World’s Best Photographic Museum

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On only six years after Fotografiska in Stockholm was established by Jan Bromann and his brother Per six years ago, the museum is considered to be the world’s best photographic exhibition hall.

“We wanted a place for photography that would display great photographic exhibitions and great photographers, and we saw a niche that nobody within the art world really had cared about,” said Jan Broman when we met him in Stockholm last July. “My brother and I are very focused on art, and we wanted to create a meeting place for people interested in photography,” he continues. “Our curiosity led us to develop a business of art through the photography interest that we had, and no one really knew about photography.”

Janne Bromann (left) with editor in Chief Tor Kjolberg. Photo Helgard Mahrdt
Janne Bromann (left) with editor in Chief Tor Kjolberg. Photo Helgard Mahrdt

Jan, or Janne as he is called, had not been involved in practical photography for many years, but his brother Per had been a professional photographer for 15 years. Although the brothers had worked in other professional areas, photography was never far away, since photography had always been with them since they were children.

“Ten years ago, my brother and I had just established the Photography Fair (Fotomessan). It was held in Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen and Gothenburg. It still remains in Stockholm, being arranged once a year. It was the first time my brother and I worked together,” says Janne.

“We do not really display art. We show photography in all its forms. If it is documentary, scientific or art, doesn’t really matter, It’s all about photography,“  he explains.

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Fotografiska has an exhibition council which meets once a quarter, consisting of janne and his brother, people from inside the house and some external people. “We are looking at what may be interesting to propose for exhibitions here or not,” Janne says.

“Later our proposals end up in the exhibition department, which finds the best possible spot in the house to display it.”
On my question if they receive many suggestions from outside the organization, Bromann says there are very few, and that it is quite rare that proposals end up as an exhibition. “The exhibitions at Fotografiska are usually something we have heard about or sought after ourselves,” he says.

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The Greta Garbo exhibition

Regarding the Greta Garbo exhibition this summer, it was the Swedish advertising executive and art collector Lars Nordin, who told Janne that he had collected Greta Garbo images for 20 years. “I did actually not know this,” says Bromann. “We had occasionally met on different occasions. He lives in Southern Sweden and he came and said he had a great Greta Garbo collection he would like to exhibit. He had no organization, he had only bought items that related to Greta Garbo. For him it was kind of a journey, looking at what he actually had.”

One of the very few Grata Garbo signatures in existence
One of the very few Grata Garbo signatures in existence

Greta Garbo is really the biggest Swedish icon of all time. “We had visits from China last weekend,” tells Bromann. “He was one of the greatest Chinese fashion photographers, and when he was asked if he knew Greta Garbo, he exclaimed: “Know Greta Garbo? I believe everyone does! ” In other words, even a 30 year old Chinese knows who Greta Garbo is. There are very few Swedes who have such a status in the world. What he did not know, however, was that she was Swedish. Perhaps not so strange, since all her films are American. “But she was born and grew up not far from here,” adds Janne.

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Who are visiting Fotografiska?

It is primarily Swedes who visit the exhibitions, but this summer there have been several foreign tourists. “Actually all nationalities, and it’s nice,” says Janne.  “We’ve become one of Stockholm’s highest ranked tourist destinations.”

As with almost everything in life, coincidences led to the fact that the home of Fotografiske is a more than 100 old stone brick building at Slussen in Stockholm.  The original idea was to build the ABBA museum there.

“We were at a meeting in town,” tells Janne. “Then I heard that the ABBA museum was delayed, and perhaps would not be realized at all. We knew that this building was in question, so we went directly from the meeting to look at it. At that time we already had plans to go heavily into new premises under construction.”

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“In 2008 the world looked differently,” he recalls. “We could walk right into the building where there was construction work everywhere. No one asked who we were, or what we were doing, so we could go through the entire building and peek. There and then we decided that this was where we wanted to be.”

Since the house was over 100 years old, it was obviously a lot of things needed to be done. The owners had in principle done nothing for 100 years, but now they had begun renovations. ”If you look at the building from the outside, you see several shades of brick. There are new and old bricks. The roof had to be replaced. Ventilation did not exist, etc.,” says Bromann.  “They were doing a complete renovation of the house, which should provide a standard we could use. For the landlord it was a big renovation project.

No public support
Janne tells us that the fact that all investments are private, without any public support, gives Fotografiska a freedom which enables the museum to do whatever it wants without interference. “We can take rapid decisions. We do not need to pay attention to any party colors or someone who sits in government administration. We can do precisely what as we want,” emphasizes Bromann.

Torso by Dan Wolgers
Torso by Dan Wolgers

The sculpture on the outside of the building, Torso,  is made by and of Dan Wolgers, who lived and grew up right in the neighborhood. It’s actually his own head, slightly askew as he peeks into Stockholm, as he did when he was a child. On top there is an ear as well, while the other eye is below. “It’s his own head which is scanned,” says Bromann. “At least that’s what’s being said. I cannot confirm it, but I have a pretty reliable source.”

“On the dedicatory, during the press conference, the American photographer Annie Leibowitz was here, and we talked about Fotografiska and museums in London and New York, and that we had the ambition to build the world’s best photography museum,” Janne states.

Ben Kingsley by Brian Adams
Ben Kingsley by Brian Adams

“We have succeeded. Today we are considered to be the world’s best photography museum. Modern Museum in San Francisco has recently opened a department dedicated to photography, so we’ll see,” says Janne. “But we have not yet met anyone who says that someone elsewhere in the world are better than us. In Europe there is no longer anyone who produces particularly good photo exhibitions. Therefore, it is also rare that we cooperate with others. We produce almost everything ourselves, and that is because we want relationship with the photographers and have the opportunity to discuss how to do things. We illuminate our exhibitions a little different from other places, and then it’s easier when we can do it ourselves.”

