Having travelled to Stockholm to see Wilco on the Friday evening, we had a day set aside on Saturday to enjoy the city. After a buffet breakfast (open sandwiches, fancy yoghurt and granola) at the Urban Deli, we had a wander north through Sodermalm to the Fotografiska.
The Fotografiska is a huge (2500 sqm) photographic gallery in an old customs house on the edge of the Sodermalm island. Opened in 2010, it is one of the main attractions that Stockholm has to offer. It was expensive to create but judging by the queues out of the door, it is well and truly prospering. The project was a long time coming, the idea of a photographic museum was first posited in 1940 by the court photographer Sundgren. Everyone agreed that it was a fantastic idea and it was batted backwards and forwards. It took 70 years to come to fruition, but it was well worth the wait.
The gallery had a number of exhibitions running, the main one being a retrospective on the work of Anton Corbijn, “1-2-3-4”. Most people will be aware of Corbijn’s work, if not the man himself. Starting as photographer, he specialised in music related portraits from the late seventies through to the present day. He moved into music videos and then eventually into movies. If you bought more than a handful of LPs during the eighties and nineties you most probably own some of his work. If you watched MTV or Top Of The Pops during the nineties and noughties, you probably have seen his work. He was the go to man for any band or singer that wanted to engender that mystical staring into the mid-distance so appealing to their audience.
But I do Corbijn a disservice. With the right subject, he can capture the heart of an individual in a way that all of the best portrait artists can. One can argue that much of Corbijn’s work was ultimately used to push product, but the sheer quality transcended its commerciality.
The exhibition featured many of his most frequent artists. There were walls devoted to U2, Metallica and Depeche Mode. For these three artists in particular, he was part of an artistic reinvention. He put the snowy waste of “War” and the desert heat of “The Joshua Tree” into U2’s LPs. He helped Depeche Mode progress from their days as an electronic four piece from Basildon to becoming stadium band in the USA. When Metallica wanted to transform from long-haired greasers into louche lounge lizards, they gave Anton a ring.
What really stood out for me though was some of the individual portraits of the artists that, whilst successful, weren’t the behemoths that the bands noted earlier were.
There was a whole wall given over to Siouxsie Sioux and the occasional Banshee. These were amongst the most powerful images on display, capturing her sheer potency and power. His shots of John Lydon captured his vulnerability. It also emphasised what a damned fine set of cheek bones Johnny had. There was many of his shots of the Slits, disproportionately more than their commercial success should have necessitated including but nonetheless worthy of inclusion. Photographing women in a way that didn’t sexualise them but asserted their feminity was a constant theme, whether it was Courtney Love or Grace Jones.
Some of his most successful subjects rarely photographed badly. David Bowie, Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe all exuded that elusive rock star quality that for me is so beguiling. It is appealing for people’s heroes to be “just like us” but ultimately is that exciting enough? Is that what we want? We want to be transported by a sense of something more loaded with mystique. With these artists, Corbijn triumphed.
Readers of my blog may recall that my daughter went to the Glastonbury Festival for the first time in 2016. I wrote about the huge sense of pleasure that I got from her enjoying the whole experience here. I was a little concerned when we walked into the exhibition and saw the vast scale of the photographs on display that my daughter would be at best overawed and at worst, bored stupid.
I therefore turned it into a part musical history lesson and part anecdotes. There’s a photograph of Peter Gabriel who our friend Chuck recorded with. There’s Arthur Lee who once borrowed a guitar of my mate Ray. There’s the Undertones – there’s Damian who is the guitarist in Ray’s band. There’s the Slits – Viv Albertine went to your school.
It was also a personal trip down memory lane – seeing U2 at Birmingham Odeon on the War Tour, travelling from Liverpool to London to see REM play, the shots of Nick Cave from his days in the Birthday Party to now, a trip I’ve followed him on.
She loved the exhibition, jotting down names of people and songs on her phone to try when we got home. So I decided to make her a Spotify playlist. It is pretty immediate and populist – aimed at a teenage girl but it does show the breadth of the artists that Corbijn worked with.
There were a few other striking exhibitions on display.
“Transitions” was by Helene Schmitz, one of Sweden’s leading photographers. The shots were of changing environments, paths through forests, buildings being swamped with vines. Disturbing but peaceful in equal measure.
There was also a series of photographs showcasing European photographers. I particularly enjoyed “Lost in Technology” by Fabian Mannheimer.
The Museum is well established now and I’d thoroughly recommend it as somewhere to visit in Stockholm. It has a rather good cafe and restaurant with views across the city, if you needed further encouragement.