Eirik Johnson • Photographer, U.S.A.

American Short Stories

Landscape Stories: Do you feel affiliated with any particular photographic schools or artistic movements? Who are the photographers that influence and inspire your work?
Eirik Johnson: I am a bit of a magpie when it comes to sources of inspiration. I certainly am interested in a wide range of artists, photographers, musicians, writers and all of these sources come out indirectly in my work at one point or another. For instance, I have immense respect for the work of Lewis Hine, Dorthea Lange and to some extent Walker Evans, all of whose work became a catalyst for social and economic change. I think that's evident in some of the pictures from Sawdust Mountain. Lately, I've become obsessed by the experiential operatic sound installations of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Their projects helped influence my most recent work, "Madre de Dios", a photographic and sound-based installation, a sort of virtual journey into the Peruvian Amazon.

Untitled (tree), 2003, from Borderlands
Untitled (cliffs), 2005, from Borderlands

Landscape Stories: How did you first come to photography?
Eirik Johnson: My parents, while not professional photographers, made pictures all the time and had cameras laying around the house (an old Nikon F3, a Yashica twin lens, etc). I had a good friend in high school and we became a sort of collaborative team. One of us would get an idea, say to photograph a certain area of the city at night, and we'd both head out together to do it. We gave each other the confidence to experiment and it was pure fun. My dad had inherited an old enlarger from a friend so we built a small darkroom in the boiler room of my friend's house. We taught ourselves, again feeding off one another's ideas. It was around this same time as a teenager that I happened to visit an Edward Weston exhibition. I was struck by how he elevated the ordinary to extraordinary.

Stacked logs in Weyerhaeuser sort yard, Cosmopolis, Washington, 2007

Landscape Stories: Referring to the project "Sawdust Mountain", what interested you about the Northwest of the United States and what topographic and geographic characteristics were favourable for your exploration and your interpretations of this specific Landscape?
Eirik Johnson: I grew up in the Northwest of the United States and my family spent plenty of time in the outdoors. Yet, it wasn't until I had spent many years living away from the Northwest and many years growing as an artist that I was able to revisit the region and feel that I had something to contribute artistically. It's a wonderfully magical landscape, dark, forested, mountainous. And yet or perhaps because of this, there's a strong melancholy undercurrent that exists in the region. There have been many photographers who have made work rooted in the American South, or the Southwest, or New York and the East, but other than one or two other photographers, the Northwest has been ignored. I saw that there was a great deal of potential for a substantive long-term project about the region.

Roger Mosley counting Coho spawn nests along the upper Sol Duc River, Washington, 2006

Landscape Stories: Would you consider this work to be documentary or more as a lyric and personal statement? Could you tell us something more about how the project started?
Eirik Johnson: I see Sawdust Mountain as my own personal and surely subjective response to very real issues facing the region. The work is documentary in so much as it addresses these larger issues (the relationship between industries and the environment, the financial dependence of communities on such industries and the growing relevance of informal economies), yet I wanted to frame these issues/questions through the wandering eye of a lyrical journey. I actually began the project while I was working on my earlier project "Borderlands". It was during that time in 2005 that I was exploring and photographing the western United States including the Northwest. I remember feeling that there was a whole new and much larger story to be told that went well beyond the ideas I was exploring in Borderlands. I started taking road trips from my home at that time in San Francisco up through the Oregon and Washington State, I began reading novels and short stories by all the great Northwest authors (Raymond Carver, Tess Gallagher, David Guterson and Ivan Doig) in whose stories the Northwest landscape becomes a central character.

Alley mural, Aberdeen, Washington, 2006
Freshly felled trees, Nemah, Washington, 2007

Landscape Stories: To what extent are your earlier works related to the new one?
Eirik Johnson: In all of my projects I keep circling back to several core interests. Namely, I am repeatedly drawn back to the idea of environmental adaptation, whether due to the marginalization of an urban neighborhood as in the case of my project "West Oakland Walk", or the sculptural debris of a homeless encampment in the project "Borderlands", or the makeshift burrowed warrens and nests in my series "Animal Holes". This theme of adaptation is certainly present throughout much of "Sawdust Mountain" as well.

Adult books, firewood and truck for sale, Port Angeles, Washington, 2008

Landscape Stories: How do you choose a location? What attracted you towards landscape, suburban spaces and vernacular architecture?
Eirik Johnson: My interest in vernacular architecture and structures or suburban landscapes lies in the fact that these are often neglected and ignored places. We walk by an overgrown empty lot or a dusty storefront without much thought. In spite or even because of this, there is the possibility of discovery, of exploring something fresh and new in them that's relevant to a project. When I'm out working I try to stay extremely open and alert to whatever catches my interest. It's quite an instinctual process and I try not to over think my initial decisions. There is plenty of time for questioning one's work later in the editing process.

Cindy, Nemah River hatchery, Washington, 2007

Landscape Stories: Do you think that through your work, you're in some way conveying your experience to the viewer? How do you feel as an observer?
Eirik Johnson: I'm not sure that a single photograph can convey my own experience to the viewer. Perhaps some of my pictures come close, but that's where I feel the power of the project in book form starts to take shape. The book as an object, as a completed vision, is where my experience as a creator can be best conveyed to the viewer. I think as an image maker, as a photographer, you have to become comfortable with the role of observer. That doesn't mean one loses the anxiety of approaching a stranger to take their picture, rather it is that nervousness that makes the role of observer so electrifying.

Elwha River Dam, Washington, 2008
Grays Harbor, Aberdeen, Washington, 2006

Landscape Stories: What's the ideal way to look at your work? (books, exhibitions..)
Eirik Johnson: I think that question depends on the work itself. Certainly with a long term narrative project like "Sawdust Mountain", the book format really is the end result. It holds the story, sets the pace through its sequencing and design. Yet some projects like "Madre de Dios" is ideally viewed in an installation format. With that project I wanted to engage the viewer's perception and senses through sound, time, scale and light. Certainly a project or body of work can function successfully in both book format, exhibition, or prints on a wall. I've even found that sometimes a presentation or talk can engage the work in new ways.

"Ficus Tree Grove, 4.02 minutes exposure" 2010, from the project Madre de Dios

Eirik Johnson "Sawdust Mountain"

Interview by Gianpaolo Arena