Christer Strömholm (1918–2002) was a well-known photographer in his native Sweden, but is not well known in the rest of the art world. He specialized in portraits of individuals in real-life situations and photographed primarily in black and white. When he traveled to Paris in the late 1950’s, Strömholm befriended the transsexual women who worked the streets in the Place Blanche, and they allowed him to photograph them. These works were collected in a book titled Les Amies de Place Blanche, and they document snapshots of the lives of these transsexual prostitutes who were fighting to live as women and to save money for sex reassignment surgery.
His book was published in 1983 and is difficult to find, even in reprints, and typically costs several hundred dollars. You can find a little more than a hundred of his photographs on the web, so what I’ve done is to collect what I feel are some of the most compelling works I’ve come across, and comment on them here. If you have an interpretation or different emotion evoked, I’d love to see a comment on this page.
This photo has been copied all over the net and often mis-attributed as being “crossdressers in Paris,” but these are five transsexual women who are out on the town. What I like about this photograph is that they’re not dressed as per their profession, but look like everyday women out shopping in Paris in the 1960’s.
I like this photograph because the woman portrayed is appearing happy, yet hesitant – I’m not receiving the impression that she’s not enjoying the kiss, but more than she may actually not be wanting a true intimate moment captured. The question is whether the man kissing her is a lover, client, or friend. Most prostitutes have boyfriends or lovers, so the photograph may show her in the leisure hours.
When I’ve stayed in Paris in the Opera Quarter, I have often stayed in a hotel which had a very similar view from its balcony. Even the balcony railing even looked the same, so that’s one reason I enjoy this photograph. Another is the obvious theme of contemplation, or expectation, from the subject – we can’t tell which, or if it’s both.
I believe the woman’s name is “Nana” but cannot confirm that. I found her face striking, both in form and pose.
The two women in this photograph appear posed to me – there appears to be too much tension in them, and they seem too perfectly set. However, it could also be that the photographer is attempting to capture what was a natural greeting – or goodbye – and was having them recreate it for the camera.
This photograph seems a little unremarkable at first, but I think there is a great amount of subtle emotion shown by the woman portrayed. I also love the angle of her eyes and her pose; it reminds me of a very nice photo taken of me once. I can’t read the emotions on her face and body precisely, but I’ll just write that what I see is a bit of wariness and weariness mixed.
It’s all in the face, and the angulation of the eyes. She’s just beautiful.
I like the semi-shy, semi-teasing look from within the cave of her hair. However, others believe she looks a little scared or haunted, and I can see that too.
Most of Strömholm’s women are young, no more than their early 40’s by all appearances. This is the only photograph I have from this collection which shows a much older transsexual woman, and although age has taken its toll, as it does on all of us, you can see her former youthful beauty, and she continues to dress well, not giving up on fashion as she has grown old.
Belinda looks so natural and soft in this. At first I thought she was in the wrong collection, but no, she is a transwoman.
This is cropped down from a larger photograph which shows a wide background of Paris at night, but there is not much interesting in it. Gina is highlighted in the center of the work, taking a stereotypical 1960’s “fashion pose” which is meant to convey shyness and vulnerability, but instead seems a bit artificial. I wonder if that was the intent.
Jacky seems full of sass and attitude – this portrait of her tells me she’s a confident, street-smart girl who doesn’t take any attitude from anyone.
Despite taking a somewhat corny name, Kissmie is very cute and feminine in her outfit. Her small, waifish-look reminds me of a friend of mine.
Several interpretations are possible for this photograph. The obvious one is that it’s a lover leaving her partner, but another one is simply that they are roommates. And is she getting dressed or undressed?
Suzanne and Mimosa
An evocative pose, which sadly looks a little too contrived. However, I liked the shadows and light in the photograph.
Suzanne and Mimosa, 1962
Another pose with Suzanne and Mimosa, again one which is or looks posed. It’s the first one of a short series of photographs which focus on semi-nude and nude bodies of the transsexual women.
I haven’t confirmed the names of these women, but I love this photo because they genuinely seem very happy to be together.
There are a couple more photographs of these particular women from this same session in the master collection of photographs.
The most risqué of the photographs, showing “Cynthia” full-length. I have to wonder if she might not be intersex, given the form of her breasts. But that’s not really important – photographs of nude transwomen are vanishingly rare from this time in history, and artistic photos pretty much unique.
Another photograph of “Cynthia” which gives an impression of vulnerability and defensiveness. This is a clear contrast to the prior photograph and pose, where she is open and fully exposed to the viewer.
The Artist and Jacky, 1962
We end this sample with a photograph of “Jacky” and the artist. One thing which is not clear to me from reading the history of these works and the artist is whether the artist had any personal or “professional” relations with the women in these photographs.