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Book Review: Boy Stories

Boy Stories. Photographs by Johan Willner.
Published by Hatje Cantz, 2012.
Boy Stories
Reviewed by John Mathews

Boy Stories
Photographs by Johan Willner.
Hatje Cantz, 2012. Hardbound. 80 pp., 35 color illustrations, 11-3/4x9-3/4".

Boy Stories combines documentary and staged photography in order to explore a series of Johan Willner's deep-rooted childhood memories. In his introduction Willner poetically reminisces about growing up in Sweden and talks about how his father’s mental breakdown affected him as a youth. Willner creates a child like point of view by showing us the minute details of his everyday life. He then intersperses this imagery with more dramatic and uncanny incidents from his childhood.

A striking image that opens the book shows a suited businessman in a dark forest, trying to retrieve some lost papers from a pool of water. Like the story of narcissus the man seems to be drawn in and enraptured by his own reflection. The symbolic meaning of the image is emphasised by its protracted title, which reads Midway life's journey I was made aware That I had strayed into a dark forest, And the right path appeared not anywhere. Like many images within the book it possesses an incongruous mix of dreaminess and hyperrealism.

Boy Stories, by Johan Willner. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2012.

Other photographs such as The Battle of Innocence look at the cold and harsh reality of human nature. The scene depicts a group of young boys who have just shot a swan with their bows and arrows. What may have started out as a childhood game has morphed into a callous act of brutality. The boy’s stand self assuredly over their prey with strange look of pride and fear. Like some Greek fable they have each lost their innocence by realising their ability to kill.

Boy Stories, by Johan Willner. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2012.
Boy Stories, by Johan Willner. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2012.

In another image entitled Standstill a woman stares from a train window, as if she is caught in a hypnotic trance. This is followed by another image called Forward which features a boy walking from a burning building. Willner strongly identifies with this figure and uses him to express his childhood hopes, fears and anxieties. The photographs, when paired together, are suggestive of mental inertia and resurrection. As he states in his introduction "I saw a boy leave his home. The house is burning down behind him, and everything is lost in flames. It gives him strength; he bears no guilt. In the fire he finds a way to move forward to another life in another context. Leaving is sometimes a far greater feat than staying." Like a type of dreamscape, one is never quite sure if Willner is creating a chronological narrative to the book or if he is jumping about between different points in time. His delicate use of light, awareness of urban space and underlying sense of melancholy is similar to Edward Hopper's cityscape paintings.

Boy Stories, by Johan Willner. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2012.

Willner uses photography to investigate suppressed memories much in the same way as a psychoanalyst might use dreams to explore mental states. The images represent a way for Willner to cathartically reengage with his childhood self and for him to come to terms with traumatic events, such as his father's illness. Boy Stories examines the elusive nature of childhood memory and how it can often be a strange mix of dream, reality, nostalgia and half remembered truths.—JOHN MATHEWS

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JOHN MATHEWS is an artist, archivist and curator based between Nova Scotia, Canada and Northern Ireland.