Everlasting Moments: Maria Larsson and the Art of Seeing
I love film, and we have a pretty wide-ranging collection on DVD. Many languages and themes are covered, not least, films which feature photography and photographers in some way. From Antonioni’s Blow up to Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, from Campanella’s The Secret in their Eyes to Poliakoff’s wonderful Shooting the Past – so many films and TV series have photos and photography as a key plot device, if not a central theme. I’ll be honest – I’m attracted to them.
The latest in the collection is Everlasting Moments (Swedish: Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick) a masterwork from Director Jan Troell in 2008. We watched it with tremendous enjoyment during our Covid week. Having looked before at a very influential photographer in Frederick Evans, this film got me thinking about a relative unknown. Maria Larsson was never an influential photographer, but her camera became her life all the same.
The film tells the story of Maria Larsson, a Swedish housewife and mother during the early years of last century. Her husband, Sigfrid, is a communist-leaning docker who drinks hard and is both unfaithful and violent at home. In this respect Everlasting Moments is not a happy nor easy watch. Life is never easy for the Larsson family.
But early on in their relationship, Maria and Sigg win a Contessa plate camera in a lottery. At one point, desperate for money, Maria takes it to Pedersen, a local photographer, with a view to selling it. He doesn’t let her, instead saying it is “pawned” and giving her the wherewithal to develop and print her photos. From that moment, a new interest comes into her life.
The story is told in the voice of narrator Maja, Maria and Sigfrid’s daughter. This is true to the reality: Maja was a cousin once removed of the Director’s wife, and as an elderly woman she recounted these stories. The result is an episodic film, without a tight central narrative, but with the character of real memory. Swirling currents of political change, of the First World War, of huge shifts in Swedish life – these things are seen but through the eyes of a child, as merely the backdrop to the much more urgent matters of dad’s drunkenness and mum making ends meet.
The camera that Maria wins is a thing of beauty in itself. Contessa cameras were eventually absorbed into the Zeiss organisation, but at this stage represented the climax of the plate technology that preceded roll film. It is hard to get your head round the limitation of a single shot process when you are used to shooting several thousand in a day. But that singularity – and the sheer cost of the process – made the choice of the shot and attention to exposure details – so critical. Maria took that lovely camera, worked out how to use it, and found that she had an eye.
Four images by Maria Larsson
For me, the key moment in the whole film is where Maria is first asked to take a photo by a friend. Ingeborg, the woman’s daughter, has drowned. The death of a playmate is a huge event for Maja and the other Larsson children, and it is hardly surprising that the moment is remembered vividly.
Taking photographs of the dead is a rare undertaking these days, although in my wider family there are just such images, taken this century, which are extremely precious. In the 19th and early 20th centuries this was common – and I guess for many poorer people the ONLY image that might exist of a child would have been taken post-mortem. Against that backdrop, Maria was asked to photograph the body of poor Ingeborg.
The thing is, Maria takes two photos of Ingeborg. She takes the picture that her neighbour asks – but first, she takes one for herself. That picture shows not only the dead girl, but the other children looking in at the window. The image of death juxtaposed with life and curiosity is very, very striking.
With those two shots, Maria is recognisable as a real photographer. Commercially she will take the picture she is asked to take, and it is going to help her make ends meet. But it is the picture that she wanted to take that holds the imagination. Pedersen, her photography shop friend, sees her ‘eye’ in that one image and gives her all the support he can.
I suspect that from this point forward, whenever I am commissioned to take family, corporate or wedding photographs and grab a few quick shots “for myself” during the course of my work, I will think of them as “Larsson photos.” Because when you are working for money, you don’t turn your eye off.
Postcard by Maria Larsson from Sandviken: Railway Station and Hotel, 1910s.
Everlasting Moments is a lovely film. Maria Larsson is not a household name; she never became one of the greats of landscape or street or portrait photography. She was an ordinary woman with a camera who had something of an eye and for whom photography became more than a hobby. This film tells her story with honour and affection. I recommend it.