Lars Tunbjörk 1956–2015
– A biography draft
The photographer Lars Tunbjörk passed away on April 8 2015. He was on his way from his home in Södermalm in Stockholm – to go see a friend at a café downtown – when his heart gave up.
Headlines around the world showed the magnitude: A master passes away, World photographer Lars Tunbjörk dead, Legendary color photographer of the absurd, Photo world mourns Lars Tunbjörk, Mort de Lars Tunbjörk, Lars Tunbjörk changed our way of look at ourselves, A keen eye closed, Disparition d’un photographe pointeur d’absurdité, The taciturn giant from Dammsvedjan …
…Lars Tunbjörk was born in Borås in February 1956, and grew up in Dammsvedjan, a residential district south of the city, then a textile production center. It’s tempting to state that Lars Tunbjörk was a born photographer, but of course this isn’t true. No one is a born photographer, some become one. Lars became a photographer early, and never had any other profession.
It’s hard to try to imagine Lars in any other activity. The alternative would be artist, which of course he also became, although he never called himself an artist. Some artists are photographers, some photographers are artists. The choice of tools is inessential, expression is (almost) all that counts.
However, you might say – in general – that the time period that Lars was born into and grew up in still was favourable to aspiring photo journalists. There was no formal education for photo journalism in Sweden at the time, but there were steady jobs.
The local climate was also favourable. Already during the obligatory practice week in high school, with a photo course at the Dammsvedjan youth centre under his belt, Lars got to practice at the Borås Tidning daily, which had seven permanently employed photographers at the time. Västgötademokraten, the local competitor, had five. When summer came, Lars mother Britt called the photo editor at the newspaper and asked if her son could get a summer job there, and yes, the unusually taciturn teenager could.
Young Lars was shy, and totally lacked sharp elbows. In a 2011 interview he says: ”All those clichés about how the camera becomes both a shield and an entrance ticket to new contexts applies to me. Particularly when I was young, I was very shy, although it has become better with time. It’s something I’m trying to overcome; but at the same time, I want the pictures to render me invisible as the photographer.”
With the ambition to see without being seen… what is then weakness, and what is strength? That depends on the context: sometimes strength is a weakness, and sometimes it’s the other way around. But without the friction of sharp elbows, Lars slipped into the most unexpected areas, finding different perspectives and relations- and with time, he also developed his amiable unobtrusiveness into a distinct tool of crucial importance in his work. A distinguishing characteristic.
Summer job and stints as a stand-in at the Borås Tidning during the high school years became an entrance into the profession. He also got to know the legendary photo editor Bengt Bergman: a strong and driving personality, who gave photography and picture narrative a strong position at the newspaper.
Roger Turesson, a colleague since their teen-age years, remembers: ”At the time, many photographers were technically adept, but not very journalistically or narratively preoccupied. Bergman’s school involved encouraging the photographers to concentrate on their ideas instead of sitting and waiting for a paper slip with commissions. In my generation, we began in the darkroom, and then got simple tasks, like some WAC annual meeting and the like. There was no formal education for photojournalists at the time – the routine was hands-on. But we young ones had models, like for instance Hasse Persson, who was a few years older. He had left the paper a few years before, and begun travelling the world. My copy of his Pictures from America (1974) became worn through.”
Lars quickly became rooted at the paper as a valuable stand-in – the temporary deferment of his obligatory military service became a popular anecdote about Lars, proving this – the editor-in-chief wrote a letter to the military authority in question asking for deferment, declaring that next year would be an important year for Borås, as ”… we’ll be visited by the king, and then we’ll need Lars Tunbjörk’s help.”
Lars was listed as a lower non-commissioned officer, but when drafted in 1976 he was a C3 man. He was placed at the Värnpliktsnytt, a government magazine for military conscripts, although independent and separated from military authority.
Värnpliktsnytt had a good reputation as a radical publication, well-known and respected after a number of revealing reports about irregularities in military authorities. Many successful media persons have begun their careers at the magazine, and it was widely regarded as a good starting point for journalists (it was discontinued in 2010).
