through February 28, 2011
Stephen Johnson Photography at the Pacifica Center for the Arts
This exhibition is the first look at work drawn exclusively from my Canon dSLR work during the last 5 years. The grouping is called Exquisite Earth and is meant to convey my deep appreciation for this extraordinary planet we call home. I hope you enjoy the collection.
Sometimes the mix of dream and reality is hard to distinguish, it seems much of my work rides an edge through that strange space where dream becomes reality and reality is beyond belief. It is a strange place to be suspended. It mixes the natural wonder of the real world with a dreamlike splendor that seems super real. It is in no small part why I completely fail to understand photographers in the digital age running around with notions of enhancing reality with Photoshop…
-from the Feb. 2009 Newsletter
© 2009 Stephan Johnson. Copper Extrusion, Antarctica.
As the new century turned, I found myself needing to be more mobile, a bit less constrained by my large-format photography habits and instincts. I noticed I was using my small Cambo Wide 4×5 more and more for my work with my BetterLight Scanning Back. I had moved into almost always using the panoramic head for every scan, and the CamboWide worked well for most of those applications.
Of course, I have always carried a 35mm format camera as well. As with most of us, it is the format I started with, learned the seduction of photography on, and was the first film I developed. For me, it wasn’t long before the intrigue of larger film and medium format cameras were explored. As my interest in photography deepened, the view camera became my camera of choice. In many ways the view camera is the simplest of all systems. Just a lens and a piece of film at its most basic, the adjustments possible only dawn on many of us when the simplicity becomes elegant and the geometry rises to a challenge. At that point, there is nothing that can substitute for a large format image and the finesses with which you can adjust the camera to the scene.
It was certainly true, and remains so, that nothing equals the photographic quality I’ve seen with the view camera and Michael Collette’s stunning 4×5 BetterLight Scanning back.
The 35mm format cameras always remained as vital cameras on the ready, for fast reaction to light, really bad weather and to document everything else I was up to. All through my project on the national parks I carried whatever the highest-end digital SLR was available. For most of the project that was Kodak digital SLRs in the form of the DCS460, 560, 760 and the 14n. As Kodak chose to exit the market they created, I searched for an alternative system. I had been watching Nikon closely as all of my Kodak cameras were the models that took the Nikon lens mount, therefore I had been building a collection of Nikon optics that were quite good. I had also been looking at the Canon digital entries and watched as they matured rather quickly.
We are after all in a new age, the 35mm format has grown enormously with the advent of digital imaging. In many ways we now treat our dSLR 35 photographs as though they were medium-format images. And for good reason, the results have grown so dramatically.
In 2005 I was scheduled to go the Galapagos and Antarctica and so I borrowed a Canon system to evaluate. I found the system amazingly good and made a decision to adopt the Canon and in 2006 Canon asked me to join their Explorers of Light group.
© 2010 Stephan Johnson. Blue and Yellow Dusk, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.
My travels since the Canon adoption have taken me to Antarctica three times, the Galapagos twice, Iceland twice, the Andes, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Argentina, and all over the United States. I have also used the system as part of my continuing work on With a New Eye, my all digital project on America’s National Parks. So many photographs along the way would not have been possible without the 35.
I’ve used the Canon 1Ds Mark II and 1Ds Mark III, about 17 and 22mb respectively, and I’ve had excellent results. On the first two Antarctica trips and Galapagos I carried my BetterLight 4×5 system as well. As both of those trips were primarily water based, I could rarely use the 4×5. On the last Antarctica trip I carried my old Hasselblad 500ELM with a Phase-One P45 back and had occasional use of their new P65. The P65 and the new Mamiya 645DF were used in Iceland last summer.
All of this serves as introduction to some things I’ve been pondering and trying to understand about my own thought processes. Long ago, I came to equate serious photography with large format work. It is still the penultimate in image quality and fits very nicely with the considered, careful and slow approach I take to my photography.
But, like anyone else, I yearn for the freedom to move easily, to work from moving boats or aircraft, and to photograph scenes that are alive and fleeting in nature. In so many fundamental ways, the 35mm format is extremely well suited for such work. My medium format work was suitable for this in many instances, but the cost of medium format systems are now so high that they’re impractical without a commercial revenue stream associated with their use. My Betterlight systems continues to satisfy my desire for extremely high quality work with stable subjects. And the 35mm remains. I use it all of the time, particularly when I’m teaching and am concentrating on my student’s needs, not my own work.
© 2007 Stephan Johnson. Ice Arch, Pleneau Bay, Antarctica.
So why have I been feeling like I haven’t done a lot of serious work these last few years? I’ve traveled to wondrous places and been privileged to witness this grand and nuanced planet in amazing ways. I think it may have been my lingering feeling that my 35mm was for casual work, less intense seeing, and for when larger format was not possible. The quality of the digital SLRs continue to rise, the image quality I’m getting from the Canon cameras and that I see from my students Nikon work is very respectable.
It may be my own peculiar challenge, but hand-holding any camera seems to automatically introduce sloppiness into my work, even when I could be exercising greater care. Hand-held, I often forget to look at my settings, leave the camera in auto-focus and barely notice anything but the composition. I know that that is one of the freedoms introduced by the format, to concentrate on what you’re seeing and then let the technical details be handled by the system, but it is still clear that my judgment is better than the automation, and when I use it, I benefit, the images jump in quality.
All of this perhaps is a long way of saying here is some work, exclusively Canon 35mm, from the last 5 years, that I am extremely proud of and hope that you will enjoy. The grouping is called Exquisite Earth and is meant to convey my deep appreciation for this extraordinary planet we call home. I hope you enjoy the collection. We are considering a limited-edition portfolio drawn from it.