February 15: How do we live?
Two photojournalists produced formative documents on lifestyle were born on this date; Lisetta Carmi (1924) and Lars Tunbjörk (1956). To regard also in that light the series of 1860s photographs taken at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station by Frederick Kruger (who died this day in 1888) is to reveal a tragedy.
Of Jewish origin, Lisetta Carmi experienced the horror of racial persecution in the midst of her adolescence; expelled from school, while her brothers went to study in Switzerland, she remained in the house with her piano and no friends of her own age. When in her thirties, musicologist Leo Levi proposed a trip to Apulia where he was to study the songs of a Jewish community. Fascinated by the light and beauty of the Salento Carmi bought her first camera, an Agfa Silette, the ‘poor man’s Leica’ with interchangeable lenses and Compur leaf shutter, and fell in love with the medium.
“When, with a clean break after twenty years of isolation spent in the study of music, I went out into the world to relate to other people, it was those years of rigorous study and research in solitude that were a current that streamed into my photography.” Her father, seeing her dedication, supported her with the gift of a Leica M2 with three lenses: a 35mm, 50mm and a 90mm.
Thus Carmi gave up a coveted career as a pianist in 1960 at age thirty-six, for a professional photography career working for the Duse theatre in Genoa, and also produced reportage at the port which was hit by riots against the new right-leaning Tambroni government, selling the photographs to newspapers, but without having to rely on them for a living. She felt strongly about these political events and contributed photographs to an exhibition in support of dock workers.
She made significant, very straightforward portraits, including several of the poet Ezra Pound and of Luigi Dallapiccola, pianist. Traveling in the sixties and seventies she photographed in Paris, Belfast, Sicily, Afghanistan, Israel, Venezuela and regions between, including a 1965 sequence of a 20-year-old woman giving birth at the Galliera hospital, confronting for this period, so much so perhaps that it is still hard to locate examples of them.
On New Year’s Eve in 1965, Carmi met and photographed a group of transvestites living and working on the Via de Campo in Genoa, Italy. It was the beginning of a seven year relationship with the group, considered outsiders by Italian society. The publication of I Travestiti, her best known work, was a challenge to the Genoa bourgeois conformist society which she also revisited at this time, portraying it via the monuments and sculptures of the cemetery of Staglieno.
These, shot at the same time that Diane Arbus was making hers in New York, are deeply sympathetic and quite tender group and solo portraits of transvestites, presenting the most positive image of them to be found in this period, certainly much more so than anything Arbus was doing in her search for the ‘freaks’ and fringe dwellers of society as a reflection of her own psyche.
Arbus’ pictures are lit with harsh on-camera flash while Carmi uses bounce-flash or available light (a reflector can be seen in the mirror in the second shot below). Arbus’ square format seems to want cropping, so random is the framing. Centred on the face of her subject, it is quite deliberately artless. The flash shows detail that would not be evident in the existing light; it is denuding and penetrative, almost X-Ray in effect.
Carmi’s series might also be compared with that of Swedish photographer Christer Stromholm (see further below in this post) working in Paris in the late 50s and during the 60s, who also photographed transvestites and transsexuals. It may be that as his male his perspective on and relation with these subjects is what gives them a tendency to be confrontational and somewhat sensational. Carmi’s orderly domestic settings and softer light conceals the still masculine features, replacing them with a roundness and softness that renders them quite lovely, and loving.
It was only the harshest image (left) of this series that was selected by Karl Pawek for his second Weltausstellung der Fotographie (2nd World Exhibition of Photography) of 1968, which was devoted to images of women (though only 10% of the photographers themselves were female). However the inclusion in this publication and widely exhibited show of 522 photographs from 85 countries by 236 photographers was a vindication of Carmi’s efforts which had been so roundly condemned in Catholic Italy.
Carmi’s portraits of Ezra Pound were made on 11 February 1966 when he was elderly (he died seven years later). Her intimate photos, raw and at the same time mysterious and elusive, were shot with a 35mm camera in just the four minutes he was able to give her when she rang the bell unannounced. He looks dishevelled and her pictures have been described as cruel, but Carmi’s compassion as a photographer is evident, and they are a revealing record of Pound’s last years, when he was often silent and depressed.
I saw his inner greatness, his despair. And I saw his eyes staring at the infinite; an
indescribable emotion. When I developed and printed the 12 photos that I had,
I saw exactly what I had felt while
Sending a selection of the images to Pound she saw them used in many books dedicated to the poet. She entered the same photos into the Italian version of the prestigious Niépce award, and won. Umberto Eco, jury member, declared that the photographs by Lisetta Carmi of Ezra Pound say more than all the articles written about him.
