Issue #246  12/17/2018
Fotografiska: Coming to London and New York amid Controversy

By Michael Diemar

In spring next year, Fotografiska, the Swedish photography center in Stockholm, will expand its operations with two large outposts, one on 281 Park Avenue in New York City and another on 10 Whitechapel High Street in London's East End.

Fotografiska, founded by brothers Jan and Per Broman, opened the Stockholm center in 2010, and to say that it has become enormously successful is an understatement to put it mildly. In a country with a population of just over ten million, in a city of just under a million, it attracts nearly half a million visitors a year and has become a major international photography destination.

It shows four major exhibitions a year, mostly with big international names, and alongside them an additional 15 - 20 smaller exhibitions. Over the years it has shown exhibitions by Irving Penn, David LaChapelle, Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sarah Moon and Annie Leibovitz. Earlier in the year, teNues published "The Eye", with a selection of images from the exhibitions shown so far at the center.

Fotografiska differs from other photography centers in its funding. It's a commercial entity and the business model is based on attracting the maximum amount of visitors, charging an entrance fee and convincing them to stay and spend money in the bar, the restaurant, the bookshop and hopefully even buy prints from Fotografiska Editions. That edition program gives you a choice between "Exclusive Edition" (signed with numbered certificate), "Limited Edition" (50 prints with numbered certificate, unsigned) and "Open Edition" (unsigned). The center also has its own in-house printing and framing facilities, plus educational and event spaces.

The New York City and London centers will be based on the same concept. A press release from Fotografiska states: "These global cities already offer fantastic photography. Fotografiska will open its doors as the inclusive 'New Kid in Town,' bringing photography to a wider audience. No ordinary museum, Fotografiska is a vibrant international meeting place."

Vibrant yes, but many question Fotografiska's right to call itself a museum, and I shall come to that.

The London space will be big. The Stockholm space is 59,000 square feet but the space in Whitechapel, housed on the lower ground floors of the former Aldgate Union Building, will have seven spaces spread over 89,000 square feet.

Earlier in the year, Alexander Montague-Sparey was announced as its chief curator. He holds a Masters Degree in Art History from the University of Oxford and has worked as an independent curator and an advisor to private clients. Interviewed in British Journal of Photography in May, Montague-Sparey explained, "Fotografiska London's seven exhibition spaces will allow for the display of some of the most cutting-edge and accomplished international photo and video artists."

He continued, "The venue in Stockholm has become one of the foremost international spaces dedicated to contemporary photography in the world. I look forward to advancing the discussion in this state-of-the-art space, in London's most exciting and creative postcode."

Similar sentiments were expressed in the press release by Tommy Rönnberg, chairman and lead investor in the London center: "Fotografiska has for a long time been searching for suitable facilities in London, one of the world's most dynamic cities when it comes to photography. Whitechapel, which is one of London's most dynamic areas, will be a perfect location and a wonderful place to fulfill our vision to inspire a more conscious world."

The New York center will be housed in 45,000 sq. ft. facility in a historic building on Park Avenue South in the Flatiron District. In the same press release, Yoram Roth, Fotografiska International's lead investor as well as shareholder of Fotografiska New York, is described as an art-loving businessman and artist from Berlin, and he states, "My deep passion for photography is a strong driving force both as a collector and a businessman. Now is a fantastic chance to be part of this dream project to globalize Fotografiska."

As I write this, I'm surprised by the number of people in London and New York that I have come across who still haven't heard of Fotografiska. And I suspect that most of those who have, don't quite know what to expect.

A friend of mine, a Stockholm-based photographer, who asked to remain anonymous, told me: "The best way to describe Fotografiska's impact on the Swedish photography scene is that it hit it like a juggernaut, for good and bad. They have given photography such a high profile, put on some great shows and given a great boost to Swedish photography. They have, however, received a great deal of criticism for some of their methods when it comes to dealing with photographers. Stockholm certainly needed a major venue for photography, but whether Fotografiska is the right one is a matter of debate."

The idea of a major institution for photography in Sweden had been bandied about for quite some time. In 1939, coinciding with the centenary of the launch of the medium, a number of photographers began calling for a national museum of photography. Their dream was finally realized in 1971 when Fotografiska Museet opened in Stockholm. It would go on to show well-attended exhibitions as well as building its collection through purchases and donations. In 1998, the museum and its collection were incorporated into Moderna Museet. The latter needed the space as part of their expansion scheme, and the takeover was justified by the claim that the move would raise photography's standing as an art form.

