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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.

  • Words:
    Nikolaj Hansson
  • Photography:
    Gunnar Smoliansky

Self-portrait, Saltsjö-boo, 1956.

You’ve shot images for more than 60 years. What keeps you going?

During the ’60s, I was working at a large company as an industrial photographer. It was my first job as a photographer and I was married at the time. My wife was on a trip to Copenhagen and I was back in Stockholm with our first-born son, Peter. When she returned home, I’d been fired from my job. I spent too much time on my own projects and I think they took notice of that at some point. Since then, I’ve been doing my work with no interference. It was convenient that I was let go.

I always develop my photographs myself. There isn’t one that I haven’t shot and processed on my own. I’ve never had an assistant. It is the necessary precondition of my work. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be a photographer today.

It seems that the dominant motif of your work has shifted from people to places over the years. 

I used to get up in the morning, put the Leica in my bag and head into town to shoot the people I passed by. It wasn’t a problem to take pictures in the street back then; people didn’t take notice of the camera or change their appearance when I took their photo. But people became more reluctant to have their photo taken during the ’70s and I didn’t want to be an inconvenience, so I decided to shoot something else instead. I’ve never been much for posed photography.

How do you go about deciding what to capture?

Now and then, I get on the subway into town with an old friend who’s also a photographer. We walk around the city and photograph the things that we see. Without becoming too literary and overthinking the scope of my work, it is as simple as this: When I see an opportunity to shoot a photo that could become mine, I press the shutter.

Do you think you’ll ever stop taking photographs?

Hell no. Never. I live in the house that my parents bought in 1950. My son is helping me set up a new darkroom in the basement and it was in that exact basement that I developed my first photographs back in the ’50s. I have a responsibility to myself to keep making photographs. Photography is an immense and crucial part of my life.

The exhibition Gunnar Smoliansky is on display at Gallery Steinsland Berliner until February 4th, 2017.

Gallery Steinsland Berliner
Bondegatan 70
11633 Stockholm
Sweden

  • Words:
    Nikolaj Hansson
  • Photography:
    Gunnar Smoliansky

The exhibition Gunnar Smoliansky is on display at Gallery Steinsland Berliner until February 4th, 2017.

Gallery Steinsland Berliner
Bondegatan 70
11633 Stockholm
Sweden

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