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
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
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
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
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
. 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.