Icons by Gedda

Words by Veronica Mike Solheim
Photography by Hans Gedda


There are few photographers who can add names like Nelson Mandela and Andy Warhol to their portfolio. Hans Gedda didn’t only shoot the two, the pictures became iconic—for Mandela, Warhol, Gedda and the world in general. For more than half a century, Hans Gedda has been one of Sweden’s leading photographers. He is known for his intimate portraits of some of the greatest icons of our time. His portraits are intriguing, intense, as if his lens travels beyond a person’s look and skin, only to reveal their naked souls. What’s really interesting is his consistency, how he’s stayed true to his artistic expression since the 60s, even without the slightest interest in photography.

How was your first encounter with the world of photography?
My father gave me a camera for Christmas when I was twelve. I quickly learned that it suited me well, as I’m a pretty impatient and quick person. But it was when I got my first award, and a few journalists wrote about me, that I got into the industry. I was twelve or thirteen years old, advanced for my age. Picasso once said «Every child is born an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up.»

Your photographs and style are recognized all over the world. When and how did you discover this signature? 
The first exposure I ever took of my parents has the exact same expression as the ones I do today. I placed them right in front of the camera. I’ve never really thought about how I do things, as I work on intuition. Other photographers have never really been of my interest, I only have art books in my library. An autodidact, I’ve always been doing what I want, never letting anyone tell me what to do. 

Tomas Tranströmer

Tomas Tranströmer

You’ve been true to this signature for decades. No matter if it’s a portrait or a still life, Hans Gedda is very present in everything you do. Have you ever wanted to try something completely different?
It’s a secret, but I actually draw, paint and make sculptures for my own pleasure. I’ve never exposed this side of me, though. 

Please describe your love for the black and white portrait. 
Well, photography doesn’t really interest me. But perhaps it has got something to do with a picture I saw when I was twelve. It was a picture of a frozen leaf by Hans Hammarskiöld. I thought it was really nice and beautiful. I started looking at nature differently from the moment I saw that picture.

You often go very close when taking the portrait. What do you think is the most important thing to take into consideration when shooting a portrait? 
Many journalists ask me how I manage to capture someone’s inner self. I usually answer with Giacometti’s quote: «Someone’s inner self? I’m busy with the person’s looks.» When you meet someone, you’re met with their charisma, which can be both good and bad. I feel the vibes and use them actively to figure out how to meet the person—with sympathy or by doing a killer portrait.

You’ve portrayed famous people around the world, Nelson Mandela and Andy Warhol amongst others. What’s the most memorable shoot you’ve ever had?
Nelson Mandela. It was actually the first portrait of him after his time in jail. Those pictures became iconic for both Mandela himself and the world in general. Three ANC security men came in and said that Mandela was too afraid, that he didn’t want his picture taken. My assistant, who by chance was the Foreign Minister of Sweden at the time, Sten Andersson, pointed to me and said «but that’s [former Swedish prime minister] Olof Palme’s photographer». The security guy went straight back and Mandela was in the room after 20 seconds, and we could start the shoot. 

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

The world of photography has changed a lot since you first began taking pictures in the 60s. What do you think about this digitalisation? 
With mixed feelings. For a photographer working in advertising, it’s great to be able to immediately see the result. For the portrait photographer, however, it can be a massive obstacle in creating a good portrait if the model wants to see the result right away. Richard Avedon used to say that his models were never allowed to see the result during the shoot. I can relate. I also really miss the dark room. To be able to enter the red light with a cigar in my hand, doing pictures. It’s magical. The digital process of today is a job more suited to an engineer.

What’s your favourite picture from your portfolio?
I don’t have a favourite, I can’t separate them. All are brilliant—ha ha! 

From the top: Andy Warhol, Astrid Lingren, Charlie Rivel, Cornelius Wresvik, Man with his dog, Self portrait with dog, Tove Jansson. 


First published in Volume Eleven