Review: Pontiac by Gerry Johansson


Book Reviews, Photobooks


Well, well, well. A Swedish photographer, Gerry Johansson, might have made the most poignant book about the economic distress many American cities (and regions) find themselves in: Pontiac. The book operates in the same way the setting of the movie Ghost Dog works: It looks like an American city, but it could be almost any American city. Of course, Pontiac is a real town in Michigan. You get all the vital statistics right after the book’s title page. But Johansson photographs it so that it becomes any of those American cities whose unemployment rate has quadrupled from 2000 to 2010, any of those American cities that have about a quarter of their families living below poverty level. (more)

The first thing one notices about Pontiac is its size: It’s a relatively small book. Open the book, and you’ll find that the photographs themselves are even smaller. Square photographs, they’re 3.5 inches (9 cm) on the side. I don’t have any of Johansson’s books (Amerika looks amazing), but they all seem to be designed pretty much the same way, with these small b/w photographs. You might find that to be too small a size, but as it turns out it works amazingly well. One could put Pontiac next to any of those large colour photobooks about, say, Detroit, and the physical contrast could not possibly be any larger. Large colour pages versus small pages with even smaller b/w photographs on them. The large books try to overwhelm you visually. In contrast, Pontiac requires you to look carefully, very carefully in fact. Pontiac requires you to do work, instead of doing it for you.

But the work you need to put into the book is well worth it. For a start, the photographs are amazing. They are often very simple, created with careful attention to detail. You’ll start finding things, finding clues what might be going on, and these clues are then connected to other clues in the book. With the locations of the photographs given underneath them, you are taken on a walk around town, a walk that for the most part does not run into other people. There are less than a handful images in the book that have humans in them - in those, the humans are small, anonymous. It’s almost as if Pontiac were a ghost town.

Unlike many other books about these kinds of town, Pontiac doesn’t seem to focus on one aspect at all. You get to see everything, from the inner city to the old and new suburbs, the churches, parking garages. It’s all there. There is a very clear and smart artistic agenda, but there is no obvious political agenda. The more often you look at the book, the more things you discover. It makes you think, but before it does that it makes you feel something. Highly recommended.

Pontiac, Photographs by Gerry Johansson, 64 pages, Mack, 2011

(find my presentation of the book here)