Fredrik Broden's mother-in-law has only herself to blame. She is the person most responsible for opening his eyes to the potential of a career in photography. She said yes when she could have said no. She bought a camera that her young daughter would send to Broden as a Christmas gift in 1985. Before that decision, Fredrik Broden was well on his way to becoming a Swedish travel agent. Not her son-in-law.
We all make choices. Some of them just work out—sometimes to perfection.
Fredrik Broden, 40, was born and raised in the modest textile town of Borås, Sweden, a place then noted for perpetual rains and mail-order fashion. As he describes it, Borås was not a bad place in which to grow up, it was simply a middle-class city situated between Göteborg and Jönköping, large enough to be in an Atlas, but not enough to be in a Frommer's guide. Everything about it seemed to him, well, middling, a commodity kind of place of intermediate size and intermediate position somewhere safely inside the Civilized World.
Broden's father, Sven-Åke, worked as a buyer in the town's mail-order industry. As a young student, Fredrik visited his dad's office from time to time and acquainted himself with the company's photography studio. There, images of long coats and pantsuits, leisure wear and knee boots and elastic undergarments were captured for display in the thousands of catalogs sent out to consumers every season. It was a place where the catalog sales reps made scotch-plaid housewives yearn for something more than pickled herring and caviar paste.
Broden recalls, "I was intrigued by the company photography studio, the lights, the sets, the production crew, the layouts. But also, I was captivated by publications that lay about the place by the hundreds, stacked and dog-eared copies of American and European fashion magazines that contained images I never encountered at the local news kiosks or bookstores."
Even then, photography did not cry out to young Fredrik as a possible avocation, much less vocation. It was merely something that helped him pass the time while he visited his father's office. Somewhere beyond the predictability of his daily life, there was something—at the time, he just didn't know what it was.
Meanwhile, he continued, completing his studies at Högstadium, then entering Swedish Gymnasium, a more focused distant cousin of American high school, where he was required to start lending direction to his life. As far as diversions, he occasionally traveled with his family on seasonal trips to the Spanish coast, and later to a family-acquired beach bungalow on the West Coast of Sweden, behaving and rejoicing in his teens like many other middle class European boys coming of age in the rapidly-expanding economies of the 1960s and early '70s.
In 1980, after his first year of Gymnasium, Fredrik applied to be an exchange student in the United States. He dreamed that a year abroad would bring him somewhere distant, different and exciting—somewhere new: New York or Los Angeles, anywhere that excitementwas available for the taking. Accepted into the exchange program, Fredrik's dreams clouded: his marching orders were for Memphis, a city somewhere in between the Old South and the industrial Midwest, then a bedraggled Mississippi River town. Did all the English boys go to L.A.? The French daughters to New York? He booked his ticket.
OFF HE WENT
It was during his student exchange in Memphis that seventeen-year-old Fredrik Broden met a beautiful, blue-eyed, sixteen-year-old Southern girl named Julie Whitmire. His life changed, forever. The two youngsters fell for one another. Perhaps in the minds of Julie's mother and father, this polite, reserved young Swede could not have been a threat to their dreams and expectations for their daughter. Puppy love, certainly, but a lanky Swedish exchange student surely could merely be but a passing fancy, not a permanent fascination for their young daughter. Wrong.
After Fredrik returned to Sweden and finished school, he relocated to the West Coast city of Göteborg. He and Julie communicated regularly. After finishing Gymnasium and doing the mandatory army service, Fredrik took his first real job, as a travel agent; meanwhile, Julie had graduated from high school and was attending college. They communicated by telephone, and visited when they could.
It was during this period that Julie must have discerned in her boyfriend a tangible interest in photography. She decided to make a Ricoh camera his Christmas gift in 1985. Of limited means, she asked her mother to lend her the money to pay for the camera.
"I am not sure if I actually paid her back," Julie said. "I guess once she reads this I might have to—with interest!"
After several years of living apart and suffering through the trials of a long-distance love affair, the young couple decided that the best way to ensure that neither oceans nor time zones could come in between them would be to marry. And so the pair were married in Memphis in December 1986 and then moved to Stockholm. Meanwhile, to prove himself worthy of Julie (and her mother's) thoughtful Christmas present, Fredrik began taking photography classes at Kulturama, a Stockholm arts school. The classes served as both a distraction from his clerking post, and a creative outlet. From a fellow classmate in a photography class, Broden learned of the possibility of assisting photographers as a next career step. Soon after he had a full-time assisting job in a nearby photographer's studio. There, he began to learn the business, from lighting techniques and set building to the art of printmaking.
