Is Gerry Johansson the World's Most Antisocial Photographer?

By Caisa Ederyd

One of Sweden's most acclaimed photographers, Gerry Johansson takes photos of places created by people, but only when they're totally empty. It might sound kind of lonely, but if you like to imagine the weird lives of strangers all over the planet then Gerry's pictures are the perfect springboard. He's been around for decades so you might have encountered his work before, plus he caught the eye of famous photography organisation the Hasselblad Foundation, which is a pretty big deal.

Johansson has exhibited at places like the Museum of Art in Matsuyama, Japan, and the Modern Museum of Art in Stockholm, Sweden. His current exhibition Closing the Books America Sverige Ulan Bator Kvidinge Pontiac Deutschland at GunGallery in Stockholm, just opened. It features photos from six of Gerry's previously published books and marks a conclusion of the work he has been doing for close to 16 years. Since some of you won’t make it to the show (it's a pretty long round trip from the US), I called Gerry for a chat.

VICE: Hey Gerry, can you tell us about Closing The Books?
Gerry Johansson: Over the years, I made a series of books that all have things in common, but they were created in different places. The first book I made is called America and was released in 1998. Since then, I've done one book about Sweden, one about Germany, and one about Kvidinge, which is a community in Småland, Sweden, close to where I live. I also made a book about Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, and one book about the city Pontiac, you know like the car, Pontiac, outside of Detroit.

We've heard of it. Do you have a personal relationship with these places?
Not the three small ones. However, the three countries are personal to me. My dad studied in Germany before the war. I was born in 1945, so my entire childhood and everything around that was very influenced by Germany. During my childhood, pretty much all toys were from Germany. It was the place everyone [in Sweden] thought about and referred to outside of Sweden. Then, when I became a teenager, I got really interested in jazz music, so I automatically got interested in the US. And Sweden, of course, is the place where I grew up. 

So I get that Kvidinge and Pontiac have something in common with the countries you've portrayed, but what about Mongolia?
I guess you can call it a weird coincidence. I was making a sandwich one morning and a commercial was on about Ulan Bator. So I thought, "That seems fun, I should go."  My way of working isn't very structured. I just go to places, look at things, and try to figure out what they represent.

Why are there never people in your photographs?
I normally photograph places where there aren't that many people around, and I like to stay in areas like that as well. I’d rather walk on small streets than big avenues. But they’re all places that humans have created, like a playground, a back street, or a political sculpture.

A bit antisocial, maybe?
Hell no! I've done lots of assignments portraying people, but the thing is this: say that you want to capture a picture of a remarkable sculpture, and there's a person next to the sculpture. Then, almost always, most of the viewer's attention will go to this person in the picture rather than on the thing that was meant to be the focal point. the sculpture. I don't have people in my pictures because I want to highlight the place I'm capturing.

How often do people not “get” what you’re doing?
Sometimes people think, "Fuck, this is really boring," but the more they look at them, the more they understand that they are fun, in a way. And then they realize that it's sort of a cultural comment.

So it's not about getting rid of humans.
Definitely not. If you walk around in a crowded area, it's fun to see how people shape their places.

I've read that you like to photograph places where other photographers have been before.
Yeah, I'm very interested in photography and some of my pictures have been created in that way, it just happens that I'm at a place where someone else has been. Sometimes I look at places where I know that famous pictures previously have been taken. Then, I go there and take some pictures and move on.

What about that interests you?
Both things that actually have changed and things that have been standing still, are interesting. I mean, it's very fascinating to be at a place that looks exactly the same as it did maybe 80 years ago. Working alone with photography is kind of a subconscious process in terms of the things you see and what you happen to like at the time. When I take pictures, I'm not really about creating masterpieces – I'm not that upset if there's a picture in an exhibition that isn't that great. My exhibitions are more like the viewer's own little walk around. You stay longer on a picture you find relevant and then you continue.

Thanks Gerry!

Closing the Books America Sverige Ulan Bator Kvidinge Pontiac Deutschland is currently on at GunGallery, Runebergsgatan 3, SE-114 29 Stockholm, Sweden, 17-20pm. Check out more from Gerry here: gerryjohansson.com

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