A Special-Effects Master Makes Magical Photographs of Nature

In “WAVE LENGTHS,” an exhibition of new prints at Santa Monica’s William Turner Gallery, Jay Mark Johnson expands on his “timeline” photos of people moving through space and time, and now turns his lens toward the natural world.

  • Installation view of “Jay Mark Johnson: WAVE LENGTHS,” courtesy of William Turner Gallery.

A gifted special-effects master who has worked on such movies as Titanic and The Matrix, Johnson is also an inventive visual artist who has collaborated with Kiki Smith, Nan Goldin, and Jimmie Durham. He has worked with architects such as Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman, and in all of his efforts he has explored the visualization of scientific principles.

Johnson’s recent work, all made over the past decade, attempts to capture the flow of time by depicting composite images of the flow of water. Using a proprietary process, he has photographed waves breaking along coastlines around the world, capturing them over and over as they roll down beaches, which have been abstracted into fields of colorful lines.

Johnson doesn’t make conventional panoramas. Rather than capturing a scene in its totality, they show its development. Consequently, each photo depicts only one wave, repeated over and over; viewing the image from left to right is equivalent to looking backwards in time. Johnson calls his scientific images “timelines” or “space-time photography.”

In many ways, Johnson’s photographs allude to painting. In COZUMEL WAVES #4, Cozumel, Mexico, 2009 (2009) and STORM AT SEA #1, Los Angeles 2010 (2010), much of the natural world is reduced to horizontal lines of color, running across the top or bottom of the image. In the center of each, one wave is shown in different stages of development as it breaks at the coast. They come in parallel lines before exploding at the center of the canvas, appearing like expressionistic painterly marks.

All of Johnson’s photos are printed at a tremendous scale, up to 10 feet long, with exceptional detail and very sharp, high color. BIG SUR #24 Big Sur 2012 (2012) maintains the precision of the corduroy-like waves over its entire breadth, which is more than eight feet.

Like pioneers in this field, such as Eadweard Muybridge and Giacomo Balla, Johnson visualizes time and space in their naturally linked form. “The brain doesn’t get them,” he says of his photos. “So they’re challenging. When you look at them you think, This is a real photograph, but something is wrong.” Invoking an almost magical aura through his scientific process, Johnson shows the world in ways we can only imagine and never otherwise see.

—Stephen Dillon

Jay Mark Johnson: WAVE LENGTHS” is on view at William Turner Gallery, Santa Monica, Apr. 18–May 23, 2015.

Discover more artists at William Turner Gallery.

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