5 October 2014

THE SWEET COMMUNION OF A KISS

© Anders Petersen. Courtesy Galerie Vu, Paris.

I’d rather be someone’s fellow man than someone’s photographer. I only photograph people I identify with and, as I identify with all kinds of people, I just assume that everyone I meet is part of my family.

– Anders Petersen

“We are all afraid,” wrote Jacob Bronowski in his book The Ascent of Man (1973) – following his BBC television series of that year – “for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet every man, every civilisation, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do.”

This is the engagement, the believable soft optimism that never fades in Swedish photographer Anders Petersen’s (b 1944) black and white and mostly vertical pictures, which affirms his close bonds with the timeless and concluding words in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Petersen is a photographer who needs the stimulus and the presence of other people, and oh how he turns the sorrowing saints into human stars.

“I would like my pictures to have the function of bringing people together,” he says. “When I see photographers who I think are great, they have something in common: they have a social interest, they have a human interest, and they are curious and patient. And they are all a bit ‘koko’.” It is a wonder how much of this business of being alive that Petersen manages to capture with his tiny Contax T3 cameras (loaded with Kodak Tri-X) in picture after picture. And this is how it is: Petersen’s photography is an ongoing argument, both with himself and this stuff of life, a moving kind of self-discovery through the larger concerns of his fellow beings.

It is the day before the opening of A Way of Life at the Moderna in Stockholm, where Anders Petersen is one of the key photographers in this fine group exhibition (which runs through February 15, 2015) – based on the legacy of Christer Strömholm’s (1918–2002) touchstone photography – and the day before the opening of Petersen’s extraordinarily beautiful one-man show at Fotografiska, where he is meeting the press. He nods towards the room with his devastatingly great series of pictures from Hamburg’s Café Lehmitz (photographed between 1967 and 1970) and says, “Before it was more like things just popped up, I held up the camera and the rabbits jumped in. But that is not how it is anymore.”

“I am becoming more and more doglike. I have an ever-increasing need to be close. I care less about atmospheres and environments. I want to get straight to the core of the matter. I want to be close, I want to feel, I do not want to just stand there and record and document, I want to be part of the context and shoot as much as possible.”

Robert Louis Stephenson observed in his travel memoir The Silverado Squatters (1883) that, “there are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” Petersen seems to have the knack of de-estranging himself in any city, sphere or situation – he is photographing people with their guard down (pretty exuberant and vulnerable selves), and he does it with a level of philosophical access not unlike Bob Willoughby’s phenomenal pictures of the stars in 20th-century Hollywood.

The fantastic lies in the real in Petersen’s photography, all the souls in this particular lot appear to dwell in Petersenian time. You never know whether it is 1969 or 1996, but it is the same kind of longing in all his pictures (there are 450 of them in this show): for tenderness, for sex, for closeness and belonging. He claims that his work is about the idea of a self-portrait.

“Petersen is the one who most obviously has seized Christer Strömholm’s legacy and furthered his inspiration,” says Anna Tellgren who curated A Way of Life at the Moderna. There is no doubt that Tellgren is correct in her statement, but there is really only one picture at Fotografiska that is following the footsteps of the old master in a tangible way, Petersen’s nightly picture from a cemetery in St Etienne (2005). Paris was Strömholm’s second address and his reverberated picture, in which the dead take on a human shape, was taken at the Cimetière de Montmartre in 1959:

“By chance, I saw a picture in a magazine from a cemetery in Paris, which probably was photographed very early in the morning, and you saw the footprints in the snow that tiptoed between the graves. And I imagined that it was the deceased who hang out at night, and that the photographer had been there and commented on this fact in a very humble and gentle way. And I had no idea that the photographer's name was Christer Strömholm.”

“We are all afraid …” Petersen called one of his many photo books Close Distance (2002), mostly as a reminder to himself not to get too involved in a situation and running the risk of missing out on the pictures there. He often approaches a current situation with shyness and restraint. However, as he puts it, “being afraid does not mean being afraid of being afraid. It is rather like a trampoline.” And so is his camera.

Petersen drops the names of at least a dozen photographers this afternoon at Fotografiska. Surprisingly he is also mentioning Diane Arbus as one of his influences. It is quite easy to agree with Susan Sontag’s harsh comment in On Photography (1977) – that Arbus was not a poet of introspection “but a photographer venturing out into the world to collect images that are painful” – when you compare her famous “The Shining” twinkies (1967) to Petersen’s identical twins in Paris (2006) and his outgoing, organic, non-confrontational style.

Café Lehmitz was a bar populated by men and women from the lower rungs of society, a place near the Alter Elbpark at the beginning (or the end) of Reeperbahn. “Back then, that street was primarily outside of what was socially acceptable. It belonged to society, but society was ashamed of it. I wanted to see what it was all about. And I had a wonderful time there,” Petersen explained a few years ago. “I learned a lot there, I fell in love there. I learned to live more honestly there, because where I came from there were a lot of lies and posturing. In Hamburg, I was accepted the way I was – with all my weaknesses and shortcomings. People accepted that, if you didn’t hide it. And that was a great relief to me, and I became very attracted to them.”

