A conversation with Gail Gibson
Gail Gibson: You have two bodies of work on exhibit right now Camps + Cabins, which is work from Oregon and Alaska. Can you tell us about these projects?
Eirik Johnson: The Mushroom Camps and Barrow Cabins are indeed separate bodies of work, however they're linked by my ongoing interest in makeshift architecture and human adaptation within the natural world. With The Mushroom Camps, I’m looking at encampments built by commercial mushroom hunters among the high country pine forests of Oregon's Cascade Mountains. These seasonal mushroom hunts (morels and boletes in the spring, matsutake and chanterelles in the fall) draw together a uniquely American mix of Southeast Asian multi-generational families, rural counterculture folks, and Mexican migrant laborers. They build shacks from tree branches, twine, plastic tarps, and empty rice bags and for two to three months the mushroom hunters call these camps home. The forests are dotted with the skeletal outlines of abandoned shacks, weathered branches offering a faint reminder of a home from a previous hunt. Many of those hunting mushrooms have lost or can no longer depend on once stable employment and have in turn, sought out a living through the global demand for foraged mushrooms. Others temporarily leave their day jobs to spend a few months each year out on the hunt. A former military commander from Laos, a nail salon owner from Stockton, and a runaway from Portland are just a few of those who have made their way to the dusty camps to search for mushrooms amongst the pine needles.
Barrow Cabins depicts seasonal hunting cabins built by the native Iñupiat inhabitants of Barrow, Alaska. The cabins are situated at the Northern most stretch of the United States, along the shores of the Chukchi Sea, part of the larger Arctic Ocean. Iñupiat families travel from Barrow to the cabins to hunt for waterfowl in the summer and seals in the winter. Each cabin has been fashioned out of whatever makeshift materials are on hand, from weathered plywood to old shipping pallets collected from the nearby-decommissioned Navy Base. Children’s swings are rigged from two by fours and plastic milk boxes, while scraps of carpet and particleboard become footpaths across the loose ocean gravel and spongy permafrost tundra. I photographed the cabins in the midnight and early morning hours of the Arctic summer when the sun hangs almost perpetually at the horizon. The hunters are gone, their cabins and the hunting grounds empty.
In both bodies of work, the structures of the encampments take on a sculptural quality that's in dialogue with the surrounding landscape. The barren Arctic tundra shoreline pushes the hunting cabins out into the open foreground of the frame. They remind me of both the toy block structures my three-year-old son builds as well as the humble but elegant homes of mid-century architects including Joseph Eichler and Marcel Breuer. In contrast, the mushroom camp structures are hidden among the branches of the surrounding forest; only gradually revealing themselves when one gets closer.
Gail Gibson: Is there a sense of trust with the people that you photograph?
Eirik Johnson: I hope there is. I try to maintain an honest and transparent relationship with the subjects I photograph. It took some time to make connections in the commercial mushroom camps just to begin to understand the hierarchy, the levels of organization, the various ethnic communities, who's who, etc. Even once I had made those connections, it really came down to spending time camping, picking mushrooms, playing horseshoes, and talking around the campfire with the people I met and got to know. Of course, this changes how and what I photograph.
Gail Gibson: What has drawn you to the environment as a subject?
Eirik Johnson: I've had an ongoing interest in examining human interaction along what I refer to as "the tattered fringe" of the environment: a culverted subterranean river beneath urban wilds in my Borderlands project, migrant workers salvaging cedar shingle bolts in Sawdust Mountain, a burrowed rabbit warren amidst a landfill in Animal Holes, or an altar to the Virgin de Guadalupe in a neighborhood mechanic’s backyard in West Oakland Walk. These are spaces in which the built and natural worlds collide in varying degrees and there's always something surprising, something changing, or something hidden to be discovered.
Think of when we go hiking in a national park like Yosemite or the Olympics. We can go back, returning over and over and expect to find a similar landscape. Perhaps the seasons have changed, there's been a rock slide, or a glacier has receded (not a good thing to notice), but all in all the landscape will be similar to how we remembered it or even how our parents remembered it. I'm fascinated by places that are undergoing some form of unexpected change, that are being marked by both human and natural forces and places that are often ignored are typically those in which interesting things are happening. A large part of this curiosity springs from a childhood spent exploring both urban and remote wilds in the Pacific Northwest, but other experiences like a stint living in the Andes have pushed me to explore the improvised and often imperfect ways humans interact with this "tattered fringe".
Sagging Building, 2001.
Gail Gibson: Is this a 'cause' for you?
Eirik Johnson: I wouldn't describe my interest in the environment as a cause, but I am driven to make work that engages with the concerns and issues I'm passionate about. I do believe that our contemporary world has become more detached and disconnected from the natural environment and that we increasingly view it as a separate space, divided from our daily routine. This propels my fascination with exploring places like the mushroom camps where people have fashioned an improvised existence in the shadow of America's current economic retrenchment. I think that one of photography's greatest strengths is its ability to approach a complex issue (or series of issues) from different directions with clarity and mystery at the same time. I'm always trying to find a balance between posing questions through my work, but not answering them. Another way I like to think about it is that a good photograph is like a puzzle and the details in an image — a cabin's weathered façade, the expression on someone's face, the color and tonal palate of a certain place — are the fragments one tries to put together to make sense of what's happening in the picture.
Gail Gibson: Your work is a blend of nature and culture. Is this an important aspect of the way that you photograph?
Eirik Johnson: That's what the word environment means to me; it's a larger concept of place, people, and community all tied together, intertwined. Whether or not I'm photographing people or landscapes, buildings or objects depends entirely on the specific focus of a given project. I had a professor in graduate school whose background was in performance and installation. He had slightly combative personality and initially wondered why an image-maker like me would want to be in his critique seminar. A couple of weeks into the course, I put up the photographs I had been making in my neighborhood in West Oakland. There were pictures of people, empty lots, junk yard dogs, and one picture of an old building with a sinking foundation. When he looked at that picture, my professor said I had made a portrait of the building and that he felt empathy for the sad, sagging structure in the image. This was illuminating to me and is something I keep in mind whenever I'm making pictures.
I'm always trying to tell a story in my work. In the case of Camps + Cabins, I've focused primarily on the improvised architecture of the abandoned mushroom shacks and hunting cabins. In a sense, these idiosyncratic sculptural structures are stand-ins for the people who built them. They're full of personality and imbued with a sense of the escapism that draws one to forage in the woods for months at a time or to the shores of the Arctic to hunt. They show time's passage and the wear of the elements. They're built from materials salvaged from what's on hand. In the end, they're all portraits to me.