Before Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (1986), there was Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm’s “Les Amies de Place Blanche,” a series of black-and-white photographs, taken between 1959 and 1968, of the transsexual and transvestite men of Paris’s notorious Place Blanche and Place Pigalle neighborhoods. First published as a photo book in Sweden in 1983, these pictures were the subject of a recent show at the ICP-the first exhibition of Strömholm’s work in the U.S. Like Goldin’s portraits of her companions and lovers in New York’s gay, punk and hard drug subcultures of the 1980s, Strömholm’s photographs of his acquaintances—many of whom would remain lifelong friends—are, while impelled by a passionate curiosity, also tender and respectful.
To the Place Blanche came young men looking to live as women. They came from the provinces, from the rest of Europe, and from North Africa, often fleeing abusive families or societal persecution. They worked as performers at cabarets or as prostitutes (and often both) and saved for hormone therapy and sex-change operations in Casablanca. Theirs was a tight-knit community, one all the more insular because of the hardships they endured under Charles DeGaulle’s draconian anti-gay laws.
A chance encounter in the late 1950s brought Strömholm—straight, ordinary-looking and a little shy—in contact with some of these men, who went by women’s names and dressed in women’s clothes, but even more than that, were feminine to the core. At the time, Strömholm was a member of Germany’s Fotoform group, taking starkly modernist pictures of cracked walls and rainy plazas. The meeting changed both his life and his art.
For the next 10 years, Strömholm adapted his daily routine to that of his subjects, living in the same small hotels, rising late as they did, and following them as they dressed and put on makeup, emerged onto the street to solicit clients and, at dawn, stopped in to the brasseries for a last cup of chocolate before bed. In one of the photographs, Nana, a Spanish-Jewish beauty from Oran with huge dark eyes and a wide, sensual mouth, sits under harsh strip lighting at the counter of a brasserie. In another, Gina, a blonde in the style of Marilyn Monroe (or transsexual Warhol superstar, Candy Darling) vamps for Strömholm’s camera on a neon-lit cobblestone street. In a third, vivacious Jacky in mohair coat, chandelier earrings and heavy eyeliner, her hair held back by a wide silk band, stands hipshot in front of one of the cabarets.
While esthetically indebted to photographs by Surrealists such as Man Ray, Brassaï and Ilse Bing, who had prowled the same neighborhoods for subject matter in the 1930s, Strömholm’s works blur the line between spectator and participant in a way that seems entirely contemporary. In his friends’ resilience, courage and self-acceptance, Strömholm found his first great subject. On their side, as Nana recounts in a new edition of the 1983 book, “I was happy. In his photographs I saw myself.”
Photo: Christer Strömholm: Gina, 1963, black-and-white photograph, 10 3⁄4 by 67⁄8 inches; at the International Center of Photography.