Private moments laced with social commentary in 'Lars Tunbjörk'

Tunbjork was one of Sweden’s most prominent photographers.

Ullared. From Lars Tunbjörk - Retrospective.

If the book Lars Tunbjörk had a soundtrack, it would be by the Talking Heads. Like the famed band’s songbook, the images in this book are loaded with longing and dread. The book is a posthumous retrospective of one of Sweden’s most prominent photographers of the past few decades. Tunbjörk’s images consistently possess the same elements: wit, absurdity, and most important a commentary on the human condition. Many images in this book made me stop and consider whether I like them or hate them. And the answer is both! In the images, people carry odd things on the street, eat too much, and work in offices that seem maddening. 

The work is presented in a very linear story arc. His early, mostly black-and-white work seems closer to that of midcentury giants like Henri Cartier-Bresson than his own later style. However, hints of his wit can be found in the work. An essay by writer and friend Göran Odbratt describes Tunbjörk as a shy and quiet youth, and in a 2011 interview Tunbjörk said, “All those clichés about the camera being both a shield and an admission ticket to new contexts is true in my case.” By the late 1980s, that deadpan humor defines his work and permeates all his photos. In the ’90s, his work in Sweden had fully reached its trademark style: subjects portrayed in mundane and/or private moments, combined with a hypersaturated color scheme and a great eye for composition, creating an almost cartoonish world. His collaborations with The New York Times Magazine provided further opportunity to develop his body of work. Assignments of a wealthy American rancher and, most famously, in office spaces are laced with social commentary. 

What strikes me the most about the work of this period is that it seems to place no judgment on the subjects themselves but rather on the society where they operate. The final chapter of his book, titled Vinter (Winter), turns gray and lonely. Kathy Ryan, The New York Times Magazine director of photography, writes that his late work was informed by his struggle with depression. In his own way, it is as if Tunbjörk turned the lens on himself. (Readers should be aware the book contains some nudity.)

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