Photographer Eirik Johnson documents the communities and industries, specifically timber and salmon, of the Pacific Northwest. In his most recent book, Sawdust Mountain (Aperture), Johnson reveals the austere, quiet beauty that persists amidst the loss and decline of northwestern landscapes and towns.
Eirik Johnson is currently based in Boston. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the George Eastman House in Rochester, and the Aperture Foundation in New York. He has received the Santa Fe Prize and a William J. Fulbright Grant to Peru. His first monograph, Borderlands, was published by Twin Palms Publishers, and he is an assistant professor of photography at Massachusetts College of Art.
What’s your relationship to Washington and the northwest?
I was born and raised in Seattle. Since college, I’ve mostly lived in Boston where I teach. [This book] was kind of a homecoming and an opportunity to make work about where I’d grown up.
The northwest is so beautiful, but I feel like we don’t come across the story of its industry or communities very often.
That was what appealed to me about taking it on as a multi-year project. From a photography perspective, much has been done about the west—California—the east, and about the south, in the tradition of Eggleston and others like him. But the northwest always seemed like it hadn’t been addressed. It’s such an interesting place visually as well as from a story-telling perspective.
When I was young, we would spend a lot of time out in the mountains on the coast and in rural areas. My memories were of getting out of the car on a logging road and hunting for chanterelle mushrooms in the fall, or going to watch the salmon come in to spawn in the Bogachiel River. Those are the sort of iconic, mythical memories I had.
How did this lead you to focus so much on industry and community?
Growing up, there was an overt presence of clear-cut landscapes. They’re such dramatic, violent things that you really can’t get around feeling angry about them. I kind of wanted to challenge my preconceived ideas. I didn’t want this project to be dictating a perspective one way or another. I wanted to convey the complexity of these issues. There is an environmental impact, but at the same time these industries are waning for many reasons. Forestry, hydropower, salmon fishery—these were once the backbones that built communities. I wanted to address how communities are adapting and changing.
How did you get hooked up with some of the people in your photos?
Various ways. Missy Barlow, the older woman featured in a number of the photographs, is a real touchstone for the project. I was photographing some storefront in Forks, WA, using a large-format camera. I was under the dark cloth and someone tapped me on the shoulder and it was this woman, Missy. She said, “Are you an artist?” She took me back to her car that was parked nearby and showed me some of her watercolors and invited me to come out to her home in this very rural, rugged area of Washington State that her grandfather steaded back in the late 19th century. That was a serendipitous meeting.
I sought out Roger Mosley, who works with salmon-habitat preservation and the department of fish and wildlife. I’d been doing some research and really wanted to photograph spawning salmon. So I spent a very wet day wandering around with him. I contacted Brad Balderson through Roger Mosley. Brad’s son Harold had just gotten back from Iraq. He has a number of other brothers who had become fishermen. He didn’t have any interest in that, so he left their Makah tribe’s reservation and joined the army. He had just come back and didn’t really know what to do—he was playing video games all night and sleeping during the day. I was like, “Hey, take me to some of the places you went to with your friends to go hang out in high school.” He took me to the top of this mountain and I made a photograph of him there.
Other times I’d be driving around and if I saw somebody interesting, I’d strike up a conversation.
Have you gotten response from communities where you’ve shot? Have people seen the work?
I’ve stayed in touch with many if not all the people I’ve photographed. I had a show in Seattle at the University of Washington, and Cindy Millage, one of the people I photographed, who runs a salmon hatchery, came to the show, and I gave her a tour of the work. She had all these great stories I didn’t know about some of the photographs. I’ve gotten emails from folks throughout the northwest that are like, “you really captured the mood.” That’s what I was after, the mood that permeates throughout the sequence of images. I was very open with people when I made this work—I wasn’t trying to hide anything, I was just trying to tell my personal story and show my subjective view of the northwest.
What are you working on now?
Lately I’ve been making work in the Amazon, and it’s ultimately going to be a photographic found installation of long exposures I’ve made deep in Peru. During the time I’m making these long photographic exposures, of between four minutes and 20 minutes, I’m also recording the sound from that same spot during the duration. They’re going to be shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in September of 2010.