Simon Johansson, The Young Ones

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Journal Photobooks (here). Clothbound hardcover, 220×250 mm, 132 pages, with 63 black and white reproductions. Includes an essay by the artist in Swedish/English. Design by Gösta Flemming and the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Swedish photographer Simon Johansson has chosen a very specific slice of childhood as the subject of his photobook The Young Ones. Older than toddlers but younger than tweens, the children in his black-and-white photographs roughly range between the ages of 4 and 10, and he examines the contours of their lives with care and attention. What he finds is richer and more subtle than we might have remembered, a busy transitional zone where kids start to see themselves as individuals, social connections get more complicated, and the surrounding world starts to become quite a bit larger.

In contrast to Helen Levitt’s city kids playing on front stoops and concrete sidewalks, Johansson’s children are mostly rural (or at least suburban), with the dirt and wetness of the outdoors never far away. And as we might have predicted, improvised, unstructured play is often the answer for filling empty afternoons. Kids carry each other, get physical with wrestling and almost-fighting, and enjoy the simple pleasures of running, jumping, cartwheeling, and being licked by a friendly dog. They make costumes out of duct tape, cardboard, and hay, fight unseen evildoers with plastic blasters and high tech superhero eyewear, and make inexplicable games out of wheelbarrows and swim fins. And they often end up with a naturally feral look, with painted faces, dirty hands, and grubby feet, unfussed over by parents.

Johansson’s images get more complex when he keys in on the kids’ first signs of emotional awareness and social maneuvering. Many pictures capture a central child showing off, trying to grab the attention of the surrounding throng – a naked boy revels in the attention of the other children as he balances on a blow up raft; a girl swings from the barn rafters with wide eyes; another boy enjoys his turn sliding underneath the limbo bar; a third boy covers his eyes and mouth with sliced cucumber; and a fourth bravely jumps down the stairs past his two friends. Johansson then turns the other way to watch the other side of these performative interactions, where the younger, quieter kids try to keep up with the older ones, catching glimpses of their reactions to being left out. A young boy drags his tricycle behind him as two older ones walk away, siblings huddle near an older sister heading off for a sleepover, and a boy too short for the amusement park ride rages against the injustice of the system. Tears aren’t far behind in any of these situations.

Some of Johansson’s strongest photographs push deeper into a zone of uneasiness and uncertainty, where the children seen momentarily overwhelmed by the world around them. He shows us a dejected (or just weary) child dragging a sled, a girl wrapped in her own thoughts before the Christmas presents are opened, and a younger girl warily taking in the awe-inspiring hugeness of a bush in the garden. Often he uses the darker half of the palette – the shades of grey nearer charcoal and black – to set the mood in these scenes, giving the shadows and corners a more ominous and sometimes scary effect. In many cases, a child is seen alone, sitting at a restaurant table, knocking on a closed door, watching out a window, or peeking out from behind a column, and we feel their momentary anxiety and fear. In still other pictures, the facial expressions are even more concerned, a boy sitting at a table with vegetables, another waiting behind a van, and a group watching from a train window all on the edge of distress.

Johansson balances these small sufferings with images that capture kids in moments of introspection or quiet confidence. We watch a girl intently trace her name in a fogged window and another sits pensively in a sand pit, busy with a shovel and bucket. There is grace in the movement of a boy putting on his sandals in the back of truck, and curiosity in another who looks for what might be found in a small overgrown creek. In all of these photographs, Johansson highlights the beginnings of identity, self reliance, and contentment, where exploration and experimentation are learning in disguise.

The design of The Young Ones is quite traditional and understated. Images are generally shown on the right side of a spread, with a handful of horizontally oriented pictures shown somewhat larger across the gutter. The title is printed in a loose script on the cover, across a misted image of a girls in a sauna, creating a fuzzed, nostalgic atmosphere; its shrouded darkness is also a signal that the color range of this photobook will lean toward darkness.

The Young Ones succeeds not only because Johansson’s photographs are so consistently strong. He treats this age range as its own separate developmental stage, not just as passing through to adolescence, and seeks to document its nuances. The result is a set of pictures that tries to tease out the ideas, emotions, and situations that these kids are dealing with. The photographs are evidence of Johansson’s empathetic attention, and of being aware of the kinds of moments that might produce a visual expression of the psychological changes taking place in the children. It doesn’t feel like a lucky accident that Johansson has documented so many quietly tense and often poetic situations where emotions are fleetingly on the surface of a child’s face. Instead, this photobook feels patiently and impressively considered, like a taxonomy of typically hidden and overlooked truths.

Collector’s POV: Simon Johansson does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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