This Week In Photography Books – Gerry Johansson

by Jonathan Blaustein

They say nothing is certain but death and taxes. (Whoever ever they are, that is.) To that short list, I’d add another constant: change.

Take people, for instance. Each day we live, we’re that much closer to dying. But age begets wisdom, so it’s not all bad. (And growth is possible too.) Though we admittedly live in a youth-obsessed culture, I’d like to think I’m getting better at what I do. It would be sad to peak too early.

Take this column, for instance. It began as a weekly synopsis of three books, a simple paragraph for each. We included a few photos taken from the photo-eye website. (No muss, no fuss.) Within a few months, though, I found myself enthralled by a special book, and the format with which you’re currently engaged was born. Gerry Johansson made a photo book so good, I just tore off into the unknown, making connections and speculations with equal fury.

A year and a half has gone by. I keep writing, and you keep reading. But things change, no matter what. As of yesterday, I’ve begun to write about photography for the New York Times, as a freelance contributor to the Lens Blog. We shall see, indeed, if I can write without the crutch of the first person perspective.

As of next month, you may come to read on Fridays and find the this column no longer there. In its place, you may find I’m presenting an interview with a photographer or a curator, or perhaps an exhibition review. The weekly flow will have been interrupted. Plus ça change…

We can follow the trajectory from Gerry Johansson shooting some pictures in Pontiac, Michigan to me writing for the New York Times. Everything’s connected, say the Buddhists, and history ties many things together.

Take Mr. Johansson’s new book, “Hattfabriken/Luckenwalde,” for instance. It opens with a set of square, black and white photographs. (As do each of his books, most likely.) The Swedish photographer is one of the most capable working today, I’d venture, and these pictures grabbed me immediately. We see a cool looking building, with prominently designed architecture. What is it? Where?

As we turn the pages, we begin to notice that the photographer seems to be circling the building, as the perspective shifts slightly, picture to picture. It’s the rare artist who’s able to make the viewer feel his or her presence, standing somewhere in the world. Here, that sense was palpable. It raised my curiosity. Even more so when he finally entered the building, and it was wrecked and abandoned.

From there, as we continue to flip, we find an essay written in Swedish. And then one in German. As I don’t read either language, I continued on through the narrative. There were two paintings presented, mirror images of the same building in the photographs, with a Swastika added in for good measure. (That I’m discussing Swastika art for the second time in three weeks is an odd coincidence worth mentioning.)

In the subsequent English version of the essay, we learn that the paintings were made by Dick Bengtsson, a prominent Swedish postal worker-turned-artist. The building was a Hat and Cap Factory, in East Germany, designed by Erich Mendelsohn, a Jew. The architect ultimately fled Germany in the Nazi purge, and ended up helping the Allies plan bombing raids against his home country during the War. How much of this history influenced Bengtsson, and Johansson by extension? We can only speculate.

Flipping onward, we see a series of photographs of Luckenwalde, the city in which the factory resides. The pictures are so, so good. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone work a square composition like this since Robert Adams. And the light and tonal qualities are brilliant as well. Wow.

Except, now that I think about it, we’re not given the name of the city yet, which is only referenced once in the previous essay anyway. So the tension slowly builds. Where is this place we’re peeking in on. And why?

The pictures are followed by a brief statement that names the city, and gives a bit of background on its socialist history. (So then we can piece it together.) A beautiful factory was built in an East German city that was Socialist before becoming Nazi, German before becoming East German, and then German again. The building, in the city, was designed by a Jewish German, who was welcome in Germany, before he wasn’t. And then he helped ruin his former country, which was busy attempting to annihilate his entire race.

A Swedish artist found a photo of the building, and made some paintings of it, which included Swastikas. He may or may not have known the entire complicated history. Then, in the 21st Century, another Swedish artist, this time a photographer, goes to visit the hulking ruin, and makes his own work on the subject. Are you still with me?

Like I said at the beginning: change is as constant as death. I’ll still be here each week, exploring and discovering along with you, going forward, but we might not discuss a book each time. Regardless, I feel a bit of a connection to Mr. Johansson, who’s work has helped inspire me to grow as a writer, and a person. Perhaps we’ll wrangle him for an interview, and we’ll publish it on a Friday, in place of this very column. Time will tell.

Bottom line: Brilliant book. Intricate too.

To Purchase “Hattfabriken/Luckenwalde” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 7 Comments On This Article.

  1. Victor John Penner

    Congratulations Jonathan. Maybe all we’ve been through together (you, the readers, me) has been to toughen you up for this leap? You will do great, but please don’t stop creating your own work ( I often wonder if you bury yourself in writing about others work to avoid creating your own) as I am a huge fan.

    Can’t wait to read what you have to say under the banner of such an institution.

    Good Luck,

    Sincerely, VJP

    • Hi Victor,

      Thanks for the kind words, and the concern. I agree that this platform has given me thicker skin that I’d have thought possible. FYI, I’ve been hard at work on a new photo project, and am very excited about the results. The pictures should make their way out into the world later this year.

      Best wishes,
      jb

  2. Congrats! And look forward to the interviews…

    Can’t comment on work- ya really need this one in hand to do so.

  3. Not a surprise; you and the times are a perfect match.

    Haters will quickly learn to skip the lede.

  4. Christopher Hall

    I’m not sure if this is where I first read about “Pontiac”, but I know it was here or Colberg, since I don’t have time to follow many others. “Pontiac” led me to keep an eye out for Johansson’s name, and I’ve acquired a nice little set of his books since. (Even dug deep in my pockets for a copy of “Sverige” once I saw a copy in a library, I knew I had to have it).
    I’ve already had “Hattfabriken” for several months, couldn’t be happier.
    Congratulations on the NYT gig!