Halland / Gerry Johansson and the Windmills of your Mind, by Torsten Nyström

The slash stroke is used by Gerry Johansson for most of his photobook titles, ever since ”Amerika / Gerry Johansson”, 1998. Now he has published ”Halland / Gerry Johansson”. Name of landscape precedes name of author but it can also be interpreted as reality viewed through a temperament. Grotesque fonts. Linen cover. No dust jacket. Matte paper. Captions only naming location.

But ”Halland” is a bit different from Johansson’s standard format (I almost wrote ”franchise”): Photograph tipped-in only on front cover; not on back cover. Vignette is a prose poem instead of basic statistics. The 9x9cm format (could be smaller than contact print size), is abandoned for 13,2×12,7, which means landscape photos in portrait mode by half a centimetre.

Perhaps the most significant change is that photos are no more sequenced in alphabetical order of place names, going from the unintentional pun to the intentional, most obvious in the spread placing photos of boulder and bucket opposite to one another like part of a rock-paper-scissors game.

And then there are the windmills.

The English and German languages keep the word windmill for a ”structure that converts the energy of wind into rotational energy” (Wikipedia), while the French say éolienne from Aeolus, the Greek god of winds. And here they are in Halland: alien contraptions reminding you of sci-fi movies like The Day of the Triffids or War of the Worlds.

Either Johansson made a virtue of necessity; impossible to avoid these unorganic structures in their supranatural whiteness, like so many Mt. Fuji? I thought there was one unwindmillish photo, but by the feet of pylons there it is: a hull, waiting to be erected, probably. Or he was bent on making a book with a conceptual twist like his Tyre Choice (2017; I wrote about it in this magazine). Or both.

From school I remember the names of the rivers in Halland, Sweden’s Southwesternmost province, thanks to a mnemonic: Äta Ni så Laga Vi. Ätran, Nissan, Lagan, Viskan. But Gerry Johansson is not that interested in rivers; he’s more of an inland photographer, also when he now has gone back to the coastal province of Halland which he photographed 34 years ago; that time meticulously documenting what had happened within the same framing of the camera as C.G. Rosenberg chose in the thirties.

So, there are three years of publication involved here: C.G. Rosenberg’s ”Halland” 1933; Rosenberg’s and Gerry Johansson’s ”Halland – Thirties and Eighties” 1985 and ”Halland / Gerry Johansson” 2019. Statistics say four fifths of Sweden is covered by forests and lakes and if someone combed through Swedish photography production since the end of the nineteenth century he or she probably would conclude that landscape photography, tilted towards nature with animals, is a favourite pastime and art.

The Halland books of Rosenberg and Johansson are part of this tradition, but mostly without animals or people appearing in the pictures. Primarily the tradition is manifested in a century-long stocktaking of Swedish provinces made in yearbooks for the Swedish Tourist Association (STF). Also important is the project that Mårten Sjöbeck did for Statens Järnvägar, SJ, (Swedish State Railways), from 1928 to 1953 in photobooks (with a lot of text), about all the provinces except for the Northernmost and largest ones.

Sjöbeck’s SJ book on Halland (1931) has an image of menhirs and a storm bent tree that is almost identical to an image Rosenberg published a couple of years later and not that different from Johansson’s image 1985. These ancient menhirs front the cover of ”Halland / Gerry Johansson” but now they seem to be leaning towards their fall, in the opposite direction of the wind-blown tree and in front of the compulsory windmill.

Johansson uses a phrase from Sjöbeck’s book on Halland, ”The sky throws a vault over Halland”, but now there are propellers in the vault.

Johansson’s precurser published in parallell with Johansson in the 1985 photobook, C.G. Rosenberg, was a prolific photographer for the STF yearbooks and other publications of STF. Rosenberg’s father was a late nineteenth centure landscape painter and Rosenberg reproduced many of his fathers paintings in photos  (image-google Edward Rosenberg).

When C.G. Rosenberg travelled with his three light cameras – unlike the big format cameras that Gerry Johansson and others made popular again – through Halland in 1932, seven power plants were already constructed in the rivers (one of them, Lagans Stup, took 25 years to build). Besides the scrubs proliferation and some new bridges, the landscape had not changed that much when Johansson returned to Rosenberg’s viewpoints after fifty years.

Then whoooosh came the horizontal axis windturbines. While a 1932 windmill photographed in 1982 was converted into a bar and another had lost its wooden wings, the fiber-reinforced composite blades of the omnipresent windmills of today point in three directions, like the hands of a clock.

In his book “Why the West Rules – For Now” (2010), Ian Morris, the British archeologist and professor of Classics at Stanford University, wrote: “We might say that while geography drives social development, social development determines what geography means”. Morris’ prime example is the European location by the Atlantic – originally a backwater compared to the vibrant Middle East, but eventually, with industrialism and improved ships, center of the world.

Archaic social development in Halland, resulted in pillage of its forests and opening up of the landscape for sea winds that forced farmers of old to build protective square yards. The result is called a ”woodland without trees” by Jan Olsheden in Rosenberg/Johansson’s 1985 book. But, judging from the new book, the forest is back in Halland with a vengeance. Together with the windmill invasion, that makes two major and recent changes to the meaning of Halland’s geography.

It also means new topographics, a man-altered landscape, to use the title of the famous 1975 exhibition in USA. And to continue in the parlance of landscape photography history, let’s consider Eko90, a Swedish successor to American FSA of the thirties and the French more recent DATAR.

After his first Halland project, Gerry Johansson was one of 26 photographers and eight writers enrolled by the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs to work with the project Eko90. They would document changes in the environment during 1990.

A forerunner to Eko90, besides the historical FSA and DATAR, was a plan proposed in 1967 by John Granlund, a professor of ethnology, to set up service stations; fixed observation points, throughout the country, in order to document changes in the environment. After Eko90 that thought was never realized and the results of Eko90 were filed in museum archives. Part of the images and texts were published in ”I människans hand” (In the human hand, 1994).

Finally I’d like to note that the oeuvre of Johansson includes five small books on sculpture and sculpture exhibitions. His first book, also the catalogue of his first solo exhibition ”Fotografier 1976-80” (1980) is fronted by a photo of a sculpture, with a photographer in the background. Untill last year Gerry Johansson worked as the ”court photographer” of the annual architecture/sculpture/nature exhibitions at ”Kivik Art Centre” (Kivik previously being famous for its market dominated by horse-trading and live sex performances).

Bernd and Hilla Becher 1970 called their photo series of industrial structures ”anonymous sculptures”.

In ”Halland / Gerry Johansson” the sculpture is the horizontal axess windturbine, multiplied like a photography.

Halland by Gerry Johansson can be purchased here.

Torsten Nyström has been working as a newsphoto editor for forty years. He has published hundreds of columns on photography and curated two major exhibitions of Soviet post-war photography (APN). Following that, he helped Mark Holborn make the photobook “Propaganda” (published in three different editions in 2006). In 2013, Torsten Nyström published an essay about the Göttingen publisher Steidl for the catalogue of the exhibition “How to make a book with Steidl”, at Daelim Museum in Seoul.