Photographs copyright Gunnar Smoliansky 2008 courtesy Steidl
The 55 year photographic oeuvre of Gunnar Smoliansky captured in One Picture at a Time, illustrates how this famous Swedish native continues to mine his local cultural landscape, constantly revealing the subtle nuances that have taken him a lifetime to discover. He has not veered far from his Scandinavian borders to create a broad and rich body of work.
It is apparent that Smoliansky was captivated by the human element early on, whether it was his family or those moving about him at both work and play. In an early self-portrait created in 1952, we can detect other elements that would eventually become a part of his style, the inclusion of geometric architectural elements, bordering on abstraction.
Although Smoliansky did not general work on photographic projects per se, it is evident in retrospect that there are a number of themes that wind their way through his work in addition to his early street photography. Thematically he was attracted to the middle ground landscape, both urban and natural, family, the nude studies of his girlfriend/wife, portraits, self-portraits and later in his career, more emphasis on abstract architectural and environmental studies.
In Marie Lundquist’s essay, she notes that Smoliansky in his later years started to turn his attention away from photographing the people directly, but indirectly by photographing the tracks that they behind. Badger probably states this best, “The removal of the direct presence of people from his pictures has not resulted in a removal of humanity from them, nor of the things that concern people.”
We rarely see a grand sweeping landscape photograph, as his photograph of the snowy car overpass revealing the car tack patterns, seen below, is about the maximum vista you will find. Smoliansky appears to be interested in the details, to explore the various textures and as such, he stays close to his subject.
It is also apparent that he has a worldly view, as he pays homage to various photographers while assimilating their concepts into to his own style. It is possible to relate to a Penn’s gutter photograph, a Friedlander’s long tree shadow looming into the foreground or a house cloaked by a transparent wall of tree limbs, a Siskind’s abstraction extracted from a painted wall or Stieglitz’s fontal nude of his then girlfriends breasts.
Case in point, the fore mentioned winter landscape below, resembling one of Siskind’s Chicago winter landscapes, includes a lone person striding through the lower edge of the pictorial space, providing a poetic and humanistic touch to what otherwise be a cold and abstract patterned landscape.
In an informative essay by Gerry Badger, he provides an external context to Smoliansky’s photographic style as a Northern European photographic way of seeing;
…predicates a particular photographic strategy, indicating photographs taken on a walk, that is, photographs articulating an everyday experience in which we have all participated, an experience fundamental to our well-being, where we not only take exercise, but spiritually refresh ourselves. And taking photographs whilst walking is essentially a reactive rather that a proactive process. As might be expected, given the period when he began to photograph and upon the evidence of his practice, Smoliansky is a phenomenological rather than a conceptual photographer, photographing spontaneously, as his mood and sensibilities strike him, rather than than predetermining his picture in the contemporary, postmodern fashion. In a crucial sense, Smoliansky is not making art but responding to life. He is a photographer-flaneur, his lucid and eloquent voice deriving from an almost forensic attention to place, light and time.
One of my issues, although a small nitpick, is that the book’s photograpahs are not sequenced in linear time, thus difficult to visualize and comprehend Smoliansky’s artistic progression. The work from the same period is spread thought out the book, you need to piece it together to grasp how his photographic work evolved. The book is not separated thematic either, mixing time and themes. The parings of the photographs on facing sides of the spread do not readily seem to be synergistic; they are not playing off or complementing each. Perhaps this layout design is intended to create a discontent chord, an uneasy edge to keep you stimulated, involved and to keep you looking.
Predominantly his photographic images are all clearly seen, sharp black and white images with long tonal scale befitting a photographer who cherishes the wet darkroom and the classical esthetics of the printed image.
The essays by Marie Lundquist and Gerry Badger add a nice dimension to this monograph, which includes 230 tritone plates, is nicely printed with a cloth bound hard cover with dust jacket.
by Douglas Stockdale