This is a book about insecurity. A portrayal of those living a different life in the big city of Paris, of people who endured the roughness of the streets.
This is a book about humiliation, about the smell of whores and night life in cafés.This is a book about the quest for self-identity, about the right to live, about the right to own and control one’s own body.
This is also a book about friendship, an account of the life we lived in the Place Blanche and Place Pigalle neighborhood. Its market , its boulevard, and the small hostels we resided in.
These are images from another time. A time when de Gaulle was president and France was at war against Algeria.
These are images of people whose lives I shared and whom I think i understood.
These are images of women – biologically born as men- that we call ‘transsexuals’.
As for me, I call them ‘my friends of Place Blanche’. This friendship started here , in the early 60s and it still continues.
It is called The Pigalle and it is most well known as the home of The Moulin Rouge. It is also the home of the disenfranchised, those that live in the shadows who don’t belong, they are misfits, side show performers, whores, thieves, and even murderers. You could feel their presence and their effect on the area, you could smell the stench of alcohol, urine, cigarettes, sweat, and perfume in an intoxicating mix. You could see the effect of decay in the dirty stone, the crumbling un-repaired buildings, the weird glow of old neon lights that are oddly bright and revealing, and the occasional missing light bulb that misspells the name of a nightclub or bar. By day it is harsh – especially when seen through the translucent sky of Paris, always on the verge of rain, with a damp chill as it’s constant companion. The trash and grit are also apparent by daylight; the grayed grandeur of Paris appears worn with scrolling stone stained by black soot, and the windmill of The Moulan Rouge turns tiredly in slow unending circles .
They were called the “night birds”, or “night angels of Pigalle”. They were the transexual’s that lived and worked the streets as prostitutes to pay for their sex change operations. Many had no other choice as they came from poor, or under class families who abandoned them because they did not understand their need to live their lives as women, or to express themselves in a dress. They had no idea that is was more than a passing need to dress up, instead it was essential to be who they really were. And so they made choices and took chances everyday to bring themselves closer to their true ideal. They were also living in the time of Charles de Gaulle whose ultra-conservative regime banned and outlawed their existence. They created an odd community, bonded as friends and confidants, and became the family to each other that was otherwise erased by their own.
They were always stylish, sometimes beautiful, and often completely unrecognizable as a man as they were in a state of convincing transition. They emulated stars of the times like Brigitte Bardot, Anouk Aimee, Ursula Andress, Sophia Loren, Capucine, and Anita Eckberg. The hairdo of choice was the French Twist, the Flip, or the Bee Hive teamed with dark rimmed cat-eye made-up with the tail pointed up as the finishing touch. Although money was sparse they managed to pull together a “look” that always reflected the latest fashion from the likes of Givenchy or Cardin. To the men that they serviced, or the men that adored them, they were the very epitomy of what a woman was, or “should” be, as they had a heightened sense of femininity. They were women because they wanted to be women, they were enigmatic in their approach because whatever they knew of womanhood was largely expressed visually, and that sexual charge was a potent electric jolt to any man nearby. The mere sight of them drew crowds of men who flocked for their attentions, but make no mistake they were on their own, and had to fend for themselves as no man would risk his reputation for the likes of them. Until Christer Stromholm moved to Paris and discovered what he came to call his friends – les amis.
Christer Stromholm (1918-2002) was a native of Sweden and was one of the leading photographers of the 20th Century who arrived in Paris in the late 1950′s. He was fascinated by the raw and unapologetic atmosphere of the red-light district where he began to befriend and document the local young transexuals in the 1960′s who were struggling to live as women with the intention to raise enough money for their sex-change operations, Although he was already an accomplished photographer he produced a powerful and acclaimed body of work bound like a scrapbook titled Les Amis de Place Blance which was a collection of intimate portraits and Brassi-like night scenes of the “night birds” who had become his friends. Stromholm recreated the night in his photographs exposing a world that was sometime dark and austere, but quite moving. They are a non-judgmental visual tribute to his friends, as well as a powerful statement about sexuality and gender, about friendship and support. It was, and still is, a photo essay about choosing ones own life and identity, as well as the strength, bravery and commitment that it takes to live out that choice.
The photographs were first published in Sweden in 1983 as a photo album of the days and nights spent with the women that quickly became a cult classic. It has been reissued in French and English. The newly released version includes original essays by Stromholm and publisher Johan Ehrenberg as well as newly commissioned texts by Jacky and Nana, two of the women who are featured in the photographs in the book. Stromholm lived in Paris in the 1950′s and 1960′s and it was here that he developed his particular style of reportage’ street photography which was made famous by the publication of the book. Stromholm was the founder of the Fotoform movement which revived the aesthetic principles and techniques offered up in the Weimar-era Germany. He is seen as the father of Swedish photography and he was the first Scandinavian photographer to achieve international recognition. He became active in photographic education and co-founded the Fotoskoian academy in Stockholm in 1962.