Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson (sjphoto.com) 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, which toured the United States from 1980-1983, reaching an audience of over two million people. In 1988, he was awarded a Congressional Special Recognition Award by the U.S. House of Representatives for his work on behalf of Mono Lake.

Mr. Johnson was co-creator of The Great Central Valley Project (a photographic exhibit and book) that used landscape photography to examine the dramatically human-altered heartland of California. Using a Macintosh computer, he edited, designed, and created the graphics for the award-winning The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland a 264 page book published by the University of California Press in 1993. His Making a Digital Book was published late in 1993 documenting how computers were used in creating California's Heartland.

Since 1989, Johnson's photographic work has explored computers as new photographic and design tools. He is finishing work on a major new endeavor, the groundbreaking digital national parks project With A New Eye, using digital sensors to make his photographs rather than film.

His work in digital photography, desktop color separations and digital imaging consulting has included software and product development for clients such as Adobe Systems, Agfa, Apple Computer, Eastman Kodak, Epson, Foveon, Hewlett Packard, Leaf Systems, Newer Technology, Radius, Ricoh Corporation and SuperMac Technology. His work with Adobe included the creation of the duotone curves shipped with Photoshop and two quadtone posters. He designed an innovative rotating negative-carrier system for the Leaf Scanner. Additional clients have included Hatcher Press, Bentlyhouse, and the University of California Press.

Internationaly recognized as a digital photography "pioneer," Johnson's photographs have been exhibited, published and collected in Europe, the US and Japan. His 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.

Photographic clients have included the Ansel Adams Publishing Trust, the Friends of Photography, the National Park Service, the Wadsworth Anthenium, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Friends of Photography chose his work as their first digital image in their fine print collector's program.

In 1999, Folio Magazine declared the publication of Johnson's digital photographs in Life Magazine to be one of the Top 15 Critical Events in magazine publishing in the twentieth century. Stephen Johnson was named as a 2003 inductee into the Photoshop Hall of Fame, recognized for his achievements in Art.

His work on environmental issues dates back to his early involvement in political campaigns, working for the California Coastal Initiative in 1972, helping to form a high school Ecology Club, and helping to found and manage a community Recycling Center in his hometown of Merced, California. His efforts continued into his professional life as an adult with his work on behalf of Mono Lake, the Great Central Valley and the national parks including recent direct involvement of saving Mori Point for addition into the GGNRA. His photographs have appeared in Sierra Magazine, Audubon, Pacific Discovery and numerous other environmentally focused publications. He currently serves on the board of the Pacifica Land Trust and continues his work with a number of organizations.

He has taught for the Center for Creative Imaging in Camden Maine, numerous workshops for industry, designed digital photography programs, and has an ongoing photography, publishing and consulting business. He has lectured for leading digital and photographic industry forums: Seybold, MacWorld, Image World, VISCOM, PhotoEast, PhotoWest, PhotoPlus, Fotofusion, the Agfa Technology Expo, FOGRA (Germany), Digital 95 (Great Britain), the International Symposium on Electronic Photography at Photokina (Germany), the University of California, Xerox PARC, and at Stanford University.

Johnson's have appeared in Life Magazine, American Photographer, Communication Arts, pdn's PIX, Camera Arts, Omni, Audubon, Sierra, Publish, Hemispheres, Electronic Publishing, Adobe Magazine, California Magazine, California History, MacWeek, MacUser, Photo District News, Photo Electronic Imaging, MicroPublishing News, Landscape Magazine, Popeye Magazine (Japan), Hall Magazine and Fotografisk Tidskrift (both from Sweden), Page Magazine (Germany), Advanced Imaging Magazine, IdN Magazine (Hong Kong), the Adobe Photoshop Deluxe Edition CD ROM, Nautilus CD ROM Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, On-Line Design, Digital Video Magazine, US News and World Report, and featured on television's The MacNeil Lehrer Newshour, The Discovery News, New Media News, and The Computer Chronicles.

Learn more about the artist at www.sjphoto.com.

