PHO704: Gerry Johansson and Storytelling

I have been looking at the practice of several photographers in connection with techniques of storytelling and narration. Some work in black and white exclusively while others do so for at least a part of the time.

The first on my list is Gerry Johansson. Mark Power has described Johansson’s images as ‘non-judgemental, deceptively simple celebrations of the ordinary’ (Power 2013) and it is certainly the case that Johansson’s images are typically rather melancholic, often appear to be empty of detail and are without a doubt carefully considered and composed. As Powell points out, however, closer inspection reveals that all the necessary detail is in the frame but it is just not the kind of detail one (perhaps lazily) expects to find.

Johansson himself appears to repudiate the idea that he Is telling stories at all: ‘“For me it is important not to create a story with the pictures,” says Gerry Johansson. “Normally when you edit you try to sequence the photographs. But for me it is important that each picture is considered as a single, individual image”’ (Warner 2019). However, the same interview then goes on to point out that ‘Johansson’s photography is largely driven by intuition, but when it comes to making a book, logic and order triumph. Almost all of his 31 photobooks are defined by their geography, if not the subject matter, and their equally-sized photographs are generally organised either alphabetically or chronologically, a bid to encourage readers to interpret them individually’ (Warner 2019).

In reality I think that Johansson most definitely has a story, or stories, and this shines through in his many photobooks. What is being talked about by Warner is more a matter of narration. The story in Johansson is often about feelings – of emptiness, wandering, strangeness and deracination. There are usually no people in his images, but the traces of them are everywhere. The images can be bleak and sometimes beautiful but in each case the story points the same way: this is what it feels like to visit the environment these people have created for themselves.

AmericanWinter-1
Fig. 1: Gerry Johansson 2018. From American Winter.

One can see this in, for example, Deutschland (Johansson 2012) and American Winter (Johansson 2018). And if the narration of a story is chronological or even alphabetical, then one can invoke narrative techniques – by time, by psychogeography, or even by taking the postmodernist approach suggested by Barthes in ‘The Death of the Author’ (Barthes 1977):  the viewer or reader constructs their own narrative from the various parts laid out before them street-map style.

The difference between story and narrative is best expressed in what is for me Johansson’s strongest project, Pontiac (Johansson 2011). It is a real town after the famous automobile brand, but it is also a place that embodies the American Rust Belt malaise and the country’s increasing inequality and divisions. All is shown with Johansson’s trademark simplicity and understatement, on the basis of taking the viewer on a walk through the town. Each image is captioned only with a street name.

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Fig. 2: Gerry Johansson 2011. From Pontiac.

Without realizing it, I have been following a similar approach in my own research project. So what can I learn from a master of the technique? First, that no matter how much Johansson eschews formal storytelling, the images are in fact linked by signs and clues. Pontiac is a book of traces. It would be easy to say these traces add up to the pervasive malaise of the Rust Belt, but the impact of the book entirely derives from the fact that they don’t. What they add up to are communities doing the best they can in spite of the Rust Belt.

The second point is well expressed in a review of Pontiac by Joerg Colberg:

‘Unlike many other books about these kinds of town, Pontiac doesn’t seem to focus on one aspect at all. You get to see everything, from the inner city to the old and new suburbs, the churches, parking garages. It’s all there. There is a very clear and smart artistic agenda, but there is no obvious political agenda. The more often you look at the book, the more things you discover. It makes you think, but before it does that it makes you feel something’ (Colberg 2012).

I think Colberg is saying is that Pontiac is as much about an interior journey as an exterior one. This is a book in the poetic mode of documentary (Nichols 2017). If there is no political agenda then the mode of address cannot be expository, and although each image could be assessed as observational, the clues and traces that link the images are clearly poetic in intent.

These may be subtle distinctions but they are very important. They allow for a complex narrative technique, or a double narrative. On the surface, Pontiac is the story of a typical MidWest American town narrated by street name or by psychogeography. Beneath that, however, there is another and poetic narrative quietly arranged by clues and traces within the images. It is telling a different story. Nothing is quite what one thinks it is, until one realizes what is going on, and that careful narrative technique is precisely what ‘makes you feel something’ (Colberg 2012) – a very valuable lesson.

References

BARTHES, Roland. 1977. ‘The Death of the Author’. In Roland BARTHES and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana, 142-148.

COLBERG, Joerg. 2012. ‘Conscientious Review: Pontiac by Gerry Johansson’. Conscientious [online]. Available at: http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2012/01/review_pontiac_by_gerry_johansson/ [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

NICHOLS, Bill. 2017. Introduction to Documentary. 3rd edn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

JOHANSSON, Gerry. 2018. American Winter. London: MACK.

JOHANSSON, Gerry and Greger Ulf NILSON. 2012. Deutschland : [Photographs from 1993 and 2005-2012]. 1st edn. Strandbaden, Sweden, London: Johansson & Jansson AB.

JOHANSSON, Gerry. 2011. ‘Pontiac’. Gerry Johansson [online]. Available at: http://gerryjohansson.com/page2/page37/page37.html [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

POWER, Mark. 2013. ‘In Praise of … Gerry Johansson’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: https://www.markpower.co.uk/blog/In-Praise-of-Gerry-Johansson [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

SCHUHMACHER, Sören. 2013. ‘Gerry Johansson – “Deutschland” (2013)’. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2013/04/exhibition-review-germany-gerry-johansson-deutschland-2013.html [accessed 9 Nov 2020].

WARNER, Marigold. 2019. ‘American Winter by Gerry Johansson’. British Journal of Photography [online]. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2019/01/american-winter-by-gerry-johansson/ [accessed 10 Nov 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Gerry JOHANSSON. 2018. From: Gerry Johansson. 2018. American Winter. London: MACK.

Figure 2. Gerry JOHANSSON. 2011. From: Gerry Johansson. 2011. Pontiac. Available at: http://gerryjohansson.com/page2/page37/page37.html [accessed 10 Nov 2020].