There’s a very helpful quote on the back of the reissue (finally!) of Christer Strömholm’s 1967 masterpiece, Poste Restante, from a contemporary review in the Swedish evening tabloid Expressen. “As far as I know,” the review goes, “this is the first time a book publisher (Norstedts) has dropped all demands that a photobook must have a subject in the ordinary sense—or at least that it must work on a social, documentary, or generally decorative level. Poste Restante is as exclusive and private in its conception as a modern lyrical poetry collection and in its expression, almost as closed and inaccessible….
“Poste Restante shows that Christer Strömholm is probably the person in photographic history who has been most effective in using photography as a symbolic or formal language for private experiences, for a subjective sensibility of life.”
I don’t usually quote other reviews, but I do so here to raise a historical question: Did Strömholm invent the poetic photobook?
That’s not exactly Expressen’s point, but still an interesting question, leading us to consider such forebears as Man Ray; Germaine Krull and her ode to metal; Moi Ver and his surreal superimpositions; Robert Frank’s breathtaking song of the American highway (Walt Whitman in photos a century later, now singing the radiant jukebox); and even William Klein with his “I also contain multitudes” epic bebop prose poem of New York (and of Moscow and Tokyo). But Expressen does have a point: In Poste Restante, Strömholm works with a far more private language of secret images and not-quite-explicable meanings than photographers before him. That in its way is a first.
I’ve written in these pages many times about how I look for story in photobooks, story as shorthand for a way of shaping a book, giving it direction, pulse, a rise and fall of emotion; but in essence my deep argument is that the best photobooks constitute a new form of literature. So why not the photobook as a form of poetry book?
Well, first off, that stark, disturbing cover photo of a dead, rotting dog on harshly pebbled ground. Not the only image in the book of death, of course: there’s the lurid wall drawing of a tiger biting into a terrified man’s shoulder; what looks like an Indian woman in her burial shroud; and a casting of a shrieking head in a box that’s easily the photographic equivalent of Munch’s famous bridge-screamer—perhaps not death itself, but surely an image bearing down hard at us from the Hades Expressway.
Poetry thrives on running motifs. For Strömholm, death is a powerful theme; the magic in found images is another.
Indeed, Strömholm loves found images, the crocodile snapping at a she-lizard; a cast-off painting of a mustached burgher, a chip of canvas torn from his forehead; and a lurid drawing of a spotted carnival woman flanked by two bemused apes, this photo flanked by the actual carnie woman in her two-piece swimsuit, the spots liberally strewn over her mostly naked flesh.
Strömholm also loves carnies, it’s clear; further, he harbors a deep fascination with outré life-styles, too. Poste Restante has eight photos from the series that would make up his other great photo book, Les Amies de Place Blanche, his shots of transvestites along the Boulevard Clichy in Paris back in the 1950s (unexpectedly quiet photos, pace Henry Miller), but almost every shot in Poste Restante is curious if not downright strange and unsettling. What’s that child doing hanging at least a dozen feet up hoisted on a bamboo stick? Where did the photographer find all those oozy snakes? How about the wicker basket of broken-up doll parts? That demented looking blind child that might have given even Diane Arbus the willies?
In a way, Poste Restante resembles Ed van der Elsken’s Sweet Life, as it roams the world seeking out the strange and curious, but when put side-by-side, Elsken’s book is more travelogue; Strömholm’s truly is “modern lyrical poetry.” How else as imagistic poetry do we explain why he chose to shoot a Pere Lachaise grave statue of two thick arms reaching out, two huge stone hands clasping? Or a white-cloth-covered motorcycle before an ivy wall? A couple splots of vomit on a brick road? A board full of hanging pocket watches? Two plastic bags carrying goldfish home?
The only explanation: All these images spoke to Strömholm. They contained a poetic magic that caught his eye, that only his camera could capture, and that this great photobook—each photo speaking to the next, in discord and harmony, in mystery and heightened consciousness—could bring to life.
That’s the essence of the poetic photobook: Images powerful and personal, correspondences between shots inexplicable yet telling, the power of a strong, vivid internal vision finding its correlatives in images somehow snapped by one’s camera. That’s the true secret: Internal mysteries only the artist understands (or intuits) made manifest in photos, not words. In a phrase, This speaks to me, and my poetic soul is so certain and present that what I photograph will speak to you, too.
Poets make poetry, meaning that those souls privileged (or damned) enough to see/feel what no one else does can render those transcendent glimpses into words. Poetic photographers, those who see/feel what we can’t, make poetic photobooks. Perhaps as simple as that.
I’m fortunate to own an original copy of Poste Restante, and after comparing that with the reissue, it’s safe to say that every photo in the new edition is crisper and richer than the 1967 version. Also different is that the interview with Strömholm that opens each book on gray paper (O.K., the gray paper in the original version is textured, thus more interesting, but so what?) is now in English rather than the original Swedish. Which means I can read it. And it’s worth going through. Strömholm was an intriguing cat. There are numerous tales of fighting Nazis in WWII, then wandering the world, especially the world’s brothels. Here’s a telling quote: “Personally I can’t cope with the same woman day in and day out. I want new bodies under me, want new confessions and new stories.”
New confessions, new stories … add to that new photos, new placings of images, new mysteries, new passions, new visions … and you get Poste Restante.
By the way, the title translates as “general delivery,” and as with any great poet, Strömholm’s work can see into the future. Those world-sweeping images of desirous geishas and pornographic wall scratchings, of snake ladies and Parisian transvestites, are no longer so forbidden, so outré. Indeed, you can probably have all of it turn up in the post with a few clicks on Amazon. General delivery, indeed.
Strömholm: poet, visionary, inspiration for photographers from Arbus to Elsken, from Frederick Sommer to Daido Moriyama, and all-around mysterian, to our great benefit back again in this reissue of his classic work by the Christer Strömholm estate. Simply essential … and ready to inspire other poetic photographers well into time.
Poste Restante by Christer Strömholm is available to purchase here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Carnival of Souls are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here). In Spring 2017, Dunn taught a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.