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: an isolated church floating in a mottled sea of white; leafless trees lining endless highways leading to nothing; long shadows cast on vernacular architecture in the season’s merciless sun. In his photographs time appears to stand still: neighbourhoods that once possessed the allure of Art Deco architecture, or the glory of bustling Main Streets, are now home to abandoned school buildings and cars parked decades ago. Johansson’s ascetic framing and sensitivity to light lends itself to the scenery and the sense of hopelessness evoked by these neglected places.
From November's Guest Curator
By now, admirers of Gerry Johansson (and if you're not one of the faithful already, here's your chance) have become familiar with the basic M.O. of the majority of his books, among them Amerika, Sverige, Deutschland, Pontiac, and now, American Winter. All of these are clad in neutral grey or tan cloth with a tipped-in photograph on the cover, and agreeably sized like a novel, so that the Johansson section of one’s library is both inviting and handsomely uniform.
Also uniform are the interiors of the books, in which all of the pictures are 3.5” squares placed in the same position on the page. Each is accompanied by a simple place-name caption, and the photographs are presented alphabetically based on that caption. For variety, single- and double-page spreads are mixed throughout, perhaps somewhat favoring the latter.
All of this is to say that design, sequence, narrative, the meaning imparted by metaphoric titles – most of the things considered crucial in the photobook – are pretty much removed from the equation in Johansson. And what are we left with? Pictures. Each one providing its own proof.
For Johansson’s photographs, like the books that contain them, are on the whole liberated from external references. To be sure, the title of this book does for the first time go beyond geography to offer season, and there are on occasion holiday decorations, churches of a Protestant simplicity, and an American flag motif or two in the scenes. But Johansson’s gift is to divest such subject matter of symbolic weight and return these things to the world of plain objects, where they become building blocks for compositions that at once both entirely rigorous (Is there a more difficult format than the square? And, relatedly, one more rewarding?) and seemingly effortless.
In other words, these pictures evoke the experience of thoughtful seeing, rather than describing. This effect is only enhanced by the book’s absence of narrative – a “story” being something that can only be overlaid in retrospect, after events have played out – which places one firmly in the here and now of direct contact with the world. Without resolved meanings to guide/restrict us, we are left alone, just to see. In American Winter, Gerry Johansson (and we, his fortunate readers) beholds nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.
- Tim Carpenter