American Winter is Gerry Johannson’s latest
novel photobook and was Charcoal Book Club’s photobook of the month for November 2018.* For a good description of the book, turn no further than the publisher’s blurb: “For American Winter, Johansson travelled through semi-deserted towns in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, finding as much beauty as there was misery in landscapes cloaked in snow…”
Like most other photobooks of the month, I probably wouldn’t buy American Winter for myself, but I’m glad to have it, if only to contribute to my loose collection of photobooks titled “America” or “American” or similar.
Johannson’s photographs are rigorously composed: every vertical is vertical (or as vertical as it was in the scene); every bit placed just so; everything in sharp focus. And the arrangement of the book—3.5″ squares with a simple City, State caption underneath, and bound like a novel, a tome of sorts—is agreeable and pleasurable to “read.”
If I have any complaints, it’s with the, to my mind, tired subject matter. It’s all decay and failure, derilict buildings, contemporary tract homes, broken down cars, old churches and boarded up storefronts, this time with snow.
This is, of course, Johansson’s bag, and he’s been at it for nearly 40 years. In an interview with Jörg Colberg, Johansson says “I rarely photograph new things, they have to gain a bit of patina. Looking at new stuff gives me an uneasy feeling, like having a fresh haircut.” Indeed, and I understand and sympathize with his position. I too tend towards the old and well-used, and turn away from the new-and-shiny.
But my favorite books from my small collection of ‘America’ photobooks are ones where the photographer photographed whatever caught their fancy. Robert Frank’s The Americans shows pretty much what Americans were like in the 1950s, at least the Americans on the roads he travelled. Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces likewise: it’s a New York City kid looking at the detritus of middle America, though this does it a disservice. American Surfaces is a great book and a favorite. Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects has the landscapes and broken-down, but also the shiny-and-new, and it’s all there together, just like we’re all here together. Lee Friedlander’s The American Monument is precisely of its time, with the cars and people and everything.
Of course, Frank and Shore and Sternfeld and Friedlander had different projects at a different time. Johansson is after something different. As he explained to Colberg, “Generally I would say that I only photograph things and places I like for various reasons, history, design, memory, cultural comment… Things I recognize myself in.” (ibid.)
I understand this too… I feel more at home in a small Texas town, or out in the country somewhere, than I do in suburbs and cities, more comfortable with things that have a patina. They stroke the nostalgic nerve and seem to have a tale to tell that maybe I can capture with a photograph.
But don’t the suburbs also have tales to tell? The main arteries, clogged with strip malls and chain stores and fast food and auto repair and pharmacies and banks and title loan companies. A contemporary Shore would be on the corner making careful compositions with an 8×10 (or maybe an iPad), or in one of those auto repair bathrooms, snapping a filthy toilet with a phone.
But I drive a half hour or hour to get to some place in the country where it’s quiet and empty… and so I suppose my complaint with Johansson’s work is that it’s too much like mine, and my complaint is less with his work, which is rigorous and thoughtful in ways that I can only fantasize about, than my own failure to find photographs in my local, contemporary environment.
Overall, and despite my misgivings about and dissatisfaction with my own work, I give Gerry Johansson’s American Winter 4.3 stars.
*Yes, I’m woefully behind on reviewing photobooks. I’ve slowed way down on buying them, but also slowed way down on reviewing them, so… Oh well.