“it is strange for me to consider his efforts as Swedish and yet there is something to the examination of what can only be referred to as the National Camera, implicit in that sentiment are all of the complications of generalizations and archetypes. I am not trying to espouse something concrete, but rather to engage a little bit in what it means to have this national schema placed on aesthetics”
Generally-speaking, when reviewing annual titles for the year, it is a rare venture to find myself reviewing no less than three titles in one go of four published during the same year by one prolific artist. Most artists, though severely talented are perhaps less prodigious in their output. I would suggest that this comes to arrangements of their working method and their ability to have the time and economy necessary to produce. After all, the job of the artist is not only to produce books or new work, but to exhibit and publish the material. Most successful book enthusiasts in this instance rely on self-publishing as a means by which their in-house ability reflects their need for an outlet. Such is the case with Gerry Johansson whose prolific 2020 output has denied this year’s incorrigible plague-ridden nature. It is almost an affront to the annus horribilis that Johansson has published no less than four books and I worry that if I don’t get this review up in the next week, another volume may be heading my way, which would obviously be most welcomed.
I have already covered Johansson’s Meloni Meloni this year in a different post, so I think it is fair to forgo that title for the moment to catch up on the other three that I have received with sincere gratitude from Gerry. There are a few masters of the medium who I have an open-door policy for in terms of reviewing all of their titles when I receive them. Gerry is one of them. I gravely respect Gerry and his consistent vision and formal attitude and approach to making pictures. One thing I should point out about Gerry’s work in general terms that I very much revere is that, for the most part he has chosen to consider the consistency of the book’s form when he publishes. Many of his titles are recognizable by their consistent size, spine and cloth-bound cover that line up precisely on the shelf and to which you can recogonize their harmony from across the room. He does have titles that do not fit this schema, but for the most part, the majority are now suited to this format or are approximate to it.
This format is best emphasized with slight nuance on one of Gerry’s current books that I am attempting to review. It is a title that in some ways reflects one of his more elusive and exalted titles and one that does not feature in my collection. In 2016, Only-Photography published Johansson’s Tokyo, a title that sold out quite quickly and is now somewhat prohibitive economically for my collecting ability. In complete truth, I haven’t even held a copy of that title since it came out, but I have been over it several times on Josef Chladek’s site and I have been waiting to see more of Gerry’s Asian material based on my missing out on Tokyo. It’s always a strange pursuit to try and define photography by the genesis of its author. With Johansson, it is strange for me to consider his efforts as Swedish and yet there is something to the examination of what can only be referred to as the National Camera, implicit in that sentiment are all of the complications of generalizations and archetypes. I am not trying to espouse something concrete, but rather to engage a little bit in what it means to have this national schema placed on aesthetics. If I were to say American photography for example, we might not agree about what it means, but we will certainly have an idea of what I mean by enlisting this notion of National Camera. This is perhaps best described a nation’s most exalted years within the genre-namely the color work of the 1970s. We could also discuss Japan in the 1970/80s. Grain. Boiled film like heavy lead, lipstick, ravens and fish netting, both utilitarian and fashion-oriented. Get a dog in there and some billboards. Bang.
In America, 1970s were clearly a groundbreaking and defining moment as were the 30’s in terms of national production. In Germany, we would perhaps suggest the 90’s with the Becher School. In England, we might suggest the documentary tradition of the 70s and 80s and so on. This of course does not take into consideration a large reflection of what a nation’s photography is, but rather that the aesthetic is possibly defined by its heightened international visibility or style from which numerous operators within the country share a particular vision. In Sweden, this is of course complicated by differing visions by JH Engström, Anders Petersen and also Lars Tunbjörk to name a few.
With Johansson, It is also not an easy pursuit as he is Swedish, but makes work around the world with an emphasis on Europe-Germany and Sweden, Italy etc. But he also has important work that he made in both America and Antarctica. Many of these images, generally square in format or formalist pursuits in which the pastoral and the compositional elements align is reminiscent of the history of European photography from the 30s and 40s in particular. What makes Johansson’s work Swedish is the emphasis on land with an almost Folkish touch to interest points within the landscape. You can see this is Melon Meloni where he investigates garages and the back of homes and their anthropological potential. You can see it in Deutschland where he photographs the sides of homes as illustrated on the cover of that book and you can see it in his new book Lalendorf und Klaber; a title that fits his smaller zine-like publications which also feature the shelf synchronicity previously mentioned.
Lalendorf Und Klaber is a study of village life in Germany that Johansson has repeatedly returned to. There is an emphasis on the returnal in the work-coming back, monitoring change after gathering experience and noticing an existential quandry in recognizing that bricks do not age. Lalendorf itself is a small village in the larger Klaber municipality and the images within are soft, quiet and inhabit the feeling of solitude the pervades Johansson’s other books, but with this title, we find something of a burgeoning necessity within Johansson’s work to index his visits to these small and often overlooked geographies. He returns often and there is some amount of the previously-mentioned existential questioning as to why.
