Stephen Johnson is a photographer, designer and teacher. His photography explores the concerns of a landscape artist working in an increasingly industrialized world. His work has also concentrated on refining the new tools of digital photography and empowering individual artists to use these tools to express their ideas.
He was the Curator and Editor/Designer for At Mono Lake, a book and National Endowment for the Arts funded exhibition that toured the United States from 1980-1983, reaching an audience of over two million people. Mr. Johnson was co-creator of The Great Central Valley Project, a photographic exhibit and book that used landscape photography to examine the human-altered heartland of California. He is finishing work on the digital national parks project With A New Eye, using digital sensors to make his photographs rather than film.
Johnson’s photographs are part of the permanent collections of many institutions including the Oakland Museum, the Getty, the City of New York, and the National Park Service. Corporate collections include Apple, Minolta, and the Packard Foundation.
Jim Kasson interviewed Johnson in his Pacifica, California studio and gallery.
JK: You are one of the few fine-art photographers routinely working in both color and black and white. What’s your history with the two media?
SJ: I started shooting color film before black and white, unless you count the occasional forays in high school. When I went to junior college, I had a job in the audio/visual lab at Merced College developing and shooting color slides, while at the same time taking a beginning black and white course, so my familiarity with both media was pretty much simultaneous. I actually developed color film before I developed black and white. I was in college, I was 17, I was still getting used to having my own car and being able to drive. Suddenly, I could go to Yosemite whenever I wanted. I was backpacking at will instead of when I could get people to take me, going on over the hill and seeing Mono Lake for the first time. Having been raised among hunters, turned vegetarian, still wanting to be outdoors, but not needing the hunting as an excuse: it all came together. I’d been making things since I was a little kid. I’d always been interested in technology. Landscape photography is the medium where technology, being outdoors, and making things: it all came together. Then my first girlfriend dumped me and went off to college, leaving me with her 35mm camera. I started wandering around in the foothills with that camera, and ended up actually using one of those photographs in the Central Valley book 15 years later. I left the A/V lab and became a teaching assistant in the photography department, over the next year and a half it all started to come together.
JK: When did you start to get interested in classic large-format landscape photography?
SJ: During my time at Merced College I’d become more aware of Ansel, Edward Weston, and Carleton Watkins, and the f/64 group. I’d seen the Ansel Adams Gallery since I was a kid. It made an impression, but I’d not thought much about it beyond, “Well, that’s neat.” But when I was in college, I remember seeing what must have been an 18×22 Watkins on the wall. I think it was $800, which seemed like an insurmountable amount of money to me. It started to sink in that this was actually a legitimate way of spending one’s career. When I look back at my photographs, they weren’t compelling, so it wasn’t clear I could be successful. In spite of all that, when I graduated from junior college, I transferred to San Francisco State University, largely because of the photo program.
JK: In those days, were you excited by the process, or by the results?
SJ: It was both having a reason to spend that time outdoors (there’s probably some Puritan work ethic running through that) and looking at the prints. I took the idea of printmaking seriously as a craft. The richness of the gelatin silver black was irresistible. I abandoned color for a while, except for occasional slides. When I bought an old 4×5 Graphic View, it was in my mind a black and white camera. By the time I was finishing up at Merced, I was starting to make photographs that I cared about. The fascination with the magic of the medium was starting to turn into something more substantial. Some of the portraits I made in 1975 stayed with me, and I eventually used some in the Central Valley book. I was starting to shoot 2 1/4 color negative at that point. The 4×5 color came later in 1977 or 1978. I was making C prints and I liked the more natural color better than the R prints I had made up to then. I had not yet tried Cibachrome.
JK: Cibachrome wouldn’t fit your preferred color palette very well.
SJ: Yeah, but I didn’t know what my color palette was at the time. I was still figuring it out. But I probably did react against the look of Ciba as I was trying to find my way through some aesthetic path, and Vericolor fit that direction much more. By the time I was photographing at Mono Lake in the late 1970s, I was thoroughly committed to 2 1/4 and 4×5 color negative film and 4×5 black and white. By then I was getting clear on what I was seeing in the world, and what I was trying to get in the darkroom in terms of color. In black and white, I was settling into the beginnings of a style, but my black and white style is still developing.
