SHOTS No. 145 - Fall 2019: THE JOURNEY
Interview by Elizabeth Flinsch
Not long ago, when I first came across Ervin A. Johnson’s work, I was deeply moved by his series #InHonor. This ongoing body of work honors the Black people killed in the United States as a result of police brutality and racial violence. I knew immediately that his work needed to be featured here. Soon after, he graciously agreed to this interview.
ELIZABETH FLINSCH: I’m curious what led you to making pictures. After your creative writing degree, what sparked your interest to pursue photography? Or perhaps it has been a lifelong passion?
ERVIN A. JOHNSON: I began as a writer. I discovered my affinity for writing in high school while simultaneously coming out and dealing with all that entails. I always longed to be a creative but never thought of myself as one or that my future would involve anything “creative”. When finishing up my bachelor's in English a professor introduced me to the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. I had an immediate and visceral reaction to the work. I had been silent as a queer black man up until that point and seeing work that for me, furthered that silence, woke something in me. I borrowed a camera from a family friend shortly afterwards and never looked back.
I am especially drawn to your series #InHonor that pays tribute to victims of police brutality and race based violence. Can you describe how this series came to be?
I began #InHonor as a personal response to the killings of Black people across America. To be completely honest the work was born out of guilt. All of my friends had rallied up in arms to march for Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. I, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found. I felt guilty. I consider myself, for the most part, a conscious individual and so my silence became a burden. When the time came for me to be vocal with my peers I chose the path of cowardice. What real change would come of my presence as a young gay black man at a march in which half of my people don’t accept or acknowledge me? Still though I felt moved to do something. Whether or not I was accepted was something I had and will always deal with, I had to come to terms with that before anything else.
Do you relate your work to any photographers past or present? Are there artists who currently inspire you?
Issac Julien inspired me visually. Looking for Langston was the first time I ever saw Black men be in reality what I had always imagined for myself. They were tender and loving, soft. Dawoud Bey’s portraiture, Kehinde Wiley, Clifford Prince King, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison. I could go on and on.
I hesitate to even ask this question, but I’m going to go there: how and why did you decide to pursue an MFA in photography? Do you feel it is a necessity to further one’s work?
I finished my second BA very quickly, about a year and a half. At that point I knew that I was interested in pursuing a career as a fine artist. I thought and was also advised that pursuing an MFA would be the best course of action. I think it was MY best course of action, but isn’t necessary for everyone.
You have a great number of artistic accomplishments including gallery representation. What now? Do you have a dream venue for an exhibition or other goal?
So many, I’d like to continue to exhibit locally and abroad. I’d love to show at the Art Institute of Chicago and the MCA. Obtain a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
If you could collaborate with any artist (photographic or otherwise, past or present), who would it be? What sort of project would you pursue?
I’m already collaborating with a few artists locally on a new series. I can’t go into too much detail, but it will be amazing!
Who or what do you look to when you are artistically stuck?
Instagram, usually. But also, a good movie will stir something in my soul. Anything visually stimulating and Black.
What is on the horizon for you and your work? What can we look forward to?
An expansion of technique as it relates to my understanding of self. I’ve noticed that as my perspective shifts, the ways in which I make the work changes also. A few new series in the works and, as always, #InHonor will continue. ■
Interview by Douglas Beasley
DOUGLAS BEASLEY: I saw your portfolio “Evenings With the Moon” at PhotoLucida and was knocked out by the physicality of the prints -- how they felt in my hand, the translucence. I thought the gold leafing was especially effective in giving the prints a sense of both delicacy and depth. That quality is so hard to convey in the two dimensions of print. Can you comment on that? Does that affect how you work or print?
WENDI SCHNEIDER: Thank you. I continue to experiment with papers, the gilding process and the myriad effects of glazing. My aim is to suffuse the subjects with the implied spirituality and sanctity of the precious metals, to create a testament and a unique object of reverence. I’m still exploring methods to capture the final print for reproduction online and in print and researching methods and inks for printing. I don’t, however, consider that when making the work. Ultimately, the prints are best experienced in person, as the luminosity changes as the viewer’s position and ambient light transition.
Texture seems to be important in your prints. Where in your process does the texture get added in? Is it a layer added in printing or is it the texture of the paper?
While my early silver prints in the ‘80s and ‘90s were layered with oil paint to create depth and an interpreted reality, the current work is layered digitally with color and texture. The choice of paper and the gilding also contribute to the texture. Within the edition of an image, these three elements ensure that each print is one of a kind. The original capture is usually just the starting point of the final image.
Do you do your own printing? How important is the printing process for you, or is the original making of the image the more important part and the printing merely the execution of that vision?
I reveled in the alchemy of the darkroom in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. As I began to work larger than I could print at rental darkrooms when living in NY, I began working with master printers and labs for my toned silver prints, Cibachromes and later in early digital in Denver. I was also working in Polaroid transfers and later experimenting with transfers on glass and other substrates. I’ve been making my own prints digitally for many years now. I consistently tweak my prints within the edition, honoring the inconsistency. The print elevates the image and actualizes the object, so it’s as essential as the image.
Can you tell us something about your creative process that most people don’t know?
The creative process centers me and forces me to focus and slowdown. It’s where I find the elusive joy and glow of flow, where everything else disappears and there is only that excitement and compulsion to create. I used to bemoan the periods where I didn’t feel creative or inspired, but later realized how crucial those sponge and incubation periods were to the creative process. I grew to honor and revel in those times. Having been self-employed since 1988, I have learned to go with the flow of what I feel like doing at the time and somehow everything falls into place organically.
What influences your artistic vision?
I am moved by how something feels rather than how it appears. There are elements of nostalgia, melancholia, a delight in the ephemeral movement of light, and now, a heightened awareness and urgency of what we are losing to climate change. Visually I’ve been influenced by the stellar photographers featured in the magazines of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Sarah Moon, Steichen, the Pictorialists, and the photogravures from Camera Work and early platinum prints I’ve collected over the years. A student of art history, I’ve also been influenced by countless painters, including the Symbolists, Turner, Monet, Sargent, Whistler, and Klimt, to name just a few. My earlier work as a painter, designer and art director also informs my vision. I believe everything I’ve ever seen or experienced, consciously or otherwise, comes into play in what speaks to me and compels me to make an image. I also believe that everything we create is autobiographical in some sense, though the realization and significance may only be recognized in retrospect. ■
ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Wynn Bullock
Wynn Bullock, Navigation Without Numbers, 1957.
© 1957/2019 Bullock Family Photography LLC. All rights reserved.
This exquisite image entered my psyche while still in art school in Ann Arbor. I guess it has never left since each time I encounter it anew it still takes my breath away. My eyes swim in the inky black of the bed as though I was staring at a starless night sky. Even the title, “Navigation Without Numbers,” takes me on a journey to territory familiar yet unknown. Asking more questions than it answers, I think this is one of the finest photos I have ever encountered. ■
—Douglas Beasley / Publisher