There, Lars found a network outside of Borås, not least in the circle of young free-lance photographers associated with Värnpliktsnytt.
Rolf Adlercreutz was one of these: ”When ”Tunis” was de-mobbed from Värnpliktsnytt in early 1977, he returned to his native city and to Borås Tidning, where he immediately was permanently employed. One week later I called him, asking if he wanted to come to Stockholm and start working at Jourfotograferna, where I was the chief – and he accepted. Tunis gave notice from his one week old permanent post, and came to Stockholm.”
When Lars published the book Landet utom sig in 1993, Rolf received a copy with the dedication: ”To my friend Rolf – without your help, I would probably still be in Borås – warm regards, Lars.”
It is however not very probable that Lars would have remained in Borås. He had already received attention as an interesting photographer outside of his home region, and – not least – been inspired by free-lance life and the Stockholm milieu.
After a couple of years at the Jourfotograferna, the photography group SALT (Anders Sjöberg, Rolf Adlercreutz, Lasse Allard, Claes Löfgren and Lars Tunbjörk) was formed. And it’s during the SALT period – from -79 to -84 – that Lars makes his name in Sweden. He does jobs for Aftonbladet, Vi, Stockholms-Tidningen, Månadsjournalen and the Linjeflyg magazine Upp & Ner.
When the social democrat daily Stockholms-Tidningen is revived in 1981, a steady collaboration with the SALT photographers is established, and Lars soon became one of the most engaged free-lance photographers at the paper, which, among other things, the recruitment of photo editor Rolf Klänge from Aftonbladet as the driving force, went in for good photographers and photo stories– with picture supplements of up to 16 pages!
In 1982, Lars Tunbjörk was elected Photographer of the year in the yearly contest arranged by the Swedish Press Photographers Club. The attention rendered him more and bigger assignments. One important collaboration developped with the picture oriented magazine Upp & Ner - led by chief editor Mika Larsson (who received the Great Journalism Prize in 1982), and later by Christina Jonsson – regarded by many as the best report oriented magazine during the 1980s.
Anders Petersen, a fellow photographer, points out that magazines like Upp & Ner also paid good money.
Today it may seem that Lars’ career was particularly favoured during an epoch with strong and influential editors, and a press stressing good pictures, big pictorial reports, good photographers and good pay. There’s of course some truth in that, context and conditions are important – so maybe Lars was also plain lucky?
”It’s the same with good photographers as with good goalkeepers”, Rolf Adlercreutz says, ”good photographers have good luck.”
But again, like weakness and strength – what is good luck and bad luck or success and failure aren’t always and everywhere given cathegories.
In 1984, four photographers got an assignment by producer Rolf Olsson at Swedish Television to illustrate a subject chosen by themselves in one program each.
Lars – who used to take his time already when choosing between two dishes at some lunch restaurant – was in great agony over the choice of subject: what should the program be about?
The journalist Britta Svensson, who had been one class before Lars at the Bäckäng school and was also working at the Stockholms-Tidningen at the time, tells about the assignment: ”Lars didn’t know what his stills film should be about; he needed a headline. I had read about the unemployment crisis in Liverpool, which then was a red city with an illegal budget, and suggested that we go there. Which we did.
”We didn’t know anybody there, but contacted people at a local fanzine to guide us, among others Peter Hooton, vocalist in the group The Farm, a band that later became big. We were there together for three weeks and sent several articles to the Stockholms-Tidningen – then I went home. Lars stayed for another three weeks, working with the material for his film.”
Lars’ stills film, broadcast on Swedish TV in prime time, was widely praised in Sweden for it’s hundreds of black-and-white pictures showing the people behind the unemplyment statistics. Lars quickly went back to Liverpool with a copy of the film and showed it to his guides – and was properly told off.
The participants at the showing – political activists, musicians, football hooligans and jobless people – didn’t recognize neither themselves nor the environment.
