Jan Svenungsson

Text in: Stockholm,
a book by Ola Billgren and Jan Svenungsson, Propexus, Lund, 1995

On the floor in front of me lie color photostats of Ola Billgren's and my photographic series Stockholm. I study them for a long time, wondering what I could say about our work in a text.

The pictures glow in intense magenta. They show a city that is both like and unlike the one outside my window, a place that feels strangely alien. I recognize several of the buildings, but not the atmosphere, that immobile existence in these images. No one moves on these streets. The few figures that can be seen appear petrified. The skies are uneventful – light at the horizon, dark higher up. Only one picture is different: in it the white sky whirls down like a cyclone over a street patchily lit. Aside from this the drama is of a subtle kind. The sun shines on an awning. Two flags unfurl. Some spheres rest in water. An angel stands in a stream. The city in the pictures lives its magenta life, seemingly wrapped in introspective dreams, telling unknown stories.

Who has witnessed these places?

How have these images come into being?

The simple answer is that Ola Billgren and I have created them together. What we now present is something seen neither by Ola, nor by me, but by us together. That is why I do not know my way into the images. The responsibility is not mine, not yours – it is ours jointly. These pictures still surprise me. I become even more surprised when I realise I share the responsibility for their existence.

I can only speculate about the significance of what I see.

The first time I encountered Ola Billgren was in the Public Library in Uppsala in 1977. He was 37 years old, I was 16. He had published paintings in a book, I had just stopped building model airplanes. I had recently read Man Ray's autobiography which made me decide to become an artist.

The library became the first station in my attempt to find out what this might mean. I read about what others had done and tried to do the same. I relived situations vicariously, while nonetheless retaining an outside perspective on them. Mainly I digested the heroic contributions of the beginning of this century. I rarely read anything about contemporary work – Billgren's book of paintings from 1963-1973 was an exception. I borrowed the book again and again. Something in its images stimulated my imagination in a peculiar way. They were well matched to my own ways of experiencing adventure: the combination of sharing through living the part while at the same time remaining an outsider. When I interested myself in other artists my point of observation outside the course of events remained clear. In Ola Billgren's paintings it was as if the position of being an outsider formed the actual content of the work.

My awakening interest in art led to a multitude of activities. Beside my hunger for knowledge and production of "art" at home, I sent off a number of letters, which led to surprising turns of events. I travelled to London and Paris, met old surrealists, and saw large exhibitions; I also came to know Juliet Man Ray.

Again and again the opportunities astounded me. It seemed as if nothing was impossible in the world of art. The future was a long avenue of doors, behind each one of which there were wonderful surprises.

During a series of visits to May Ray's studio in Paris, I learned more about the life and work of my original source of inspiration. I began to understand the degree to which his autobiography was a created work of art, and I became aware of his obsession with being considered first and foremost a painter, in opposition to the views of most critics. Photography was an assignment, painting a choice. Man Ray celebrated the idea of his freedom and let his autobiography become part of its construction. I, too, wanted to be free – and a painter, a very free painter.

After some years of self-willed isolation among old role-models freedom began to appear illusory and I decided to obtain formal training. In 1984, I entered The Royal College of Fine Arts and discovered contemporary art.

I was a painter and had no thought of photography. My surprise was therefore great when after two years I found myself learning to make prints in the school darkroom.

I had been surprised by the possibilities of the camera and darkroom. In my "failed" prints, devoid of all that would normally be considered qualities, I saw new meanings being born. In the mechanics of photography I found unexpected freedom. And like my hero Man Ray, who had begun photographing by accident in 1915, I too became absorbed by the photographic image. It entered into my thinking, taking over the initiative in the studio. It showed a surprising adaptability to all my interests. I began to think of my life in terms of photography.

As photograph every event could be mine; I did not even need to have been there. It was an exciting game. When I was invited in 1988 to write an article for Siksi about my view of photography I wrote a text about being a stranger outside a fortified city, attempting to look over the wall. One can only glimpse what is going on inside, the rest must be imagined. The wall remains. The city retains its secrets. One's impressions are not confirmed, nor are they however denied.

The liberating aspect of working with photographic images rather than "hand made" ones lay in this alienation. In a drawing my hand is clearly responsible for all lines. In a photograph, there is something that has caused me to raise the camera and take a picture, but the camera registers many details that I never saw in the moment of exposure. Then, when I sit with the contact sheet in front of me, it is as if the pictures were taken by someone else, as if all the photographs were ready-mades. Alienation remains but its focus has shifted. Only when I decide to use a photograph does it become an act of expression. I have then chosen to support its content. It is but a short step to choosing an image exposed by someone else, yet a long one to letting someone else choose.

