Koplin Del Rio
Jul 8, 2020 9:27PM

In the Studio with Eirik Johnson

Eirik Johnson, Untitled / Debris, 2004, archival pigment print, 24" x 30" (Image courtesy of the artist and Gail Gibson Gallery)

Can you tell us a little about how you came to photography?

I picked up photography early on as a kid growing up here in Seattle. My parents had old Nikon and Yashica cameras laying around for me to use so I just started to explore. I think I saw the camera as an excuse to indulge in my sense of curiosity, which is pretty apparent in projects like "Borderlands". Before I could drive, I would ask my dad to drive me down to Georgetown or Sodo to photograph cement factories at night or fishermen mending their nets out in Ballard. Much of my practice as an artist comes out of observation and photography has been a tool for focusing that attention.

How are you spending this time? What has changed for you in light of the self-isolation over the last several months?

Well, like most of us, I’m spending a tremendous amount of time at home. We had built a separate studio space behind our house a year ago so luckily I’ve been able to spend lots of time working there. Home schooling our two sons meant the studio was humming with lots of family art activities as well; photo collaging, cardboard creations, cyanotypes. We’ve also been taking lots of nature neighborhood walks from our house in the Central District down through the Leschi greenbelt to Lake Washington. We birdwatch and simply slow down to observe.

The last few weeks have been dominated, rightly so, with family conversations and active participation in the Black Lives Matter protests. We live in what has been Seattle’s historically Black neighborhood. I went to school in the Central District and as a white parent raising kids here in the city and in this neighborhood in particular, it’s imperative that we’re having those conversations about privilege and engrained institutional racism with our kids and that they know what is happening and why.

You have published monographs, such as Barrow Cabins(2019) and Sawdust Mountain(2009), as well as a body of editorial work. Are there connections for you between the two types of work?

More often than not, my personal projects have led to editorial work. The process of working on long-term projects such as Borderlands or Sawdust Mountain meant that each body of work developed a specific mood and aesthetic. That in turn led to calls from editors to work on assignments. Sometimes, those assignments then lead to new personal work as well which keeps it interesting.

What are you reading at the moment? Are there any albums or playlists that have been on heavy rotation which you care to share?

I’d like to say I’ve been reading voraciously but the truth is my mind gets caught up in studio work, my day job as the Programs Chair at the Photographic Center Northwest, or keeping the kids busy, etc. I have been trying to read a lot of essays on photography and sculpture lately which relates to new work I’ve been making. However, I’m always listening to lots of music. Lately, it’s been an eclectic mix of the British electronic artist FourTet’s new album Sixteen Oceans, the latest by Laura Marling, Sudan Archives, the Spanish artist Silvia Perez Cruz, and lots of Charles Mingus. I’m a musician myself and I’ve been using the time to compose and play.

Can you describe your favorite work of art in your home?

We have a small collection of works ranging from photography to sculptures by mainly artists I’ve known over the years, but one particular piece that I often return to is a self-portrait by the renowned early 20th Century Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi. It’s essentially a portrait within a portrait as he’s holding a glass plate negative of himself in the photograph. It’s such an elegant concept in its simplicity.

I lived in Cusco, Peru for a year and have returned many times. I got to know Chambi’s grandson who is himself a photographer and manages Chambi’s studio and archive. The photograph reminds me of my time in Cusco and the legacy of one of Peru’s first and most important indigenous photographers.

Koplin Del Rio