Intensive and sensitive
The Swedish photographer Anders Petersen has won many prizes, among them Photographer of the Year at the 2003 Arles Festival. He exhibits internationally, is collected by numerous prestigious institutions and has had over twenty books published, all while working freelance, and not for newspapers or even advertising.
He had made a name for himself by the time Café Lehmitz was published, titled after an ordinary bar in Hamburg’s St. Pauli quarter frequented by drinkers, whores, petty criminals and ordinary people in the 1960s. Back then, as a grammar school dropout, Petersen used to frequent Hamburg, photographing the dark side of the entertainment industry with all its failed lives. And his fascination for this basic subject matter remained. But his attitude has no hint of voyeurism, on the contrary: as the photographer himself puts it, the Hamburg bar was for him a symbol of warmth and human contact where true friendships were made and kept. It is evident from his pictures that he felt himself among kindred spirits and quickly became integrated into this scene.
Café Lehmitz appeared in print ten years later. It was his third book, and one of the first publications with the Munich-based publishing house Schirmer/Mosel, that thereafter made a name for itself in part with author photography. The publication secured Petersen’s reputation abroad as well and has since been reprinted in Germany. Tom Waits used one of the images for the cover of his 1985 “Rain Dogs” album and thus sealed the iconic significance of Petersen’s photography. For some years now, Petersen has been rediscovered outside Sweden too—assisted in this by being awarded the Dr. Erich Salomon Prize by the German Society of Photography (Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Photographie) in 2008. His images have now attained classic status. There are bound to be more prizes and retrospectives to follow.
Since his first publication Gröna Lund in 1973, he has produced numerous artist’s books and catalogues, not all for the international book market but usually for the Swedish one. His most recent, three-volume Steidl publication City Diary is about to go to press.
1995 saw the publication of his book Ingen har sett allt—and thus we come to his first exhibition at the Swedish Photography Gallery in Berlin. Nobody has seen everything, which is the English title, was then the title of his book of 47 black-and-white images that had been created in several psychiatric institutions around Stockholm between 1992 and 1995. The exhibition of some 40 small-format vintage prints, which Swedish Photography is exhibiting for the first time, as a series entitled Mental Hospital, offers an almost complete overview of the sequence and the artistic intention behind it. In the case of the missing images, particularly ones with sexual content, Petersen was not able to secure the consent of the patients’ next-of-kin.
In the 1960s, anyone could visit Café Lehmitz, but it was unlikely that they could take photos freely. The challenge was surely harder still in the psychiatric institutions of the 1990s: a photographer would first have to win the trust of doctors, attendants and, above all, the patients, whose stay might be temporary or compulsory. In this society too, Petersen conducted himself with sensitivity and assurance and his camera seemed to become forgotten by the subjects during the long-term project. The sequence occasionally shows direct eye contact with a patient and thus a connection is established, even if the result is usually a strangely inward gaze. Be that as it may we, too, are drawn as later observers into an unknown world, a closed system. On viewing these intense portraits we can’t resist their pull.
The high-contrast black-and-white quality of the images makes these classic, timeless documents a hallmark of the photographer. His pictures are still taken with an analogue, 35 mm or 6 x 6 format camera, always in black and white, and bear no individual titles, as they are parts of a series. Photo historians like to pigeonhole Petersen as a social documentary photographer. But the term documentary is certainly problematic in this case. We can say that Petersen eschews on principle the manipulation of his images, but they are very subjective which, of course, rules out objectivity. And as objectivity seems to be an important criterion for a documentary eye, we had better be wary of such pigeonholes. Petersen himself once said of his intention that what interesting to him was “…the bare encounter, the naked, powerful confrontation with the other, and hence with ourselves.” Seen in this way, his portraits could be understood as an extended self-portrait.
The photographer has placed most patients at the Swedish clinics in front of a neutral background where hardly anything distracts from the individual. However, in one picture, in contrast, numerous dark marks can be seen on a white table, likely caused by lit cigarettes left on the tabletop. This inattentiveness is reflected in the man’s unselfconscious pose, as he lies fully-dressed on a bed; he seems to have slipped away from normal life. The tabletop is presumably plastic, designed, as the rest of the bare tiled room, for pragmatic, everyday functionality. Here, Petersen has chosen a view from above and shows a claustrophobic, stage-like situation, whereas in other images the view is from below, photographed from the grass roots, as it were. His images are always perfectly composed, often incorporating unusual traces of light; these arise from “a gut feeling”, as the photographer says, a combination of intuition and years of artistic experience.
Petersen combines distance and proximity to the object in an inimitable pictorial language. He always seems to be right in the thick of things, allowing himself to be engrossed by the situation—just like his earlier colleagues Ed van der Elsken or Bruce Davidson, and later Daido Moriyama or Nan Goldin. Yet in spite of the unusual proximity to the subject matter of the images, in this case to people, Petersen manages to preserve a distance, enabling him to produce portraits which are restrained, unadorned, individual and simultaneously typecast, whether in everyday situations or in closed institutions. Beauty and terror are often found side by side.
Petersen feels an emotional connection to his fellow humans: we can sense his empathy. He approaches them with respect, curiosity and an open mind—and creates pictures, which move us without leaving us too shocked. It is almost an affectionate approach: the people in bars, prisons or mental hospitals are by no means compromised. He allows the inmates of the psychiatric clinics sufficient space for themselves, their self-expression and their surroundings, which they have in part chosen. There is hardly anyone who makes a sad or desperate impression; most appear simply absent, self-absorbed. Thus any charge of voyeurism in his photography rebounds. But at the same time, the idea emerges of an intensive, uncompromising investigation into the depths of human existence, which is surely revealed in these places.
Born in 1944 in Stockholm, Petersen now lives there once more. From 1966 to 1968, he studied with Christer Strömholm at the photography college that the latter founded in Stockholm. Petersen has worked since 1970 as a freelance photographer, initially also for Swedish newspapers and magazines. In 1973, he studied for two years at the College of Film and TV. In workshops nowadays, he advises young photography students to try and forget everything they have ever learnt—or simply switch their thoughts off when photographing. This might be a useful key for us also when considering his enigmatic work.
TEXT BY MATTHIAS HARDER
©picture Anders Petersen
Courtesy, Swedish Photography, Berlin