This is an extended version of a conversation first published in the November/December 2006 issue of Camera Arts.

Learn more about the history of photography including individual artist's histories at www.luminous-lint.com.

See my review of Stephen's new book Stephen Johnson On Digital Photography.


John Paul Caponigro    We've played this game many times together over the years. Photographicallyspeaking, list the areas digital technology surpasses analog technology. Then list the areas in which digital technology is still lacking when compared to analog technology.

Stephen Johnson       Digital photography has clearly surpassed silver based photography in terms of resolution and dynamic range and is also clearly a further down the road in terms of color accuracy than silver based photography can ever achieve with conventional color film.

Curiously, where silver based photography tends to be perceived as having an edge still, is in its ability to be enlarged.  Traditionally, we have based enlargability of a film-based image on perceptual acceptance of the sharpness of the print.  This is only natural.  But, perceptual acceptance of the print is linked to our acceptance of film grain as the medium through which the photograph was rendered and seen. 

In teaching beginning photography classes, I often stressed the need to make the print just as sharp as the student could manage to make it.  We often went to great lengths to make sure any negative buckling caused from heat during a long exposure was taken into account, and the negative and was printed from the position it was in once heated, and already buckled.  The very idea of a grain focuser in the darkroom was to try and make the grain of the photograph as sharp as possible on the print.  We perceive the sharpness through the grain.  If the grain is sharp, we perceive the photograph to be sharp.  Even if the image itself being rendered by the grain is somewhat soft. 

This perceptual sharpness introduced by sharply printed grain gives us the option of making of very large prints from silver based images, making sure that the grain is maintained as sharp as possible, and therefore creating a perception of sharpness even in a 30 by 40 in. print from a 35 mm negative.  Although the engagement is not very sharp, and film grain dominates the perception, we have a level of exceptence that has been built into our perception over the last 50-100 years. 

Our expectations of perceptual sharpness based on sharp film grain has allowed us to think that we can blow up a film based image larger than we can blow up a digitally based image, because it does not have that same constituent grain as the very basis for the existence of a file.  Because a relatively noise free digital file has no underlying granular texture, the enlargability is largely determined by the level of tolerance by the photographer for making up new pixels from the original pixels that the camera recorded. 

Of course with a traditional digital camera using a bayer- pattern sensor, you have already allowed the camera system to completely make up two-thirds of the image data that the sensor could capture in the first place to deliver a "native" resultion.  So when we go to make a digialltally enlarged file we are asking Photoshop or some printing software to further make up more pixels from the original made up pixels and therefore the image quality can suffer dramatically. 

So some might say that where digital technology is lacking with regards the film technology is the ability to blow film up much larger than you can blow up a digital file.  I don't think that's an accurate statement because we could go back to the digital file , add some noise and "grain" and blow it up sharp and consequently imitating that granular structure that film has rested its inherent perceived sharpness and and imitate that traditional look and feel. 

JPC    How would you define the 20th century photographic aesthetic?

SJ       There were a huge variety of movements in photography during the 20th century, some based on 19th century landscape photography, some evolved as a reaction against realism in painting and photography, some evolved has a way of chasing the aesthetic of impressionism in painting. A single characterization really doesn't get at what photography and beauty meant in the 20th century.  But it is clear, that the way I think about landscape photography in my world, largely of came out of the f64 group of photographers such as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogine Cunningham, Charles Scheeler and others. They relished the reality of the large format camera, and its clarity, seeing in that reality a great potential for abstraction. Their work became a large part of what landscape photography became.  It is also true that in the 20th century, photography became a tool to portray the horrors of human life on the planet. It matured dramatically from the 19th century.  So our notions of photograph as document, as revealing of human horror, is also primarily a product of the 20th century. 