JK: Controlling color accurately was a lot of work in those days.
SJ: I’d spend a whole day in the darkroom trying to get a particular area of the print neutral, changing batches of paper and have it still not work. My wife tells the story of my coming out of the darkroom after a full day and saying, “Well, I’ve almost got a color pack.”
JK: Strengths of black and white and color?
SJ: Black and white is inherently more abstract. In a sense, it’s easier to do a photographic composition in black and white. You see form more easily in black and white than in color. Color has that sense of the real world that makes it have an initial suggestion of the ordinary. That makes it more of a challenge to do well.
JK: Some people head for the Velvia look to make it not ordinary.
SJ: That’s probably true. People’s instinct seems to be to chase a contrasty, saturated sense of beauty that all starts to look the same, and not look around with their eyes and see the color that’s there. There are a lot of reasons we photograph. There are lots of instincts we build with why we pick up the camera. There has been an agenda that’s developed, especially with color, that we need to change things to make the photograph worth seeing. Part of that has come from limitations of the medium, and we’ve evolved aesthetics to take advantage of and cope with the characteristics of the materials. In the late ‘70s, I started to see the style that I have today developing out of color negative film and very careful printing. It’s not the advent of the digital sensor that allowed me to pursue a more pastel, natural color. It’s just made pursuit easier and more accurate.
JK: Your first choice was between transparencies and color negative, and you chose the one with a long exposure range and more natural colors.
SJ: Right. I was much more interested in photographers like Eliot Porter than I was color photographers who seemed to be about changing color and souping things up.
JK: I’m glad you brought Porter up. I was going to tell you that your images remind me of his, and ask you if you would consider that a complement.
SJ: I would. I never knew him, although I did speak to him once on the phone, and I would have liked to have met him. I called him to see if he had any work for the Mono Lake show. Even through some of the poor reproductions and the yellowing varnish in the early Sierra Club books, you can still see that there are some substantial things going on there.
JK: His work is quiet.
SJ: The real world is too. The world is already self-embellished. You don’t need to change it to make it beautiful. You need to stand there and look, and try to record what you see. That doesn’t mean that it’s not perfectly legitimate to try to do something else. We have had since Kodachrome in 1938, and with Autochrome before that, a tradition of color aesthetics building. Fuji Velvia may be the ultimate expression of that aesthetic, a harsh, saturated and contrasty view of the world. I probably love early color like Autochromes because they were different; a softer, gentler view, but very grainy. We live in a time where it seems like the way we look at the world is through some kind of reality-distortion field anyway, and I don’t think that what’s photography is about. I believe in my heart that photography has an element of truth about it that is fundamental to our affection for the medium and its sense of magic. I place a high value on trying to record what I see in as straightforward and honest a way as possible. I don’t pretend that I am capturing exactly what I see. I’m doing my best and I’m using technology that’s unprecedented in the history of photography for its veracity, and that’s my goal. That’s probably why I’m not that interested in so much of the color work I see.
JK: It’ll never be exactly what you saw: you can’t reproduce a scene with a reasonable dynamic range on a reflective medium.
SJ: Sure, but what we can do is carry through the aesthetic of what we’re showing as what was before the lens. That’s photography’s greatest power, why it’s spread like wildfire and why it continues to be the most popular form of art on the face of the earth. Partly that’s because the technology makes it accessible on a casual level, and partly because it has that reality power about it that we cannot separate from our imagination.
JK: The perceived truth of a photograph is under greater attack than ever before in the era of digital photography.
SJ: Many of my friends who are landscape photographers feel no hesitation at all about painting stuff out, painting it in, souping things up, thinking that it’s no different than using Spot Tone on a print.
JK: I plead guilty to spotting cigarette butts out of the foreground of urban landscapes, and doing equivalent things on the computer.
SJ: There are two things going on for me. One is an evolving ethic in my mind, and the other is rethinking the implications on what I’ve done traditionally. With Spot Tone, most of what we’re trying to do is getting rid of dust on the negative.
JK: Over the years you’ve become more of a purist.
SJ: I think so. On the cover of the Central Valley Book, there’s a Coke cup in the lower right corner. [points at the book]
JK: I see it. Bright red, too. You left it in.
