Gerry Johansson, Halland

JTF (just the facts): Self published in 2019 (here). Hardcover with tipped in image, 160 pages, with 100 black and white reproductions. Includes a poem by Mårten Sjöbäck (in Swedish/English). In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by Greger Ulf Nilsson. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When I first paged through Gerry Johansson’s photobook Halland, my conclusion about what it was doing was altogether straightforward. Every square format black and white photograph in the book is a landscape taken in the southwestern province of Halland in Sweden where Johansson grew up, and every image contains a wind turbine somewhere in the picture. So I concluded that Johansson’s intention was to show us every possible facet of the immense pinwheel-shaped industrial forms that now dot the landscape, and to make a single subject photobook that gathered all these images together in one place.

Without a background essay to guide us, this is the most probable explanation for Halland. But as I spent more time with it, I started to wonder about the possibility of an alternate interpretation. What if Johansson simply wanted to make a broad series of landscapes of Halland, and did so all over the region in the years between 2015 and 2019, in different places and different settings, and then it turned out that because the wind industry has become so prevalent in the province, each photograph turned out to have one or more wind turbines in it? Like the stone walls in New England, they’re everywhere, and maybe Johansson just incorporated them into his compositions because he had no choice – this is what Halland looks like now.

So did he go looking for wind turbines to deliberately make a cleverly understated taxonomy of sorts, or did they just find him as he was making his rounds? It’s a subtle nuance of intent and priority, and one we can’t know for sure, but the fact that Halland doesn’t demand one particular reading is part of its strength as a photobook.

Johansson has build a long and successful photographic career out of making calm, formally controlled images of both his home country and places all over the globe, his compositions recognizable for their geometric management of space and their pared down precision. And even though Halland isn’t particularly dramatic as far as land goes – it is largely populated by gently flat expanses of farmland and dense forests – Johansson applies his signature rigor to its surfaces, framing its everyday rhythms with crispness and clear-eyed attention.

Johansson’s images of farms often highlight their ordered spaces. Monumentally-scaled turbines march across plowed fields, or stand like futuristic sentries guarding the wide flatness. The clean lines of barn edges and outbuildings provide Johansson with a range of useful geometries (rectangles, triangles, cones, jutting lines) which he then arranges into flattened layers, punctuated by the white tubes and blades of the turbines and even a few nearby cows. While there is often a contrast between the farm and the turbine, as waving cornfields, baled hay, grain piles, and fuel tanks are set beneath the jutting arms, there is also the sense that these forms have now been integrated into life in Halland, providing farmers with a degree of self reliance and energy independence. In this sense, the turbines are never ugly when juxtaposed with farms in Johansson’s photographs, they seem like a motif of progress or necessary forward movement, their bright whiteness like a beacon.

When Johansson turns to the wind turbines that are intermingled with forests, his photographs are less optimistic. Not surprisingly, he plays with the spikiness of evergreens and the jutting branches and vertical trunks of other trees, comparing them with the forms of the turbines – this is an exercise that never gets old, as lines of trees or single towering specimens provide repeated opportunities for visual contrast and echo. But what is also constant is the push and pull of man-made and natural, the sleek white turbines placed next to the craggy trunks of ancient trees, making the opposition clear. Johansson then turns darker, toward the visual critique of Robert Adams, with images that match turbines with clear cut forests, sawed off trunks, and piles of logs and scrap ready for the lumber mill, their quiet elegance laced with an undercurrent of grim desolation.

Johansson has plenty of compositional tools in his artistic toolbox, and he finds a way to use most of them in this project. He uses a lake to reflect the form of a turbine, sneaking it in among some tall reeds. He shrouds the turbines in fog or mist, giving them a romantic, almost Wuthering Heights feel. He sets them above bucolic lakeside scenes with sunny skies and towering billows of white clouds. He dwarfs them in the far off distance, fronting the textures of weathered barn boards, massive rocks, or the steel bucket of a bulldozer. He intermingles them with all kinds of unlikely companions, from solar cells and soccer fields to grubby piles of discarded tires and wooden pallets. And he even gives them a jaunty sparkle like a field of dandelions, when a whole farm of turbines scatters across a wide vista. Seen together, these images are proof positive of Johansson’s obvious mastery of photographic composition.

The design of Halland is modest and understated. The square photographs are placed on vertical pages with simple location captions underneath and plenty of surrounding white space. The images bounce back and forth between the spreads, with several double spreads pairing images that resonate with each other in some way. And the whole product feels crisply unadorned, but still elegant, just like Johansson’s photographs.

This body of work has much more richness and nuance than a bland “pictures of wind turbines” description might imply. Johansson has wrestled with the rule that a photographic landscape must be backward-looking and -thinking to be beautiful; instead, he has tested himself with landscapes that embrace the realities of contemporary life rather than mimic some prettied up version of the past, pushing his eye to find ways to thoughtfully incorporate the turbines into more complex compositions. The result is a photobook filled with landscapes that are quietly challenging, showing us modernity and nature mixed with unexpected sophistication.

Collector’s POV: Gerry Johansson is represented by Galerie f5,6 in Munich (here). His work has only been sporadically available in the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.

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