Les Amies de Place Blanche: Transvestites of 1960's Paris

Christer Strömholm (1918-2002) is considered one of the great photographers of the 20th century, though he is little known outside of his native Sweden.

Arriving in Paris in the late 1950's, Strömholm settled in the Place Blanche, home to the Moulin Rouge, in the heart of the city's red-light district.  There he befriended the "ladies of the night," transgendered males who were struggling to live as women and raising money for sex-change operations.

Jacky ? 1961 (© Christer Strömholm/Strömholm Estate)

In Gen. Charles de Gaulle's ultra-conservative France, transvestites were outlawed and regularly harassed and arrested by the gendarmes for being "men dressed as women outside the period of carnival."

Strömholm photographed his subjects, whom he called his "les amies de Place Blanche (girlfriends of Place Blanche) in their hotel room, in bars and on the streets of Paris.

Martine ?1968 (© Christer Strömholm/Strömholm Estate)

Some met tragic fates.  Others like "Nana" and "Jacky" eventually fulfilled their destinies and led happy lives as women.

Belinda ? 1967 (© Christer Strömholm/Strömholm Estate)

Gina ? 1963 (© Christer Strömholm/Strömholm Estate)

Nana ? 1959 (© Christer Strömholm/Strömholm Estate)

Suzannah and Sylvia ? 1962 (© Christer Strömholm/Strömholm Estate)

Pepita ? 1963 (© Christer Strömholm/Strömholm Estate)

"Little Christer" ? 1955 (© Strömholm Estate)

Strömholm's photo-essay raises profound issues about sexuality and gender.  As he wrote in 1983, "These are images of people whose lives I shared and whom I think I understood. These are images of women-biologically born as men-that we call 'transsexuals.' As for me, I call them 'my friends of Place Blanche.' It was then-and still is-about obtaining the freedom to choose one's own life and identity."

Christer Strömholm's photos will be on exhibit at New York's International Center of Photography starting May 18.  The show runs through Sept. 2, 2012.

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