Photographer Keith Johnson sees more than double
Traveling with a friend by truck from New Haven to Texas in 1982, photographer Keith Johnson stopped at a rest area to gas up. Johnson’s attention was snagged by a display of tires. He photographed the tires looking east and looking west.
“It seemed like a silly concept at the time but there was no way to make that picture as a single image,” recalls Johnson.
Its concept required a diptych.
Interviewing Johnson at the Kehler Liddell Gallery in May while an exhibition of his recent works — noteworthy for his use of grids of related images — is on display, I ask him what he got out of that experience.
“License. I started thinking about the tag line I use in my workshops now: ‘So what’s a photograph supposed to look like, anyway?’ I like questioning that aspect of it,” says Johnson.
Early on in Johnson’s study of photography, he was impressed by the work of a couple of photographers — Bart Parker and, in particular, John Wood — who “extended the frame,” according to Johnson. Refusing to be constrained by the tradition of the solitary image, they propounded the idea that “when you see something that makes you stop and want to take a picture, perhaps a multiple of pictures tells the story much clearer in aggregate than a single picture does.”
“I started doing this kind of work in 1980 but nobody wanted to look at it. Galleries were not willing to take that risk,” Johnson recalls.
“It forced my hand to dealing more with the social landscape, defined more about looking at the way we claim the landscape,” says Johnson, who studied sociology in college.
Johnson graduated from college in 1972 and began his post-college photography studies at the Visual Studies Workshop, that fall. On his website, he describes himself as a “visual anthropologist.” Many of the images in his Road Work and Re: Man(ufactured) Space series depict built landscapes that are brimming with ironic detail. They are like a room that hasn’t been cleaned of clutter before the guests come over, not how we’d like to be seen but how we really are. Fenced-off landfills, construction work in progress — Johnson finds the scenic along the un-scenic route.
Beyond not being “timely” in the early 1980s, composite photography like Johnson currently creates was not technically feasible. His early efforts at composite photographs, which he describes as “more narrative in nature,” were limited to four or five frames.
Referring to the photographs on display in the Kehler Liddell Gallery show, Johnson asserts, “I couldn’t do these in a straight darkroom, period. One of the pictures in the back has 100 cells in it. It would take a week to print that and while printing it, you would screw it up. You couldn’t make two prints the same.”
Johnson describes the works at the Kehler Liddell Gallery as “time-based” rather than narrative-based.
“I think of them as still videos or video stills,” Johnson says, while adding that he isn’t interested in making actual videos.
For one work in the show, Plano Pool, Johnson set up his camera on a tripod and spent an hour photographing the light-dappled blue water in his brother-in-law’s swimming pool.
“The way the light played on the water because of the breeze was really compelling and quite beautiful,” says Johnson.
“If I made a picture with a video camera like that, it would simply look like water. In aggregate, these, how many frames there are, become more interesting than the individual frames are — more painterly and more layered,” says Johnson.
The images are recognizable as water. But once assembled in a grid, more formal aspects come to the fore: stripes, repeating sections of dark or light. In another work on display, Summer, which is a document of an hour-long summer storm over a lake, the multiplicity of images suggests a color field painting.
Johnson set up his camera knowing a storm was on the way. He took 60 pictures, one every minute. As he remembers — and he has the pictures to prove it — “it got real dark, got really rainy, got more rainy and then the sun came out. I could not have predicted it and didn’t expect it.” Arranged in a chronological grid, the changes in light and weather conditions transcend any function as documentary record. The work registers more as an abstract geometric painting with an emphasis on subtle tonal gradations.
Johnson says that in the 1970s he would shoot 50 or so rolls of film, spend a couple of days processing all the rolls, and then print contact sheets.
“Then the fun begins because you have a stack of contact sheets and a grease pencil and you start understanding your work,” he recalls.
In important ways, he argues, there isn’t a huge difference in the essence between digital and film photography. It is still all about an image on paper regardless of whether that image originated in light striking a silver emulsion or was captured as digital information in the form of pixels. What is different for him now is his workflow.
“I can go out and shoot 100 pictures and bring them into a program called Lightroom,” says Johnson.
Lightroom has a cataloging mode where Johnson “can keyword, search metadata, cluster pictures, and can arrange them so I can see them in ways I could never do with traditional film.”
In the case of the photograph Plano Pool, Johnson notes, “I can have all (the images) up on the screen at once so I can see what it looks like. I would have six or eight contact sheets with film.
“The idea of the extended picture is easier to handle digitally than in the traditional darkroom. The error component is reduced,” Johnson notes. “I’m all for making lots of mistakes in order to beget minor successes or even major successes.
“The objective is not to repeat yourself. It’s to grow, and grow by making mistakes and solving problems. The answers are almost always in the work,” says Johnson.
Johnson cites a quote by artist Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
According to Johnson, “You’ve got to go out and look and think and see and put yourself in situations where something might be available.”
He did just that by photographing the roof of a building at the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor during an artist residency. The white vinyl or rubber roof was scuffed with scratches probably made by workmen; bits of spring detritus from a nearby maple tree dotted the surface.
“I kept looking at that roof, thinking, ‘There’s something here,’” Johnson recalls.
During that time, he visited an exhibit of artist Rebecca Salter’s work at the Yale Center for British Art and was inspired by the way Salter cut up and reassembled her paintings.
“It was one of those moments: ‘I get it, I know what I’m supposed to do.’
“I’ve always made very flat pictures. It was kind of a license — you don’t have to have depth in a picture,” says Johnson.
Johnson first printed a grid of the roof images as they were photographed, calling it After Salter. But they tugged at his sleeve. There was something else there. And he found that something else when he inverted the tonal values in his computer: a night sky with bright stars of varying sizes (the maple tree detritus) and a meteor shower (the scuffs and scratches). This celestial vision, “Nova Salter,” became the starting point of an ongoing Nova Suite. In the Kehler Liddell show, along with the “Nova Salter” image, the suite encompasses faux night skies filled with stars, nebulae and meteorites that Johnson created out of manipulated images of Japanese chrysanthemums, a night snowstorm photographed with flash, and a lake surface flecked with foam.
Johnson has created suites before. In a 2009 Kehler Liddell show, “Transformations,” which he shared with sculptor Joe Saccio, Johnson exhibited his Suite Niagara, a series of photographic grids of the famous falls shot during an extended residency at CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Suite Niagara followed a timeline: the very first image in the suite is the first image Johnson shot, and, likewise, the last image in the suite was the last image he shot.
Johnson’s use of the grid format encourages the viewer to look closer, taking notice of the details as one searches out the differences between the individual cells. But in keeping with the theme of that show, Suite Niagara was also about a transformation in Johnson’s way of looking photographically at the falls, moving from a somewhat documentary approach — images of the falls with the Maid of the Mist cruising in the background in the first grid — toward greater abstraction as Johnson’s subject becomes less the falls per se and more the qualities of light on the water and the spray in the air. Nova Suite furthers this process, transforming one thing into something else.
I suggest to Johnson that, on the meta level, his current work is about visual language, sort of a linguistics of looking. He tells me that his first — and a continuing — photography mentor, Nathan Lyons of the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, “talked often about how photography and picture-making were about language and vocabulary.”
“I don’t know if I want to say my work has become more intellectual, but I’m more intellectual about my work,” says Johnson.