded in humiliation through the streets. Avaricious shopkeepers and bofs [black marketers] were rebuked. Locals suspected of collaboration were turned in or gunned down. These acts of community vigilantism were their own form of theatrical tragedy […] Meanwhile, speculators and black marketers scalped everything from cigarettes to penicillin. The nouveau riche, brandishing heaps of bank notes acquired through illicit traffic, bought up everything from families living on the edge of penury […] The malaise deepened. Tempers frayed. Armed robberies became the norm. Fear, pity, and fate were all embodied in the tragic dreams in the streets.”

“Mon cher Doisneau,” Blaise Cendrars wrote him in a letter of March 1949 when they were working on Doisneau’s first book, La Banlieue de Paris, “You are a genius.” Directly after the war, Doisneau started to work for several magazines. One of them was the exquisitely produced Le Point that had a specific theme for each new issue. Another man who thought that Doisneau was a genius was the editor-in-chief at Paris Vogue, Michel de Brunhoff, who had halted the magazine during wartime. Doisneau worked for Vogue for a few years (he also scouted people from the Rue Mouffetard area for Irving Penn’s “Small Trades” project in Vogue), but fashion photography was not Doisneau’s medium (he described himself as “a mixture of rubble and slag”) and he was never at ease with the snotty models during the photo shoots. The photographer used to show up at fancy parties representing Vogue in a rented tuxedo made to fit with the aid of safety pins.

“Sometimes they seem to show nothing other than the poses of a pointless world; but sometimes, in a better light, they seem to illustrate an extremely refined society,” Doisneau said of his Vogue pictures. “With hindsight, I can say why Michel de Brunhoff offered me a contract. I was like a gardener’s son invited to play with the children of the lord of the manor, welcome as long as he brought a new angle to things. In my case, the new angle was guaranteed, because I had never, I mean never, seen such sights.”

Heroic Paris continued to be a place of extraordinary deeds. “How could Paris regain such a high cultural standing so soon after the war?” asks Agnès Poirier in her book about the city’s new golden era at the end of the decade, Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940–1950. “Germany was in eclipse. Russian and Eastern European cultural life devastated, Spain isolated by General Franco’s regime, Italy busy recovering from a generation of Fascism, and Britain as marginal as ever to Europe and intellectual debates.”

“After 1944, everything was political; there was no escape. World citizens of the Left Bank knew this, and they did all they could to question both US policies and the Communist Party’s views. Paris was, for them, both a refuge and a bridge to think in a different way. They opened up the possibility of a Third Way, ardently embracing the idealism of the United Nations and the glimmer of utopia in what would later become the European Union. These pioneers also reinvented their relationships to others,” Poirier continues. “They also proved, with only a few exceptions, to be very hard workers.”

Photography was a vital part of the commemoration when the city celebrated its two thousandth birthday (the Bimillénaire de Paris) in 1951. That year, Robert Doisneau shared the space with Cartier-Bresson, Willy Ronis, Brassaï and Izis in a show with “outstanding reportorial photography by contemporary Frenchmen” as the MoMA presented its Five French Photographers in the press release. Overall, there is a great sense of communion in Doisneau’s pictures from the 1950s, and he had released the breaks on his bashfulness. His café and restaurant pictures are spheres of loveliness – look at Mademoiselle Anita (1951) at La Boule Rouge, caught in a dreamy instant where her hands are folded like the paws of a cat. And look closely and you see the duplicated image of the photographer in the mirror.

These establishments provided “a better vantage point for taking stock of things” if you were a philosopher with a camera and a great sense of joie de vivre: “So the café was, for me, the reunion of people from different milieus, all of them whom brought together their own ideal. With the excitement of a little wine, these people talked without holding back, without fear of being ludicrous. And what happened was that they really gave of themselves.” One such character was the bowler-hatted Coco (1952) and his forces of potables and friends (the print in the show is unnecessarily cropped though):

“It was Robert Giraud who introduced us in a panhandlers’ bistro on Rue Xavier Privas. Coco didn’t have much to say, though. Solicited by the red wine in front of him, he obligingly returned the favour. The big attraction was to imitate a drum beat on the seat of a stool, pounding out a legionnaire’s chant, ‘Violà du boudin!’ Suddenly Coco would snap to attention, as of back in the Foreign Legion. Everyone present would laugh, which didn’t really bother him. He seemed to enjoy the mockery.”

La cour des Artisans (1953), from the ninth arrondissement, is “a photographic chance” and one of the greatest pictures in Robert Doisneau – The Poet of the Paris Suburb. A woman is walking over a courtyard in a shabby setting while the four men on the left are locked in their separate ruminations. They all look like actors in a play, with very little to say about the direction. Doisneau explained it as “A picture that seems to me very curious, very bizarre. If I would have models on my disposal, I would never arranged them like that.” And yet, that was just how many of the French authors of the era arranged the characters in their stories, left on their own devices, with four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.

