Behind the lens of a legendary Swedish photographer

Lydia Parafianowicz
Lydia Parafianowicz - [email protected]
Behind the lens of a legendary Swedish photographer

In the world of art and design, Swedish photographer Hans Hammarskiöld is associated with influence and innovation, both in his homeland and internationally. Since the 1940s, his work has challenged artistic boundaries, displayed new creative techniques and made a name for prominent Swedes, whom he often photographed.


From now until August 13th, the National Museum has a special exhibit open free to the public, featuring 68 of Hammarskiöld’s profiles. From actor Ingmar Bergman to musician Pontus Hultén, writer Dagmar Lange to artist Bror Hjorth, there is no shortage of reputable Swedish faces, all displayed in gripping, unique ways that are characteristic to Hammarskiöld’s lens.

“They aren’t just straight photos, but they make you think,” says exhibit curator Eva-Lena Karlsson. “He doesn’t want the sitter to feel uncomfortable while shooting them, and he represents them with a high degree of integrity.”

She says because Hammarskiöld would shoot subjects at their homes instead of bringing them to his studio, the photos tell more of a story than would a blank canvas in the background. Karlsson also says that curating the exhibit was a particularly special experience, as she was able to work directly with Hammarskiöld, who is still alive.

“I was nervous because when you haven’t worked with an artist, you don’t know what to expect,” Karlsson says. “He’s now in his 80s, but he’s still active. He’s not a retired pensioner sitting in a rocking chair twiddling his thumbs. He was involved in making the exhibition.”

While this collection displays only his profiles, Hammarskiöld has worked as a fashion photographer, author and illustrator. Despite modernization and the switch to digital or electronic photography, Hammarskiöld still works with his original tools from the 1950s, involving slide projection and black room development.

“He develops the photo himself because he wants to control it,” Karlsson says. “When shooting, you need to be active, but in a dark room it’s a time for contemplation and meditation. The photo is finished only after it is developed, not just the moment you finish shooting the sitter.”

The exhibit opens with Hammarskiöld’s self-portrait, shot in 1956. At first glance, it looks like a simple photo of the photographer in a suit, but Karlsson explains the significance of the clothing. He’d had the suit made in London, and someone referred to it as a “Friday-Monday suit.” This was a suit a working man would wear on Fridays, when heading to his country house for the weekend, and again on Mondays upon his return to the city. Hammarskiöld, who did not own a country house, was accused of owning a suit to give the impression he did, as did many others, though this was not the case.

“These small details are fun to know,” Kalsson says. “They give you something more. Hammarskiöld said people visiting should be puzzled and interact with each other. He wants you to stop and take a closer look at what’s really happening.”

Another example of this is his piece Fredrik Reuterswärd’s Left Hand, shot in 1994, which shows just the artists’ left hand giving the ‘thumbs up’ sign. Karlsson says there is again a deeper meaning to the image.

“It makes you question what is portraiture,” Karlsson says. “You always expect to see the face. But Reuterswärd, who was an artist, had a stroke and couldn’t use his right hand. So he started using his left, and that was his characteristic. We see this hand as a portrait.”


Group tours are available, but must be pre-booked, by e-mailing [email protected] or calling +46(8)51954428 (Tuesday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 12 noon). The exhibit is open Tuesday (11 a.m. to 8 p.m.), Wednesday to Sunday (11 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and closed Mondays.

The National Museum has 18 collections across Sweden and one in Paris. The Hammarskiöld exhibit has been created by The National Portrait Gallery, which typically houses its collections at Gripsholm Castle outside Stockholm. However, this collection is at the National Museum in order to display the photos in a climate-controllable atmosphere.


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