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.

Behind the lens of a legendary Swedish photographer

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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Killer princesses invade Stockholm streets

Graffiti paintings of Disney’s fairytale princesses brandishing guns and knives have been mysteriously appearing on walls around Stockholm, garnering global attention after photos went viral on Facebook. The man behind them is a Swedish Street Artist known only as “Herr Nilsson”.

Killer princesses invade Stockholm streets

The mysterious artist spoke with The Local via Facebook.

What are you trying to say with your work? Some people have speculated you’re saying “Don’t trust anyone”, others reckon it’s a criticism of pop-culture. Who’s right?

I like these discussions – and they are both right. Because of my kids I´m surrounded by toys, games and movies for the moment. Of course there’s a lot of creativity in the toy and entertainment industries for children – but most of the cartoon characters, female in particular, are very stereotyped and predictable. Always so innocent, fair and harmless. The Dark Princesses are a comment on violence, but they are also a comment to how we look upon good and bad in the world. Everybody expects a fairytale princess to always look good and behave well. If I was one of them I would revolt after a couple of days. And in my world they do.


Your mascot is “Herr Nilsson”, the pet monkey of Pippi Longstocking, holding a Molotov-Cocktail in his hands. Why?

My daughter has a cuddly toy of Herr Nilsson and he was with us everywhere a couple of years ago. She could not be without him. He is a harmless character compared to Pippi in the stories. That made me start to think of the revolting monkey, throwing a burning molotov cocktail at Villevillakulla with Pippi’s ponytail as a fuse.

So Herr Nilsson is rebelling against his owner?

My main intention was to let a harmless creature act very violently. Why he did it is up to you as a observer to interpret. But yes, your reading sounds reasonable.

Say, how old are you?

I can’t tell you that, I’m afraid.

Alright, so when did you start with Street Art?

I started about 1 and a half years ago. The monkey with the molotov cocktail was my first piece.

I have created a lot of exhibitions in different types of galleries but these ideas didn’t work out there. I wanted to stage a situation where my artwork interacted with people on the street and the real environment, not a fictional environment in a gallery.

Were your pictures similar to those you’re doing now or something different?

I have worked with a lot of media but it has always been images, mostly drawings and paintings. Sometimes a gallery or museum is great but then the audience is prepared to look at art. But when you put up a piece in the street you talk directly to the audience without that prepared shield. The street audience also includes people without any interest in art, the ones that never would go in to a gallery or museum.

So, galleries and museums are outdated because they do not reach the public?

In Stockholm the discussion about art is very cramped. It’s highly intellectualized in the newspapers. If you travel down to Skåne in the south of Sweden art is enjoyed by ordinary people without any education in arts. Everybody can talk about the pieces without having the feeling that they don’t understand. Sometimes the works of art demand a very high level insight or preparation, like Bruce Nauman for example. He is great, but my pieces in this project are comments about violence, good and evil, feminine and masculine. I also use very strong symbols from pop culture and cartoons. These comments and symbols are for everybody, not only the art audience.

Stockholm has a “Zero Tolerance” Policy to Street Art, in 24 hours a picture is supposed to be removed. Ever thought of doing your art in another city?

Yes but it’s more of a practical thing because I live here.

If someone would ask you to put your street art in a gallery, would you do it?

I have been thinking of it and it has to be solved in an other way. These pieces are made for the specific sites.

In your opinion, how should the city handle street art?

Like a voice. We have the right to say what we like. In the public space it´s only rich companies who can speak to the public with their brainwashing ad campaigns.

But they pay for the advertisement space.

Yes of course. It means that only the rich have the right to speak.


By Steffen Daniel Meyer