Now ninety-three Carmi has since dedicated her life to the guru Babaji after a visit to India, where she made some of the earliest photographs of him. Back in Italy, she set up an ashram in Cisternino. Now a spiritual centre, Bhole Baba is recognized by the Italian State. Still energetically pursuing other interests, Lisetta started again to play the piano, inspired by the psychoanalytical knowledge of a former student, Paolo Ferrari and discovered Tao through calligraphy. Daniele Segre has since made a film about her. In old age, her serenity is legend; on the threshold of the ashram one day, Lisette was struck by lightning. Brought to the hospital, with friends fearing the worst, doctors were unable to explain why she sustained merely a bruise. Her explanation; “I do not resist.”, and so it is with her dedication to photography.
Lars Tunbjörk’s imagery by comparison is almost satirical, though warmly so. A very active and well travelled photojournalist, his website sets out numbers of his stories, produced for major magazines. When it appeared in 1993 Landet utom sig (Country Beside Itself), his first portrait of Sweden, in Journal, immediately set his tone, sharp, critical and conveyed by flash shots that exacerbate color in an ‘in-your-face’ manner. It is on the basis of this album that he was invited to join the l’Agence VU and to become one of the stable of artists at the gallery of the same name.
His best known series, since published as a book, titled simply Office (2001), is just that; pictures of a place so mundane that others would rarely consider a promising subject. The ‘orifice’, as workers not-so-fondly dub it, is a site in which we make a living, but also the place in which so many waste their lives.
It is ordinariness on which Tunbjörk thrives; cubicles, computers, tangles of cables, telephone conversations; meetings and conferences; beige and grey furniture and tacky veneer, blank windows, its all there.
He was born in the south of Sweden in the town of Borås, to which he later returned to make I Love Boras (Steidl, 2007), a relentlessly mediocre portrait built up with each return home, and Vinter (Steidl, 2007), which conjures the more sinister aspects of long winter nights.
Tunbjörk was 15 when he started taking photographs during work experience at his local newspaper Borås Tidning. On leaving school, he began freelancing for the national newspaper Stockholms-Tidningen, when he won the Swedish Picture of the Year award for a black and white documentary picture of Swedish everyday life and became one of the country’s most celebrated photographers.
Inspired by the Swedish master Christer Stromholm who also photographed transvestites (in Paris, below) in the 1960s, he soon discovered his own style by taking a cue from the American photographers of the 1970s like Stephen Shore and William Eggleston and abandoned black and white for their colour.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2011, Tunbjörk said: “Especially in my older work, I was looking for strange, absurd situations, going on endless tours to festivals, campgrounds, and shopping centres. If I found an interesting place, I could stand there for hours, waiting. I often get asked if my pictures are staged. They are not.”
His insights into the cultures of the USA in this 1995 series Big Boys Will Be Cowboys are more biting than some of the homegrown photographers.
Tunbjörk died prematurely in 2015 at the age of 59 years. His output is considerable, and consistent in its critical perspective in his themes and subjects. This and his use of colour might be compared with Wolfgang Tillmans whose survey has a private launch tonight at TATE Modern. Tillman’s restlessness separates him generationally (though he is a mere twelve years younger) from Tunbjörk’s sharply focussed wit. His overlapping and sometimes vaguely conceived themes, which often fail his own test of ‘bringing attention’, may now find sharper resolution in the TATE survey show on a strongly held political position which manifested in relation to Brexit, being famously realised in a set of bleak ‘No’ posters in the UK campaign. Despite Tillmans’ avowal of a strong political conscience, why is it hard to discern in most of his work?
Fred Kruger, a German migrant to 1860s colonial Australia drove a horse and cart around Victoria taking both scenic views and private commissions which now form a valuable historic record of the colony. His most political commission was to record the life of Australian Wurundjeri indigenous at the protectorate Coranderrk Station at the request of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines.
Under protectionist policies the government settled indigenous people dispossessed of their traditional lands by the arrival of European settlers to the colony of Victoria since the 1830s. The settlements were on land of no use to white farmers, a “civilising experiment” to contain and acculturate indigenous people, and to impose white notions of aboriginality, concepts of race, social value, hierarchy and utility.
Nevertheless the Wurundjeri at Coranderrk, north-west of Melbourne on land now occupied by Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary, made a such a success of growing European crops that they came to be regarded as a threat. In a series of moves the Protection Board betrayed the aborigines in deference to demands of farmers, eventually causing their dispersal and eventual disappearance in the 20th century. Kruger was commissioned at a delicate point in 1877 by the Aboriginal Protection Board to create a collection of work including portraits of the Aborigines at the Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission Station, which was made public in 1883.
This montage of 104 portraits of Kulin people from Coranderrk made by Charles Walter to the commission of governor Sir Redmond Barry for the 1866 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition serves as a comparison of the progress of this acculturation. Kruger’s photographs of the people in indigenous dress of possum skins are clearly posed reconstructions of their traditional lifestyle and starkly reveal, in images of them in Victorian costume, not their ‘Europeanisation’, but the unsuitability of European dress.
With the implementation of the Aborigines Protection Act of 1886, and with numbers of residents dwindling from the 104 portrayed by Walter, around 60 residents were forced out of Coranderrk on the eve of the 1890s Depression, leaving only around 15 able-bodied men and ensuring the failure of the Station.