SJ: I did. All those photos in the book were scanned, so they had become digital files. I knew the cup was there. I could have easily taken it out, but I never reached for the cloning tool. The cows aren’t native, the grasses aren’t native, and the Eucalyptus trees aren’t native: I think the Coke cup kind of belongs. I might have hopped over the fence, grabbed the cup and removed it from the landscape, but something doesn’t feel right about changing the content of the photograph after the fact.
JK: The usage and context matter as well. This is a documentary book.
SJ: Yes. It’s meant to be a work of art, but there’s no assumption anywhere that these are altered photographs–quite the opposite. I hope the book on the national parks is perceived in the same way. Some of my friends sell landscape calendars where the sky’s super-saturated and the out-of-focus branches are coming in from the side no longer. I won’t do that. If I notice later something that I didn’t see at the exposure, I either live with it, or I crop the photograph. If the wind hits the camera and there’s a little jitter to an area, I’ll make sure it doesn’t get sharpened, and I’ll try to get rid of the red-green-blue shimmer, not by cloning in pixels from elsewhere, but by toning down what’s there.
JK: That’s like dust on the negative. It’s an artifact of the capture process.
SJ: I feel far less reticent in dealing with that, but any real content, I won’t go that far.
JK: Let me press you a little bit. What do you think of a red filter in this context? A black sky isn’t what you really see.
SJ: A lot of us have gone through our black sky period. Some have emerged out the other side, some have not. Altering the tonal conversion to black and white is inherent in the film alone, and helping that along has a long tradition. Selecting from the light that was there is different from synthesizing things that weren’t actually there.
JK: Some question the whole concept of photographic truth.
SJ: The argument that I hear more than any other is that a photograph is a lie because it’s only showing a particular point of view and a particular moment. That’s just absurd.
JK: What’s wrong with that statement is the word lie. A photograph is one truth of many. If ten photographers make honest images of the same subjects, you’ll end up with ten wildly different images.
SJ: That’s one of the beauties of photography. Reality is rich and varied enough. There’s so much room for seeing things uniquely without having to resort to synthesis. A photograph is not the only truth, but it can be a powerful, fundamental truth. I don’t buy the argument: “Photography was never about the truth in the first place, and therefore I won’t worry about it.” You make aesthetic choices that influence the way things look, you choose what you intend to show, but you do it in an honest effort to record a truth associated with the scene or event.
JK: Let’s talk about your transition from chemical to digital photography.
SJ: I’d always been interested in technology and the space program. I saw all those electronic images being transmitted: the Ranger 1965 Vidicon tube images just before crash landing on the Moon, and the first Mariner photographs coming back from Mars. I was fascinated with electronic imagery when I was first getting involved in silver-based imagery. It all came to a head when we decided to put together an interpretive program within the exhibit halls for the Central Valley exhibit. When Bob Dawson and I set out on this project, we knew the valley was a complex place, but we didn’t fully appreciate where we had come from; the issues: immigration, landform change, agriculture; the scale: 500 miles long, 25,000 square miles, the largest valley on the planet Earth. Some of the story of the Valley’s complexity needed to be told. We didn’t want to do that on the exhibit walls, so I developed this computer video interpretation program. We used a video disc with historical stills, some video, and computer graphics—electronic images within the context of a fine art exhibit. Gregory MacNicol in Santa Cruz put the graphics and programming together. Then UC press contacted us about doing the Central Valley book. Jim Clark, who was the director of the press, asked me to mock up a chapter. By then I’d married my wife Mary Ford, whom I met on the front steps of the California Academy of Sciences, where she was a senior graphic designer. The Academy had just gotten a Mac SE and a LaserWriter. Typography, layout, images: suddenly the Mac looked interesting, when before it looked like a toy.
JK: The other piece was PageMaker.
SJ: Right: that was the software I used to mock up a chapter. Then Bob and I printed the photographs and pasted them into the laser printed pages. UC press was floored, and asked me to design the whole book, which I kind of wanted and kind of didn’t. I went to Apple and asked them if they’d supply us with the Mac II. I started that project, and then I started consulting with Kodak and some scanner manufacturers. I was in San Jose lecturing about how I was doing this book and one of the other guys on the bill was Howard Barney, who had developed a 35mm slide scanner. He gave me one, and we started scanning copy slides for placement, thinking we’d do traditional drum scans at the end. The book took three years to put together, and by the time we were done we had done a lot of drum scans, but by then the LeafScan 45 had come along and we used it too. Howard shipped a preliminary version of Photoshop called Barney Scan XP before Adobe picked it up, so I was using Photoshop before it was Photoshop.
