Why Photography Should Show Not Just What a Place Looks Like
On a quick hiatus from her residency at Canada’s Banff Center, Sarah Anne Johnson will sneak away to New York for her opening at Julie Saul gallery where she’ll debut “Wonderlust,” a new series exploring sexuality and intimacy in couples. Then she’s off to Art Toronto—where she’ll celebrate her benefit edition, install her work at Stephen Bulger’s booth, partake in a conversation with art critic Meeka Walsh, and introduce her artist commission at the Louis Vuitton store. Exhausted only thinking about it, in a moment of calm before Art Toronto, Johnson spoke with Artsy on why photographers should strive to add to the medium, her own process in manipulating her photos, the experience of photographing couples in their most private moments, and most importantly, why photography, more than showing what a place looks like, must show what it feels like.
Artsy: First, can you tell us about the benefit edition you’ve created for Art Toronto?
Sarah Anne Johnson: It’s a limited edition, digital C-print with an image that I took while on an artist’s residency in the Arctic Circle in Norway, and the surface of the image has been altered with gold leaf, applied in the shape of a giant triangle, in the middle of the landscape. And then I painted the shadow of a rectangle onto the image with photospotting inks.
Artsy: Can you tell us more about this Arctic Wonderland project, which was featured in the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art’s “Spectral Landscape” exhibition last spring?
SAJ: With that work, I was invited to go on an artist’s residency that was two weeks in the Arctic Circle up in Norway, on board a 100-year-old, two-mast schooner. And so I went and took a bunch of photographs that I was deeply disappointed in when I got back. There were a lot of photographers on the boat, and everyone was shooting digital, so we would go on shore for daily excursions and then come back and show each other our pictures—and everyone was taking the exact same photographs because it was so exotic, and we were all experiencing the same thing at the same time. So after I got home I thought: Well, I could put a nice calendar together to give away as gifts to my family for Christmas. But at the time I was reading a lot about climate change and global warming—that’s where I get a lot of my inspiration—and as I was reading, I was reminiscing about this trip to the arctic and looking at the pictures that I took. I realized that I could just paint all the images in my head, all my worries and concerns and hopes for the Arctic and for the history of climate change and global warming, I could paint all that imagery right onto the image itself. So I used a bunch of different mediums—acrylic ink, and india ink, and photospotting ink, and gouache—and I scratched on top of the prints.
Artsy: As a photographer, your hand is very present, almost like a return to traditional photography. Can you talk a bit about what your process means to your work?
SAJ: I’ve been thinking lately about the state of photography, and I don’t think that you can take a straight image anymore. There are just too many pictures out there. And news photography and documentary photography have all caught up to art photography; documentary photography now looks like how art photography looks. So we can’t do that anymore. Done. So we have to move on. If you want to be an important photographer working today, then you have to start trying to change the medium, to bring something new to the medium.
Artsy: And through this process, are you changing the meaning of your image?
SAJ: What I’m trying to do is capture the moment. What photography does really well, better than any other medium, is to show what something looks like. But with my work, I don’t only want to show a place, or the people in that place; I also want to show what being in that place meant to me—how it made me feel. So to do that, I have to add to the surface. I want to show what it looks like, but I also want to show what it feels like.
Artsy: What can you tell us about your new series “Wonderlust,”which you’ll be showing at Art Toronto?
SAJ: I find that with new work, I have a really difficult time separating myself from it and summing it up in any kind of intelligent, cohesive way. It really takes me a while, like a couple of months after the work is done, to be able to see it as a third person. But what I guess I can say is that it’s very different from the Arctic work. I couldn’t have gone more opposite. [Laughs] I went from the cold, vast landscapes of the north to the very warm, intimate spaces of people’s private spaces in their homes and their bedrooms. I wanted a change; I wanted to come in from the cold, and I thought intimacy fit perfectly with what I’m trying to do with my photographs—to show what it looks like but then also to show what it feels like.
Artsy: Again, you’re manipulating your photographs, this time with burning and scratching. How might that reveal unspoken dynamics between your subjects?
SAJ: Right. Well I did a lot of things to the images but when you say burning and scratching it sounds like it’s getting all, like, S&M. [Laughs] Because I put glitter on them and I painted on them too; I did all kinds of things to them.
Artsy: How did you find the individuals to photograph? Was it difficult to photograph them in their private homes?
SAJ: I let it be known through friends and colleagues and family that I was looking for couples who were willing to let me take pictures of them naked and left it open to whatever that meant for them. I was always very nervous. Some of the couples I knew, and some of the couples I did not know at all. I’d knock on the door and, you know: “Hi! New faces! Good to meet you.” I’d take a look around the apartment, set up my camera, have a short conversation, try and make myself feel comfortable and grounded. Try and help them to feel comfortable and grounded. And then, “Alright! Take your clothes off.” [Laughs] Some couples needed no direction at all; I was more like a fly on the wall. And then other couples wanted lots of direction. Sometimes it was more like a fashion photo shoot, where I was like: “Now, Jeff, run your finger along Joann’s left shoulder blade.” I was really, really conscious and careful; I didn’t want anyone to have a bad time or to regret what they did.
Artsy: Are there other artists that have dealt with intimacy that you feel you've responded to, or other work that you've really connected to?
SAJ: Laura Letinsky. She did an amazing book called Venus Inferred. I looked a lot at that work; I kind of grew up with that work in my photo years. She was one of the first artists I really got into in undergrad. And then I was looking at a lot of painting because I was trying to figure out how to paint. [Laughs]. So George Condo, Lisa Yuskavage, those were really the major ones. But I looked at everyone I could find. And it was really interesting because when—this is a generalization, of course, but—when women tend to make work about sex it’s more about intimacy, more about the internal. And when men tend to make art about it, it’s more visual. It’s more surface. So I was kind of trying to do both—show what it looks like, and show what it feels like.
But they’re not porn. There’s nothing porn about them. People kept coming into my studio and going: “Oh! They’re a little sexier than I thought they’d be!” And they’re relationships, too, I should also say; that’s pretty important. All the photographs were taken during the day, so it’s like afternoon sex. It’s not late-night hook-up. It’s more comfortable, people in long-term, committed relationships.
Artsy: You said that this project was very different from the last work that you did. Do you feel you’re heading in a new direction now? What are you working on next?
SAJ: I’ve been going to music festivals since I was 16 years old, and going for like five days, camping out, and this community of people comes together to listen to great music, to be outdoors and... to partake in some illegal drug-taking activities. I’ve been wanting to make work about it for some time, but I was always too involved in these activities. [Laughs] So, now I’m older and I’ve slowed down a fair bit. I’ve been going to this one festival in [British Columbia] for years now, and I always bring my camera, and it never works out, because I always think, ‘Oh my God, that blade of grass is, like, so amazing.’ So the pictures always suck. But this last year I went purely to take photos. And I took a bunch of photos that I’m pretty excited about. So I’m kind of playing with that right now. Because also it’s about recording what’s really there. Taking photographs and then trying to paint in what I felt, and what I saw, which was very different than what was actually there.
Sarah Anne Johnson is on view at Stephen Bulger Gallery, Art Toronto 2013, Main, Booth 824, October 25th – 28th.
“Wonderlust” is on view at Julie Saul Gallery, New York City, from October 24th through December 14th, 2013.