Britta Svensson, who had written the spoken commentary, remembers the occasion vividly: ”Yes, they really scolded him, they didn’t recognize themselves, and were very angry. And me, who had seen the pictures during the work with the film, couldn’t recognize anything of what we’d experienced together either. Not a single person or milieu. Lars had entered a new world, and photographed it. The pictures were in a completely different dimension: lonely people in desolate environments. When with me, he had been a journalist, now he was an artist.”
Everybody around Lars remembers the Liverpool trip. Rolf Adlercreutz says: ”I was in Liverpool the following year, and met some of the people Lars had met. They felt that Lars had pictured the worst aspects of Liverpool. And at the time – when the large harbour activity had recently come to an end – Liverpool looked like a war zone.”
Peter Classon, a colleague who had come to the Värnpliktsnytt the year after Lars, tells me: ”The Liverpool citizens felt that someone had come with alien Swedish eyes, depicting a British underclass. Lars had watched from the outside, he hadn’t seen what was behind, and they felt that he’d given a faulty view of people. For Lars, it was quite a shock to be so violently criticized.”
Yes, the encounter with the angrily agitated Liverpoolians was undoubtedly a collision-like experience for Lars. In an interview nearly thirty years later (Linus Höök, Kamera & Bild, 2011), Lars himself says: ”They were all disappointed. They felt that I’d given a completely distorted view of their city. Although I tried to point out that they had themselves taken me to the places where I’d photographed, they didn’t feel that my pictures displayed reality. There was probably something in the imagery that made them see the city described with a stranger’s regard. This became an eye-opener, and I decided to photograph only what I was already aquainted with.”
The criticism of the Liverpoolians is of course about the classical issues about different kinds of centers and peripheries, like for instance when photographers/journalists/researchers/authors travel to some peripheral place to collect material from there, and then return to their own cultural/economical/social center, displaying their harvest and getting their reward there. And –maybe more seldom – go back to meet scrutinizing regards. It’s enough to visit suburban areas all over Europe to meet an established and oftenly displayed distrust of media (which Lars and I have experienced several times.)
Many people are used to feel that journalists and photographers describe their world in a way that is ignorant, distorting, mendacious and disparaging: a mainly unconscious exotism formed by class, gender, etnicity, sexual disposition, etcetera.
In the interview above, Lars says: ”For some time, I planned to photograph only in Borås. But I soon realized that I wouldn’t be able to endure that. However, to a large extent I’ve stuck to smaller Swedish towns and everyday life there. That’s what I’m most interested in: the most common. I want to twist and turn what’s most obvious.”
Yes… maybe you can take Lars out of Borås, but it might be more difficult to take Borås out of Lars…
The Liverpool experience also contributed to making Lars begin to change his attitude and methods regarding technique, form, content and expression.
Roger Turesson recounts: ”The response in Liverpool was decisive as Lars changed his style. Before, Lars had been working within the tradition of timeless documentary photography in black-and-white. He was an enormously able documentary photographer, one of the best in the genre. After Liverpool, Lars began experimenting with color and flashlight.”
Peter Classon says: ”At some point, Lars realized that he missed the colors. I remember one picture, of a man crawling on the grass lawn in a garden. It dawned upon Lars: `This has to be in color.
Light of course became important. His basic idea was a strong flashlight with the smallest possible apparatus, for the equipment to be portable. He bought the flashes in Japan, but then put plastic balls on the flash head that he cut out of common plastic lamps – in order to get the light more spread out. And to fasten these plastic balls, he used cut up garden hose and strong tape.”
About the importance of flashlight, Lars says (2012): ”My technical characteristic is much about flashlight photo: I guess I feel a bit lost without my flash. It’s about the directness of address, but also how the flash sees all details clearly, lighting shadow areas and low daylight.
”I have this idea that all elements of the picture are equally important – and then a beautiful classical daylight might devastate this, while the flashlight nakedly elucidates every detail.”