JK: How did you get introduced to the high-resolution image capture?
SJ: I’d come to know Jim Dunn, a Vice-President at Leaf Systems, through my consulting efforts. Jim called me in August of ‘93 and said that an old friend of his, Michael Collette, had built a scanning back for 4×5 cameras, and I was “the person he needs to show it to.” Michael had been employed by an instrumentation company in Palo Alto. He quit in ‘91 and went into his workroom at home to design and build a scanning insert for view cameras. He engineered the circuitry, programmed it, and hand-built it. He came to see me in September of 1993, And we made a test exposure or two. He seemed like an awfully nice and sincere guy, and I kind of filed it away as yet another thing that probably wouldn’t see the light of day. Michael called me in January of 1994, and said “It’s done, do you want to go out and photograph?” He showed up in Pacifica, and we went out and photographed every clichéd tourist spot we could think of in San Francisco. We used my view camera, and we shot color negative, black and white negative, and color transparency film. I brought everything home, and we off-loaded the files to my computer. I just couldn’t believe the image quality. By the time I was looking at the film the next day, being stunned was an understatement. Film died for me on that day, and it died a brutal and ugly death. I could never go back.
JK: Even with the scanning limitations?
SJ: The qualitative difference was phenomenal. Sure, I had worries: I had to see if I could actually use this to make strong photographs, and there was only one hand-built prototype in existence. But there were reasons for hope: Mike was interested in finishing the project, and the people from Dicomed were interested in manufacturing the scanner. Over the next few months, Mike and I went out together a few times, and then my friends Bruce Fraser and Bill Schwegler joined us. In March I made the first photograph I was happy with. In the late spring of ‘94, Mike got a second prototype built, and he basically said, “Here, take it.” It was fundamentally shocking to see the results. Everything I’d been doing for 20 years looked like crap in terms of image quality compared to what I could expect to do in the future. That was frightening, exciting, seductive, scary…But with a huge caveat: it took 3 minutes 45 seconds to make a photograph. I had to know if it was a practical field camera, so that’s why we kept going out.
JK: How long after you used the scanning back did it take you to get the idea for the National Parks book?
SJ: Within a week of that first test in January 1994. There was a Photoshop conference at the Sheraton Palace in San Francisco. I was speaking there. Pete Hogg, of the Digital Pond, had made me a 30×40 Iris print of the first scanning photograph, the Conservatory in Golden Gate Park. I had been staring at that, and I knew I was bringing it over to my talk later in the day. I was sitting in the back of the room, watching somebody lecturing about putting two heads on people, and I was thinking: “That’s not what this is about; I’ve just seen something that totally changes photographic history. It’s a pivot point.” And then, I thought: “The National Parks. What other subject could test this? What other subject is so tied up in photographic history?” I was well aware of Watkins, the Yosemite Act, Jackson, Ansel’s work, and the effects that landscape photography had had on the history of conservation. I had the name of the project when I was sitting there in the back of that room: With a New Eye. I started writing a description of the project right there. That doesn’t mean I was quite ready to commit to it.
JK: You knew how hard it is to do a book.
SJ: I had just come off completing the Central Valley book the previous summer. That was a ten-year project. I knew what I was getting into. I knew I was asking something completely unreasonable of the scanning camera. That’s why I took a few months to make sure the back was usable. But gradually I started making some photographs that were worth something. Over the next few months there was confirmation that it was actually possible to do, although hard. I asked Jeanne Adams if she wanted to do a press conference at the Ansel Adams Gallery announcing the project. She did. She hired a video crew. I had not yet used the scanning back in Yosemite, so I went out the weekend before the press conference, and made photographs that live with the project to this very day. The press conference went beautifully. In the middle of Yosemite Valley, we walked out into the meadow. I don’t make serious photographs of Yosemite Falls, but I did that day. I’m still kind of shocked at that. Adobe came in as the first sponsor of the project later that month.
JK: And then the photography began in earnest?