Well, the Swedish photography world certainly didn't think so. Instead, photography seemed to most to have been shunted to the periphery. In 2005, the National Union of Swedish Photographers wrote a letter to the Swedish minister of culture, demanding an inquiry into the standing of photography in Sweden as well as the foundation of a proper museum, showing vintage alongside contemporary work. Their demands fell on deaf ears.

Enter Jan and Per Broman. The brothers were pretty much born into photography. Their father, Rolf Broman, was head of Pressens Bild and he made it the most successful photography agency in Sweden. There was a darkroom in the family home and Per would go on to establish a career as a photographer and Jan in lab processing.

In 2006, the brothers embarked on their first joint venture when they established Fotomässan (The Photo Fair ) in Älvsjö outside central Stockholm. Two years later, they staged a pop-up exhibition with David LaChapelle in Nacka, in Stockholm's commuter belt. It became so successful, and the queues grew so long, that the brothers decided to keep it open 24/7. But they had bigger plans. That same year, they sold Fotomässan and began looking for a suitable building for what would become Fotografiska.

In an interview with the Swedish financial magazine Veckans Affärer in April 2014 the brothers described how they--while waiting for a meeting at Strand Hotell--overheard a conversation that the old customs building on Stadsgårdskajen, which had been earmarked for the Abba museum, was suddenly up for grabs after those plans had fallen through. The brothers acted quickly and called the leaseholder. And then Lehman Brothers crashed. The Broman Brothers' appointment with HQ Bank was cancelled, but they pressed ahead anyway, eventually solving the financing problem with the help of outside investors, with the brothers retaining 22.5 % each of the company.

Fotografiska opened with a bang in 2010 with an Annie Leibovitz exhibition, and there was no escaping Fotografiska, its advertising and branding. While the big international names had the crowds flocking to Fotografiska, alongside those mega shows the brothers also showed a great number of Swedish and other Nordic photographers that had their work exposed to a wider audience for the first time. Some of those same shows would then be repackaged and offered to regional museums in Sweden, giving them even more exposure.

Unlike the established institutions, Fotografiska could react and act swiftly and it would go on to tackle a variety of issues in themed exhibitions--homelessness, poverty and the refugee crisis. Five years ago, it inaugurated the first Autumn Salon, an exhibition open to established photographers and amateurs alike, the images chosen by a jury. The place positively buzzed with energy.

While the Swedish financial press applauded Fotografiska's success story--not least because it came from a direction that was completely unexpected, the arts sector had many critics reacting against what they saw as brash commercialism.

And underneath the surface there was also a fair of amount grumbling. It first came to the fore on December 18, 2012, when SVT, the Swedish national broadcaster, reported that two leading Swedish photographers, Ewa Stackelberg and Micke Berg, felt that Fotografiska had broken the agreements they had made for exhibitions. Both photographers had started to work on the exhibitions, produced prints, and Stackelberg had even financed a book to be sold during her exhibition. Instead of a proper exhibition, she was offered to show two prints, for two days only. She was deeply insulted and vented her anger in a series of posts on Facebook.

The Swedish broadsheets were quick to pick up the story and the day after SVT's website reported that they had been contacted by other photographers who had had similar bad experiences, as well as employees, former and current, complaining about low salaries and terrible working conditions, one claiming, "I have never been treated so badly as when I worked at Fotografiska".

Well, the whole thing snowballed and soon Mary Ellen Mark joined the ranks of disgruntled photographers. In 2013, the matters were settled and the photographers received compensation. Stackelberg would eventually have a proper exhibition at Fotografiska in 2015, while Micke Berg decided enough was enough.

Fotografiska drew further criticism in 2015, when it opened F Concept on Sergels Torg in Central Stockholm, a concept store selling photo books, posters and photographs. Those photos were digital prints, mostly unsigned and in open editions. On December 9th, the Swedish broadsheet Dagens Nyheter quoted photographer Johan Bergmark, who accused Fotografiska of "undermining photography as an art form". Bergmark said, "I don't understand how you can sell an unsigned C-print by a barely-known Stockholm photographer for 4,000 Kronor (about $450)."

I heard similar comments from other photographers and a few gallerists who felt that it was hard enough to convince buyers that the photography market was a serious one, especially as it's still relative small in Sweden.

That however, wasn't the critics' only gripe. The split to the photographers was a paltry 25%, leading the aforementioned Micke Berg to write on his blog, "during my 45 years as a photographer I have never had less than 50%".

