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Tove in her Studio with the Moomins, 1990s

Features / Photography

Interview with photographer C.G. Hagström about his long-term friendship with Tove Jansson

First published in Printed Pages Autumn 2014

Words by

Liv Siddall

Some people have the natural ability to walk into a room and transform it, and that’s not to do with looks – it’s about a vibe. Tove Jansson isn’t a national treasure in Finland purely for her Moomin creations; she’s been put on a pedestal by the her country because of her spirit, her optimism and her purity. C-G Hagström – who has taken over two thousand photographs of Tove – is now the go-to man when it comes to exhibitions about her life, and has spent the last ten years since her death travelling around the world contributing to sell-out shows with his photographs of the much-loved artist.

Tove was photographed a lot; the press loved her. But the reason C-G’s photographs are so special is down to his unique bond with her; a 40 year friendship that was built on a solid bedrock of conversations, coffee, and trips to far-off islands where Tove religiously spent her summers. We spoke to C-G about his photography, his relationship with Tove and his somewhat turbulent dealings with her long-term partner, Tuulikki . What we learnt from the conversation was the power of optimism, the importance of a consistent and unbreakable friendship, and how making time for love and fun is the only thing you really need to get life just right.

Before we speak about Tove, I wanted to ask you first how you became a photographer?

I was born in Sweden but soon after I came to Finland during the Second World War. I wanted to be a photographer from the age of about 12. I was in Finland until 1960 then I went over to Stockholm and there I stayed for five years studying at a photographers’ school. When I was in school I worked in the post office and so on – just a summer job. The only way to get money was washing dishes in restaurants in the evenings. It was very expensive to go to the school because at that time the film, the papers and having your own camera was quite expensive. Now I’ve been freelancing for 54 years. And it’s a hard job to be a freelancer! Selling your work, selling your ass.

Did you always process your own film?

Yes, but now it is all digi digi digi! You haven’t any fun in making pictures like in the old days. It was such a joy to process the film in the darkroom. I must have spent years in total in the dark room with the red light on. When you see the pictures appearing, now that is a joy, you get such a kick. With the digi digi digi you see the pictures straight away, then you take one more, and another. Sometimes I turn the light off and I think I am back in the dark room. In the darkroom you put the paper in the liquid and then it’s coming up, and it’s coming, and it’s coming… and it’s a miracle when you see the picture. It’s like an art form really.

In the same way that Tove was doing her paintings, I think that the process of being in the darkroom is very satisfying. I used to take so many pictures, especially on black and white film. Then I would make the prints and take them and the contact sheets to Tove to show them to her. She used to choose some that she liked and order some copies and so on. She hated being photographed but she loved to look at the pictures.

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Tove at Helsinki Kunsthalle 1983

Why do you think the photographs are so appealing?

It’s perhaps something to do with how Moomins are so positive and optimistic. And of course Tove was a very humble person too, and in every picture she is positive. The people liked her.

How did you meet her?

It was the 6th of December 1966 and it was our Independence Day. The president had invited about 2,000 guests to the castle for a big ball – people from all different kinds of professions. There I met Tove for the first time and we danced beneath candles.

That sounds fun. What did you think of her when you met her?

Oh, she was very small and so skinny! But we had some fun, we had a dance and that’s it. And then years later I met her in Vienna at an exhibition. I used to call her, or go over to take some pictures or have a discussion. I did quite a lot of moving around in Africa and Europe and we talked about the pictures and what could be done with them and so on. But we usually had a cup of coffee and a small drink and a discussion about our trips and the people we had met. The first picture I took of her was in 1966, and the last picture was many years later in 1994 when she said goodbye to the press and all that. She got fed up with the press.

So you had very good conversations with her?

Yes. But I used to tell Tove that I didn’t want to see her girlfriend Tuulikki because she didn’t like me and I didn’t like her. I saw her once and that was enough!

You two didn’t get on?

Oh no no, we did not get on.

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Tove in her favourite park at Katajanokka, Helsinki, 1990s

But you must have been hanging around Tove a lot? Did you just avoid Tuulikki?

Yes because they had different apartments, and that’s why they were together for so long. You must have your own space – living and working space. If somebody is around you all the time that’s awful.

Why did Tove get so fed up with the press?

It was too much for her. It was too much of the press and the media. She decided that’s it, enough is enough! Soon after she got cancer and died in 2001.

So she didn’t like the press but she obviously liked you; were you very good friends?

Yes! It may be that because I took a lot of pictures of her, but she couldn’t say no. That’s what her problem was. If somebody was calling her she’d say; “Of course! But, but, but, but… Ok then, come on, what time?” She didn’t like to be in front of the camera so it was always a bit of a joke. She had to drink a few cups of coffee and take a bit of whisky beforehand. After that, she was ready!

What was it about her that you loved photographing?

Well, I liked her little face. I liked concentrating on the face and the eyes of Tove. It’s very hard to get the soul, and sometimes you can never get it. If you’re trying too hard to capture the soul you won’t get it in the picture. Of course you can always say “Oh yes! That’s a soul picture.” But you don’t know where the soul is. It’s just somewhere.

