“It has to hit you in the stomach — my interest is in the heart, not the brain," says Anders Petersen, the Swedish photographer known for his intimate engagement with the underbelly of society
“Soho still smells of life,” says Anders Petersen, gesturing upwards with his hands. He leans forwards on a purple sofa in the lobby of his hotel in Soho, London, just across the road from Liberty department store, where he was admiring its selection of Christmas baubles the evening before. “Every kind of human being was there, it was so lively. The integration of people in Soho is fantastic,” he enthuses.
Petersen, now 75, first wandered the streets of the West End district in 1971, and did not return for 30 years, until he was invited back in 2011 for a residency by The Photographers Gallery (TPG), where his work is currently being shown in a group exhibition, Shot in Soho. “Everything has changed except for one thing,” he says, recalling the seedy streets of the “old soho”, lined with strip clubs, peep shows, and late-night dives. “The feeling that these streets have a history, and a possibility — the energy and the secrets of life.”
The Swedish photographer speaks about his process with zeal and sincerity. “It has to hit you in the stomach,” he says, stabbing his hand into his belly before bringing it up to his chest. “My interest is in the heart, not the brain, it is about intention and connection.”
Soho is one of the special places that allowed for Petersen to make these connections. “Anders can go to a place and tap into the DNA of what makes it tick,” says Karen McQuaid, Senior Curator at TPG. “He is good at honing into the place, following his own thread and inviting himself into a conversation with other people.”
“Everything has changed except for one thing — the feeling that streets have a history, and a possibility — the energy and the secrets of life”
Petersen is exhibiting 18 images, alongside work by William Klein, Kelvin Brodie, Clancy Gebler Davies, and Daragh Soden. His gritty black-and-white photographs pick up on the intensity and spontaneity that is definitive of the area. “He captures these after-hours moments that are about connection — that is present throughout all of his work,” adds McQuaid.
This was a skill he learned from his teacher and biggest influence to this day, Christer Strömholm (1918-2002), a man he met through a series of serendipitous coincidences. In his early 20s, Petersen came across a small image — about the size of a large postage stamp — that accompanied a crossword in the daily paper. It showed an empty graveyard on an early winter’s morning, and footsteps that appeared in the snow between the stones. “It was a magical picture. The photographer showed us that the dead people were waking in the night to meet each other. I thought this was fantastic,” Petersen smiles. “It was literary, and symbolic. I thought, ‘I would like to use photography like that, to tell a story’.”
Many years later, Petersen discovered that the photographer was Strömholm. “He was a fantastic figure, a personality with a distinct temperament. He was electric,” says Petersen. The pair went on to develop a close working relationship – their work is often exhibited together – but their first encounter was under rather strange circumstances.
With no formal training in photography but a desire to learn, in 1967, aged 23, Petersen acquired a key to the darkroom at the School of Photography in Stockholm and snuck in every night over the course of two months. One night, while he was running around testing enlargers, there was a knock on the door. He opened it to a small man with wide eyes, no hair, and a gold ring in one ear who said, “I heard about you. Can I see your pictures?” The man was Christer Strömholm, and after looking at Petersen’s images, he invited him to become his student. “Christer’s attention meant so much to me. I was nothing,” says Petersen. “Every artist has heroes, but I could sit here with you for five hours with a good beer and talk to you about this man.”
After a year of studying under Strömholm, Petersen produced his first, and most revered, Cafe Lehmitz. The series was photographed in Hamburg, a city he first visited in 1961 as a teenager studying German. In 1967, Petersen returned with the desire to photograph the friends he had made there — “a gang of around 20” — but to his shock, he found that almost all of them were dead. Many of them had become addicted to Preludin, a stimulant drug that was sold as an appetite suppressant.
This was when he came across Cafe Lehmitz, a red light district dive for misfits, among who were prostitutes, pimps, addicts, and transvestites. “Our type of life was hard,” says Petersen, who saw his friends in the people he met at the bar, “but not in a sentimental way,” he points out. “I saw that this was what would happen if you dealt with life in that way.”
Petersen returned to Cafe Lehmitz several times between 1967 and 1970, capturing its regulars with a direct and visceral intimacy. After his first exhibition of the work, for which he pinned 350 prints up behind the bar, Petersen approached seven publishers with the work, but because of its “unsavoury” subject matter, the series was not published until 1978, almost a decade after it was made. Now, it is among one of the most revered photobooks of all time, and will be exhibited at Fotografiska in Stockholm next Spring.
“I am drawn to special characters and personalities. You can find them in all parts of society,” says Petersen, whose work is often misunderstood as a documentation of people on the margins. “My work is about being alive, and finding the inner life of whatever it is I’m shooting. The longings, the dreams, the nightmares. It is the scars of life that I connect to. Photography is many things, but for me, it is about being believable.”
“My work is about being alive, and finding the inner life of whatever it is I’m shooting”
The photographer is also attracted to the primitive and basic nature of people and places. “I don’t want to complicate things. It is already all too complicated,” he says. Perhaps this explains his choice of clothing (all black with simple framed glasses) and his camera — the Contax T3 point and shoot — of which he now owns seven.
“They are very bad cameras, but I like them,” laughs Petersen. Though the T3 is light, fast, and small — slightly larger than the size of Petersen’s palm — the model has a bad focus and temperamental light meter, but that is all part of its charm. “I’m always irritated at it, it has its own will. But that’s part of the reason why I like it, because I can’t trust it.”
Petersen is only in London for one more night, and plans to spend the rest of the afternoon shooting in Soho Square, where he spent much of his time during his residency in 2011. Currently, he is working on the fourth volume of City Diaries, a mixture of old and new images from his ongoing engagement with the gritty, and beautiful, underbelly of the city.
“If you put all of these pictures together, step by step I am getting closer to a self portrait,” he says, joking about the struggle to edit down his many photographs of dogs, cats, birds, and in particular, horses. “I take pictures of what I like, and things that I identify myself in,” he says. “Nothing is calculated. It never has been.”