In 1988, I had my first solo exhibit and met Ola Billgren in person for the first time. We spoke and he saw my work. My gaze was returned.

In the beginning of autumn 1991, I received a commission to create a cover for the Växjö telephone book. Shortly afterwards Ola was invited to do the Stockholm Yellow Pages. He called and asked me to take photographs on his behalf. I was surprised and flattered at the same time. All of my photographic work until then had been concentrated on taking responsibility for pictures – on occasion also taking over those of other people. Now, I was asked to do the opposite. Being inquisitive by nature I naturally said yes.

Ola described the kind of images he wanted me to photograph. Simple, well balanced, and uncomplicated pictures of standard sights in the central parts of the capital: "picture postcard images." Technically they should be 35 mm, the film Tri-X, the image taller than wide and the sky clear. Out of my black-and-white material Ola would choose a picture that he would colorize through a photographic process. I chose to photograph on Saturday and Sunday mornings to avoid having people in the pictures, while at the same time keeping the sun at my back, a clear sky and long shadows. I did not have much time. I spent two weekends walking around the central parts of the city photographing subjects that I felt matched Ola's requirements – ones I would never have chosen for myself. I worked as if in trance; I had accepted to be the instrument of another person's vision. I revelled in not making the decisions. For the first time I felt like a "real" photographer, someone who takes photographs, rather than someone who manipulates the photographic image.

Afterwards, I began to worry that I had taken the wrong pictures; that I'd done it in the wrong way; that they would be useless to my client. Previously, when I had photographed city sights I had used a contrived technique, in different ways trying to give the picture a technically strange appearance. Now, my role was explicitly to produce as high a degree of normality as possible. When I had developed the rolls and looked at the contacts I saw nothing. There was not a single picture that looked exciting.

I sent the material to Ola in Malmö and hoped that he would not be too disappointed. He called me a day later and was enthusiastic. There were more than enough successful images and he thanked me. I was surprised and relieved. Some time passed; then we met. Ola had brought with him three of my exposures that he had turned into large magenta transparencies. For the first time I saw the aim of the work toward which I had contributed. The effect was much stronger than I had imagined. Now I saw character and direction in the pictures I had taken during my walks. They had been chosen and given a purpose, and the color in which they had been bathed confirmed their new status. It was Stockholm, yet a new place.

One of the pictures was chosen for the cover of the phone book. The finished result was a disappointment beacause of the sloppiness and nonchalance of the printers. But I also realised there was a problem with using such a subtle image in a context defined on other grounds. The message – the product identity of the phone book – overwhelmed the quiet intensity of the picture.

Fortunately the work held a continuation. When I first saw Ola's magenta-colored result, I had proposed that we produce a series of exhibition images. These would be presented as a collaboration yet be based on a continuation of the division of labor, since this practice had been of value to both parties. Ola accepted my idea, thereby granting me a part in the creative initiative. We now had a joint artistic project.

The project was carried out in two parts. First, six cibachromes mounted on aluminium were made, then a further five. The were first shown in November, 1991.

Some time has passed and the eleven photographs that make up Stockholm are to be exhibited again, and also published. Since their creation four years ago, the magenta colored cibachromes have visited Cologne, Stockholm, Linköping, Tokyo, and Malmö.

I sit looking at my photostats, trying to visualize what our work looks like in reality while also wondering where it really belongs. Many who have seen the pictures have found it difficult to understand how a photograph can have two creators. This double nature has been liberating, at least for me. My own work eventually took a new turn, for which this collaboration acted as a catalyst. My artistic self-insight has increased. Ideas are not born in isolation. I work well when I have an assignment. An unexpected challenge can provoke an answer that is already prepared but of which I myself am unaware. It is wonderful to be surprised by one's own work. Sometimes I play with the idea of taking a long vacation from myself and instead taking up employment as assistant to an artist I admire. Would I then feel free?

I remember how, in 1986, I was tempted into translating Giorgio de Chirico's novel Hebdomeros. This led to a great discovery. As I tried to transpose the meaning and sound of another's words into my own language, I experienced how it was I who was the writer of the novel.

Through my efforts to understand the other I myself became clear.

I never completed Hebdomeros, but I gained an artistic insight that I have not since deserted.

At some stage all my work is a work of translation.

Jan Svenungsson
Translation by Lars Werdelin