Pelle Kronstadt, who shared a lab with Lars since 1993 (and introduced noise rock into darkroom work with Sonic Youth among others) is quite familiar with how documentary photography changed during the second half of the 80s. Pelle talks about these changes as an answer to a technical evolution in the photo world – among other things, the change from positive to negative color film, with qualities similar to the black-and-white process:
”Lars’ development isn’t unique, but he was at the forefront in Sweden with breaking out of the classical 35 mm format. Lars began photographing in middle format, and got himself a rebuilt copy machine. The media changed too: in the middle 80s, the cover page was in color, and the rest in black-and-white. And it was these media that Lars was aiming at.”
Of course, Lars is not alone in trying to challenge conventions and models of the photo world – which of course is part of the age, and under mutual influence with the art world. The frontiers between photo and art dissolve, also those between form and content; and neither are meaning, interrpretation or established truths taken for granted.
Pelle Kronstedt says: ”Lars was no theorist, but he looked at pictures a lot. He was in the front line with other contemporary photographers like Paul Graham (Empty Heaven, 1995) and Paul Reas (I can help, 1988), and in the footsteps of early color pioneers like William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander. The Düsseldorf school was of course also important, with for instance Andreas Gursky.”
The technique and efforts to develop other ways of seeing and shaping, to make the most well-known seem strange was at the core – or as Lars himself said: ”I want to twist and turn the most obvious.”
Well, just a thought – once you have decided to photograph only what you’re aquainted with – Borås – then it might be necessary to attack all kinds of home-blindness – not least in order to catch sight of and experience something new. To some extent, this also means to attack yourself, and Lars develops more of an evident perspective of civilization critique – which radically differs from any kind of exotism. In short, it’s not about them, it’s about me, and about us.
The Stockholms-Tidningen went bankrupt in 1984, and Lars lost a rather steady platform. As a consequence, the SALT group fell apart shortly afterwards. A group from the paper started up the lab in the old culture building in the Rålambshovsparken, situated almost below the Västerbron – and a new prerequisite was established. The lab became a workplace but also an important meeting point, with many meetings, discussions and late nights – with varying intensity and different people the lab blossomed, and was the focal point for Lars’ work for thirty years, until his death.
His strong freelance relation to media is crucial for Lars’ career as a photographer. The DN photographer Roger Turesson says: ”This is self-evident. There are great advantages in being out in the real world a lot. It gives a vast contact interface.”
No, Lars didn’t invent or fantasize subjects or projects, and he isn’t conceptual at all – he definitely harbours certain attitudes and outlooks, experiences, strategies and ideas, but the processes aren’t primarily from the inside and out – to simplify a bit: they mainly move from the outside and in. Lars sees, searches and finds, and is motivated by environment; he finds his pictures and his themes during assignments. His photography is sensually and receptively inspired.
In an interview when having received the Scanpix Photo Prize in 2012, he says: ”In my photography, I often begin by photographing a situation in some place that interests me. It can be a street, a square, some particular work place, a café or a shopping mall. At first it’s the milieu that interests me, and then I often try to keep hanging around until I find a person that also interests me, and who’s acting in this milieu in some specific way. Thus, it’s largely a matter of waiting.”
Lars’ assignments become starting points for nearly all his books. An assignment for Upp & Ner becomes an entrance into working with his maybe most renowned book, Landet utom sig (1993). ”The work with Landet utom sig is still the most pleasant and entertaining among my projects, I guess. At that time, it was quite a thrill to travel around in Sweden. Sometimes, it was almost like travelling around the US. The colors were all new, all the plastic and glitter that had appeared during a few years of boom in the 80s. At first, it was quite a kick to photograph it – until it finally made you all fed up. It was like eating too much sweets.”
Landet utom sig also became the start of Lars’ collaboration with editor Gösta Fleming and his publishing company Journal, and with the designer Greger Nilsson. Bra Böcker had been planning to publish the book, but then withdrew, and instead it’s the brand new little company in Stockholm South that publishes Landet utom sig as its third book, with a preface by the writer and poet Thomas Tidholm and an afterword by Göran Greider, writer, poet, debater and journalist.