SJ: I hit the road in July and August. I was on the road through ‘97 and ‘98 a fair amount, until it was clear my son needed me not to be. I’ve been out more occasionally since then. I originally promised eight to ten parks, and we’ve ended up with 53. I knew it would stretch out towards ten years. Most of the photography was done in ‘94 through ‘98. I didn’t need to make any more photographs after ‘98, but I continued to photograph since the book wasn’t yet in publication. I started designing the book about two years ago, did a fairly complete comp of the book at HP Labs last summer, and I’m still working on publication.
JK: You’ve got a digital photography book coming out soon, don’t you?
SJ: Wendy Renaldi from McGraw-Hill Osborne came over to see me about my doing a digital photography book. I didn’t want to do a Photoshop book, but a more holistic book, as much about photography as about digital photography. Originally it was going to be after the parks book, but now it’s going first. I’m now deep into Stephen Johnson On Digital Photography. It’s 256 pages long, it’ll be in the stores by early October. In many ways it’s a distillation of what I’ve been teaching for the last 25 years, except it concentrates on those aspects of photography that are in transition to digital. It talks about ethics, aesthetics, composition, and it also talks about silicon, sensors, bit depth, dynamic range, color balance, color editing, color management, and printing. In many ways, it’s like a weekend workshop, except it’s in much more detail, you can hold on to it, and I’m trying to make it well illustrated.
JK: Tell me about your teaching.
SJ: I started teaching just before my 21st birthday, at Merced Community College. I’ve taught at a number of community colleges, university extension programs, and workshop programs. I started my own independent workshop program in the late ‘70s. Then I started lecturing in workshops, conferences, and expositions having to do with publishing: Seybold, FOGRA, etc. We quit doing the field workshops in the early ‘90s, because I was getting so completely immersed in the world of digital imaging, yet we couldn’t really teach that in the field, so I switched all of the teaching to studio workshops. Once the 35mm-sized digital SLRs started coming along two or three years ago, we reintroduced the field workshops, and last year we expanded that into building a digital lab on a 40 foot bus that has a Mac lab with printers and satellite Internet connections.
JK: How would a prospective student contact you?
JK: What’s it going to take to get you into a two dimensional sensor instead of your scanning back?
SJ: I’ve been using area array sensors for a while. Once the Kodak DCS 460 became available in 1995, I started carrying it. It used a 6 megapixel chip. Before any of the current round of SLR digital cameras came into existence, I had 30,000 digital images from the 460. All of those images are sitting there for me to do things with now. I used that camera to document the parks project, and the times when I simply couldn’t make images with the scanning camera, I kept right on shooting with the 460. There are a couple of spreads in the book that came from the 460. Within the confines of the book, these 13 inch files are OK. It’s still a very viable camera. It’s just not as convenient as the current cameras, since it doesn’t have the LCD display on the back. I’m using the Kodak 14n a lot now. I’ve been making photographs with that for over a year now, and gotten quite lovely photographs.
JK: You’re saying that it’s not a transition for you; you use array capture for some things now and as the sensors gain resolution, lose noise, and solve their aliasing problems, you’ll use 2D capture more and more?
SJ: Unless I’ve got full resolution color at this kind of resolution, I don’t think I can quit using the scanning back. None of the current 2D cameras can even touch the image quality. There’s very little economic incentive for a camera manufacturer to make a really large array. Most commercial film work is done on 35mm or 2 1/4. Studio work that’s done on 4×5 can be done on a scanning back to some degree. I’m glad the 22 megapixel chips are here. I’ll be glad if Foveon can succeed in making a higher-resolution chip.
JK: Foveon has a potentially great way to deal with color aliasing problems.
SJ: That’s right, there simply are no such problems with the X3 chip, but they have some noise issues right now. I still have a prototype 2K by 2K chip we’ve got taped into a Sinar camera, and it blows everything in its class away, even looking good compared to the new 22 megapixel Kodak chip that you can buy in backs from Sinar and Imacon. But it’s not a production item.
JK: What are the limits of high-res capture?
