Gerry Johansson, Tokyo

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2016 by Only Photography (here). Hardcover, 160 pages, with 95 black and white reproductions. With a short text by Kamo no Chomei in English, Swedish, and Japanese. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 1961, a foreign outsider (the American photographer William Klein) took to the streets of Tokyo, and saw his own artistic vision reflected there. His photobook, simply entitled Tokyo, was brimming with chaotic motion, full of the frenetic energy of street life, from bright lights and bold signage to blurred faces and compressed spaces. Through Klein’s relentlessly searching eye, we were exposed to the riotous clash of Western commercialism and traditional culture that the city (and the nation at large) was struggling with at the time.

Roughly half a century later, in 2004, another foreign outsider (the Swedish photographer Gerry Johansson) took to the streets of Tokyo, and once again saw his own artistic vision reflected there. What is fascinating is that his new photobook, also simply entitled Tokyo, is in many ways the exact opposite of Klein’s – empty of noisy people and the hustle of street life, it reduces the sprawlingly modern metropolis to the regimented order of its interlocked architectural geometries, and does so with a calmness and clarity that heightens its meditative neutrality. Where Klein saw the loose momentum of the fast, Johansson revels in the exacting stillness of the slow.

Given the careful formality of Johansson’s previous bodies of work (largely made in Sweden, Germany, and America), his approach to urban Japan is a predictable continuation that mature point of view – he’s been meticulously thinking about how elemental volumes and lines operate in photographic space the world over for years now. Johansson’s Tokyo is dominated by the complex interplay of crisp angles, his choices reducing the cacophony of densely built space into managed views that are more modular and controlled, letting the flattening vision of the camera collapse spatial layers into a single plane of geometric patterning.

At their most spare, Johansson’s photographs are little more than perfect fields of squares and rectangles, the bricked and tiled walls of office buildings and apartment blocks cropped down with the utmost precision, the monochrome shades of grey seen with lushly exacting rigor. As Johansson moves back a step or two from these up-close fragments, the squared off volumes of the structures begin their own dance, with fields of windows, stone pavers, decorative concrete, and sleek lines converging into compositions of futuristic purity.

The messiness of reality starts to intrude as Johansson’s views take in more of the surroundings. Many of the most striking images here introduce an unlikely element of nature into these perfectly streamlined environments. Shorn hedges and stumped trees stand in lonely plazas, their imperfectly bent trunks and windswept branches elegantly hemmed in by the surrounding modernity, and isolated items (a playground slide, a rickety pushcart, a wire mesh gorilla) stick out from their backgrounds. Similar intrusions upset the mood of efficiency – leaning telephone poles, peeling paint, ubiquitous vending machines, chain link fences, a few scrubby alley weeds – each one a silent insult to the overall order. And as he wanders down back streets, the pictures become more like found still life arrangements, where overlooked flower pots, bamboo scaffolding, cardboard boxes, and other leftovers crowd into clusters.

Broader scenes require Johansson to employ other strategies. Several well made images carve the frame into layers of horizontals, where old/new, dark/light, and finished/under construction clash in tight juxtaposition. And when Johansson allows the claustrophobic intensity of the urban environment to fully rush in, his pictures take on the structure of symphonies, with slashing train tracks, knots of overhead wires, sound barriers, and expanses of paved street wrestling with the strict verticality of building edges, overpass girders, and facades of glass. In these pictures, the thick, all-over action seems to search for balance and equilibrium.

By staying within the genre boundaries of architectural abstraction, Johansson was bound to aesthetically bump into others who have made similar pictures in the past, and it’s hard not to imagine him walking along side by side with various contemporaries and masters in certain images. Echoes of Aaron Siskind abound in his intimate studies of fading strips of tape, calcified pipe residue, torn posters, and gummy strands of glue, their rich textures thick with engrossing detail. The witty interruptions of Lee Friedlander appear now and again, a light pole, fence rail, or sign post jutting up right where it shouldn’t be, adding a note of dissonance to an otherwise harmonious composition. And the deliberate manufactured blandness of Lewis Baltz takes its form in lonely single trees set against expanses of machined surface or the simplicity of flat rooflines and repetitions of closed doors. Perhaps the closest analogy comes with Nicholas Nixon’s cropped views of Boston, where complex layers of buildings become like patterned shards of wallpaper, each field of windows and brickwork its own unique contribution to the intricate compositional exercise.

Where Johansson differs, and sets himself apart from these other photographers, is in his subdued coolness. Few photographs ever made of restless Tokyo resonate with such deliberate patience. At their most impressive, these pictures celebrate the overlapped diversity of structural brilliance to be found in the city, and do so with an astonishing mastery of tonal gradation – the nuance in the shifting greys is masterfully managed. The book itself reproduces the photographs with reverent fidelity, the large reproductions encouraging slow and settled immersion in the silence, rather than quick visual consumption.

Together Johansson’s Tokyo photographs are a sophisticated investigation of the permutations of order, a study of the antiseptic and the hard edged, softened by the vagaries of time and the constant use of invisible humans. Wiped clean of its seductive grittiness and brash bustle, this Tokyo settles in to a kind of muted grace. Without the enlivening presence of its people, the city feels quietly left behind, its monuments to efficiency full of hollowed out optimism.

Collector’s POV: Gerry Johansson is represented by Galerie f5,6 in Munich (here) and Gun Gallery in Stockholm (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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