16 January 2009

Meeting Smoliansky

Being in the right place
– Gunnar Smoliansky and his photography
All pictures © Gunnar Smoliansky unless otherwise stated. Text by Anders Blomqvist.
Photo by Anders Blomqvist

Gunnar Smoliansky is just about to release his book One Picture at a Time. This past year the corresponding exhibition has been shown in both Gothenburg and Stockholm in Sweden. “I photograph the things I see” Smoliansky says humbly. Behind these words are 50 years of experience of active photography where the subjects vary but his personal signature of two-dimensionality and tonality is evident all the time. He shuns the word “project” and prefers to treat his pictures individually from the moment he exposes the negative until he has the judged the final print. This has given Gunnar Smoliansky’s work a quality characterised by originality and solidity.

"I really dislike projects" says Gunnar. “I try to avoid being involved in one if possible. I prefer to just take one picture at a time.” – Hence, the title was set for his latest exhibition and book. It says a lot about how Gunnar Smoliansky works as a photographer.

I am sitting with Smoliansky at a café at Söder in Stockholm. There are lots of people around us and the traffic is busy. His latest exhibition One Picture at a Time has been shown this summer at Kulturhuset in Stockholm and the book is expected to be released in the first quarter of 2009. It is not an ordinary exhibition and book Smoliansky is serving us: All the pictures have been selected in collaboration with his colleagues Jäger Arén, the curator of the exhibition, and Henrik Nygren, who has made several of Smoliansky’s earlier books. Gradually, in discussion with Arén and Nygren, the numerous prints for the book have been reduced from 1000 to 285, and the exhibitions have shown even less pictures. The selected material spans over the time period between 1952 and 2008 and the prints are shown neither chronologically nor in a thematic order. Consequently, as a viewer, one jumps between decades and motifs in this retrospective exhibition.

The pictures ripen with time
”Topicality has never been my thing” says Smoliansky smiling when he says that his pictures need to ripen before they can be shown. By the years, Gunnar has developed a working method that suits him perfectly. When he’s just about to expose his negative, he will just follow his gut feeling. “Today I’ll just pick up the camera, take the picture, and then just walk on…” he explains. Once he has the developed negatives in his hand, he studies them over and over again, and lets an intellectual interpretation take place. The negatives and the prints may sometimes need a week or even a year to be approved by Gunnar. Once enough photographs have been accepted, Gunnar considers compiling the achieved material for an exhibition and even a book. Sometimes this process may happen quickly, like it happened for the exhibition Sotbrand (Eng: “chimney fire”) On the other hand, sometimes it may take decades as it did for the prints of the exhibition of “Waldemarsudde” (a part of an island in central Stockholm).

The idea behind Sotbrand emerged suddenly when a friend’s apartment was ruined by a chimney fire. Gunnar received a call from his friend suggesting he should come over and take some pictures. When Gunnar arrived the flat was covered with soot, like a fine mezzotint layer covering everything. It was in the middle of the summer and very hot, but opening a window was not an option – even a tiny gust of air would have ruined the delicate layer of carbon. “I stepped in to the apartment… took off my shoes, my clothes, and put them on a fresh newspaper next to the entrance door” he tells me and continues “There I stood, in my underwear, looking down in the focusing hood of my Hasselblad and I could feel how the sweat was dripping down on the focusing screen!” Altogether, he spent a few hours in the apartment during two days. “I couldn’t stand it any longer!” he says. Nevertheless, the pictures were taken and the material finally became an exhibition and a book.

On the other hand, the material for “Waldemarsudde” required a longer time to develop. Originally, Gunnar met up with a friend at Waldemarsudde very early on Sunday mornings. The walked around independently of each other and took pictures. Year by year, Gunnar returned to Waldemarsudde and expanded his collections of pictures from that area. After 12 years, Gunnar finally decided to show the images at the art museum on Waldemarsudde.

Personal style arrived early
Smoliansky started to take photographs in the early 50’s by using a Rolleiflex. “The viewing screen and the square format of the camera turned out to be perfect to learn how to photograph and compose pictures” Gunnar remembers. He never strives to achieve a depth in his pictures. He prefers to regard the subjects as a two-dimensional surface and he composes them very strictly and simply, if possible having parallel lines and no leaning lines.

Already after six or seven rolls of film, he had gotten a grip on what his personal style was. “I was all settled when I started in Christer Strömholm’s photography school” Gunnar says calmly.

Gunnar Smoliansky’s prints very seldom have the pitch black tone many photographers are striving for these days. He prefers to be in the tonal range between black and white “I want the viewer to sense something in the darkest parts of a print” Gunnar argues. Also, in contrast to all the large prints photographers make these days, Gunnar prefers small prints. As a viewer, you are forced to take a step forward in order to see the details. “It should be a close meeting between you and the photograph” Gunnar explains. He doesn’t hesitate to frame a small contact print measuring 9x9 cm (approx. 3.5”x3.5”) and he avoids making larger prints than 24x30 cm (10”x12”). “Larger prints than that would be something completely different” – Gunnar’s photography feels sublime and contemplative. It doesn’t yell for attention – rather, it invites the viewer into a whispering dialogue.

