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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews



Book Of The Week American Winter Photographs by Gerry Johansson Reviewed by Blake Andrews Since the early eighties, Gerry Johansson has made quiet pictures of quiet places, often lying in the shadows of industrial decline. For American Winter, Johansson travelled through semi-deserted towns in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, finding as much beauty as there was misery in landscapes cloaked in snow
American Winter. By Gerry Johansson.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZH612
American Winter
Photographs by Gerry Johansson

Mack, London, United Kingdom, 2018.
360 pp., black-and-white illustrations, 6¾x9½x1½".

Studying Gerry Johansson's photographs is like watching a Tai Chi master at work. He hardly seems to be doing anything at all. He slowly moves into a pose and holds still. He then moves to another. To the casual observer it looks effortless.

Johansson's photobooks are even less ostentatious. They’re typically understated and packed with small images, one or two per spread. His photos are neither part of a narrative nor components in a project; they don’t really interact at all. They merely form a chain of observations which, taken together, describe the book's titular location. Then he moves on to the next place. But don't let the form of Johansson's books fool you. He remains in total command.

His most recent book, American Winter, follows precedent. But since this is a Mack publication it hews even more tightly to script. The design, size, color, layout, and photographic style are virtually identical to Johansson's previous Mack books: Deutschland and Pontiac, as well as the self-published Sverige, which preceded them. These are all thick volumes bound in plain brown linen with minimal decoration beyond tipped-in cover photos.


The photographs inside are simply titled by location, and then sequenced alphabetically. Even the typeface —Helvetica, of course— is generic. In design terms, American Winter is about as sexy as an old chemistry textbook, an indication that Johansson is mainly concerned with image making.

American Winter's title is a bit of a misnomer, since the book doesn't cover all of America. Instead, the focus is on various high prairie towns in the heartland, spanning roughly from Montana through Kansas. Coastal residents may call this flyover country, but to a photographer like Johansson it's a treasure trove of possibility. "I like the vastness, emptiness and peacefulness. It’s a bit like being alone in an ocean of land."

Photographically, Johansson is a formalist. That is to say, he's less concerned with content than how he might jigsaw items together in a square frame. It doesn't take many puzzle pieces to make him happy— an old silo juxtaposed with utility pole will do just fine. As will a brick wall, or bare trees, or shadows, or a forgotten industrial site, or some other combination of vernacular detritus. The heartland is full of such material. Add a layer of crisp white snow to the mix, translate it all into monochrome, and Johansson's cup runneth over. His exposures display Friedlander’s skilled layering, Callahan’s tonality, and Shore’s Americana. There’s also something else, to quote Mack: a bit of "characteristic Swedish melancholy."


Did I mention how small the photos in American Winter are? They're roughly four by four inches each, "close to the format you would have in an old family album," according to Johansson. Like a small snow globe, you've got to hold the dioramas close, and then poke around a little to see everything. Even at that range it's hard to discern all the bits and ephemera.

I must admit, I didn't like the small size at first. There is so much going on in these photos that to see them larger would be great! But after repeated browsing, the diminutive size has, well, grown on me. If I can't pick out every detail the first time through, maybe that's ok. The book is a slightly new experience each time through. It's 360 pages thick and there are always more photos to see.

I think this must be how Johansson feels out in the field with his camera. Surrounded by potential photos, he can hardly keep up with himself. First here. Then he slowly moves over there. Then back over here, holding another pose. To the casual observer it looks effortless.

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*Some quotes in this post are pulled from Blake Andrew's Recent interview with Gerry Johnsson*

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

 

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