Greider wrote a memorial column in Aftonbladet (12/4 2015), where he recalled that Lars hadn’t liked his first draft: ”When I was working on a first draft of the afterword to Landet utom sig, he came back in, quite irritated by some of my wordings, where I sounded pretentious and tried to act the art expert before his pictures. He fidgeted and snorted. He saw that my text wasn’t honest when trying to sound high-minded and intellectual. So I rewrote it according to the guidelines provided by Tunbjörk’s facial expressions, and the text became much better. He had sounded like a common press photographer with a slightly indulgent view of what the journalist was babbling about. He probably was Lao Tse, rigged out as a press photographer.”
The book becomes a success: the first edition of 2.000 copies was rapidly sold out, and a second edition of 4.000 copies was published the year after. ”Tunbjörker” quickly became a household word to many – and we were many who also began to see ”typical tunbjörkers” all around us.
In a memorial interview in SVT Kulturnytt a few days after Lars’ death, Göran Greider says: ”I remember the first time I saw the pictures – wow! He really had captured something that had taken place around us, of which we hadn’t realized the extent. There was something happening during the 80s – we were turning into a market-oriented society, and Lars had captured this visually. I think he’s showing us those moments where we are nearly losing our dignity, though at the same time, the pictures contain a regard full of love, without any contempt of people. What the book came to signify was like a landmark; you could familiarize yourself with the age by browsing in Lars’ book.”
Lars’ life companion and wife Maud Nycander, photographer and documentary filmmaker, recalls the success of the book and the exhibition. ”Lars copied the exhibition all by himself, the lab reeked with color chemicals, and he became a bit allergic. I believe the book was finished in time for the exhibition at Hasselblad Center. I also remember that Hasse Persson visited the exhibition and was very proud. ’This is world class’, he said. The exhibition toured all over Sweden for a long time – in two editions – and also abroad, eastwards as well as westwards.”
Göran Greider also clearly remembers the travelling exhibition. ”As it was touring around the country, people could write in books of their reactions – I was at a few of those exhibitions, and many people wrote things like: ’Wow, my whole life passes by: Love!’, and ’I recognize myself here – the camping holiday in 1983’. People could relate to the pictures, and were happy to see the common man’s world portrayed – that was one reaction. Another was something like this: ’Dear God, what have we done to this country? Why has it become so garish, so dirtily commercialized?’
”Lars caught the very moment of change, where we still remembered the memory of something else, something less commercial and in many ways more genuine. That still remained in our consciences as we regarded the photos.”
Landet utom sig became Lars’ international break-through – and a strong one. Maud Nyncander recalls: ”We were in New York, and Lars visited the New York Times Magazine andICP (The International Center of Photography) to leave books there. At the ICP they told him that ’It’s so very seldom that we see something new’, and wanted to make an exhibition, which came off within a year.
”Many friends from Sweden came unannounced and surprisingly to the exhibition. They were all wearing a T-shirt with a photo I’d taken of Lars in front of Dalecarlian horse.
”It was a grand occasion; Mary Ellen Mark and several other grandees were there; but I had to leave the preview hen our daughter Olga, six months old at the time, began to scream a lot.
”Lars met Kate Ryan of the New York Times, and began to get assignments from the paper. One of the first jobs, I think, was to photograph rich Americans realizing their boyhood dreams, like buying cowboy ranches. Fantastic photos. Here Lars’ international career begins. He gets an agent, John Kenney, and lots of advertising jobs.”
Daughter Olga was born in 1995, and Ella in 1998; becoming a parent implied family life and day-care centers (where in one, you worked in the kitchen once a month) and more socializing with other families with children. Lars’ US career also accelerizes during this perood.
His different assignments for newspapers and magazines, as mentioned before, become a starting point for nearly all his books. Among his clients were New York Times Magazine, Le Monde, Libération and Time Magazine, not counting Swedish papers and magazines. Landet utom sig began with an assignment from Upp & Ner, Kontor (2002) with a job for New York Times, Vinter(2007) with a winter feature in the Göteborgs-Posten.
