History professor Dr. Philip Charrier's new project explores transgender politics in 1950's Paris through the work of a renowned Swedish photographer

Christer Stromholm, pictured in a public domain photo

Historian and photographer Dr. Philip Charrier (Department of History) has been awarded a Humanities Research Living Heritage Micro Grant in order to study the work of Christer Strömholm and trangender politics in 1950’s Paris.

In 1983 the late Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm (1918-2002) published a book of portraits of trans women in Paris, Vännerna Från Place Blanche [Friends of Place Blanche], that is now regarded as an invaluable record of the world’s first trans community. Since the late 1950s trans individuals from around the world have moved to Place Blanche to escape persecution and gain a sense of belonging and acceptance. The New York Times has described Strömholm’s project as “a shockingly intimate and sensitive portrayal of transgender women decades before such depictions became expected or even widely seen” (2018).

Although Strömholm does not himself appear in the book, he nevertheless frames the documentary project as an exercise of life-writing, a process of “tell[ing] of the life I shared with the transsexuals”(1983). The ‘sharing’ principally concerns what Strömholm describes as ethically responsible documentation of his subjects. After his death two of Strömholm’s most photographed subjects, Nana and Jacky, endorsed his assertion that he treated them sensitively and respectfully—as ‘friends’. Yet they also made their involvement in a posthumous edition of Place Blanche, published in 2011, conditional upon the exclusion of photographs of trans women that show male genitalia (there are four such photographs in the original edition). Thus while Strömholm clearly valued such explicit pictures in relation to his own Place Blanche story, Nana and Jacky thought differently in relation to theirs. How might we understand the difference?

Paris' Place Blanche is also home to the world famous
Moulin Rouge (as pictured here in a public domain
circa 2005)

Through the study of Strömholm’s personal papers and contact sheets, held by his son in Stockholm, and most importantly the letters he exchanged with several of his subjects, I propose to investigate the thesis that Place Blanche is not a neutral record of the early days of Paris’ trans community, but rather a contested terrain with the ‘meaning’ of the trans body as the central problematic. Strömholm’s treatment of the trans body as abject (as theorized by Julia Kristeva), with himself as an explorer of the abject, contrasts with Nana and Jacky’s view of it as a work-in-progress where, as per Judith Butler, gender is socially constructed.

(Project synopsis provided by Dr. Philip Charrier)

27 March 2020

View Philip Charrier's photography via his website