This new found documentary power, and its ability to render human tragedy, might well have been birthed with the Farm Security Administration's program during the Depression and its photographic talents of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shan and others.  Their ability to portray real people in desperate circumstances empowered the photographers of World War Two to portray real war in real circumstances in a way that photography had not previously seen. Of course this power escalated dramatically during the war in Vietnam. Photography and news reporting's ability to strip away the government line and make clear the sheer horror of the experience became crucial.  This line of photographic expression became a kind of human realism in photographic documentary, photojournalism and video documentary making in one of the real powers of perception in the 20's century.  It led to documentation and photographic projects like Sebastian Salgado's gold miners in near slave like conditions in South America, battles against South African apartheid, and a general recognition that photography as a tool to communicate tragic truth was indeed one of photography's most fundamental powers. 

In the process of evolving this documentary power and the very real issues confronting us at the end of the 20th century, the beauty of the world often got lost in the accepted aesthetic of the Fine Art photography world. The famous quote by Cartier-Bresson about Weston and Adams photographing trees when the world was falling apart, comes to mind. Despite the enormous work and sometimes horrifyingly real world experiences it took to make them, it was easier to have photographs appreciated depicting the angst of the human experience. The dark side, the street photography of tragic circumstances, or peculiar people was the art, rather than responses to the beauty of the natural world, much less an appreciation for the wonder that it represents. 

It is also true that with the advent of color photography and the continued desire by many to portray the natural world, we're in a circumstance where the proliferation of casually seen color landscape photography became the rule within its own niche. Photographers like Eliot Porter created for us as a heritage in color landscape, with a beauty and singularity that has been largely lost in a sea of superficial color postcard-type renditions of the natural world.  This became even more exacerbated by the ever greater saturation of modern color films, to the point that the experience of the real world started to seem less than the experience of the color photographic world.  This is also been made worse as a condition by the popular photographic affections which often chase the romance of golden light and forgets the normal ordinary experiences of beauty, sometimes of special places, but often simply the wonder of normal human life.

It is come to the point that the world of landscape photography seems to exist in a place of perpetual sunrises and sunsets, the golden light, the perfect light, the waiting for the light, as though the ordinary experience of living seeing an experience in the planet does not in and of itself constitute a remarkable experience. 

JPC    How would you redefine that aesthetic for the 21st century?

SJ      I suppose that I'm trying to make people aware that the Photography's power to portray the real world is not only a power to portray our real human tragedy, but to also portray real human wonder, real human complexity and real human nuance and intricacy.  The world is an intricate and nuanced place and I hope that photography can start to move toward understanding, appreciating, and portraying the common wonders of the world, rather than just the special wonders of the world. It is that ordinary world that makes our lives and the intrinsic beauty and the complexity of those ordinary lives are perhaps a subject area that photography has great room to grow. 

It is also certainly true that my own work is seeking to appreciate light in a different way than seems to have been previously appreciated in color photography.  My affection for pastels, a more real world saturation, and not making transparent and open shadows into deep black holes (as film has traditionally done) is certainly an aesthetic I hope to propagate with whatever power my own work has to inspire.

JPC    Tell me about the importance of the concerns and practices of photographers throughout the history of the medium?

SJ       Photography is young.  This artistic medium is 167 years old officially, and the work of Niepce and Fox-Talbot takes it back another 15 to 20 years.  It is in its infancy at a few hundred years, even taking into account 16th century and onward dreams of creating fixed photographic images from the camera obscura. 

Because it is such a young media, the way we photograph, our own practices as well as those of our predecessors, have really made the history of photography.  What we expect photography to be, has been largely determined by the photographs that we've seen and how we have understood the photographs that preceded ours.  If indeed Alexander Gardner moved that Confederate soldier's body in to a different position in his famous Civil War photograph from Gettysburg, we have a violation of what we would now call photojournalistic ethics, taking place in a documentary photograph, and in the 1860s. 

Photography has always been seen as wondrous, and much of that wonder came from its ability to render the real world.  In fact there was much controversy about it being the so-called "pencil of nature" to the point that there was much debate as to whether or not photography could ever be art, since it was merely a record of the scene. 

