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 theHasselblad 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.
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I Don’t ‘Get’ Instagram
Hey, you know what’s not actually a new thing and that people can all stop going crazy about? Having a phone on your camera. I mean, my phone cost £11.99 and it’s got a fucking camera on it. Getting excited about having a camera on your phone is a bit like getting excited about having a takeaway coffee or playing a song off your laptop. It ain’t no thing.
Still, half the adverts I see on TV are for cameras and phones with cameras on them. There’s usually a smiling mum photographing her snowboarding child in the ultra zoom and capturing their soul in a Twitpic forever, and we’re all being told we should be doing this. We’re told that life is passing us by and that if we don’t take pictures of every banal moment in our lives – like Guy Pearce in Memento – these moments will be lost to us forever. It’s like we’re being told not to trust our own memories.
We’re not just being encouraged to be the official club photographers of our own existences, either – we’re also being told that we should be documenting every meal as if we were preparing for a retrospective at the Saatchi gallery. This idea finds its epitome and is perpetuated most fervently by something called Instagram. You might have heard of it.
I don’t know what it was about the turn of the century – maybe we all got carried away and thought we were the “chosen ones” because our lives spanned two different millennia? – but something in the atmosphere at that time seemed to make us fall in love with ourselves. Our inflated sense of self-esteem is probably why we were complacent enough to allow Travis and jeans that looked like tents to pass as youth culture and why we all bought into the myth that there was an artist in residence within all of us. No longer did we have to be constructive members of society to survive its wilderness, we could all make a living designing logos for juice bars and running our own coffee shops/galleries/grime labels. Don’t have the requisite money, talent, intelligence or motivation to do that? It’s cool, just get a bank loan or win a competition, or something – we got you, B.
Think I’m generalising? Well, in 2001, I rode my micro scooter into school one day to be told by my art teacher that I’d been commissioned by the council to design a mural for a local underpass. This confused me, partly because I was 12 and partly because I was old enough to realise that I was a shitty artist. I declined, went on to achieve a G-grade at GCSE, killed my art teacher’s dream that I had my own suburban version of Guernicaburied within me and spent the rest of my adolescence telling posh girls that I wasn’t appreciated by the heathens at the exam board and that Van Gogh never sold a painting either.
In the cold light of the dole queue, most of us now realise that this was a complete crock of shit, and it’s probably the reason why anyone under the age of 30 is an insufferable bastard with a sense of entitlement equal to that of an exiled Nepalese prince (myself included). The age of Blair begat the culture of rampant self-obsession and bullshit aspiration that brought us Olly Riley and Emmanuel Frimpong rather than the next Issac Newton.
Then there was Banksy, who proved that all you really needed to make it as an artist was a series of ill-informed, left of centre, political metaphors and a rudimentrary understanding of graphic design to get Alan Yentob and Alain De Botton calling you “The Shoreditch Goya” or some shit.
Of course, this has been going on for a while and you only need to go to any South London art college’s graduate private view to see that the vast majority of modern creatives should’ve just taken that job at Snappy Snaps. Recently, though, this ludicrous idea that anybody can be a doyenne of self-expression has found its cruddy conclusion in the unlikely guise of a free smartphone app.