Peter Classon, who had suggested Lars for the Göteborgs-Posten winter feature, says: ”It often begins with Lars getting some interesting job including help with research and ways in – and then he could spin on himself. And of course, he could use for instance the research department of the New York Times. When Lars was working with the office project, they called some office to tell that Lars was working for them, which gave him access.”
There is an exception from this procedure – Home (2002), his most autobiographical project, where Lars returns home without any direct relation to some assignment from outside, but maybe rather from within, like the well-known motive of a refugee crossing his own tracks.
Lars asked me, as a collaborator in the documentary book Dom alla (2003), to write an afterword: ”It was like getting an assignment to write something about something where the text isn’t supposed to reveal anything particular. I first thought that a text with some sensual odor rising up from childhood might function, some Madeleine cookie dipped in lime blossom tea as a link to the reader’s own imagination – but no. Lars didn’t want this. He didn’t want the text to add anything to his pictures.”
Lars was to have an exhibition at the Hasselblad Center in autumn 2002. The pictures were chosen from Kontor/Office, which was recently published by Journal in collaboration with Bokförlaget Max Ström, but also from the series Home, which was the first feature of Lars’ work at the international photo book publisher Steidl.
Gunilla Knape at the Hsselblad Center, among other things responsible for the publishing of the catalogues and books of the foundation, recalls the occasion when Gerhard Steidl accepted to produce the book: ”As Gerhard collaborated with the Munkedals mill in Bohuslän, he visited Sweden now and then. Bosse Hammar, a wellknown Gothenburg printer, arranged a meeting with Gerhard Steidl, Hasse Persson and me. After a short introduction, we gave Gerhard a box containing pictures from the Home series. Gerhard quickly browsed through the photos, and said, Yes! He immediately became interested in doing the book, and brought the pictures when leaving.
”Greger Nilsson did the layout, and the book was printed in Göttingen in time for the exhibition in autumn 2002.”
Apart from Home, Lars also published I love Borås (2006, in collaboration with Bokförlaget Max Ström) and Winter atSteidl, 2007. In a later interview (2012), Lars describes the work with Winter, which also becomes a large exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and received vast attention, as a kind of therapeutic effort, in order to master his difficulties with the dark season, during which he often felt depressed and lacking in energy.
”The incitement for Winter actually was an assignment I got from the Göteborgs-Posten to travel around Sweden and do what I wanted for a few weeks in the middle of winter. In the beginning, I found it difficult to find any motives at all, or how I was to go about the task. But during a trip to Kiruna, I found a way in – which I had to, as my deadline was approaching. I photographed everything I saw, with fierce attack. The work became very edifying, in spite of the book being quite dark.”
A pleasurable sensation in the middle of darkness: a condition reminding of the painter Francis Bacon’s description of a kind of ”exhilarated despair”: when feeling that the whole thing is impossible, you might as well do anything – letting it turn out no matter how.
Since the 90s, Lars was a world-famous photographer, with exhibitions all over the world (USA, France, Japan, England, Russia, Germany, Iceland etcetera…
… Lars Tunbjörk’s photos are represented in the museum collections of the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Centre Pompidou and Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, Museet for fotokonst in Denmark and Fotomuseet in Norway, etcetera.
Among other distinctions, Lars received first price in World Press Photo in 2005 for best picture narrative in the Arts and entertainment section (with the astounding candidate number of 4.266 photographers from 123 countries) – for a picture series from Paris Fashion Week that he had done for the Libération newspaper. In 2008 he received the Scanpix grand photo prize for the Winter suite, and an author’s income guarantee from the Författarfonden in 2014.
A selection of exhibitions takes up several pages.
”My work has been changing from rather easy-going to more melancholy. This has to do with society’s evolution, but maybe also with the personal, with age. The pictures that interest me the most in my own production is those where I’ve managed to interweave my subjective view and mental state with an objective documentary portrayal of our time.”
Translation Einar Heckscher