Editorial/fine art photographer Tom M Johnson admits he had not been drawn to art, much less photography, until he spent time in Paris in the 1980s. Before then, he was — through no fault of his own — attracted to sports and girls. But once in Paris, he made weekly trips to the beautiful galleries & museums around the city and soon became immersed in a culture deeply appreciative of art. He then bought a camera and with a little help from his friends finally learned to create art: he begin photographing.
Although it took time to find his visual voice, Johnson believes in persistence and committing oneself fully to perfecting one’s work. His dedication shows in his photography. His images are quiet, almost serendipitous yet always disciplined. His images are attracted to subtlety: color and composition blended perfectly within each other. It is no surprise that Johnson’s work has been received so well. He has been featured by the New York Times and LENSCRATCH, among many others. He has also worked with many celebrities, including Jack Black and Miranda July.
In this interview, Johnson talks about his time in Paris and how that influenced him, reveals his approach to on-location portraiture, and explains his sense of composition.
You say on your website that your photography is in many ways like you, “shy and hesitant to make an immediate impression.” Could you explain why you’re drawn to images that must be “unraveled” to be appreciated?
It’s not that I only appreciate photographs that need to be unraveled. There are plenty of images that I like and even taken that have an immediate impact. Yet, I’ve always been more attracted to subtlety. And underneath those pictures that need to be unraveled often lies deeper more meaningful narratives, which often ask more questions than they answer. One my favorite photographs that hangs in my home is “Swing” (above). It’s terribly subtle. I’ve entered it into several contests and it never seems to draw much attention, which, stubbornly, coaxes me to like it more. The photograph is deeply nostalgic, reminding me of my youth, growing up in a suburb. It was taken at twilight around the time, after a summer day of playing, my mom would hail me in for dinner and stillness would settle upon the neighborhood. There is feeling of serenity and security I take from this image. Years ago I took a workshop with Keith Carter, and it was he who made me aware of the mystery and beauty of twilight, or as the French like to say, “entre chien et loup,” the remaining light between the dog and the wolf.
Your “Au Bout de la Ligne” series is your take on photographing Paris, a city which has been photographed by nearly everyone. It’s also a callback to your life there in the 80s. What did Paris teach you about life and photography?
Growing up I wasn’t exposed to art nor interested in it. I was drawn to sports and girls. Then as a young man I was lucky enough to have a job that gave me the opportunity to live in Paris. By nature, I’m open and curious, and I was fortunate to make friends with many Parisians who had deep appreciation for art. With them I made weekly visits to galleries and museums and trips to other countries. In Paris art is everywhere: it’s not only seen at the monuments and museums, it’s in the French language, the way women dress, how their apartments are decorated, and how they approach life in general. The French make the time to savor the quality of the moment. Through my work I met photographers and as a result I eventually purchased a camera and with their help learned how to use it. I certainly wasn’t a natural. I took volumes of bad photographs, but I knew fairly early that this is what I wanted to do, so I stuck with it.
“Au Bout de la Ligne” is filled with many great locations. How do you sense when a location will make an interesting photograph? What are you looking for?
I once heard a photographer I highly respect say you have to take a lot of bad pictures before you take good pictures. Essentially you have to learn what works, and that takes many exposures and years of failed images. I like that you use the word sense when determining if a location will make an interesting photograph, because it truly is a sense. Initially, I look for something that catches my attention: it could be the way the light is brushing against something, a mix of colors that work, something odd or ironic, or someone unique. Then before I ever look through the viewfinder, I walk around the subject, study all its angles, and actually try not to make a photograph. That I feel is the disadvantage of shooting digital: the desire to see and have immediate results distracts oneself from sensing the environment. And please I don’t mean to come off as a snotty purist; I do exactly the same if I have a digital camera in my hands.
One of my favorites from that series is the 31st photo. I like the contrast of absolute dark, the menacing windows, and the pale green field. It seems like you were exposing for the shadows. How do you normally approach lighting? Just natural sources? How about off-camera setups?
If I had the resources I would approach every scene I photograph like Gregory Crewdson. I’d have several 10K HMIs and a crew of grips and electricians to move and adjust the lighting to my every whim. Wouldn’t that be nice! The only time I can add light to something is when I’m shooting, whether commissioned or personal, a set-up portrait. I have enough experience that I’m comfortable working with strobes. I’ve become fairly proficient balancing strobe with natural light, and with digital rendering immediate results it’s much easier now to play with and adjust lighting. However, because I’m a location and not a studio photographer I haven’t developed an impressive knowledge of all the modifiers of lights. I really admire the work of those photographers who have mastered lighting like Dan Winters and Nadav Kander, to name just a couple. But using light doesn’t necessarily mean you must use more than what is available. Being a photographer is a never ending study of the, natural or not, use of light. The source, quality, and direction of the light and time of day and weather are all factors on how I approach an exterior image. There are certain scenes that I’ll photograph in the middle of the day while others will have a much greater impact if I wait to photograph them at twilight.