Do you think it was her positive, optimistic personality that made her live so long?

Yes, of course. The problem was though that she was also a heavy smoker. She started to smoke when she was 15 or something like that.

I read in an interview that Tove always craved solitude and wanted to be alone and work, is that true?

Yes. Somehow when you’re writing and making cartoons you’re always alone, and it’s a big job to write a book or write about the Moomins. She made the strips for the newspapers for about seven years, and it was a big job to do it everyday. She was painting and making songs and librettos and operas – she was very gifted. But of course if the work comes first then afterwards comes the fun and love. Love and fun.

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Tove and her Moomins at her studio in Helsinki 1991

Love and fun. That’s nice. Can you tell us about the famous island she used to live on?

From her twenties onwards she would spend each summer on a different island. The family didn’t own a cottage, they always just rented. In the end they built a cottage on an island and it was so tiny with no trees around it – just small bushes and rocks, no sand. I called it the brutal island, but Tove called it the lonely island.

So she quite liked being quite far away and lonely?

Yeah, but she was usually with Tuulikki. They went over to the island in April and came back in September. They would just be fishing and fishing and fishing. And Tove was drawing cartoons and writing books and Tuulikki, her girlfriend, she was a graphic designer.

That sounds wonderful.

Yes but the storms! You never knew when the wind was coming or the storms were coming. They couldn’t go to the mainland at all. Being over there on the island for five months at a time, I think it was quite heavy-going. If you had an emergency they couldn’t even contact the coast guard.

She sounds quite tough.

Yes, she was a tiny, small person but very tough. She was tough and very humble.

Is that what you liked about her?

Yes. I liked her independence. She was always living with Tuulikki but she was very independent. Like living with a woman – that was against the law.

Was it always a secret that she lived with a woman?

No, the artists and writers knew everything. She didn’t scream about it or write about that in the press or the media. It came out somehow when she got older and more published when it wasn’t illegal anymore, around 1984.

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Tove in her Studio, 1990s

Was there quite a vibrant artistic community in Finland then?

At the moment I’m going through about 2,000 of my negatives and files and it’s really sad. I had an exhibition called In Memoriam as I had 100,000 pictures that I had taken of actors and authors and different kinds of people. Usually more famous people. It was a memoriam exhibition as they had all died long ago.

How does it feel looking back over your photos?

It depends. Sad, and bad, and then somehow you start to enjoy seeing the pictures: “Ah I remember that, and that, and that…” With a picture you see a new, other way with a person. Landscapes of different people.

How many photos did you say you have?

Two and a half million. Two and a half million and one? I don’t know. I don’t know how much money I have in my pocket either.

What do you think makes a good photograph?

I don’t like sad pictures. There needs to be some spirit in the eyes and something must touch you. Obviously the subject must look into the camera and there must be some spirit there. Usually I start with eye contact, and straight away I say: “But don’t smile!” I don’t like people smiling.

Did you and Tove laugh a lot together?

Yes. She had a very soft voice and a shy laugh. Her laugh would go inwards rather than out. She didn’t laugh like me, she laughed somehow inside her body. She would go: “He! He! He!” 

What are some of your fondest memories of photographing Tove?

The best way was just us two together. She only ever had three things to offer; whisky or vodka or Irish coffee. You never had a smell of fish or something like that in her apartment as she didn’t like gourmet food. At that time I was smoking, she was smoking, we were drinking coffee and whisky and talking together. That was the best bit.

Were you allowed to photograph her while she was working?

She didn’t want me there when she was working. You never saw Tove, you just saw the pen. We didn’t speak about work. Of course I was working when taking pictures but she didn’t work. We’d just speak about other things such as travelling, and tales of our favourite countries and so on.

Do you feel that photography for you is a method of storing memories?

Yes a memory for me is the best place. Going through the pictures and saying, “Ah, now I remember! I have been there.” It’s very good for me. Choosing a picture from many, that’s somehow a problem, but life is full of problems. You’re sad if you haven’t got problems, and you can’t be happy all the time. Happiness is small things.

What kind of things make you happy?

Oh I don’t know. When I’m fishing and I catch a small fish or something like that. Or maybe a phone call from a person can make you happy – from you, for example. You must somehow enjoy the small things and not wait for the big happiness, or a big something… the big love, you know? Life isn’t so easy. Life is hard. To die, that’s easy. It’s quite hard to live. But you must take it the optimistic way and not look at the dark side. 

When Tove was ill was she still optimistic?

Yes, she was very optimistic. She was really sad when she couldn’t work anymore, and when the doctors told her couldn’t smoke anymore. When you went to see Tove she liked the smell of cigars, so you could smoke but she couldn’t smoke. Dying was a long, long process for her, and she was sad. The priest asked her, “Are you afraid of death?” And she said, “No, I’m going to wake up, and maybe it is going to be a surprise and a joy on the other side. Maybe it’s fun over there.”