A Walk with Gerry Johansson

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Unlike any of Gerry Johansson‘s other books, Meloni Meloni starts out with a short piece of text. Upon seeing a sign advertizing melons by the road, he writes, he parks his car and starts walking down the road, a certain Via Bosca (which the colophon informs us can be found in Ravenna, Italy): “What a wonderful sign! My thoughts goes [sic!] to words like melody and melancholy. I immediately get in a good mood”.

I find this short introduction incredibly charming and refreshing. All too often, a photographer’s tale is being spun around seeing a possible good subject or object to photograph, and all kind of weight is then tied to that. It is as if photographs cannot be taken if their makers aren’t if not wallowing in their own self-aggrandizing pathos then at least being mindful of the presumed importance of the picture.

Not here. There’s just this mood induced by an actually pretty unremarkable sign (a picture of it can be found right before the words), there’s this road, and there are pictures to be taken.

After all, good pictures can be found everywhere. I’ve long abandoned the idea that it’s the world that offers us pictures. While that’s a neatly romantic idea, it limits human creativity to a lot less than what can be had. Good pictures can be found anywhere — maybe this particular spot is not the one where you can find one (someone else will), but there’s that particular spot right over there. And good pictures aren’t just found, they’re shaped by their makers.

To become a good photographer thus has very little to do with actual talent. Instead, it has everything to do with the determination to come close to one’s own strengths, to one’s own vision — one’s own looking at the world: it has everything to do with working very hard towards that. And how do you work towards it? Well, you walk down the road and take pictures.

Obviously, this particular photographer has done this for a long time, so he knows what he is doing. He knows that he can trust his instinct, and I want to think that much like all good photographers, he knows that some pictures come easy, whereas others are waiting to be found and then shaped.

At a surface level, most of Johansson’s book look exactly the same. They’re all the same size, they’re all cloth bound with a square picture on the front, and inside each page features a square picture (same size as on the front), with some very basic information added (a location name or just some number). But there is considerable variety in what they actually present.

Books like Deutschland or the more recent American Winter focus on a larger place and then present pictures taken at various locations. These pictures are loosely interrelated through the place, but in actuality, they’re each their own little entity.  Consequently, these books are sequenced alphabetically: a picture taken in a town whose names starts with an “a” comes before one with a “b” etc.

Pontiac, the book that had me discover this artist, is different in that the place is so small (relatively speaking) that through the sequencing, a sense of a progression is produced for a viewer. As s/he moves through the book, s/he is made to do the same in that particular place. The idea of a walk, in other words, becomes a focal point. This is the model used in Meloni Meloni.

And then there are books like last year’s Halland, which focuses on a place but which features landscapes in which there is a wind turbine somewhere. It’s not that easy to fill a whole book with such pictures, but it’s done extraordinarily well.

Back to Meloni Meloni, the idea of a walk becomes easily apparent from the pictures. It’s as if as a viewer is led by the hand through what isn’t necessarily the most remarkable place to experience what can in fact be seen if one is willing to pay attention. It really looks like good pictures are everywhere, whether it’s in the built environment, in the landscape, in every piece of botany.

There are plenty of pictures that I don’t think I have seen, yet, from this artist. Often, the photographs reveal an almost logical organization in the pictorial plane. But here, there are — for a lack of a better word — messy pictures, pictures in which a jumble of stuff somehow congeals into a good picture. This fact makes for a very pleasant push and pull as one progresses through the book — it is as if one’s gaze was made to focus at the variety present in the world of the photographer’s lens. Almost anything becomes deserving of a picture, revealing the world as one of visual richness.

Occasionally, two pictures are paired that were taken just a few short steps apart. Interestingly, unlike in the case of such pairings in the recent Stephen Shore book (see my review), here, there is no sense of indecision. One isn’t left with the feeling that the photographer was looking for that one picture (and the editor couldn’t decide, either). There simply are two good pictures.

I need to be aware of the background against which I am looking at this book. Much like large parts of the world, I am confined to my house, with a very unpleasant jumble of mostly nasty news being the dominant source of outside information reaching me. Meloni Meloni provides a most welcome respite from that. It shows the world as this place that has so much to offer, and it does so with a lightness of touch that cuts straight through the weight of these times.

I’m made to feel as if I were on a walk on that Italian road alongside Gerry Johansson, away from all my worries, and I’m deeply grateful for that experience.

Highly recommended.

Meloni Meloni; photographs by Gerry Johansson; 192 pages; Johansson & Johansson AB; 2020

Rating: Photography 5.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 4.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.1

Ratings explained here.