Gerry Johansson — The Beginnings

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Swedish photographer Gerry Johansson is widely known for his mastery of the square format. His square pictures typically cover some geographic region, ranging from countries to towns. They each are perfectly composed, combining extreme formal accuracy with incredible photographic wit. Many of the books with these photographs are simply organized alphabetically, with locale A coming before locale B etc.

But how did Johansson arrive there? Where is all of this coming from? For those curious, the answer is now provided in Coast to Coast, a publication that features photographs taken in the 1980s with a biographical text by the photographer himself. It would seem that the book came with a set of ten prints. However, a quick internet search tells me that it can also be bought separately from a number of booksellers (here’s an example).

I suspect that those interested in the history of American photography will have a field day with the narration in the book. Johansson discusses a number of visits to the US, starting with one in the early 1960s. During the following ones, he got in touch with and met a number of well-known photographers, including Garry Winogrand, Henry Wessel jr., Richard Benson, and others. Coast to Coast has receipts in the form of photographs taken at these encounters.

For me, the more interesting aspect was to read about the photographic work, even as I appreciated learning about the education (if you want to call it that) Johansson received. In 1983, the photographer set out on a cross-country road trip. Staying at motels, he would photograph during the day — with an 8×10 camera — and develop and print the results at night. “It was a simple process,” he writes, “I put the negative on the contact printing paper, placed a glass plate on top and turned on the room light for a good few seconds, developed and reviewed the print.”

If anything, it’s the sheer discipline that delivered the results — and that is, of course, the one lesson for photographers (or writers or anyone else): “Talent,” to quote the late, great James Baldwin, “is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

Motel Prints is possibly too modest a title for the photographs in Coast to Coast. Whether or not these pictures are reproductions of the original motel prints isn’t clear to me. Based on the text — “The prints were by no means great, but good enough to view.” — I’m thinking they are not. In any case, the analogue silver-gelatin prints have been translated into pictures produced with ink on paper. And I really don’t want to geek out on print quality here, because that would take away from the essence of these photographs.

In obvious ways, the pictures show someone from outside the US finding visual attractions to take photographs of. By 1983, Johansson clearly had done a lot of looking at other people’s photographs to produce the occasional homage, whether to Walker Evans or anyone else. Those pictures are good.

But it’s the other pictures that are a lot more interesting, the photographs that speak of Johansson’s own unique mind. In essence, they are versions of the square photographs he is so well known for, with the frame extended by the 8×10 aspect ratio. As can be expected, every single picture is perfectly composed. A view camera will make you do that if you pay enough attention; and I wager that Johansson’s training as a graphic designer contributed its part.

I have attempted to describe what makes Gerry Johansson’s photography so exciting to me before. I’m not sure whether I have succeeded — I’m thinking I have not. Maybe it’s simply the fact that the visual wit appears to have done for nothing other than its own sake.

In other words, the mastery behind all of these photographs is only the tool it should be, a tool that, of course, has to be fully controlled. But I have never had the slightest impression that any of Johansson’s photographs wanted me to consider anything other than themselves: a way of looking at an often mundane world that brings out little glimmers of intense joy, even when you’re finding yourself in the most dreadful of visual circumstances.

That’s really the essence of this photographer. The world isn’t beautiful per se. The world simply exists, and it couldn’t care one bit about what we think about it. It’s up to us to view this world any which way we want (or are able to — those two aren’t necessarily the same). If you make the decision to find beauty in the world, then you can. One way, Johansson’s, is to embrace the idea that whatever beauty there is, it’s ours, the one we construct.

Every photograph by Gerry Johansson is a reminder that beauty, enjoyment, and contentment are entities in our minds. It is up to use to recognize and embrace this basic fact. And the key isn’t even so much to take photographs as proof — most of us will fail to reproduce this artist’s pictures (and what point would there be in trying to copy them anyway?). Whatever tool helps you get to a more content engagement with the world — whether a camera, a pen, even just a spot to sit down to look — will do.

Coast to Coast; photographs and text by Gerry Johansson; 48 pages; Imagebeeld Edition; 2023

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A new view of photography

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Given that the world of photography has much more in common with the world of filmmaking than with the world of painting, one might as well ask why we treat photographers the way we treat painters and not like any of the people involved in the making of movies.

