Lars Tunbjörk is one of Sweden’s most respected photographers. His images have been widely exhibited internationally and are published regularly in magazines around the world through the Paris picture agency VU and in monographs. Born 1956 in Borås on the west coast of Sweden, Lars Tunbjörk now lives and works in Stockholm. His photography predominantly captures the humor and melancholy of people in offices, homes and small towns of Sweden.
Like Martin Parr in Britain or William Eggleston in Memphis, Lars Tunbjörk’s pictures capture a vernacular which whilst being very local still seem to resonate beyond its borders. 'There are lots of Swedish national symbols and I didn't think foreigners would understand them. But at the ICP exhibition in America I was quite surprised that the visitors got it. People who grew up in the smaller towns in the Midwest grasped the meaning of it, which was quite amazing. I thought maybe it was because Sweden has become so Americanized, but it wasn't that - they were picking up on the small town atmosphere.'
While many artists of his generation have tackled the same subject matter, Tunbjörk has managed to mix humor and intelligent observation with an almost apocalyptic eye. See a small selection of his work below and in the fourth in our series of carbonarts™ galleries.
Tunbjörk skipped college to join a local newspaper straight from school in the mid-1970s, rapidly progressing to national papers based in Stockholm. Two publications aided Tunbjörk's journey from jobbing freelancer to a globally exhibited and published photographer. The first, a short-lived paper staffed by a young team of idealistic reporters, provided him with a first opportunity to shoot socially-concerned photo-essays. After that there was no going back, he says. The second instrumental publication was a progressive in-flight magazine for a Swedish airline whose briefs were sometimes as free as: 'Go to that city. That's it.' This work, shot mostly in towns around Sweden, formed the beginning of his first publication, A Country Beside Itself.
Tunbjörk described his first book as “a comment on the decline of the Swedish welfare state”. Published in 1993 it focused on the leisure culture in small town Sweden, capturing the country's mood following a period of economic boom and rapid commercialization. Tunbjörk believes that 1993 marked a specific moment in time and has subsequently claimed that if he had begun the project any later it would have been much darker.
He adds that A Country Beside Itself comments on commercialism and the weakening of the welfare state, - the legacy of the influence Thatcherism had on continental politics. 'There is also something more natively specific to the pictures', he says. 'A major aspect of Swedish culture, its literature and its films, is this strong melancholia, and I really tried to work with that.'
After this book on leisure culture, Tunbjörk felt it was a natural step to then look at work places. For Office (2001), he gained access to the corporate headquarters of companies such as Ericsson and Volvo, and he later visited offices across Europe, America and Japan. Contrasting neat, clinical public spaces with the paper-strewn chaos behind the scenes, the subject appealed to Tunbjörk's sense of the absurd.
Completing the trilogy, Tunbjörk followed up his study of office life with a look at small town Swedish suburbs in Home. Once again, he returned to his home town of Borås but this time he focused entirely on the bizarre details of Swedish domesticity, leaving the scenes entirely un-peopled and more minimalistic. Doing so heightened the sense of elaborate order, presenting a kind of stage in which everything was precisely placed and polished, a neatly manicured escape for the office class that remains deathly silent.
'I know that some people see it as a comment on the architectural environment or a middle class lifestyle,' says Tunbjörk, 'but it's not for me. I started the project after my father died and I began photographing inside his house. Then I started shooting the surrounding area and other similar places. It is a much more personal work. It is all about foggy memories.'
I Love Borås is Lars Tunbjörk’s document of an aimless journey around Sweden between 1988 and 1995. Supermarkets, parties, small town streets, amusement parks, gas stations, TV-shows, landscapes, food. During that time Tunbjörk was working on his series Landet utom sig / Country Beside Itself, but these images were not used in that series because they didn’t fit, they were too ugly, too beautiful or too silly. Together they show a darker and more hysteric view of modern western society and Sweden during the economic recession of the early nineties.
For his recent book Vinter, Lars Tunbjörk traveled around Sweden in an attempt to capture the atmosphere of the winter months for people living in Scandinavia. The project started as a means of surviving the dark part of the year. This series of photographs has a different mood, color range and temperament compared to his previous work, but his style, his understated humor and often absurd subject matter are still unmistakable.
“I often feel beside myself in the winter time, and I try to go to warmer and lighter places. But the last couple of years I have traveled into the winter and darkness instead. Into areas, conditions and encounters in which I don’t really know where the outer and inner begins. And even less where it ends”.
Lars Tunbjörk is one of our favorite Scandinavian photographers. We love the delicate balance between humor and sadness that often becomes apparent in his photographs and the ever present human factor that is strangely at odds with the strict discipline of his work.