In early 1989, their first son, Max, was born in Stockholm. It was then that Julie decided she needed to be closer to her family, who had since relocated to Dallas. Off they went.
DEEP IN THE HEART
For Fredrik, the relocation was difficult. "To me, it was like moving to the most foreign place on earth," he said. "The light, the heat, the culture, everything was so different, but trips home in the summer during those early years helped me stay in touch with my culture, family and friends and, as time passed, I adjusted to life in Texas. We still go back to Europe every summer to maintain that connection."
After assisting various photographers, Broden gained more experience and autonomy. By 1991, he began doing some of his first independent work for D, the leading city magazine of Dallas. He also became acquainted with a young photographer's rep named Renée Rhyner. Still, he was not satisfied with the direction of his career. For a variety of reasons, in 1992, he and Julie made plans to return to Sweden, but a deep recession there discouraged them. Bags packed, furniture loaded inside a shipping container, Broden returned from his job search in Sweden to tell Julie that returning at that moment was pointless. They had no idea what they would do next.
It was then that Renée Rhyner convinced him that he could make a go of it as a photographer. She was building a portfolio of new talent and she asked Fredrik if she could represent his work. Fredrik Broden, former travel agent, postal clerk and photographer's assistant, began his life as an independent, commercial photographer. Ten years later, his work is recognized near and far.
This long digression into the life and times of Fredrik Broden has a twofold point: on the one hand, his story might remind other young photographic artists to see that giving in to expectations is only one option; successful careers are earned, not inherited, hard won, not tithed. Second, never underestimate the power of your own life story: sometimes a slog in the rain, a monochromatic life and an eye for the banal is what a man needs to transform the unappreciated into the very lyrics of one's life. It is these things that lend perspective, texture and narrative; that prove white comes in one thousand hues. Finally, and more relevant to this story, Broden's work is a crystalline reflection of his trajectory in this post-modern world. His images describe want in a voraciously-consumptive culture. His metaphors suggest concern in an oft-indifferent world. His commonplace props lend surprise where sameness pervades. Even rain-sodden Borås, Sweden, and asphalt-covered Dallas, Texas, become themselves anonymous props in Broden's imaginative Every World, a place between somewhere and everywhere, where all tropical plants go to bask in the dim warmth of fluorescent lights and gunmetal gray furniture.
While gaining a reputation as a master of black-and-white conceptual photos during his first independent work in the mid-'90s, much of Broden's current photography—now mostly in color—is designed, built and shot in his tightly controlled studio. Here, he employs shadow and light, plus exquisitely wrought sets, to communicate his perspective. Besides large amounts of commercial work such as brochures, annual reports and advertising, Broden also concentrates a great deal of energy on work for magazines and other periodicals. When budgets are slim, he expands them with his own imagination in propping, set design, lighting and framing. While mindful of budget, Broden often designs and builds his shots to his own specifications, using his home as a location, his family, friends and neighbors as subject models.
POINT OF VIEW
Four images come to mind: Office Infidelity (featuring two chairs), Thriving Divorce (his-and-her sinks), Student Over Waste Dump (boy over garbage) and Giant Shoes to Fill (shot in Broden's front yard). These all represent the deceptive simplicity of Broden's work: they are devoid of the superfluous gesture or object, they are all sparse. But they share other attributes typical to Broden: the use of double entendre, the imposition of disquietude upon the serene, an empathetic sense of humor and irony. His images draw blood not from the subject in the image, but rather from the preconceptions and assumptions that put them-and us-in such circumstances in the first place.
What usually begins as a hand-drawn sketch later becomes a powerful image that often offers deeper social commentary than the editorial itself. His images are at once laconic and deep, austere yet complex pools of human emotion and imagination. They can exhibit contradictions and emotions that one only finds in, well, the act of living life itself.
At home, Julie and Fredrik Broden's lives are extensions of their work. While he is the photographer, she is usually on the set. While he conceives the narrative, she often stylizes the shots. In addition to Max, they now boast six-year-old Anton, also a regular subject model in the Broden image library. Even their home, their first home, has been adapted to reflect their growth—a traditional Dallas bungalow in a great in-town location has been enlarged and redesigned to accommodate the change in their lives. Waste is bad. Change is good. Constancy is refuge.
It is certain that Mrs. Doris Whitmire is now glad that she gave her young daughter the money to buy Fredrik Broden a camera at Christmas, 1985. The young man who captured her daughter's heart in 1980 as an exchange student from Sweden remains the one and only love of her daughter's life, the father of two intelligent and engaging grandchildren and the proof that sometimes it is better to trust than worry. ca