Joe Johnson creates unforgettable images of everyday places.
Though he’s only 31, Joe Johnson often makes images the way his grandfather might have done them, on film, with a 50-year-old 4x5 view camera from a platform atop his late-model station wagon. But Johnson cares little for nostalgia. His color exposures, developed and printed on a show-stopping scale, reflect an aggressively contemporary aesthetic: angular, otherworldly cityscapes viewed from lonely rooftops at night; high-tech video production facilities, luridly illuminated, in Midwestern “mega-churches;” working-class men, women and kids frozen in landscapes that seem to mock their modest ambitions.
Edward Weston, one of the previous century’s most influential photographers, famously remarked that he wasn’t interested in unusual subject matter, but in “making the commonplace unusual.” So it is with Johnson’s photos. “The idea of subject being at once familiar but also alien or unfamiliar is something inherent in photography — something that excites me about it,” says Johnson, an assistant professor of art at MU. “That gap between what you understand — what you’re bringing to the image — and how the image complicates that understanding is ultimately what I enjoy about photographs.”
Ambiguities about representation and reality are particularly appropriate these days, Johnson says, given that our society’s new, perhaps justifiably paranoid style extends even to the artist with his camera. “People are afraid of photography in a way they never were before. It’s largely because of the Internet, because of the way that your image is more likely to be disseminated in astonishing ways. When I’m out in the world and I engage with people they are more curious with this old view camera; they want to see into the back of it, they want to understand a little bit about how the picture is being made. If I were a guy with a Canon camera and a big lens… there would be a very different reception.”
That Johnson has little trouble building a rapport with his subjects is obvious from the finished work, a selection of which is displayed on this page and via a multimedia presentation. Also obvious is that his sensibilities, and sensitivity, don’t get in the way of a disciplined, demanding approach toward the work. “One of the things I stress with my students,” Johnson says, “is that they approach the making of their images with intention; that the edges of the image are not passive; that the way the image reads to the viewer hinges on the fact that it was not made an inch to the left or an inch to the right, but that it was made exactly the way it was made.”