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Tilling the Past

February 10 - June 18

Between the years 1908 and the mid 1930’s armed with her 4×5 glass plate view camera, Hilma Ljung photographed the lives and land that surrounded her and her family in the small village of Svalöv. In an era where photography was largely presided over by men, Ljung shows us a mostly unseen perspective of rural Swedish life from the female’s point of view. Let us walk out of the darkroom and into the light to view Ljung’s pioneering photographs.

The land around Svalöv, located in the southernmost region of Sweden, is home to some of the country’s best soil and climate for farming; so much so that the Coat of Arms for the region is a farmer sowing seed. Wheat, rye, barley, potatoes, oat and flax were all grown for market, with a vegetable garden, and chickens, for household use. A renowned dairy was eventually established on the property. Whey, a by-product to the butter and milk production, became feed for pig breeding, an activity which won Hilma’s family considerable acclaim; the King himself once descending upon Svalöv to admire the breeding “sires and sow’s.”

Ljung’s photographs parallel famed Swedish painter Carl Larsson in that her love and passion for her family and home, flow through her images with the same authentic pulse. Like Larsson who painted images of everyday activities, Ljung also chronicled everyday life with a deep and genuine passion. She reveals her family’s favorite location to pick berries. She takes us to a lake where one of her sons is fishing. Her image of a beautiful sunny winter day creates a yearning for a fireplace and tea.

Prior to 1903 when the invention of what we know today as film (gelatin silver negative), photographic emulsion was made on glass plates. There were two formats. The wet plate collodion, discovered in 1851 by British inventor Frederick Scott Archer, and the gelatin dry plate negative discovered in 1871 by Richard Leach Maddox. Both of these glass plate formats have a light sensitive emulsion that is attached to the glass plate with a binder. One of the main reasons glass plate negatives mostly disappeared from the consumer market was because of the introduction of the much more user friendly, less fragile gelatin silver negative on celluloid roll film. Hilma photographed with gelatin dry plate glass negatives.

There is a beautiful and authentic simplicity attached to this story. A loving mother, a devoted wife, chronicling the life that surrounded her. People are drawn to the past. Ljung’s images are windows revealing a life that was, tilling the past of people’s lives.

Like summiting a mountain, Hilma has given us a new vantage point. One that helps us viewers see the history of photography through an exciting and unfamiliar lens. Thank you, Hilma, for sharing with us your perspective of the world you lived in.


February 10
June 18
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Swedish American Museum
5211 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60640 United States
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