Jan Broman hit back at Fotografiska's critics in Dagens Nyheter: "We are not running a gallery but a store. We make photography and photo books accessible to a general audience and at a price point you won't find in galleries. I have never seen any criticism of IKEA's remuneration to photographers."

Fotografiska didn't invent these types of questionable editions, open or limited. During the dot.com boom, Eyestorm and other parties launched all manner of them, including Iris prints in limited editions of anything up to 5,000 copies, usually under a banner of "making art available to everybody", suggesting that they would make a good investment. In some corners this caused absolute havoc. One leading gallerist returned gallery prints to one of his well-known photographers, as he felt that the Iris prints made available elsewhere looked just too close to silver gelatin prints for comfort, and that he simply couldn't justify the difference to his clients.

So while Fotografiska didn't invent the practice, I suspect that few will welcome the addition to what could perhaps be described as "buyer-beware syndrome" in the photography market.

There have been other criticisms. Fotografiska refers to itself as a museum, and will also do so in London and New York, but the Stockholm center conducts no research, doesn't preserve archives and has only a small collection, mostly of works by Swedish photographers. In short, it doesn't really do what museums do, where the exhibitions are really just the tip of the iceberg.

Going over the various news reports in the Swedish media, blog entries as well as conversations I have had about Fotografiska, I think some of the criticisms are justified. But I have also detected a fair amount of resentment and envy, that the Broman Brothers really did pull it off and made it a tremendous success.

And it is impressive. When I spoke to Nick Brandt around the time of the launch of his project "Inherit The Dust" in 2016, he told me, "I have done three shows at Fotografiska, and every time it's been great. I think Jan and Per Broman have achieved something truly remarkable. They have really made Stockholm a destination for photography."

And while some of the critics are quick to dismiss it as "commercial" because of the business model, I don't think that the fashion photography exhibitions Fotografiska have shown are in any way more commercial than those I have seen at the V&A and the National Portrait Gallery in London, plus Fotografiska will usually show more socially engaged work alongside these, be it work by Lars Tunbjörk or Magnus Wennman's images of starvation in Sudan and Somalia.

And I sometimes think that some of its critics have a more than rose-tinted view of how a public institution operates and how it's financed, especially seen in a wider, international perspective. Not only are temporary exhibitions and acquisitions often funded by corporate and private sponsors, but increasingly a good portion of many non-profit institutions' running costs are funded in the same manner.

That is a situation that causes its own problems here and there. On August 29 of this year, the Art Newspaper reported that two major Dutch museums, Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum and Mauritshuis in The Hague had ended their collaboration with Shell because of mounting protests over sponsorship by fossil fuel companies.

And as I write these finishing lines, the Art Newspaper's newsletter reports further controversies around funding from the Sackler Family. In addition, to the OxyContin controversy, the newsletter reported on the $31.2 million the family had hidden in offshore accounts. Several leading UK cultural institutions, including the British Museum and the V&A have received funding from the Sackler Trust and the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, and calls are now growing for them to refuse funding from them.

It does put a spotlight on the question: Who's going to pay for photography to be seen in the physical world? The last 20 years has seen a proliferation of public museums and centers for photography. But it is also true that many of them have had to deal with severely slashed budgets in the wake of the financial crisis that has affected their programs.

Both museums and established commercial galleries receive fewer visitors than they used to. Skyrocketing rents in major cities have led some to close or downsize, and discouraged others from entering the fray. And this in turn has led to a distinct shortage of venues, especially for new photography.

Fotografiska will have a lot of space in both London and New York. The articles I have referred to are available on the web. And they have created an uneasy relationship between Fotografiska and the Swedish media. It would seem it has been exported. The web version of the E-Photo Newsletter features images whenever it reports on fairs, exhibitions, institutions, etc. Normally, the photographs are sent by request, the relevant parties asking for no more information than where they are going to be used. Not so in this case. Fotografiska's New York-based PR agency asked me for the angle on the story. To which I replied, a combination of news story, London and New York update, the success story in Stockholm, as well as a report on some of the feathers Fotografiska had ruffled in Sweden.

I never heard back from them on getting images for the article. Sending reminders didn't help. I guess it was the feathers.

Michael Diemar is a London-based collector and consultant. He is also editor-in-chief of The Classic, a new free magazine about classic photography. He is a long-time writer about the photography scene, writing extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.