Sunday, October 28, 2018

Q & A with Gerry Johansson

Photo by Ola Billmont
Gerry Johansson is a photographer based in Sweden. 

BA: How often do you go out to make photos? 

GJ: The last book American Winter was done during three week periods during 2017 and 2018. The rest of the years have been spent on smaller ”projects” (sorry, but I hate that word). They usually last for a week or so but I also have some ongoing work that has been running for years. When I return from travels, much more time than the actual shooting is spent on developing, scanning, printing and editing. I’m analog, except for work in preparation for printing. All my books the last 20 years are scanned by me.

How do you decide where to go? 

In all kinds of manner. I went to Ulan Bator because I remembered a film scene in a movie by filmmaker Chris Marker. I went to Pontiac, Michigan, because I heard over the radio that it was the first American town to go bankrupt. The Deutschland book was done because my childhood had many German influences and I wanted to learn more about the country.

What catches your eye? 

When I start working on a subject I try not to have any predetermined idea of what I will do. The work has to develop as I go along. It usually ends up looking pretty much the same anyway. Thankfully.

How much time do you typically spend with a scene? 

That is very different. But I usually doesn’t spend much time in any place. I prefer to work in the countryside, in the small towns, and in an hour you have seen pretty much what there is to see. I rarely wait out a scene for better light or so. I like to work quickly as I go along. There will  always be interesting things to photograph.

Do you automatically visualize in black/white? 

I guess so. In earlier days I would also bring a camera for color work. But nowadays I find that too distracting. I seldom think that something I photograph would look better in color. However my favorit photographer today is Guido Guidi whose work I rate way above Eggleston and Stepen Shore.

Spread from American Winter

Why did you choose to shoot winter scenes for your recent book? 

I suppose I’m a winter photographer. I even went to Antarctica, and that was a great pleasure. I hardly ever photograph in summertime. One source of inspiration came from the movie Fargo, by the Coen brothers. There are some fantastic scenes of snowdrift over endless highways. But film is one thing and still photos are something different. But it was certainly a great experience driving there, even though I didn’t manage to make a great picture of it. I know American landscape photography quite well and I found that most of the pictures were made in pleasant, sunny weather. Not a big surprise but I felt something was missing.

How did you decide which states to visit? 

I had many years ago been in Montana, Nebraska, South and North Dakota and Wyoming and I liked the vastness, emptiness and peacefulness. It’s a bit like being alone in an ocean of land.

In an interview you once said "pictures can be different depending on their size and the viewing distance," a statement I agree with. The photos in your books are generally quite small, and the viewing distance is relatively close. What effect do you think that has on your photos?

White Earth, Montana, 2017

I like the idea that you are alone with the picture when you look at it. In an exhibition it is important that you have to walk close up to the image. Print size in exhibitions is 16 x 16,5 cm. I hate exhibitions where you can stand in the middle of the room and think you have seen the whole exhibition. In the book it is a bit different, but all the white space around the image creates a calm space for the ”reading”. The image size in the books is 9 x 9,2 cm which is close to the format you would have in an old family album. 

I think it has forced me to be more precise and careful with the structure and composition of the picture. But. strangely, on the other hand many of my pictures look awful if I make a big print. They sort of fall apart.

Your website has note that you've recently eliminated limited editions. All print editions are now open ended. Can you elaborate on your reasons for this step? 

I think the whole idea of limited editions is silly and I’m surprised buyers don’t see through this business idea. Today you can buy anything in limited editions. Cars, toasters, or whatever. It’s stupid. Regarding my last books as Special Edition with open edition prints I have not heard one negative complaint and they are selling better than ever.  My favorite argument is the fact that the Ansel Adams image Moonrise Hernandez, at a Sotheby’s auction in 2017 sold for $740,000. At the time it was printed in over 1300 copies. 

What has been the reaction from collectors?

At times I have made editions just to please a gallery, but my sales are quite irregular so it just becomes too complicated. There are galleries that are OK with open editions so I stick to them. They are the nice guys anyway and people who buy stuff for the numbers on the back can go somewhere else.

Another quote from a past interview: "Digital today looks fine, but everything is possible and the result usually comes out boring." Can you elaborate more on that thought? Do you think a limitation of possibilities can be positive in some way?

American Winter, with open edition gelatin silver print

I just think that a properly made black/white silver gelatin print is something astoundingly beautiful. Film and silver prints are materials you have to work along with. They are materials with characteristics you have to understand and follow. In a similar way that a sculptor chooses wood, bronze or marble. So yes, I want some resistance when I work. There are of course fine digital prints also. But the result of the digital technique often puts a ”haze” of boring perfection over the prints. With digital material everything is possible so if that is your most important goal it is perfect.

You've said that photo titles are important, and sometimes you announce the titles aloud when presenting work. And several of your books are sequenced alphabetically by title. Since most of your photos are titled simply with name of location, a trait which is somewhat uncontrollable, what is their importance to you? 

Yes, titles are important to me. They are usually very simple. Just the name of the town or the name of the street where I was standing, not the street I’m depicting. It’s a way of verifying where the picture was made. It is for instance quite easy to find most of the images from Pontiac on Google Earth. Quite often there is a connection between the title and the image content. If you don’t feel to silly about it, I recommend that you read out loud the titles for yourself. You will enjoy it. At one literary evening in Stockholm I showed images from Deutschland and read out the titles. It was enormously popular.

Can you list a few of your primary photographic influences?

First of all I would put Paul Strand. I saw his Blind Woman as a teenager and admired his work, but then he was ”lost” for me during many years. Actually after seeing Time in New England which I didn’t like at all at that time.  But he has gradually come back to me. Since a few years back I have his ”Mexican Portfolio”, 20 photogravures,  framed on the wall in my studio. It’s the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see when I go to bed. It’s fantastic.

Other photographers I have admired and learned a lot from are Evans, Friedländer, Winogrand, Gossage and Robert Adams. I think the period in the late 60s and 70s is the golden age of photography. But let’s not forget some Europeans, Chris Killip, Graham Smith and Michael Schmidt. And as I mentioned before I think Guido Guidi, whose work bring constant surprises, is outstanding.

What is your understanding of chance or coincidence as it relates to photography?

To me chance and coincidence is everything when I work. I work with am minimum of planning or preparation. Everything comes to me as I work. None of the pictures I have made could I have figured out in advance. 

What about as it relates to life in general?

In private life I’m quite well organized and hate surprises.

What do you think your photographs say about you as a person? 

Difficult to say but I have a feeling people find me more social than they expect when they just know me from my pictures.


Niels said...

Thank you!

Stan B. said...

Great work, presentation and insight...

Unknown said...

Really love these interviews Blake. A lot to be learned from it and it shows me some great work i wasn't aware of.

Rylan said...

thank you.

Leica fan said...

Another good one.