Instead, in the world of photography we pretend that photographers craft the outcome of their endeavour entirely on their own, regardless of any of the other people involved — in particular those in front of their cameras. It’s an absurd situation, and it’s time to move beyond such a simplistic approach to creating photographs — an approach that, we might note, comes with considerable grandstanding, which neither in the world of the so-called fine arts nor in the world of photojournalism reflects very well on the takers of the pictures.

This standard approach to photography has now come under attack from a number of fronts. There is Europe’s privacy law, known as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which owes its existence to the excesses of US social-media companies. The idea is simple: people have the right to own their own data. With limited exceptions, photographs fall under data (which makes perfect sense, especially since most photographs taken today are produced with digital cameras).

This idea poses a threat to the arts. Assuming we want to treat street photography as a form of art, if you can’t take pictures of strangers willy nilly, then isn’t that an assault on the arts? Well, kind of. It’s hard to see, though, why a niche occupation such as taking photographs for art purposes should be viewed as more important than the privacy rights of millions of people. Furthermore, there are exceptions: a number of countries have codified laws that create explicit exceptions for art-related photography.

Second, there is the growing realisation that since its very inception, photography has been a handmaiden of any number of utterly gruesome practices, whether it’s colonialism or outright genocide (the two aren’t mutually exclusive as a number of countries have demonstrated). If photography is an exploitative tool (which historically it has been and which it continues to be), then to treat it as if it were not simply is wrong, both ethically and morally.

Third, a number of companies recently have trained their so-called artificial-intelligence algorithms with other people’s photographs and other images without bothering to ask the authors for permission or offering remuneration. In a nutshell, the companies adopted the idea of appropriation and applied it on the grandest possible scale, ripping off thousands of people.

© Estate of Alberto Korda/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023; Slim Plantagenate/Alamy Stock Photo; REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo; John Birdsall/Alamy Stock Photo; J Marshall – Tribaleye Images/Alamy Stock Photo; Jordi Salas/Alamy Stock Photo; Michael Sparrow/Alamy Stock Photo; Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images; Mohamed Chabâa; Photo Justin McIntosh; GM Photo Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Historically speaking, the idea of artistic appropriation has always been problematic — mind you, not in the arts (with its often limited understanding of real-world ethics). Up until now, artists such as Richard Prince who have been able to successfully defend their practices in court mostly were able to do so because they were able to hire competent lawyers. That Prince could have simply licensed the images he used apparently never occurred to him.

But it’s one thing to rip off one artist — artists in general are anti-social creatures, so as long as they are not affected, they will not display much, if any, solidarity with a peer who has been. It’s quite another to rip off thousands of them: thousands of artists who don’t feel much solidarity with each other still are thousands of artists. As of the time of this writing, it’s not clear how any of the various court cases will play out.

The attentive reader will have picked up an underlying red thread, and that’s capitalism in the form of copyright and the legal system. In the end, photographic authorship is mostly discussed in legal terms. If you don’t feel solidarity with other artists and can’t expect any in return, the law is your only friend if someone steals your pictures, meaning your only chance to fight against that is to go to court.

The courts are stacked with legal experts who have limited understanding of the arts. They’re ill-equipped to deal with the issue of stealing pictures. Their best approach is to consider financial aspects, meaning if wealthy artist A rips off mostly unknown artist B, then, well, it’s appropriation (because, you see, artist B does not suffer from financial hardship as a consequence). As has always been the case, having money trumps having none.

American copyright law includes the idea of “transformative use”. But if even art experts are unable to decide whether something has been transformative or maybe transformative enough — how exactly do you quantify this? — then how are people outside of the field supposed to deal with this?

However you might feel about any of the aspects discussed above, it should be really clear that the idea of a photographer being the sole creator of their pictures can be a very limiting if not flawed idea. It can bump into any number of problems — unless maybe you’re photographing sticks and stones out in the wild, far away from other human beings. But even then someone might claim that your pictures look just like theirs.

Photos Frederick Douglass, John Chester Buttre, Mathew B. Brady, Samuel J. Miller, Lydia J. Cadwell, James Presley Ball

Thankfully, there now is a book that looks at photography using an expanded angle: Collaboration — A Potential History of Photography, authored by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, Leigh Raiford, and Laura Wexler. The title — Collaboration — might strike you as a misnomer. My guess is that anyone looking at the book will pick some example and then ask “but how is this a collaboration?” What you want to do instead, though, is to use the book as a challenge to your ideas of what photography is and how it is being made.