“Reality does not exist for me. I am a false witness,” says Doisneau while he strikes his Gallic nose and smiles in his granddaughter Clémentine Deroudille’s Le révolté du merveilleux/Robert Doisneau Through the Lens, and this TV documentary from 2016 runs nonstop in the show. Another Pierrette who imbued him with an augmented sense of life was Pierrette d’Orient. Doisneau and Girard followed her for days and they both fell under the spell of this strangely attractive accordionist, who “was a pretty little lady indeed. She delivered her song – always the same slow lament, ‘Tu ne peux pas t’figurer comme je t’aime’ – with complete detachment, with a little contempt even,” Doisneau remembered. “Standing before folks moulded by hard labour, who held their fingers clenched even when at rest, she luxuriated in a sense of idleness. Her catlike nonchalance carried the slightest hint of cruelty. Back in the Middle Ages the spell that woman cast would have sparked a bonfire.”

Pierrette d’Orient plays her number “You Can’t Imagine How Much I Love You” for the butchers from Les Abattoirs de la Villette too, in the café in Les bouchers mélomanes (1953). One of the men looks straight into the camera, as may happen when a photographer asks a tough guy to turn around and love the music. A world that Doisneau adored was Les Halles – there is a series of pictures of Les Halles meat carriers in the show – and in March 1969, when this fantastic market was to be demolished, only to be replaced by a freakish shopping mall many years later, he noted that Paris was losing its “belly”: 

“I had a lot of friends there. In that village-like quarter I was a harmless photographer considered mildly obsessed. I didn’t like these technocrats’ ideas, with their ‘geometric’ goals labelled profitability, specialisation, division of labour, and efficiency. All of this was in diametric opposition to everything I came to Les Halles at night to seek, everything I was trying to picture. Saint-Eustache, the ‘village church’, was itself a mixture of styles and odours. Incense-smelling Gothic on the inside, celery-smelling Renaissance on the outside. And all around, humanity massed in the glow of fairground lights, rich and poor alike, truck drivers and market porters, butchers and Dior customers, grocers and drunkards. Everyone addressed each other in the familiar tu form, and above all there hovered great gaiety and good will, values that electronic computers cannot calculate.”

But Paris in Doisneau’s photography was never (apart from a few pictures like The Kiss) treated like a museum from the immovable past. His understanding of beauty’s fleeting essence was just as thoroughly existential as his dislike towards the ghosts of the “car-packed, scheme-laden, jogger-happy Paris”. When Jean-Paul Clébert published his Paris Vagabond in 1952, he dedicated the book to Robert Doisneau:

“It amazes me that neither the Musée de l’Homme nor any decent popular geographical magazine ever pays attention to the city populace, ever offers the public at large an ethnographical view of the poor districts, and that the big dailies would far sooner enlighten their thousands of readers on the rites and customs of the Navajo than on those of the oldtimers of Nanterre; and I am likewise amazed that despite the great mass of books – and good ones – devoted to Paris ancient and modern by chroniclers of the weird and wonderful social life of the capital, Parisians themselves remain ignorant of their city, disparaging it or invariably confining their rote thoughts and observations to the poetry of the quays of the Seine and the virtues of the national art museums, finding it bizarre that an ordinary man, but one who knows how to see, hear and smell, and to use his senses like outsize antennae, might still in this day and age bother himself with new sights and sounds, or be aghast, stupefied, dumbstruck, at a complete loss for words and quite unable to sleep until he has raced over to his friends to tell them of his discoveries and drag them along to share and delight in them.”

Doisneau had a joyous memory from his youth. The girl he secretly loved jumped on his bike one day, and off they went into the woods. And for a few rare hours, life was perfect. Doisneau’s photography was his way to challenge time, to preserve life’s perfect moments. Think of his famous picture from 1952 of a caped gendarme who walks by the devilish mouth opening to the Cabaret de l’Enfer in Pigalle and who tries to keep a straight face. Its hilariously wonderful architecture can be spotted among the street scenes of the early 1930s Paris in the remake of Papillon (2017) – today at 53 Boulevard de Clichy you walk into a less attractive Monoprix store.

Doisneau left the door wide open for those on the margin, for those who always found cunning new ways to get through the day. The world he has preserved for us is a world populated with people who dress, who walk, who talk, who are what they think they are.

Robert Doisneau, La plaine lune du Bourget, 1946. © Atelier Robert Doisneau.

Robert Doisneau – The Poet of the Paris Suburb at Kulturhuset in Stockholm through November 25, 2018.