Before the integrity

The time in Strömholm’s school was a very social time where contacts and friends were made but also his technical skills were improved: ”We could be 25-30 people sitting around a table” Gunnar says and remembers occasions when Christer Strömholm could ask someone to hand over his Leica to him. Once receiving it, Christer changed all the settings on the camera and handed it back. Once returned, the photographer had to set a given aperture, time and focus without looking. Gunnar could practise this when he was strolling on the streets of Stockholm, he measured the light, adjusted the settings of his Leica and was prepared to just aim and shoot before the “decisive moment” disappeared. If it was a portrait of a human being, Gunnar always made eye contact with the person and exchanged a greeting – “… back then, it was no problem: The word “integrity” wasn’t invented yet and people were not worried”. It was simply easier to photograph people during the 50’s and the 60’s.

His own path
A more negative attitude towards photographers emerged in the late 60’s when Japanese cameras became everyone’s property. All of a sudden, everyone was taking pictures and more and more people were disturbed by this crowd of photographers. This was a signal to Gunnar to move on, to do something else. He bought a SLR and a macro lens and started to focus on details, things that were connected to people.

There was also a change in the technical routines he had acquired in the photography school. “Everyone was using the same type of film, the same developer, the same paper and it all ended up with very similar images” Gunnar describes the feeling of uniformity that grew stronger and stronger during the 70’s.

When he visited London in 1975 in order to see a Paul Strand exhibition, this was also his first contact the American photography – the break with the Swedish photography became very obvious. “You could see qualities that you hadn’t seen before […] you were wondering: why is that? Do they have better stuff to work with? Do they keep the better photographic papers and send the litter to us? It took some time before one understood it was a matter of larger negative sizes!”

Once he had realised that, Gunnar adopted the large format too. The change of format also created a curiosity of learning more about old techniques. He then realized that much of that knowledge was forgotten among other photographers. “Once you adopt a new technique, you tend to forget about what has been learnt previously” he remarks. Thanks to his colleagues, he managed to get his hands on old handbooks and recipes, and eventually he bought his own chemicals to make his own developers. He also ended up collecting and using old photographic papers. On his travels northbound, he would stop in small villages and ask every single photographer if they had any old papers to sell. “It still happens that I make a print on old Gevaert paper” says Gunnar when we discuss the qualities of these papers, but he does not express any nostalgic loss of these papers: he just states the fact the papers available are just fine. Today, he even lets a local photographic store do the processing of his films. Being 75 years old (in year 2008) he would rather spend his time doing prints in his darkroom.

About being in the right place

“To take good pictures is just a matter of being in the right place – everything else is just a way to mystify the procedure,” says Gunnar. A place full of objects asking to be photographed will usually be rejected by Gunnar. “That’s probably the most sensible thing one can do” he adds. The expectations and visions one may have when being there are easily turned into great disappointments when the prints are made. Instead, Gunnar prefers to identify something novel in common daily life objects and situations. Such subjects are easily neglected and therefore not readily seen in general. A fine example is Gunnar’s work on buildings and the play of shadows and lines.

Even when looking at his early work from the 50’s, the distance and the clean compositions feel right and wear the typical signature of Gunnar Smoliansky. He never cleans up things around the object when he takes the photograph, nor does he retouch his prints afterwards (with the exception of dust etc), such a thing would be entirely foreign to him. When I see Gunnar’s artwork, I smile when I see familiar objects being interpreted in a new way: like a can flattened by a car wheel or a picture of a drainpipe in slush. All of a sudden, I understand why he says that you need fresh eyes and not experience when you are about to take a photograph.

When it comes to inspiration
When it comes to photographers that inspire, Gunnar mentions established photographers like Eugené Atget, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan , and Lee Friedlander. ”You will get a lot from these photographers… Bill Brandt is perhaps the greatest of them all, he really grows” Gunnar remarks, but I can see that he is not entirely satisfied with the answer. He ponders and then smiles; he mentions a book by Jeffrey Fraenkel, The Book of Shadows. The book contains pictures made by amateur photographers who have photographed their own shadows. With enthusiasm he tells me about the power of these photographs taken by unknown photographers. “The photograph itself is a greater inspiration rather than the (name of the) photographer” Gunnar concludes and now looks satisfied with the answer.

The time runs out and Gunnar excuses himself, the opening of an exhibition is waiting and he needs to run. A bus is stopping for us when we are just about to cross the street but he waves to the chauffeur to drive on. “I would never allow a bus with 50 people to stop just because I’m crossing the street” he says humbly and naturally. He asks me to join him for the opening exhibition, but I choose to thank him for the valuable time he has given me and decide to make my way home. I pick up the camera, and stroll along the streets, thinking “one picture at a time”.

More about Gunnar Smoliansky

  1. Gunnar Smoliansky’s website
  2. Gunnar Smoliansky’s book One picture at a time on amazon.com or adlibris.com
  3. Leif Matsson’s article about Smoliansky (in Swedish)
  4. Kulturhuset in Stockholm about Smoliansky (in Swedish)
  5. Carl Abrahamson’s article about Smoliansky (in Swedish)
  6. Hasselblad foundation about Smoliansky

The F-blog. January 16th, 2009. © Anders Blomqvist

Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Jeanne Wells, Lina Nääs, and Fredrik Skott for linguistic revision of the article.