After all, even if you take a photograph of a stranger without them noticing — let’s say you take your Leica for a walk to do street photography, then that stranger finds themselves in your picture. If you did this in Europe, the GDPR would tell you that now you own someone else’s data. Let’s assume that you are familiar with that, and you’re making efforts to rectify the situation. You could, for example, talk to the stranger after you took your picture and ask for permission. In that case, it’s easy to see how you could view the whole transaction as some form of collaboration.

Alternatively, you could decide not to do that. Ignoring the legal aspects here (which differ from country to country), you’d then be deciding to reject the idea of collaboration, placing you into the vast pool of photography that was and still is being made in an extractive fashion. You’ll find examples in the book.

Collaboration presents 115 different photography projects or groupings and places them into eight categories (here called “clusters”). The categories serve to give the overall idea structure, and they allow for the detection of patterns by a reader who might not have thought about the general topic before.

For each item in the book, you get to see examples of the photographs and a number of added texts. The texts include a brief essay by either the authors (who call themselves CoLab) and/or an outside experts. There typically also are words written or said by either the photographer and/or the person(s) in the photographs.

While each item discussed only gets a single spread, the breadth and richness of the material covered provides incredible rewards, in particular since the reach is global. If you’re only familiar with your standard Western photography, your eyes will be opened to a lot of other photography (and thinking).

Art Institute Chicago. Alfred Stieglitz Collection; National Gallery of Art, Washington. Alfred Stieglitz Collection; Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Carl Zigrosser, 1975; National Gallery of Art, Washington. Alfred Stieglitz Collection; © The Irving Penn Foundation; Photo Ansel Adams. Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust; Todd Webb Archive, Portland, Maine

I might as well get the following out of the way: as a writer, I prefer to follow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dictum that what can be said at all can be said clearly. That’s not the case for some of the writing in the book. Especially the texts written by the main authors is filled with academic jargon that non-academics might find tedious (at best). I feel that the publisher might have been well advised to push for more accessible writing.

But I suppose that’s a small price to pay for what otherwise is an absolutely invaluable and essential book that, ideally, will find its way not only into the studios of photographers but especially into the classrooms of photography schools. From now on, anyone studying to get a masters will have no excuse any longer for not knowing that photography’s standard model of authorship is flawed.

The most exciting aspect of the book is the fact that it points out ways forward, regardless of who you are as a photographer. I suspect that every person looking through the book will be drawn to different material. Inevitably, there will be follow-up research: looking to find more information, based on what’s presented in the book.

In other words, even as the book is a rap on the knuckles for a world of photography that by and large has been too satisfied with itself to consider the place of a photographer in the world, there already exists a lot of work out there that can move each and every photographer forward (assuming there is interest — I realise that that’s not a given). And that’s what matters.

Highly recommended.

Collaboration — A Potential History of Photography; edited by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, Leigh Raiford, and Laura Wexler; photographs and texts by numerous authors; 288 pages; Thames & Hudson; 2024 (for the US edition)

Packing My Library

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The other day, Collector Daily published their 2023 Photobook Review Statistics. Something like that had never occurred to me, even as it makes a lot of sense: looking back to see how you have done. What had occurred to me, though, and what I have been actively trying to do for a while now is to make sure that the books covered on this site come from a diverse background — as diverse as I can make it (what exactly this means I’ll get to below).

I immediately went through my Archive to do the counting and found that I had achieved what I had set out to do — making sure that photobooks by men do not outnumber everything else (in fact, they were in the slight minority last year).

I grew up in a society that was centered on fairness (that place doesn’t exist any longer — Germany has become brutally cold). It took me a long time to realize that the fairness in question was not actually applied equally. This took me a while because I tended not to run into unfairness. For me, a heterosexual man, things were always fair.

With time, I learned that many people did not and do not have the same experience. Even as I’m the kind of person who shouldn’t complain, I still feel cheated by the society I grew up in. After all, fairness is only fair if it applies equally, no ifs and buts. Otherwise, I don’t know what it is; for sure it’s not fairness.

I still believe in fairness.

When I started compiling/writing what would become this site two decades ago, it didn’t occur to me until quite a bit later that I needed to do something about fairness as well. If I merely continued what I was doing, I’d continue building a site dominated by men from a very small section of the world. That’s not only not fair to all of those who aren’t in that group; it’s also profoundly boring. So I set out to fix things. I cringe looking through my very early archive of material, given how unfair it is. I decided not to delete it simply because I need to have it as a reminder for myself to do better.

