“Where is “the thing I am not seeing”?”
We’ve become quite accustomed to understanding the importance of photographs based on the frenetic pace that they occupy. Our eyes are expectant. They hover over an image looking at the embedded chaos of news images, photographs of cities, etc. and when they are challenged with a quiet solitude, they vibrate as if unsure of how to operate. The still frame, bereft of implied chaos offers doubt-where is the key to unlocking its mystery? Where is “the thing I am not seeing”?
Photographs spark our natural capacity for curiosity and excitement. They offer the mind a natural puzzle in which we search for clues. We read the terrain within and we expect to be challenged or we expect to be informed by something from inside the frame. We spend time investigating, looking for codes, subliminal narratives and an understanding or relation to the historical time in which we live and occupy. The rewards of this procedure are often great. There is a satisfaction to reading a photograph and unlocking its potential towards a meaning or symbolic representation. Our ability to dissect and look for the aforementioned clues within a photograph confirm our perceptive abilities and when they are muted, we are cautious as to why we cannot unlock their value quickly. This doubt puts a dividing wedge between our cognitive acquisition and the speed of its recognition.
“This doubt puts a dividing wedge between our cognitive acquisition and the speed of its recognition”
This disconnect we assume in photographs of simple and uncomplicated imagery ask us to slow our acquisition of their potential. There is no instant gratification and a number of these types of images ask that we grant ourselves the time and space to contemplate their nature. There is no rush. Instead, we are given left to ruminate about the foundations of photography-light, matter and time. We are encouraged by their simplicity to think about how photographs are made. We are asked what rhythm and line are and how light percolates, shimmers and delicately balances the subject matter within. This is in effect, the joy of photography-the discourse of which is to suggest a method of looking that surrenders itself to process and not content first.
Gerry Johansson is the master of this slow-cook method of photography. Though I have written about slow photography previously, I do not consider Johansson a slow photographer. In fact, he is one of the more intrepid image-makers whose work is deceptive in that sense. He publishes often and widely and has a marked vision of how he makes images. They are delicate, small and tightly compacted studies of formal arrangements of place.
You can welcome Johansson almost anywhere in the world and he will return with a book of Johansson photography dutifully arranged and presented in liliputian beauty. Regarding the size of his images-most will be seen in the book form. He has made a conscious decision over the years to keep the images within his book small and delicate. I am reminded of Kertesz’s considerations of the poetic or perhaps Joseph Sudek.
Johansson’s images exhibit a sensibility not unlike those powerful peotic masters of the medium. The move to keep the image printed small is an invitation to read, to enjoy and to see anew. There is nothing bombastic and the pomp os Johansson’s interludes rely on the essence of life-light and the nearly tangible effects of atmospheric condition. Here, you can touch a shadow or two, raise branch as a bulwark against wind looking for cheeks to caress.
Meloni Meloni is the continuation of Johansson’s brilliant series of books. We have dropped the author off in Northern Italy somewhere near Ravenna-Guido Guidi country or close to it. This is Italy’s agrarian canvas and it pulls a number of artists to the bosom of its quiet solitude, meandering historic roads and viable viaduct underpasses. The canvas here is etched with a sense of chiaroscuro. It is not blasted by the heat and contrast-ridden light of the southern climes of the country. Here, there is a friendly solitude implied. Citizens have space. They work the land and yet occupy a close and playful proximity to the Adriatic Sea. This is the Italian heartland as it were and in Johansson’s view finder, it resonates a beauty perfectly suited to the small frame that he encourages.
“This is Italy’s agrarian canvas and it pulls a number of artists to the bosom of its quiet solitude, meandering historic roads and viable viaduct underpasses. The canvas here is etched with a sense of chiaroscuro”
Meloni Meloni is not a departure, nor would I expect it to be. It is classic Johansson concentrating his eye over form and making compositional gestures that radiate the purity of photographic looking. There are hints of thinking beyond the single image that Johansson excels at.
In a few spreads there is a concentration on the banalities of corners, walls etc. The focus is about the lengthening and shortening of shadows and moments. This is tactic that artists use to consider and ponder time within their process. Notably, Guidi uses this technique to secure an infinite gesture between two frames of very similar attitudes. He asks us to think about the passing moment and the potential for light to scan the room or environment of which he is focused. Johansson also employs this diptych maneouver in the book, which does speak about doubling, the unconscious and the measure of time and light-the fundaments of the medium. This slight turn in Johansson’s employ somehow speaks about the land and light where he is making images.
Johansson further concentrates on what he is known for-quaint and sensible images of formal beauty composed with the rigour that the square frame demands. There are agricultural elements within the work that continue his agrarian investigations that have informed his books about Sweden and Germany. This emphasis that Johansson places on the land is born from a reckoning with the modernism of the early 20th century and the European photobook of the 40’s 50’s and 60’s. It borders on nostalgia, but pulls back at its limits to think about the dichotomy proffered between the eye of modernity and the pastoral discourse of working the land; all shaped by Johansson’s unerring eye on composition.
As with all of Johansson’s books, I cannot recommend Meloni Meloni enough. There is enough nuance in the exercise to differentiate it from his other titles and the small hints at shadow and doubling of frame from a slightly skewed perspective make the work smart, progressive and nurturing to a slow investigator.