Why I am a Photographer
I suspect I became a photographer from seeds planted long before I seriously picked up a camera. I remember wandering the back country roads of California's San Joaquin Valley and being amazed by the fading horizon and seemingly endless space. After a rain the air was so clear I could look west and the towering Sierra Nevada range seemed so close I could reach out and touch Yosemite. Looking back, it is no surprise that I wanted to hold these images, fix them in a way I could point to and say "look, isn't this amazing?"
My first real appreciation of my photography came many years after starting. At first, I kept doing it because I enjoyed it, not because I showed any particular talent. It was years before I made any images that showed real promise.
My motivations have not changed much since then. Landscape photography became for me a great combination of things I loved––being outdoors, loving to make things and a fascination with technology. Landscape photography met many of those interests. My interest in technology meshes well with the fact that photography has always been involved in the highest technology of its time. I now spend much of my time pursuing all three simultaneously, making my high resolution digital landscape photographs in great places like the national parks.
In the early nineties, after many years of teaching part time, I was hired for a full-time teaching position. At a pre-school get together I remember being asked what I would rather be doing. I said I'd rather be in orbit around Jupiter with an 8x10 camera. The natural forms in the dunes of Mars and the clouds of Jupiter still beckon me on. I still long to see with my own eyes the landscapes of other worlds. The order, beauty and puzzle of these unexplored vistas remain a passion for me. Just as they did when I was 12 years old, surrounded by a TV, reel to reel tape recorders, books and magazines, for days on end watching the progress of Apollo 11 and our first steps on the moon.
Photography became a career choice for me because it blended together my love of the outdoors, my desire to make things, and my interest in technology. By the time I was in college in my late teens, it became the obvious choice of my heart. I knew it was likely to be a marginal financial choice, but I am happy with the decision. With the places I've seen, the people I've met and the opportunities I've had to make a difference, my photography career has brought a richness to my life that I could never have imagined.
While deeply influenced by many photographers, the people who come to mind are Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, and Eliot Porter.
Photography and the Real World
Photography seems to me to be about using technology to hold the joy and angst of seeing in order to share it with others. The power of photography to communicate is based on its perceived reality. When the photograph portrays real light, captured from a real scene, it has the potential for impact that few other media can match.
I believe the digital file can render the light more accurately than silver, and can be skewed to add warmth if that is your desire. My own sense is that we've gone around trying to make nature "better" for so long that it is long past time to get out of the way to some degree and let it be the beauty that we see. Film colors the world differently than our eyes, and we all fell in love with photography through that skew. It is not the only way of seeing, and our eyes and heart have much to say without film's distortion. I'm interested in letting the real light and color from even the most "ordinary" scene come through and am amazed at just how wondrous this visual world really is.
I am still amazed at the speed at which digital technology has moved. But as one of it's early proponents, I certainly understand why. Film just cannot compare in quality to the high end of digital photography.
Process and Vision
As I wander the planet, I am keenly aware of light and form. My eyes are in a constant search for ways of translating what I see into a record that holds some representation of the beauty before my eyes, that I can in turn, share with others. Sometimes I feel like little more than a skilled translator, other times I know that what I've seen and held would be missed by many.
I hope that my work is timeless, immune from the stylistic gyrations of modern art judgments. Others will have to make that assessment. I know that the forms and relationships I seek, the natural world we have co-evolved with, reach toward something essential in our heart and soul. The restrained natural color and form of a light-filled pastel world is where my photographs come from, and that is the world I want others to see and appreciate.
Although any art is somewhat limited by the technology of its time, I hope that my work is less about the time in history that I lived and the current human condition, than it is about the timeless condition of being a human on the planet earth. It will be fascinating to see how some of these notions might change as we move to other worlds. I suspect our language will broaden, and we talk about our place as humans moving through the natural forms and wonders of our universe and the notion of home is enlarged.
The Business of Photography
I've always been pleased and flattered when people spend their money to own my work. It is gratifying to earn my living from doing what I love to do. Of course, much of my time is spent doing email, on the phone, teaching, in meetings and planning various projects, but the photography is the core reason behind it all. Sometimes those details get boring, and the struggle to earn enough money to keep going remains very real. My photography is my only job, although I do occasionally consult with companies that need my help.
My photography is my life's work. I hope to make a difference with my work. I will do it as long as I am physically able, and as I am in pretty good shape, I hope that to be well into the 21st century.
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Photographs and Text Copyright ©2011, Stephen Johnson. All Rights Reserved.