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Book Reviews: Deutschland

Deutschland. Photographs by Gerry Johansson.
MACK, 2012.
Deutschland
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Deutschland
Photographs by Gerry Johansson.
MACK, 2012. Hardbound. 352 pp., 176 duotone illustrations, 6-3/4x9-1/2".


Look at any photograph and the question naturally arises. What does it describe? The world in front of the camera, or the world inside the photographer's head? This tension -- between objective and subjective -- is fundamental to photography. Szarkowski labeled it Mirrors and Windows. Other divisive terms have attached themselves at various times. It's a problem peculiar to photography. There is no mistaking a song or a screen print, for example, for the objective world. But an 8x10 pepper? That's a tougher call. However it is defined, the perceived division has been a meal-ticket for analysts, not to mention the occasional photographer.

Occasionally a body of work is launched in disguise. It depicts the various synapses and chain reactions in a photographer's brain, but under the subterfuge of worldly description. Although Swedish photographer Gerry Johansson has been edging in this direction for a while now, his most recent book Deutschland is the culmination so far.

Deutschland, by Gerry Johansson. Published by MACK, 2012.
Deutschland consists of simple square pictures of post-industrial Germany, one per page, each labeled with a location, then arranged alphabetically by caption in a thick book. No dates. Helvetica typeface. A beige fabric cover that conveys quiet efficiency. Thumbing the pages feels a bit like waiting in a modern European airport listening to Kraftwerk. What could be more orderly? More objective? What could be more German?

Deutschland, by Gerry Johansson. Published by MACK, 2012.

Indeed there is more than a passing resemblance here to the Über-German aesthetic of the Bechers, at least at first glance. The stark grey walls and absence of people form a clean if not sterile landscape, with various towers and peaked roofs framing the background. Virtually every element is in focus and stationary. Roads and paths scatter from the camera always at an oblique angle, offset by a barrage of nonconverging vertical forms. One after another the photos march by until the pattern borders on systematic. One could be lulled into viewing this as an objective typology of Germany, and it's not immediately clear if we should file it under fine art or with the encyclopedias.

This is the disguise. For upon extended viewing Deutschland transforms into an extremely personal work.

Deutschland, by Gerry Johansson. Published by MACK, 2012.

Johansson's vision is central. He is the only one who could've made these photos, because they're basically of him. Gerry Johansson operates like a clockmaker. The world is his visual playground. It's full of various scattered parts, and it's up to him to piece them carefully together into precise working models. A little of this house. Some of that fence. The right poles in just the right place. Weave them all together, compress into monochrome, and you've got a photo as tight as a cat's anus. Layers stack and forms blend in a way that seems inevitable, but only after the fact, post-Johansson.

No, this ain't the Bechers. This is Friedlander territory. This is John Pfahl's Altered Landscapes, but without the alteration. Move the camera one inch in any direction and the photos would flop. That's how subjective they are.

Deutschland, by Gerry Johansson. Published by MACK, 2012.

Johansson has applied a similar style to various locations in his earlier books. America, Sweden, Holland, and Pontiac would seem to share little in common visually. In fact most photographers would be activated by that fact, since the natural instinct in contemporary photography is to emphasize the vernacular. Instead, Johansson imposes on all of them the uniform vision evident in Deutschland. Open any of his books at random and it's hard to tell where we are at first. In the course of looking the place makes itself evident, but the locations tend to blur. In the end we're left with Johansson's singular vision.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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