Focus on Nature Interview
Interview with Stephen Johnson
Interview conducted by Einar Erlendsson discussing the 2009 Focus on Nature Iceland photography workshop with photographer Stephen Johnson.
EE: Einar Erlendsson
EE: Last summer you landed on Iceland for the first time and you are prepared to come again?
SJ: I’m very much looking forward to returning to Iceland. My first visit brought me a sense of the place and people, and I’m sure my return will deepen those impressions.
EE: What are you most looking forward to seeing in Iceland?
SJ: I’m looking forward to the pleasure of seeing my students be wow-ed by this landscape. The intricacy of so many of the landforms, the unusual shape and juxtaposition of visual phenomena, are all scenes I’m looking forward to sharing.
EE: Do you see the light in Iceland as being different in some way?
SJ: Everyplace has its own unique light, influenced by its location on the planet, the season and the current weather. But it is the land that reflects and often embodies our sense of light from a place. It is a softness and Icelandic color that I look forward to seeing again.
EE: What in the landscape inspires you?
SJ: I have a lifelong fascination with the natural beauty of form and color in the real world. This planet is a fundamentally remarkable place, already dramatically self-embellished and full of wonder. It is that draw that made me a landscape photographer, and that is what draws me back to Iceland.
EE: Do you feel that the Icelandic workshop is different or has a character you can explain in few words to participants?
SJ: Iceland is a fundamentally different place than any other I’ve been. That in itself makes for a very different workshop. This distance from familiar turf, the side-by-side nature of fire and ice on the island, are all parts of what should make this a very unique experience.
EE: What’s your teaching style?
SJ: I believe in engaged, involved, proactive teaching. I try very hard to sense people’s needs and prepare them for the work, and will not shy away from asking the hard questions, primarily onsite where I can make the biggest difference, but also after the fact to better engage their curiosities and sense their needs for the next field trip out.
EE: During field trips, do you set assignments or how do you influence the workshop participants?
SJ: The assignment is always to see with strength and simplicity, to distill down from a big complex world a small little photographic universe of order and beauty. I ask people to always consider design, but primary to recognize and follow their visual curiosities.
EE: Do you like to include critique sessions in you workshops?
SJ: Critiques are very critical to a successful workshop. They engage people in a selection and understanding of their work, become informed of other’s ways of seeing and can tackle technical problems as they arise.
EE: What are your students mostly likely to learn?
SJ: To be better, more sensitive photographers.
EE: When the weather gets challenging what are you most likely to do?
SJ: Changing weather leads to ethereal light. Protect the gear as best you can, but go out and photograph. Only let the most extreme conditions make you witness the weather from some shelter.
EE: What do you like most about teaching?
SJ: I teach because I’m engaged in a process of trying to help my students have rich visual lives, and because of the inspiration they give to each other and back to me. It is also true that if there is stuff in my head that can be helpful to someone else, it almost seems a crime to keep it locked up just inside of me.
EE: What characteristic do you feel will be of importance for participants to nurture and develop staying with you out in the country during the Iceland workshop, that should last after they return home?
SJ: I always hope that a workshop with me teaches people to slow down, engage in the process, look, feel, enjoy, distill and worry far less about product and quantity and than experience and wonder.
EE: How would you describe your photographic approach?
SJ: I photograph because I am fascinated by what I see. I try to photograph in the most straightforward way possible to fix that fascination into photographic form.
EE: How would you characterize your visual style?
SJ: I’m in love with sensual design and light-filled form. I enjoy light more than darkness and I think my photographic style reflects that seduction.
EE: Do you have a personal concept or future project in mind before you travel to a place like Iceland?
SJ: I rarely go out with an agenda. I like to get lost in where I am and let the place lead my eyes and heart.
EE: Does it make the difference to have been in Iceland last summer, and if so, what?
SJ: Being in Iceland last summer was almost a prerequisite for teaching there. I try to only teach where I’ve already been as it gives me a sense of what the place is and what I want to make sure people notice. Of course, every visit to a place leads to completely new and unique experiences.
EE: Thank you Stephen Johnson for taking your time.
Iceland: Mastery of Landscape
July 26-August 1, 2009
In Iceland, the wondrous and raw volcanic landscape, geothermal features and sheer remoteness are the settings for this experience. Water and sea, weather and mountains, reflection and growth...come spend the week with us. We will work in the field and on our laptops. We will interact with what has been done. We will look, ask much of our work and press on to make it as strong and sensitive as possible.