Review: Deutschland by Gerry Johansson


Book Reviews, Photobooks


I got a book in the mail, a brick of a book really, which says “Deutschland / Gerry Johansson” on the spine, and it has two images on its cover, front and back1. The photograph on the cover, which you can see above, features a rather nondescript house that has what looks like a large cross lying on its side attached to it. When I’m writing that the cross is lying on its side, which in actuality it isn’t - it’s just as straight as the house, I’m referencing the Christian tradition of seeing a cross as something where the supporting beam is longer and the cross beam. Does this matter? I’m not sure. The photograph on the back features another house, just as nondescript as the one on the front, with one of those little electrical compartments so frequently found in Germany to the right of its entrance2. Just above said electrical compartment3 a large pretzel was painted, indicating a bakery might be nearby4.

There are many such images in Deutschland, photographs of buildings most people, Germans and non-Germans alike, simply don’t look at, because, presumably, there is nothing to be seen. The country is filled with anonymous architecture5 - buildings (seemingly) hastily constructed in the 1930s to around late 1980s, with one-look-fits-all single-family houses still being made that way, provided you have your Bausparvertrag. It takes a photographers, someone going around to look6, to find the details that usually are overlooked. There are many such details in the book. In contrast, there is precious little of what is usually considered to be depicting Germany in it.

The word that came to my mind when looking through Deutschland was tedious. Germany is a tedious country. The feeling of things being just tedious that pervaded the first thirty years of my life is forcefully brought back to me every time I open this book. Mind you, I have no idea whether anyone else will experience the book the same way. But still… For a start, the photographs are sequenced in such a way that the locations they were taken in is sorted alphabetically. It starts with Alt Horsbüll and ends with Würzburg. Given it’s a book about… well, containing photographs taken in Germany, this makes perfect sense7!

The alphabetical sequencing removes all thoughts of narrative (at least as far as expressing a narrative through the sequence is concerned). I have found myself looking at the names of the locations the photographs were taken in, in part because the images themselves do not reveal much - if anything - of what I know about the places. This, however, has not been overly helpful8. I have learned, however, that here is a photographer who is solely driven by his own unique vision, effortlessly (at least it appears that way) making his photographs wherever it might be, regardless of what the weather is like. The viewer is made to look, to look carefully, because the visual stimuli are subtle and not punchy.

Given that I talked about the tedious Germany earlier, the photographs make me think of photography as a social act in ways other than sharing a photograph of your breakfast on Facebook/Instagram. Given Johansson photographed little details, extracted details from the kind of larger picture anyone being there is inevitably exposed to, he is implicitly connecting with the makers of those details. You might do the most mundane and/or tedious things with just enough attention to make it obvious it wasn’t done carelessly - and that is what I find Johansson picking up on.

Deutschland was the book I probably was looking forward to the most this year - given I am such a fan of the 2011 Pontiac, and it delivers. Most certainly, it is one of my favourite photobooks this year. Highly recommended.

Deutschland, photographs by Gerry Johansson, 352 pages, Mack, 2012

1 Any mention of the term Deutschland is sure to have me write English as if it had the expressiveness of German (which it kind of does, but not really in the German ways), in particular the ability to hold people’s attention for longer than a subject and a verb plus, possibly, an object somewhere, with all kinds of attributes and particles added, here and there. So bear with me (or not - obviously, it’s up to you).
2 The reason why I’m saying that English is less expressive than German is provided by sentences like the last one. In German, you could express the clause “with one of those little electrical compartments so frequently found in Germany to the right of its entrance” in a much more concise and elegant way, using a possessive form of the equivalent of “which”. Long sentences, when written well, are elegant and simple in German. Going on yet another tangent, it would be interesting to investigate whether the shortening attention spans of our Western “culture” are due to the fact it has come to rely so heavily on English, which essentially not only not requires one, but for the most part demands not having one.
3 The compartment, btw, was adorned with the kind of graffiti that indicates that the person doing it cared just enough to leave some sort of mark, but not nearly enough to bother doing anything worthwhile.
4 Obviously, we don’t know that since the photograph does not give us that information. What is outside of the frame we have no knowledge of. That said, people don’t just paint elaborate pretzels on the outsides of their houses in Germany.
5 As far as I know, that is no architectural term. I could be wrong. I’m no architect. But I frankly also don’t care whether it’s a term used in architectural circles, because I’m interested in it for what it expresses.
6 I realize that this description of a photographer does not really apply any longer these days, given we’re all photographers now. But I’d rather agree that we’re all photographers than having a futile debate about the fact that photography can be about more than your cell phone plus social media (aka narcissism). I will admit, the sheer number of articles about Instagram, most of which reduced photography to its barest essentials, has beaten me down. It has not been a good year for critical writing about photography.
7 I don’t own Johansson’s Amerika, say, which also presents its images that way. From the artist’s website it appears his books often were (and still are) sequenced alphabetically.
8 To be honest, I don’t really know what I’m expecting here. “Ah, of course! Bad Brückenau!” possibly? What the hell would that even mean?