From the exhibition Exposed by Brian Adams
From the exhibition Exposed by Brian Adams

When I ask if photographers can propose their images for an exhibition, Janne smiles and says that skilled photographers, who are interested, can contact the museum by email. “The address can be found on our website,” he adds.

The Autumn Lounge is dedicated to Swedish photographers. Once a year there is an exhibition of young Nordic photographers, under 35 years, who also can apply for a grant.

Åke Ericson's exhibition oabout the Romani peoples
Åke Ericson’s exhibition about the Romani peoples

Focus on the photographer
When I ask if they now and then consider a Scandinavian exhibition, Bromann tells me that they in principle are not so much for collect exhibitions. “We prefer to present solo photographers, who shows a deeper insight into the photographer’s way of working. When we build collect exhibits on a theme, it’s more about theming any questions or things like that. In photography it is the questions that are interesting. However, we do like the themes. Just look at Åke Ericson’s exhibition Non Grata about the Romani peoples, and how these people are treated in Europe, and as a result are sitting and begging in front of our businesses today. Maybe this exhibition can lead people to look at the Romani peoples in a different way. That would of course be very important for us. But to make a collect exhibition on the Romani peoples in general, would never happen. There are, however, many photographers who are able to create depth projects. Åke was travelling around Europe for six years to get closer to the Romani people than anyone else.”

“But we’re actually doing a collect exhibition, which comes in a few years,” Bromann adds. “The theme will be horses, and that would not be as exciting with just one photographer. The funny thing about horses is that there are very, very many talented photographers using horses as objects.”

From the exhibition Exposed by Brian Adams
From the exhibition Exposed by Brian Adams

A meeting point for everyone
“We want Fotografiska to be perceived as a meeting place,” claims Bromann. “People meeting themselves, meeting their friends, having a total experience, something that you take with you home. Just read our texts about an exhibition. They are not academic. They are written in a way so everyone can take part in them. We do not have to synthesize for the visitors for them to be able to benefit from the text. We do not want to problematize what we want to display within cultural journalism.

From the exhibition "Inherit the Dust" bu Nick Brandt
From the exhibition “Inherit the Dust” bu Nick Brandt

We are here for everyone, and we direct us towards those who may not be as interested in photography, but still receive a dividend of looking at the pictures. And then we must not make it too cumbersome. We must also include them in the experience. Their experience may not be the same as visiting Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen, where very long texts discuss things about matters and things for the very passionate, which actually is quite few. Our aim is to create an environment where very many people can take part.”

“Our restaurant, for example, serves both meat and vegetarian dishes, showing that everyone can take part in the dining experience as well. And even when they go to the bar, both those who drink alcohol, and those who do not, order the same drinks with and without alcohol. We have our own signature drinks, which we have composed ourselves. At Fotografiska people can meet the same conditions, with the same opportunities and the same assumptions.”

A clear philosophy
Jan Bromann’s philosophy is that all companies in the future must have a concept that is grounded in what their customers want or stand for. “This is very rooted in our own assessments, and what we stand for,” he says. “And when we then open a bar, we must ensure that drinks with alcohol are likewise as those without. It is a result of our philosophy that all are equal. There are so many wonderful consequences in our business when you have solid ground to stand on. Our basic attitude is that all are equally valuable. That’s where we start when we look at whatever.

And so we are completely free when it comes to political issues. What we are doing has nothing to do with politics. It is about how people are. They may be red, green or blue. It does not matter. It is often difficult to distinguish between politics and empathy. It is believed that if one is red, then you are empathetic, but it is not so. A blue man can also be very empathetic. It is a good feeling that we never have to be political.”

Art and politics
However, there is a historical constellation between art and politics, both in red and blue. There is bourgeois art, and there is social art. Within the social democratic art, and especially in photography, the documentary images are the voice. Regarding the Greta Garbo exhibition, it was a coincidence that it came right now. There comes a guy and says he has a lot of pictures. It is of course an advantage from a commercial perspective that it is in the summer, with many tourists in town. And Greta Garbo is very big abroad. It is of course a way to lure tourists to us. But it could have been anytime. There’s no Garbo anniversary or anything that would indicate that it had to be right now.

Greta Garbp's pyjamas and personal belongings
Greta Garboe’s pyjamas and personal belongings

“When it comes to photography’s ability to convey reality, I think of a case, I think it was in 2006, when some of the biggest municipalities in Stockholm explained to their politicians and officials that their teachers at school had to understand imagery. With that I mean that they have to learn to draw, and not necessarily understand the photography. Children ‘see’ images. Today children do not write as before. They just post a picture that shows something they want to say. It can describe both emotion and facts. We adults do not have that knowledge. And so it is with the teachers. Children know data processing better than their teachers; wrong weight in the communication balance. The language of photo is so strong that the school should put more effort into it. It might of course be used both wisely and unwisely. Just look at the cyberbullying issues, where the image often is the key. There are not words. If you had an assessment scale on how one could apply the photograph or image, it would be a strength. I do not think there’s any school, at least not in Sweden, talking about this. They cannot imagery.

Fotografiska’s aim is to tell important stories through, precisely, photography and images,” concludes Jan Bromann.

All images by Tor Kjolberg, except where otherwise stated

World’s Best Photographic Museum, Jan Bromann was Interviewed  by Tor Kjolberg 12 June 2016