More than 65 years after he started taking photographs, Gunnar Smoliansky continues to venture into Stockholm's Södermalm and Saltsjö-boo neighborhoods, using his camera to transform the ordinary forms of everyday life into distinctive and very personal observations of his surroundings.
What was your first encounter with photography?
I was born on a small island, Lidingö, in the Swedish archipelago and moved with my parents to Saltsjö-boo, just outside of Stockholm, when I was 2 years old. I had a friend there and we were hanging out one night when he asked me if I wanted to see some photographs he’d taken. He showed me how to develop film, standing over the bowl and watching the photograph appear from the liquid. I was in awe. A few years later, I was working as a customs officer at the harbor in Stockholm, controlling the docks and making sure that sailors weren’t smuggling illegal goods into the country. A sailor approached me one night and we struck up a conversation. I saw that he had a camera on him and I still hadn’t let go of that night with my friend in Saltsjö-boo, so I ended up buying the camera off of him. It was a Rolleiflex.
I shot my very first images on the docks of Stockholm in 1951. Four rolls of film. You cut the negatives out one by one back then. I couldn’t afford much film. I bought it in a small photography shop in Stockholm and I often went there to see if they’d built small pyramids of film rolls on their till. When they did, that meant the rolls were sold at a discount. I bought old, expired film and shot with that. That’s how it begun.
It seems that your work has had a continuous aesthetic since you started shooting in 1951.
Throughout my life, I’ve photographed the people I’ve met and the things I’ve seen. My work is about capturing the nearby surroundings. All my photos are shot within the areas of Saltsjö-boo and Södermalm in Stockholm. Many photographers work on different projects across different themes. That’s not for me. I just take one picture at a time.
Have geographical constraints influenced your work?
I’d say that it is a prerequisite rather than an influence. Had I lived in another place in different surroundings, my work would’ve been distant from its current form.
Photography wasn’t as accessible when you started working as it is today. In what ways has the medium changed since you began your career?
There aren’t many who persist in doing their work in a consistent manner regardless of the present demand for it. Photography was very politically charged when I started and it wasn’t totally acceptable to do photography that didn’t serve a political or documentary function. When I started shooting, it was in the 6 by 6 square format. People didn’t like that much. I also like working with contact printing, where you place the negative directly onto paper and shine light through it to develop the photograph. I long for the days when photography was an analog world.