How photographers have approached these issues, their sense of truth in photography, their own sense of duty, how that has got folded into their work and both the interpreted power and documentary power of photography has influenced all of our perceptions of what photography is.  We have tended the sub-categorize photography into photojournalism, landscape, documentary, fine arts, and some would argue we have different expectations from those different areas. I belive that regardless of the genre within photography, the understanding that remains a fundamental aspect of our perception of what photography is, is that it is in fact an image that was formed by a lens of the scene before the camera.  However that might be influenced by our knowledge that photography can be manipulated into something that was not in front of the lens, we still have this instinct to believe, that is still at the heart of what makes this care about photographs.  

JPC    Tell me what the phrase "with a new eye" means to you.

SJ      When I was considering doing the project on the national parks, it naturally demanded an explanation as to why I was embarking on such an impractical and difficult project.  Sitting in the back of the first Photoshop Conference in San Francisco January of 1994, it became clear to me that I wanted to accomplish at least two things with this project.  I wanted this project on the national parks to be able to render photographs that were seen with a level of accuracy and detail that was unprecedented in the history photography.

In the physical sense of a new way of seeing with silicon centers on light as opposed to a grain-filled world.  But the term With a New Eye also meant a great deal more to me, as I fully expect that the way I photograph, the aesthetic choices I am making, and the way I see color, light, composition and abstraction will also be part of what constitutes my idea of new seeing in this project.

JPC    Because of a newfound sensitivity and versatility we both find ourselvesmaking photographs in light that in the past we would have stoppedphotographing, because it simply wouldn't have translated with our oldmaterials. Let’s pursue this more. Tell me a few of your experiences thatstand out for you.

SJ       There are two common and yet extreme conditions that photographs in the silver world has had trouble rendering, very flat light that is simultaneously bright and oppressive, and very bright light that is very contrasty with deep shadows. Both of these conditions are eased with the advent of silicon sensors and digital photographic technology. The flat light can have nuance and detail that we previously could not see and hold because of film’s characteristic curve in its reaction to light. The highlights were compressed and became indistinguishable. One of the peculiarities of silicon and the way we currently count bits of from the sensor is that we have enormous tonal differentiation in the upper ranges of tonality, particularly the brightest stop of exposure. This gives us an ability to distinguish detail that formally completely escaped the photographic process. Photographs in this harsh light can now hold dramatic beauty whereas in the past it’s often mid-afternoon occurrence would simply suggest we take a break and have a few beers. In terms of high contrast situations the fact that digital cameras have more dynamic range than silver based media allows us to hold a more real world representation of contrast that looks strange photographically and uncannily real experientially.

JPC     Something is always lost in translation. Some use artistic license to compensate for that loss. There's an interesting dynamic between accuracy and aesthetics in your work. Where's the line for you between faithfully representing what you see and taking artistic license to enhance an image.

SJ       I try never to do anything to a photograph that I would characterize as enhancement or embellishment. I’ve said over and over again on many continents and for many years that the world is already self-embellished, it doesn’t need me to somehow make it better. Of course, the practical challenge is when you encounter failings in the sensor, the compressed dynamic range of a final print or a very low contrast acquisition that results in a low saturation appearance, what do we do with those raw images to make them into a photograph that represents the beauty of the scene? I try to ride a very careful line between taking the scene for what it is, cleaning up artifacts of acquisition without changing any real content nor trying to make the scene “more” than it was.

JPC    Do you feel you're playing a part in the advancement of the goals and aesthetics of representation?

SJ       I do feel that my work can engender a discussion of both aesthetics and veracity in modern photography. I try very hard to compose a frame whereby the beauty of the original scene is distilled, and dances across the image. I work to keep a strong line of connection between what I saw and the print that I make. Inevitably this involves compromises because of the materials and interpretation, and because of the different forms of light being seen by the eye, but I try to be true to the original scene.

JPC    You're in a fascinating position. The photographic records you make contain so much data that the current display and output devices can't represent it all. With every advance in technology you see more in your originals. In the interim, you have to deal with the knowledge that you can't see everything contained in your files and can reproduce an even smaller portion of that. How do you deal with this? And what's it feel like while you're doing it?

