Issue #162  7/10/2009
Photographer Jennie Gunhammar Dies After Documenting Illness

By Michael Diemar

It is with great sadness that Laura Noble and I have to inform you that our friend, the Swedish-born photographer Jennie Gunhammar, passed away on the 23rd of June. She was 34 years old.

Jennie had bee suffering from lupus since 2002. Jessie, her identical twin sister, was diagnosed with the same illness in 2004. Lupus attacks the immune system and is incurable. Lupus charities receive far less funding than other well-known diseases such as cancer, due to lack of public awareness. Lupus often goes undiagnosed as the symptoms can be extremely varied. Weight loss is common and the first time I met Jennie I was shocked by how thin she was. Jennie was always very straight forward, a Swedish trait she was proud of and when meeting new people would explain "I have lupus" so as not to be mistaken for being anorexic. While she was thin and frail she was also extremely beautiful, and she had the grace of a renaissance queen. I soon discovered that she also had a will of iron and an absolute sense of purpose, namely her photography.

I had fallen in love with Jennie's photographs long before I met her. They were images from a project called "somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond" (published in a book by Damiani), a moving portrait of Jessie and Stan, a Parkinson's disease sufferer, their lives together, the love and tenderness between them but also the difficulties and the pain they had to live with. They are remarkable images, beautiful, sensitive but also unflinching in their honesty. Honesty was the most important thing to Jennie when making images, far more than any notion of art.

When Laura and I decided to open a gallery in London we knew we wanted to show her images as the first exhibition. Jennie and I had long discussions about art as well as the gravity of her illness. I think she found our discussions something of a relief. Many people found the subject of her illness difficult and awkward: "They ask me if I'm getting better as if I had a cold! They can't seem to accept that there is no cure!"

My acceptance of her illness and the realisation of its consequences had much to do with me being the son of a doctor and having worked at hospitals while I was at college. Jennie had grown up in Vaxjö in Småland in the southern part of Sweden. As it happened, I had lived there as well as a child, and sometimes when we met I would poke her gently and say "Småland!" and then we'd laugh.

Jennie and Jessie came to London in 1992 and supported their studies by working as fashion models. It made them both committed feminists.

Art was an extremely serious matter for Jennie and she abhorred photography that was mere eye candy. Art was for her about a total investment of herself, her emotions and sensibility. She also had extremely high standards. Despite producing one extraordinary image after another, she was never satisfied and was always striving to do better.

She was making images for the exhibition right up until the last minute. We would meet once a week to look at the contact sheets and discuss which images to include. We shared a magical moment when we went to the printers to see the finished prints. Images we had only seen as contact prints or on screen during post-production were rolled out in front of us as 30 by 40 inch prints. We were both speechless. Jennie got up on a stool to see the prints better and she, who was usually so critical, was now hovering above me quietly whispering, "They're beautiful."

Laura and I only knew Jennie when she was very ill, but with her focus and iron will we began to think of her as indestructible. She wasn't. Four days after the exhibition came down she called her friend Andrew Clinch and told him she couldn't breath. By the time the ambulance and the medics got to her it was too late. She hadn't gone willingly. She had fought like a lion to the end.

Jennie had been anxious and restless to move on to her next project, which was to be about identical twin-ship and personal identity. She had already collected a vast amount of material including family snapshots, letters and diaries from her and Jessie's childhood in Sweden, fashion photographs from their modelling years, etc. And she had filled a notebook with ideas for images she wanted to make.

I had also suggested a third project to her, a series of self-portraits. We talked about starting it with a classical self-portrait, carefully composed and perfectly lit. A studio and an assistant, was hired. The session went ahead. Afterwards Jennie sent us an email that she was shocked by the images and that she hated the look and the lighting.

I deeply regretted suggesting the idea in the first place, thinking that seeing photographs of herself had been too difficult, brutal in a way that looking at herself in a mirror wouldn't have been. But I was wrong. It really was the look and the lighting she hated.

Two days after her death, Andrew Clinch discovered a group of 65 images, self-portraits taken in her home in North London over a three-month period leading up to her death and showing her gradual physical deterioration. Beautifully made up, wearing her favourite jewellery, her two cats playing by her feet, intensely looking into the camera.

Jennie, Beautiful, Unflinching, With a will of iron.

Our thoughts go out to Jennie's sister Jessie, their family and to Andrew Clinch who did so much for her during her long illness.

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.