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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review Spanish Summer Photographs by Gerry Johansson Reviewed by Brian Arnold "...I must confess that I find photographer Gerry Johansson very difficult to write about, but I do think this experience with Terri [Weifenbach] is the right place to start.."

Spanish Summer. By Gerry Johansson.
Spanish Summer
Photographs by Gerry Johansson

MACK, London, UK, 2021. 320 pp., 6¾x9½".

The first time I met photographer Terri Weifenbach was at a woodfired pizza place deep in the woods of Alleghany County, New York. I was teaching at the Alfred Ceramics College at the time, and Terri flew in from Washington DC to work with my students as a visiting artist. Terri had just completed her second book with Nazraeli Press, Hunter Green, and I was so enthralled I had to find a way to meet her. We drank elderberry wine in the luscious hardwood forests of Western New York while Terri convinced me that in the right hands, inside a truly complex and insightful artist, beauty is always a ruse. Beauty, she said, should just be a way to tempt the viewer, and once they enter the picture with you, you can show them that beauty is both band-aid and confessional, and can share something profound about the most complex layers of our being.

I must confess that I find photographer Gerry Johansson very difficult to write about, but I do think this experience with Terri is the right place to start. Johansson’s newest book with MACK, Spanish Summer, all photographed between 1992-2021, is intoxicatingly beautiful. Each page reveals an exquisitely composed photograph, full of rich, poetic, and complex tones and perfectly proportioned and balanced frames. There is a lush proficiency that feels a bit like Michael Kenna. There are hundreds of photographs in this book, 320 pages with no text and often two pictures per spread. As I repeatedly delve into the book, I keep coming back to Terri’s comment, that beauty is a ruse, just a device to tempt the viewer into the photograph. I am still not sure how to understand these photographs, but I think dissecting their beauty can show us more.

Balisa by Gerry Johansson.

The book has a rich linen cover, dyed brick red with a print mounted in an embossed frame, photographed in Castellanos de Villiquera, Salamanca, Western Spain in 2021, depicting a crossroads in a rural landscape (a lovely metaphor). The pages that follow are on a luscious bright white paper that somehow balances the best of both glossy and matte printing (perhaps a varnished matte paper?)1. Each page has one square photo on a classically weighted page — top, left and right margins all the same with a deeper white space beneath the print — and captioned only with the location, printed in a clear, sharp font. There is no essay or accompanying text to guide our understanding of the pictures, and the colophon only provides the most basic information. All that we have to understand the pictures are the pictures themselves.

The exactitude of each photograph is astonishing, rendered with a clarity and precision that I can only compare to the Bechers for the remarkable discipline and proficiency they display (make no mistake, Johannson is more of a romantic than the austere German duo). And like the Bechers, going through this book you will see hundreds of perfectly executed photographs of landscapes and basic architecture, but never a human being. There is a chilling emptiness to Johansson’s photographs, equally proportioned to the level of warmth in his prints. Perhaps this is what Terri meant by the ruse?

Aguilafuente by Gerry Johansson.
Villaflores by Gerry Johansson.

The emptiness expressed in Johansson’s photographs poses some interesting questions. Whether in or Spain or elsewhere, his photographs describe places full of quaint, banal, ephemeral, and timeless lives, and yet always without human bodies. I know most critics like to think of the Bechers as conceptual artists, but I prefer to think of them as German existentialists, showing the most utilitarian of lives in the most rigid of manners. Johansson offers a similar kind of existentialism, depicting both an incredibly precise and loving view of the world, but also a profound longing for something different.

Trying to put too many words on Johansson’s pictures seems like a mistake, and I did begin by saying this is difficult work to write about. It is another in a long list of gorgeous books from the juggernaut MACK Books. I have seen other books by the photographer, and I might prefer Pontiac and Deutschland to the newer Spanish Summer, but when you look at the prices these earlier books are fetching among collectors, it is hard not to recommend you pick it up now. It’s clearly the work of a master photographer, lusciously produced, and accessible to lovers of classical photography and book collectors alike.

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1 If interested in this kind of thing, check out the great interview with MACK Book designer Morgan Crowcroft-Brown with Sasha Wolf.

Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.