SJ       The act of making a photograph has always been much like taking the big scene of the real world, in all is majesty, and funneling it into what the photographic medium could capture. Photography has always been reductive of the original experience. But it has also allowed us to inspect the image at our leisure and understand in potentially greater detail than what we noticed when we were present at its making. With the rather extraordinary resolution I can capture with my large format digital cameras this becomes and even more engaging process. Admittedly sometimes I have to zoom-in on the file in order to actually see the detail I am talking about, but nonetheless it is held at a startling level. It’s also ironic that my love of rag paper for its beautiful rough surface often obscures much of this fine detail, losing it in the paper fiber itself. I suppose that the compromise that I am riding is to make extremely large prints on the rag paper so that detail can survive and flourish even amidst the rag fiber.

JPC    The new photography has the potential to render more detail than the human eye can apprehend. This can lead us into the curious situation of deferring our own experience to the surrogate experiences provided by the tools we use to extend our perceptual faculties. We become increasingly remote witnesses. When the eye witness can no longer fully trust his or her eyes, the kind of testimony we give and how it is received is changed. Share with me your thoughts on this.

SJ       I don’t think this is anything new. In many ways the photograph has always contained more than we notice even though we may have been dealing with much lower resolution originals. Part of what we love about the photography process is the vicarious experience of a sense of place being appreciated without being in that place. It is actually inherent in photography's basic power to let us know a world at some visual level that we haven’t actually seen. I don’t think this really makes for any sort of deferred experience for the original moment. It simply becomes a continuation of a 175-year-old tradition of holding a moment and re-experiencing it in another time and place.

JPC      Producing a book is a labor of love, not to be taken lightly. What was the objective in producing your most recent book "On Digital Photography"? How is your book different than so many other books on digital photography?

SJ       When I was first approached to do the current book, it was a general question as to whether I would be willing to do a book on digital photography. I said I did not want to do a book on Photoshop or any other piece of software, but that I might be very interested in doing a book that reflected the way I had been teaching digital photography for 17 years. Basically, that is a broad, holistic approach that talks as much about why we make a photograph as how we make photographs. It is heart and soul, beauty and fatigue, complexity, simplicity and elegance all wrapped up into the artistic endeavor.

Specifically, the book covers where this electronic technology came from, how it connects to photographic history and the history of electronics. The book goes through how the technology actually works, the kind of empowerment it enables and the ethics called into question. These were all important aspects of what I wanted to discuss. Yes, there are technical subjects that are necessary, and I think I cover with about the right degree of exploration for a general text. But the more specific reason for making the book is to try and let people understand why I photograph, the tools that I use, the issues called into question and the inspiration and options I feel like I’ve gained in the new world of digital photography. I want the book to be inspirational, surprising, and maybe make us all a little uncomfortable.

JPC    I appreciate that, while you pursue your vision of photography passionately, you are both informed and appreciate other types of photography and other uses of photography. What are the developing areas and kinds of work that interest you most? 

SJ       The greatest wonder I experience in seeing new photography today is directly related to how many more people feel empowered to pursue photography and the variety of insights they bring to the medium. Despite it’s initial costs, digital photography has proved to be a highly democratizing development in the history of art. In terms of new artwork that comes out of it, I’m afraid that most of what I’ve seen in terms of digital compositing and fantasy work has made me feel even more profoundly that we are in the stone age of digital photography. There are notable exceptions to that, and I as I pointed out in my book, that traditionally composited photos by Jerry Uelsmann, have long enchanted me and I must confess, John Paul, that yours and Jeff Schewe’s work are among the composited photographs that have pulled me in, and that is why I chose to reproduce your work in my book. Naturally, there have been others like Gerald Bebee, who had the dinosaurs on the beach in Marin County and the ladders reaching into the sky and other fantastic scenes I see now and again.

But of course for me, the magic of photography is not what it can be made into, but what it can witness and although I’m always fascinated by how photographs can be used to engender other art forms, my fundamental fascination remains the photograph as witness to reality.