In 1959, Christer Strömholm, then a little-known Swedish photographer, found his way to Paris and to a group of people who would transform his life, and he theirs.
Mr. Strömholm’s sense of family was colored, darkly, by his father’s suicide and his mother’s remarriage to a wealthy ship broker. When he went to Paris, he fell in with a group of outcasts — transgender women living at Place Blanche — that quickly became an adopted clan. “This was his family, these girls,” said his son Joakim Strömholm.
His new friends were “the most unwanted people in Paris,” Joakim said. “He would see their beauty. It was nothing voyeuristic, scandalous, it was just normal life that he followed.”
The work remained largely unpublished until 1983, when ETC released it as a book, “Les Amies de Place Blanche” (“The Friends of Place Blanche”). It begins with a brief introduction written by the photographer: “This is a book about insecurity. A portrayal of those living a different life in the big city of Paris, of people who endured the roughness of the streets. … This is a book about the quest for self-identity, about the right to live, about the right to own and control one’s own body.”
Mr. Strömholm lived in the same hotels as the women he photographed. He ate with them, drank with them, went out on the town with them. He would take his camera and a few rolls of film when they went out at night, and upon returning to the hotel, develop them in his room. “If the pictures were poorly exposed or if I had committed a technical mistake it did not matter. I had every night ahead of me,” he wrote in “Les Amies de Place Blanche.”
The book, and the work, is billed as a family album, but it is, in fact, a shockingly intimate and sensitive portrayal of transgender women decades before such depictions became expected or even widely seen. Many of the women in the book were sex workers or performers at cabarets (and occasionally freak shows). Though eventually some became high-society women, life on Place Blanche was precarious. Mr. Strömholm’s work does not shy away from these realities, but as a whole his body of work centers on his subjects’ dignity.
“When dawn approached, at about six in the morning, the Metro was reopening,” he wrote. “We drank our hot chocolates; bought the newspaper. We walked quietly along the boulevard, up the rue Lepic to go back to our small hotel rooms. In Paris, it was morning, but for the friends of the place Blanche, it was still nighttime. My friends lived together in a world apart, a world of shadows and loneliness, anxiety, hopelessness and alienation. The only thing they demanded was to have the right to be themselves, not to be forced to deny or repress their feelings, to have the right to live their own lives, to be responsible, to be at ease with themselves. Nothing more. It was then — and still is — about attaining the right to own one’s own life and identity.”
The women in Mr. Strömholm’s work are playful (or not), sensual (or not), engaged (or not) — that is to say, they are themselves, full of life and complexity, human. It is perhaps depressing for a body of work to be lauded for showcasing the humanity of its human subjects, but the fact of the matter is that at that time, and still today, transgender people were seen as oddities to be gawked at, ridiculed, abused. Yet Mr. Strömholm and his work saw a different reality.
“With hindsight, all these years, all these efforts, these struggles to become myself, all I had to undergo wasn’t done in vain,” Nana, one of Mr. Stromhölm’s closest friends from that period, wrote in an essay included in the 2011 rerelease of the book. “I am myself.”