The street and housing remain empty. It is a place surrounded by a nothingness; a psychological nothingness in which action or event always seems to be the emphasis of the periphery. Playgrounds remain empty. Buildings remain derelict and somehow, all projection aside, the ghosts of history also inhabit this place and yet there are signs of life to be read on the outsides of the buildings themselves-a stray basketball hoop is mounted to the side of a village home. House plants enjoy being put in the window to bask in the setting sun and the laundry comes and goes pinned by an unseen and guiding hand or two. The work reminds me to read the scene forensically-to date its bones over the course of time and to interrogate the fly’s larvae and not the fly itself. There are clues, wistful reminders of village folk littered across the land without the farmer to operate his machinery creating a dream-like, trance-like state of affairs.
“The work reminds me to read the scene forensically-to date its bones over the course of time and to interrogate the fly’s larvae and not the fly itself. There are clues, wistful reminders of village folk littered across the land without the farmer to operate his machinery creating a dream-like, trance-like state of affairs”
At Home In Sweden, Germany and America was published in conjunction with an exhibition with Project Omne. It is not necessarily new work or images that you have not seen and unlike many of Gerry’s books, it is not specific to one place, nor is it to be considered much more than a compendium, but it is an important overview of his work from these seminal countries that Gerry has photographed compulsively over the last decades. I consider this a good entry point for people who are starting with Gerry as although it is a exhibition publication, it does sum up his ability and interests quite well. It also comes with some odds and ends that are quite sweet. This isn’t as much of a review of that title as it is an acknowledgement. The other titles within offer more minute experiences within the Johansson catalogue, but all of his books offer new reads and are worth noting even if pulled from his vast archive and varying bodies of work.
Finally, I want to speak about why Ehime is an important title within Gerry’s catalogue. I spoke above about the idea of a national camera and what it means when that aesthetic or practice goes on the road to other countries and vistas. With Ehime, we are able to return to looking at Gerry’s Japanese work. The last publication Tokyo as mentioned, is not easy to get and it has always been an interest of mine to see how his aesthetics might be imposed on an Asian country as I think of his aesthetics as if not Swedish, certainly European (European Camera). Seeing a vastly different landscape in front of Gerry’s camera, to my mind might have distorted my desire or compunction to think about this idea of the national camera and yet, the work is still, despite the vastly different landscape, is completely Gerry Johansson’s. Sure, some of the signage is different, the landscape is dotted with geographically-specific foliage and trees, but Gerry’s framing, even with a large-format camera still mirrors his European system of formal interests.
There are some slight differences to the work which allows us to think about the proposition of why such a book is necessary. Firstly, we have to acknowledge that though Johansson shoots in different formats, he has been more known for the use of the square images over the past years. There are considerations for each form of both the square and the large format rectangle that are applicable to landscape practice, but it is the rectangle that seems best suited to Gerry’s efforts in Japan. With the use of the large format 8×10 camera, he is able to pull back and reduce the compression generally found in his other work. He takes particular interest in the shoreline of the sea and its ports photographed from a distance, which along with the rice field images allows for his framing to open up and de-compress the image. As a fan of compression, I can understand this use and accept it as widely successful.
On that note of compression, it would be good to also point out that the images in the book return the viewer to Gerry’s known cropping and framing in a number of ways that support his future work (this body of work was made mostly in the 1999). Here, when not photographing the wider more open spaces of the Japanese landscape, Johansson considers the compression of his frames through the formal compositional use of fencing and the ever-present communication wires that sag and lean into his frames from above. These images are made in more municipal areas and are studies of form that one can also see in Meloni Meloni. The act of compression here is Johansson’s own. Though it may be difficult to escape some of these wires, Gerry employs their use to balance his frames thus impacting the condensed form of the frame from above and below simultaneously. Further to this, there is also an emphasis on found wall painting and tightly cropped garden imagery shot at close up and this also adds to the detail-oriented compression at the end of the book. The images are akin to photographic notes of place, less than overly complicated studies of composition. They are about surface and rhythm over the essence of Japan.
“Johansson considers the compression of his frames through the formal compositional use of fencing and the ever-present communication wires that sage and lean into his frames from above”
All in, given the scarcity of Johansson’s Tokyo and the general lack of Asia that appears in his oeuvre, Ehime is extremely necessary for the Johansson fan. It opens up his work to wider consideration through the vistas that he has photographs with his large format camera and continues my interest in parsing out the idea of whether or not a national camera is a thing or not. It remains unresolved, but I do find Johansson’s consistency potentially illuminating of my claim. I would also suggest that though Ehime as a book breaks with the normal size and card or cloth paper cover that feature on many, if not most of Gerry’s books, it still pays homage to his normal choice of material. It is slightly larger, but what has been broken in uniform scale is quickly made up for by the publisher’s brilliant choice of cover material. It is an elegant book, exquisitely produced and one of the finest Johansson titles of his non-European work. I fully endorse its purchase and am happy to have finally managed to look deeper into Gerry’s work abroad through its publishing. Highly Recommended.