You seem to be drawn to colorful architecture and iconography. The 21st image in your personal section is a great example. I love that you included the desert in frame. When you’re shooting, are there any guidelines to composition that inform your work? Or do you just feel it?
I thank you for observing that I am drawn to iconography. And I have absolutely no reason as to why, but your observation is correct, I am attracted to heroic structure. Perhaps because I’m a Virgo, I like my lines and composition neat and orderly. I suppose without ever having studied underneath them I am a student of the Bernd and Hilla Becher movement…. I really have no guidelines to composition. I consider proper composition like accurate exposure; it’s a necessity for the image to work. That written: It’s very hard for me to release the shutter if I don’t feel completely pleased with the composition, because composition embellishes the narrative. What makes the photograph you refer to compelling is isolated in the middle of nowhere is this bizarre little convenience store, so to give the viewer a sense of place the frame had to be expanded.
Like several of the families you photographed in “Lakewood”, many of your portraits of celebrities and artists avoid indoor settings. Why do you prefer taking portraits on location?
It’s not that I avoid interiors; it’s just that I am inspired by exterior locations. And although I’m not a landscape photographer I seem to thrive when I am outside. I don’t think I would be very happy living at a place where extreme weather conditions forced me to be locked indoors for months at a time. And it’s not just my visual senses that are aroused on location, I can be inspired by the sound and feel of the wind, the humidity or lack there of in the air, the smells of a hot summer day, a dog barking, the ring of a wind chime, or the honk of freight train in the distance. In attempting to answer this particular question it has become very apparent to me that what photographers choose to photograph is so much a reflection of who they are and all that has influenced their make-up. I’m sure I’ve read and been told this insight a hundred times, but now it truly resonates.
What advice would give to other photographers who may also decide on working with a client outside? Any advice you wish to share?
There is no substitute for experience. It would be very difficult for photographers who only work in a studio to know what to do if they are commissioned to shoot something outside. Obviously, the same applies in the opposite. If a photographer wishes to be capable of shooting outside, (s)he best make it a regular practice to shoot outside, so if (s)he decides or is forced to shoot an assignment outside (s)he has developed enough technique and awareness to pull it off. Second to experience is preparation. It’s best have scouted the location and have at least 3 solid options planned out before the shoot. And often for some unexpected reason you’re forced to discard your options and quickly come up with something on the fly, which in many cases, the unexpected, can lead to the best photographs.
It looks like you met some really interesting people and probably experienced a great deal. Could you share any particularly noteworthy stories? What would you say is greatest lesson you’ve learned during your photography career?
My favorite antidote, and it segues nicely from your last question was a shoot I had for the German Magazine, Stern. I was commissioned to photograph Jürgen Klinsmann, who at the time was the coach of Germany’s National Soccer team. He’s now the coach of USA’s National Soccer team. He was living in Huntington Beach and the shoot took place at the Huntington Beach Hilton Hotel, which sits adjacent to the beach. So I came up with this, at least I thought it was, brilliant idea to photograph him standing on the beach, barefooted, pant legs rolled up, one foot resting on a very large and colorful beach ball, and a huge smirk on face. The image I had in my mind was full of symbolism. Well, what I wasn’t aware of was there was a lot of criticism of his selection for the national team because he wasn’t living in Germany, and his critics in the German press mocked him as being a Southern California beach bum. Thus, my idea, unknowing to me, would be sticking it in the eye of those critics. So, after my assistants and I set-up the lights on the beach I drive to the hotel to meet with him. And before I can get word one out of my mouth he says to me “whatever you do, don’t photograph me near the beach!” Then he tells me that he needed to be somewhere, and that I only had 5 minutes to photograph him. Fortunately, I had on me my camera and a couple of rolls of film, so I found a spot with some O.K. light and made the best of it.
I have two pieces of advice to give, which I would tell anyone, who’s willing to listen, interested in making photography a career. 1. Throw ever fiber of your being into it, because the only way you’ll make it is to spare nothing and sacrifice everything. 2. And it is something I heard from Chris Buck. It is a valuable piece of advice that I probably would not have understood or appreciated when I was new at photography, however; now I find it extremely powerful, and something I have written big and bold on my mood board. Simply, “You have to raise your expectations to get the possible.”