“From a very early age we were intrigued by the magic language of photography. Our father was a printer at the leading newspaper in Sweden. He was passionate about his work. Not just the final image but the whole process, from thought to eye to shutter to the perfect print.” Jan and Per Broman share the story of how Fotografiska came to be.
Text: Johan Lindskog
Photo: Thron Ullberg
Through his stories around the dinner table we could follow the leading photographers on assignment. Celebrities they met, wars they covered, the beauty they captured, the truth they revealed. To us photography was neither art nor news, they were both. It was nothing fancy, exclusive, strange or difficult about photography, it was natural to us. We talked image at home. There were prints lying around on the kitchen table, cameras to pick up and fire away. But of course, when we were young, a film had to be processed before you could see the image. In our case that was not a big deal. There was a darkroom in the basement. And a father who could do the perfect print.
Many years later we are still sitting together at a table full of prints, now as grown up men, drinking coffee instead of hot chocolate. Our father has passed away but his stories and legacy remain our main inspiration. The prints on the table are signed by names like Moon and Mann, Corbijn, Speers, LaChapelle and Watson. And we are sitting in the office of the house we created dedicated to photography. The road from one table to another, from our early experiments in the darkroom till todays travels between Fotografiska in Stockholm, New York and London, have been a wonderful but bumpy voyage.
If the passion was fuelled in our childhood, the idea of showing photography to the masses came decades later in 2008. We had been working with fairs and smaller exhibitions when we decided to put all our faith and money and what little prestige we had in a giant exhibition in a conference hall outside Stockholm. Maybe we hesitated a little when we had booked the gigant space, stood there looking at each other and the empty walls, the fluorescent lights fluttered a little hollow, wondering if any people would show up.
A few months later, the walls of the hall were full of the most colourful photography you can imagine. David LaChapelles commenting on contemporary society in bubble gum colours, tivoli style. People from all over Stockholm travelled to the awkward address, the newspapers were reporting, the event was the talk of the town. From that moment we were sure that that this would work on a larger scale and we started to calculate on a permanent space for photography, a museum, privately owned without any governmental support.
With no more than a bold idea we started to look for investors, and we ran heads on into the recession of 2008. To invest in a museum was not exactly what venture capital had top of mind at the time. After wrecking our knuckles on too many closed doors we turned to the core of the idea instead – the photography. We knew that if we could show that we were backed by the giants of photography then the money would come. There was one minor problem though, after investing all our money in the LaChapelle exhibition we were broke. We scanned the internet for the cheapest air-tickets to the major cities of the world. Then we started to book meetings. Nobody knew who we were. Two brothers from Sweden wanting to open a museum. Everybody was not thrilled. A lot of mails and calls remained unanswered when we took off. But we went anyway, to Paris, to Berlin, to New York and started knocking on doors of galleries, institutions and famous photographers. Some of whom actually let us in and a few even extended a handshake.
If the timing was bad with the investors we had another momentum working for us – the age of the image. In the last decade Photography have been revolutionising our society as a result of the symbiosis between social media and the smartphone. Images have emerged as the most important means of communication, dominating the interaction between humans, more powerful than writing, than speech. In hindsight, we are sure that our time will be compared to the breakthrough of the written word by Gutenberg, not as a technical feat but as an example of what can happen when potent tools of communication become easy to share. It happened to words 600 years ago. It happens to photography now. Only two decades ago we were rolling film into our expensive camera bodies in order to make an image. Very few of us had a father processing our artistic attempts, to most it was a difficult and expensive task. And we had to gather the relatives to show the result. Today anybody can shoot away endless amounts of photographs and show them to the world in an instant. It has made photography a concern of the masses.
Regardless of the technical revolution the fundamental quality of images has always been there, this straight line to our emotions. Pictures have been the most intriguing content ever since some caveman with an artistic stroke forced his image onto the rock. Technology did not change that. It only made it possible for everybody to interact on, let’s say, an imaginary, level. And it raised awareness of photography. It democratised the image. Which is exactly what Fotografiska is about.
To us the democratic quality is very important. We will never be, want to be or be able to be, a place for the elite. Our whole mission is to bring color to the world, even if it’s in black and white. It might sound pretentious but we truly want to make a difference, we believe that photography can change perception, and by that, the world, and we want to reach as many as possible in the process. That’s why we want to export Fotografiska to the world. But that’s also why the house of Fotografiska is open from early morning to late evening, every day of the week, almost every day of the year. This is accessibility and democracy in the most basic, still important, form. Our philosophy is also reflected in the broad range of exhibitions we produce. From the very accessible, likeable if you want, to hardcore conceptual and thought provoking. To us they are all equally important expressions of photography. We are in a way the antidote of the traditional art museum. We have a very casual approach to what is considered trendy or fine and very keen to explore what is odd, crazy, misplaced. We want to be pioneers in that regard. Questioning the traditional ways to do things, challenging the rules. We rather play by the book that is not yet written.
When we finally opened Fotografiska in 2010 we were 19 dedicated people in the house working day and night. Now we are 135. Just before the opening we realised we had been so focused on the exhibitions that we totally forgot that a great museum probably needs a decent café. Jan took the car to the supermarket, stuffed the trunk full of coffee and cakes and talked our mother into managing the café during the first months. Today our restaurant is ranked the best museum restaurant in the world, which makes both us and our mom a bit proud. Nowadays we also have a professional team managing our exhibitions so that Per no longer have to spend his nights changing the lightbulbs in the exhibition halls.
Annie Leibovitz, who together with the legendary Lennart Nilsson, had the first main exhibition at Fotografiska, told us that the word was watching. It was. But we were not worried. Maybe it would be humble to say that we took a chance, that we followed our dream no matter what, that our passion for photography made us jump into the dark just hoping that enough people would share our view. That’s the way many enterprises start. And almost as many fail. But that’s not true. We had a pretty good notion that somehow this would work. We had our lifelong faith in the power of photography. And most important, we had each other.