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photo-eye Book Reviews: Pontiac

Pontiac, By Gerry Johansson.
Published by Mack, 2011.
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins
Gerry Johansson Pontiac
Photographs by Gerry Johansson
Mack, 2011. Hardbound. 160 pp., 102 duotone illustrations, 7x9-3/4".

I must leave it to a different expert to say whether the car on the cover of Pontiac, with its solid body and custom wheels, is the namesake of this Michigan town and its now-defunct auto brand. Regardless, it's a funny sort of portrait, proud but behind the times, an uneasy emblem of a beleaguered industry town on the decline. Gerry Johansson has produced six books of photography that focus on specific geographic places from his native Sweden to America. And this spare beige volume from MACK, with its hyper-legible font and immaculately printed photographs certainly starts off like some sort of primer. Its didactic first note is underscored by the photographs' only companion text: a list of demographic facts and figures for Pontiac from the state's housing and development authority. Some are relatively neutral in tone, while others spell out a ten-year, relentless rise in unemployment and poverty. And surely the book contains images of chewed-up parking lots and overgrown yards seemingly inhabited by no one. Yet the collective impact of these photographs defies a narrow meaning or foregone conclusions.

Pontiac, by Gerry Johansson. Published by Mack, 2011.
Pontiac has a lot to do with the idea of architecture as the defining vernacular of a city or town. All the basic forms are here: house, church, school, office building and shopping mall. Johansson's photographs collect the idiosyncrasies and hallmarks of this place – from small cottages with vinyl siding to windowless churches marked by hand painted signs. Johansson also situates each scene precisely in time and space. Over one hundred photographs dated to April 2010 are labeled as to the particular street name or intersection where they were shot and include some sites photographed repeatedly from multiple points of view. There is a compelling push-pull between the specifics of this place and a generalized portrait of a worn-down, small American town. This reminds me of the documentary film, "Los Angeles Plays Itself" which describes how the L.A. cityscape has stood in for all manner of other places in movies filmed there. The specificity of its landmark buildings and vistas are no obstacle for an audience largely from somewhere else and primed to see a story first, projecting its fiction back onto the chosen setting.

Pontiac, by Gerry Johansson. Published by Mack, 2011.
Pontiac, by Gerry Johansson. Published by Mack, 2011.
The narrative potential of Johansson's photographs of Pontiac is slow to emerge and somewhat filmic in its nature. The book's reproductions are small for a monograph, and call for a measured pace in their size and quiet content. Pontiac sometimes feels like a film that lingers on a static image, a disconcerting stance full of the anticipation of movement or action. The trees that appear throughout are major characters, as anthropomorphized sentries and intruders as well as more passive markers of regimented order or gradual neglect. The banal meets the slightly strange where bare flag polls on an abandoned shopping mall roof look like armaments that failed to ward off its closing, but now fortify a cavernous bunker for the few who remain. A playground rocket toy and parking lot lights and wooden crosses feel like beacons or antennae to somewhere else. Pontiac is a worth a careful look, for what it says about stasis and summary and the potential of such places to reveal something new to come.—KAREN JENKINS

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2011 by:
Antone Dolezal
Darius Himes

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.