This Week In Photography Books

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We’re not always great with shades of gray, in America. Take Thanksgiving. Most, (but certainly not all) Americans are thrilled at the chance to get a few days off from work, gorge on over-stuffed Turkey and over-salted stuffing, watch a lot of football, and try not to get in a raging fight with their suddenly re-surfaced siblings. Rarely do we invoke the Pilgrims, and our ceremonial celebration of their feast with the Native people of the continent. More rarely, still, do we contemplate the fact that our cause for revelry, while important to us, coincides with the genocide of the formerly plentiful residents of what is now the United States.

Interestingly enough, we photographers worship a particular vision of America, one captured in celluloid by a Swiss guy 50+ years ago. We love the beatnik sensibility, the jaded diner waitresses, the honkey-tonk jukeboxes, the crosses and flags. So much, do we love “The Americans,” that it spawned an army of wandering shutterbugs, metaphorical Jews, investigating other places, bringing the critical eye of a foreigner to each exchange.

I don’t know about you, but I grew up during the Reagan 80’s, read lots of spy fiction about the Evil Empire, and then watched it Fall. The following decade, without a counter-balance to our consumptive power, we grew rich and cocky. We were destined to rule forever, with our democracy, our free markets, and our muscle cars. Made in Michigan.

Pontiac is a town in Michigan. It’s also the name of a GM car brand that was recently disbanded, the result of the manufacturer’s brush with implosion at the height of the Economic collapse a few years ago. The very same collapse, of course, that razed the dreams of a long-lived American Empire. And now, perhaps, our vaunted American Dream itself. From endless horizons to Chinese envy in ten short years. I suppose that’s how it works.

“Pontiac” is also the name of a perfect, tan, hard-cover book recently published by Mack in London, in conjunction with the GunGallery in Stockholm. Ah, the Swedes. Famous for their lack of sun, gloomy stoicism, and now for the sexual violence of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Serious stuff. Gerry Johannson, the photographer behind the project, plays the role of the stranger from distant shores, who seems to have washed up in Pontiac in April of 2010. The book opens with an austere page of statistics, illuminating the slow leak of air that has escaped the balloon. 7% Unemployment in 2000 vs. 31% today. 4,715 vacant housing units. It ends with the ominous phrase, “Demolition means progress, Cities of Promise, MSHDA.”

There is no essay here. No token statement by someone purported to be famous, of whom you haven’t heard. Just a series of small, square, black and white images, flanked below by a title that refers to the street on which they were taken. Bleak. Clean. Quiet. Truth be told, it starts a little slow. You think of Robert Adams, Henry Wessel, a bit of Freidlander in the compositional style, and of course the aforementioned Swiss Hipster, whom I don’t need to name. So slow, in fact, that I actually flipped to the back and worked my way from there. (It’s a strange habit that I have, mostly with magazines.)

Soon enough, the book seduced me like a Reno hooker sipping Vodka at the bar. (Just a simile. Never happened.) First, I was moved by the mood, the ugly beauty, the sweet scent of the decrepit. We are all suckers for an abandoned building, or in this case many. Then, I began to notice that Johansson often photographed the same intersection from two angles. East and West? North and South? Who knows, unless you live in Pontiac. He also included diptychs; in one case, double images of the same church. Further, then closer. As to the use of Black and White, the use of the square? Perfect.

I worked my way from back to front, and the barrage of empty streets, not subtle, took on the pacing of an old Blues song. Turn the pages, hear the words. I didn’t expect to see many people, though there are a few images, from a distance, of small humans towards the front. Just when I thought it was safe to judge the book as a lyrical, very well-made elegy to our collective despair, it started to get a bit weird. First, there was a photograph of a student center with a row of trees outside, but upon closer inspection, they’re not trees. I don’t know what they are. They look like fat, eyeless, hooded Klan members in washed out gray uniforms. Then I got to an image, titled “Joslyn Road,” that had a small sign in the lower right hand corner. I struggled to recognized the characters, which looked like hieroglyphs. As I stared, confused, slowly my eyes refocused, and I could read the cut-off words “Great Cros.” (Short for Great Lakes Crossing) I flipped away and back again, just to make sure I wasn’t crazy. Happened again. (I admit, it was pretty early in the morning.)

The next page, having switched again to front to back, was another photo, also titled “Joslyn Road.” In an overgrown field of weeds and Evergreen trees, looming in the background, we see a big white Orb, with a line of oval lights emanating from within. It looks, for all the world, like a spaceship sitting behind the trees. What is it? I have no idea. It’s so fantastic, I’m staring at it right now, eyes away from the keyboard. WTF? Inexplicable Sci-Fi in a meditation on the decline and Fall of the American Empire? Wow.

Mr. Johannson develops a rhythm to this book, and a symbol set of shadows, little houses, cars, bars, and lots of trees. It’s the trees that take back the abandoned neighborhoods, you know. The overgrowth of Nature that results from an out-flux of people. Sure, they might knock down some houses, and make a few new parks. Sounds nice. And maybe the United States will find it’s footing, and begin to make things again. I don’t know, and neither do you.
Bottom Line: Perfect

To purchase Pontiac visit Photo-Eye

There Are 11 Comments On This Article.

  1. Very eloquently stated… and I’m disappointed I made my purchase from Photo Eye days ago. If I had only heard about this sooner. :-X

  2. Pretty writing, Jonathan. But how much of it is your own take?
    It is a shame some small towns (Pontiac) have such high unemployment, but a 50 minute drive away (a normal commute time for many) in Ann Arbor the unemployment rate is 12.3%. Still high, but that’s 87.7% employed. The image maker may have selected this place as one community hitting the bottom, but how representative is Pontiac of the entire country? Another example in the area, the unemployment rate in the city of Flint , Michigan dropped from 23% in 1988 to 11.3% by December 1990, according to Michigan Employment Security Commission.

    In terms of the images you selected above they look so very much like the style almost EVERYONE is creating today. This style has become a common vernacular in images today. Like Starbucks to coffee. Like a cover band. “North Perry” is my fave above, but overall they have a common look. Take 500 photographers today working with the same style, make four books with their images, the distinction between authors: negligible.

  3. Bob, as someone from the area…

    I doubt the photog was trying to capture the COUNTRY. He was trying to capture Pontiac, which is a very sad place. Your Flint statistics look good until you factor in CURRENT unemployment rates there which, if they’ve fallen are because the city is hemorrhaging population.

    Pontiac is pretty iconic for an old auto industry city that has seen its jobs, and its dreams depart as the industry shuttered plants either never to be reopened, to to be moved somewhere far cheaper to do business.

    • @Jo – My comments relate first to Jonathan’s writing about the images., second about the style of the images.

      The statistic I cited is over 20 years old, but shows a recovery for Flint. It is too bad Pontiac itself (population 66,337) is struggling, but there still are other areas within commuting distance where unemployment rates are much lower – if not perfect.

  4. I love the melancholy. The precise composition of the images overcomes the sadness, like breaking the wall of sound, and shows us a beautiful silence behind it.