A few years ago, I was invited to contribute to How We See: Photobooks by Women. There should have never been the need to compile that book. Women should have always been treated equally. The same is obviously true for all those who do not neatly fit into the simple spectrum of Western life that what we call tradition has provided us with.

And yet, here we are.

I don’t know when exactly it was, but by that time I had also decided to try to plan what I cover here by at least trying to make sure the aforementioned disparity from this site’s very early incarnation would stop. As a consequence, thinking about which books to review has become a lot more complex.

I will always review books that I really like, books that I want to have in my house with that greedy possessiveness of someone who is in love. But that’s just a small fraction of the books I actually review. There are a lot of other books I have respect for, and those might get reviewed. Occasionally, I will even review a book that I don’t like, simply because in photoland, we are not even remotely critical enough (plus, writing a negative review often results in much more insight).

On top of all of that sits my idea of fairness. Who made a book I am being offered? What are their life circumstances? Where is that person located? What is that book talking about? There are some themes or areas that I gravitate to. These include Germany and its extremely troubling past or Japan.

Beyond those, there are some broader ideas. For example, I am trying to cover photography coming from the parts of Europe that before 1989 were basically under Soviet occupation. The Iron Curtain might be gone in a physical sense, but I maintain that for many West Europeans (and Americans) it still exists mentally. For many Germans, say, a country like Latvia is still completely strange whereas Luxembourg isn’t. Consequently, a photographer from Latvia would still have a harder time getting seen than someone from Luxembourg. That isn’t fair.

If you’re wondering where all this introspection is coming from, it’s not the New Year. I personally couldn’t care less for some random date change. Instead, it’s the fact that right now, I am sitting in a room filled with boxes. Inside these boxes are stacks of my books. In a few days, I’m going to be moving.

Coincidentally, just after finding the Collector Daily article I mentioned above, I also looked through the stack of books that I still might review. With one exception, all of them are by men. This brings me to another aspect of this, namely the factors that I cannot control. I’m not independently wealthy, meaning I can’t just buy any book I want to cover. Every once in a while, I will do that, finances and interest allowing.

Instead, many publishers (and occasionally photographers) offer me their books for review. From what is being offered I pick material that I might cover. And then I schedule it in such a fashion that over the time span of maybe four to eight weeks, things are pretty even in terms of diversity.

But there is another aspect. Even if I had all the money in the world, I’d still be at the mercy of what publishers decide to produce. After all, I can only review what is being published. Over the past few years, some publishers have gone out of their way to make their offerings more diverse. Others have not. My gut feeling tells me that by and large, there still are many more books published by men than women. And the disparity extends from there to any other aspect you can think of.

If you’re reading these words and you are a photobook publisher, maybe look at your catalogue. I’m not talking about the quality of the work you publish. I’m sure that’s all great work (even as you and I might disagree about that).

But what about diversity?

Do you publish roughly as many men as women?

If not — why not?

I don’t have to strain myself at all to think of publishers that overwhelmingly publish men. How can that be? How’s that fair?

Do you publish books by photographers with a large variety of skin tones?

If not — why not?

Do you publish books by photographers who struggle making ends meet?

If not — why not?

Do you look at regions or topics that aren’t discussed all the time?

If not — why not?

Do you pay attention to those who have a harder time getting seen?

If not — why not?

I could ask a lot more questions, but I think you got my point.

At some stage in his life, Walter Benjamin wrote an article about unpacking his library. I don’t know whether this communicated, but I think for me, the intellectually more fertile period of time is the one now, the one where I’m packing my library. This not only entails giving away books I haven’t looked at in a long time, it also has me think about my choices — and about fairness.

As much as I detest the term for its all-too-frequent use in high-falutin bullshit art speak, sitting in the middle of boxes packed with books, while the rest is still waiting to be boxed up, is the ultimate form of engaging with liminality, of being neither fully here nor there. Even as it’s nerve-wracking, it’s a good space to be in — for my thoughts.

It had and still has me thinking about fairness because the presence of every book is the presence of a person’s voice given physical form.

And all of these voices add up to the brutality of the fact that this choir has too many voices in the lower registers.

That’s not fair.