“I fell in love with a girl, Vanja, who was a year younger than me, and a prostitute. I wasn’t exactly a choirboy either – I mean, I was a teenager living on my own in Hamburg. We were part of a larger group of people, we were probably perceived as a gang, made up of kids from all over the world. Vanja and I hung out for about six months, which taught me a lot about being underprivileged and vulnerable and having to insist on surviving without ever compromising what you believe in. It was an experience that shaped me more than most other things.”

There were no friends left to photograph when Petersen returned to Hamburg in October 1967. They were all dead. Petersen was studying at Christer Strömholm’s photo academy Fotoskolan in Stockholm when he discovered the demimonde of Café Lehmitz and photographed them on and off for the next three years. He arrived there on the first night to see his camera wander off from one hand to another as the clientele began to snap away, taking random pictures of each other in the bar, and the trust grew from that.

Anders Petersen has remarked that these people “had a presence and a sincerity that I myself lacked. It was okay to be desperate, to be tender, to sit alone or share the company of others. There was a great warmth and tolerance in this destitute setting.” Petersen tells in his calm voice that Ed van der Elsken’s intimate photo book Love on the Left Bank (1954) was a tremendous inspiration to him when he photographed Café Lehmitz. A table at Fotografiska displays some of his Lehmitz contact sheets, full of felt pen markings and colour-coded sticker dots. A glowing sequence from the bar is lettered with “BRA”, the Swedish word for good.

Café Lehmitz is a permanent document of who we are in this gust of life. Mr Petersen pictures a lonely world where people (in spite of everything) do meet, do connect, do win. “Then I had my first show there in April 1970. I covered the walls of the bar, I pinned up 24 x 30 copies, about 350 of them. And so I agreed with Kurt in the bar that those who recognised themselves in the pictures could take them down and keep them. So it was a fairly short show, about three days and four nights. And it was fine.” Petersen smiles.

The Petersen exhibition has moved from a 17th-century salle in Paris to an airport-like space in Stockholm, from Bibliothèque nationale de France to Fotografiska. Petersen’s continuing City Diary series is his latest work (the first three parts were published in 2012), and generously sampled at Fotografiska as digital prints pinned to the walls. A picture of a mammary areola is next to a picture of creamy pastries topped with cherries. City Diary is a miscellany of gentle motifs and stark contrasts – of people, animals, cluttered power cables in the air, smudged housing walls; it is the whole of man, the whole of mankind in fragments. Some of the prints have the lustre of solarisation.

Richard Avedon’s most starkly personal work was his book Nothing Personal (1964), in which he placed the immorally rich next to people who had been knocked out and dispatched into a life of misery and squalor, especially those who were locked up in mental asylums. Petersen devoted himself to a softer kind of politics when he set out to document three categories of inmates in his painstakingly produced series from the institutional insides of Sweden – the trilogy Prison (1981–84), Eldercare (1989–91) and Mental Hospital (1993–95).

Petersen’s career took off when he went to the Recontres d’Arles in 1977 and one of the arrangers of the photo festival just happened to pass by and glanced at his Café Lehmitz pictures, as Petersen was browsing through a stack of prints on a bench in the city square. That is how powerful these pictures are.

Anders Petersen was born in Stockholm, but grew up in Värmland, a province that wrenches the upper part of Sweden’s largest lake, Vänern. The earliest work in the exhibition is a picture from the woods of Värmland, taken in 1962. From Back Home (2009) is an amazing series from his beloved Värmland. It depicts Sweden, and anywhere, both like decades ago and at the moment: a moose head on a truck, greasers (raggare), mushroom picking, and beautiful, lovely young midsummer girls and their flowers … It is always about life so it is never about overstatement in Petersen’s work:

“I sought out my teenage meetings. I was looking for a younger group of people because I wanted to depict my teens,” he says. “It was uplifting and warming, but that is how it is in Värmland. It is a warm province with nice people. But that’s how it is everywhere, really. It is about understanding this simple fact that we are actually related to each other, no matter where you live, you belong to the same family. And that sounds very romantic, but it’s not. It is a fact. And if you have that attitude, you will notice after a while that you have many friends. Doors will open, everywhere, wherever you go.”

Meyer Shapiro’s words on his friend Delmore Schwartz’s work of short stories are hereby passed on to pronounce the quality of Petersen’s photography: “It has the beauty of his honest thought / Of gravest musings on the human state / On thwarted dreams and forced deformities / And ever-resurgent hopes of light.”

And here is where the tombs begin to rattle and tiptoe steps will make it through the snow.

© Anders Petersen. Courtesy Galerie Vu, Paris.

Anders Petersen at Fotografiska in Stockholm through November 16, 2014.