SJ: If we had an 8000 by 10,000 pixel Foveon type sensor, that might do me pretty well. The 8000 element BetterLight scanning back has proven difficult to use outdoors, because atmospheric distortion alone turns out to be a fair amount of what gets recorded. We’re at a point where the scanning backs have sufficient resolution that lenses and micro-vibrations are becoming a problem. If it were an instant capture camera, atmospheric distortion would be rendered in a different way, as would optical distortion, but they would remain issues. I think we’ll end up at a point where the glass will be such a problem that we’ll have to look at other ways of focusing light. Photographers are a greedy sort, so I’m not sure 8K by 10K would actually satisfy me. But having resolution like I already have that makes a 20×25 inch print essentially a contact print, no grain, real color separation, and the ability to look at the photograph while I’m still standing there, that is already very nice.
JK: What are the problems with current output devices and materials?
SJ: I’m delighted to be on rag paper now printing with ground-up-earth pigments.
JK: The Dmax sacrifices in those materials don’t bother you too much?
SJ: Of course they do. I would love to have the option of gelatin silver black in any medium I use. Epson’s Ultrachrome inks with their matte black ink help that to some degree, but with the Ultrachrome inks we took a hit on longevity over the original pigments. We’re inching back up by stripping out the more volatile ink and improving metamerism, and now the coating agents are getting us back up in life a little bit, where as before we didn’t think of them as an enhancement, so much as a surface protector. Now they’re becoming an issue on the enhancements, so we’re using them again for reasons other than protecting the surface. The dot size is getting interestingly small. The paper is a combination of beautiful and problematic. The Hahnemuhle German Etching paper we use tends to have the coating fleck off, and we get little pinpricks of white.
JK: The Epson Fine Art Textured has the same problem.
SJ: If we’re having trouble with it, we’ll pull the whole sheet off the roller, and brush it with a big horsehair brush to try to get the coating that’s going to fall off to do so before we put the pigment down, rather than after. More than once we’ve had to tear up a beautiful print because it has a white dust spot in the middle of the sky. I can’t spot that stuff. I’ve saved the pigment, and I’ve got my trusty spotting brush from 1975, but when you go to spot a white place the rag paper wicks it to someplace else.
JK: Looking around here, it looks like you’re not pushing the color gamut of your printer with respect to chromaticity.
SJ: Real world color reproduces pretty well with the technology that we have now. When you start souping up the color, you start pushing the edges of the gamut.
JK: But luminance is a different story.
SJ: Yes. Blacks go gray on rag. Pigments go grayer on rag. Spraying brings it back up a little bit, but if you spray it too much you lose the texture of the rag paper. You could argue that it’s a waste to put the image on the rag paper if you’re going to put it under glass anyway, but I can still see the rag paper, and I love it. I never liked resin coated paper. I never liked it in black and white and I never liked it in color. I came into color photography late enough so that was the only choice I had, unless I was going to go to dye transfer.
JK: What do you think about Henry Wilhelm’s print life projections?
SJ: I have an extraordinarily deep respect for Henry. I think he is doing probably the best work anybody has ever done on longevity. I believe his ethics to be completely unchallengeable. Simulated life testing is an evolving science and he will continue to take into account new variables as we become aware of them. He’s going to miss things, but I think that his estimates are the best information we have to go on, and given the parameters that we know to test for, they’re probably good estimates. Most of the short-term estimates have turned out to be true.
JK: What other improvements would you like to see in output?
SJ: One of the biggest problems now is getting the color through the print drivers. Epson continues to have print drivers that are more geared to a particular look and feel.
JK: They’re RGB drivers, and the user can’t control the color separations.
SJ: Not only that, they tend to be oriented to more casual users, even on the professional printers, but the extraordinary beauty that they’ve managed to allow us to put onto paper is wondrous. I wish I had better paper control; I miss the drum of the Iris in that sense. I could build up a black and white image on the Iris by hitting it 7 times with black ink, because there was dot for dot registration. I’m excited about the way things are going. I’m delighted that we’re getting gray inks, and I want that to be extended to multiple grays. The dots are getting sufficiently small that we may be able to lose the light magenta and light cyan, although we still need them now.
JK: There are problems, but it sounds like you’re happy with the prints you can make now.
SJ: To be able to put color images on rag paper is wonderful. This is the most beautiful photographic medium I’ve ever seen. And to have permanence completely unprecedented in color photography, well, that’s icing on the cake.