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Eirik Johnson: Portraits of the Tattered Fringe

Eirik Johnson: Portraits of the Tattered Fringe

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. Photo by Eirik Johnson

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.

WATERSHED: The French Broad River

WATERSHED: The French Broad River

Photographs by Jeff Rich, Essay by Rod Slemmons

Much of Jeff Rich’s photographic survey of the French Broad River Basin in North Carolina and Tennessee is familiar to me: the bridges, the sewer and water pipes, the factories, the cars in anti-erosion banks, the woods — trees fighting with the river for soil and water — the man-made and natural debris. I spent eleven years of my growing up on the banks of, and sometimes in, the Cuyahoga River in northern Ohio. We had a few small dams and, more importantly, Indian mounds. We had the locks of the Ohio Canal not far from the quarries for building them. We also had the human element of social outsiders squatting in shacks and trailers along the banks. Of course, our river caught fire occasionally as outsiders are fond of pointing out. We had a huge, dramatic waste pipe, big enough to ride a bicycle on, that went from Akron to the sewage plant about a third of the way to Cleveland and that leaked into the river, making it glow blue part of the year.

Those similarities aside, I would like to start on a more philosophical level. At West Junior High School in Akron we had an amazing science teacher. In our eyes she was elderly and a bit frail, with a soft way of speaking. But there was something about her that held our erratic teenage attention tightly. She knew everything there was to know about the animals and plants of the valley and its human history. I have a strong memory of our class walking a long time with her as she pointed out plants the Indians ate, which she had us taste. “They were not just survivors,” she said as we gathered around her. “They had a depth of understanding about the earth and sky to make this star-shaped mound we are standing on.” We gasped, since we hadn’t noticed its shape. Her goal was to teach us depth of perception, not science in the abstract. One day as we were eating our sandwiches, watching the river go by, she announced that there were two kinds of time. The flow of time, like the river that moved by incessantly and never came back. And the cycle of time, like the trees that change through the seasons, starting at and eventually getting back to the same place. She said that trees next to the river reminded her of the inevitability of death and rebirth. It would take us the rest of the first half of our lives to know what she meant, but I think most of us were changed by that simple moment by the river. She died a couple of years later, and that accelerated our understanding of what she had taught us.

Because they help us cross over a river without seeing it, the soaring railroad trestles and highway bridges in Watershed act as symbols of our tendency to blank out natural phenomena. We need to transcend the idea that rivers are barriers, potentially destructive competitors that get in our way. In some of the images, for example, it is easy to see the damage a flooded river would do or has done: sometimes nature wins and knocks down our bridges and tears up our pipes, dams and electric poles. That gets our attention. But most of the time, unless we need the rivers for recreation, factory cooling or an open sewer, or we live on the bank, we ignore them.

Jeff Rich has included a few people in his images. They seem to be sympathetic and knowing about the river and its use, abuse and preservation. Some are playing out the notion of recreation, with its underpinnings in our almost religious need for pristine wilderness, as in Eden. We seek a place where we can be re-created, on a planet that we have now overrun. We grasp at notions of Frontier and Wilderness. We don’t really want to see videos of giant islands of plastic bags in the north Pacific. We want to flush the toilet and not worry about where the water is going. The images in Watershed made me think about this at some length. When I was rafting past that sewage plant outlet pipe as a youth on the Cuyahoga, I knew that when some valve somewhere in the plant failed, sewage would go straight into the river. I have never been able to flush the toilet since without seeing that huge pipe coming out of the river bank.

I now live in Chicago, where our river got into the news a couple of years ago when federal environmentalists complained that too much waste was being dumped into it and, by extension, the Mississippi. The mayor disputed the analysis and said he would have no problem eating a fish from the Chicago River. Local experts immediately advised him not to. The positive outcome of further tests was that our dull, sluggish river’s rating was upgraded from “toxic” to “polluted.”

Strangely, these photographs remind me that on our homemade rafts on the Cuyahoga, we found the most altered and disrupted parts of the river the most exciting. Passing the steel mills and factories just south of Cleveland was breathtaking (literally as well as figuratively!). The black factories belching fire, steam and smoke meant something more akin to cultural superiority than natural destruction. (The pollutants they dumped into the river persisted far longer than sewage, but we didn’t know that then.) As we rode into Lake Erie, our science teacher’s observation seemed more complicated: flow, cycle—or sump? Southern Lake Erie was declared “dead” in the 1960s; it has recovered somewhat now that most of the factories are gone. At the lake, we would abandon our raft, climb up a dock ladder beside ore ships and hitchhike back upriver home, to Akron.

Taking this kind of trip today would help us avoid something Jeff Rich talks about. He says people he met on the river spoke of the folks upstream in the past tense and essentially blamed them for pollution and flooding. They would speak of their part of the river in the present tense. They may have been reflecting their current predicament, or they may have meant to make their frustration clearer. But is interesting to think that as the water flows it retains its own basic identity. It flows past and through many “owners,” who each claim the river’s good parts but hesitate to claim the bad. Persuading people that they own and are responsible for the entire river, spring to delta, small town to metropolis, seems like the only real place to start cleanup. Perhaps inviting civic leaders and engineers on a trip down a damaged river would place the notion of ownership in a different, more constructive light.

I went back to the Cuyahoga recently, half a century later, and noticed considerable change. No blue tinge; the big sewer pipe repaired along with what looks like a new treatment plant; lots of new regulations imposed on local people because of the valley’s designation as a National Park. It looks in Rich’s photographs as if the French Broad River has a ways to go in comparison. But the Cuyahoga’s progress may be an illusion. There has to be a lot of questionable material in it still from all the rubber factories, machine shops, neighborhoods, agriculture and petroleum tank farms (the ones that caused the river to catch fire) upstream.

We can and should lament the nearly permanent damage we have done to rivers and watersheds. We need to face, that in fact, we all own the rivers and are responsible for them. The flow of their time manifests lengthy trajectories that make a human life seem like the simple punctuation that it is. Unfortunately, we simple punctuations find taking responsibility difficult.

michael christopher brown – libya

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Michael Christopher Brown


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Since arriving ten days ago, I have tried to understand the situation here in Libya. People swap facts, predictions and rumors, the news feeds me information, but the complexity of the conflict makes it impossible to fully comprehend. Once a picture is taken or a word is written it is already old news. There seems to be no way to catch up, as the database of history is filed before it is processed. And as a result I have become more confused. But I can attest to one reality, shown in these photographs. They form a loose record of my experience during the war in Libya.

Around midnight we piled into a tiny car and drove for 7 hours, from Cairo to the eastern border of Libya. A wide eyed nicely dressed Egyptian city man, our driver with slick black greasy hair, persuaded military officer after officer standing beside tanks that he had foreigners and therefore special privilege to pierce the curfew barriers and drive west, as if in a high-speed chase on empty highways, past the beautiful night city of Cairo and into a deep desert countryside as cigarette smoke escaped out the window. Somewhere sometime we passed the pyramids, not too longer after a pit stop with a McDonald’s and a shopkeeper selling ‘StarFuck’ ashtrays shaped as green coffee cups. The jetlagged dreams of 3 packed in a backseat took us elsewhere as the sun rose over the Mediterranean just beyond the sand dunes. The barren desert, looking left to nowhere looking right to the sea. The towns were simple shacks and here and there and rare were men in long robes without faces standing still. Wearing white robes and black robes, with camels near the sandy highway.

Would Libya be different? Would it be a different world? Something told us so. Something would be there for us. Danger, excitement, importance, freedom, death. Perhaps all. Smoking cigarettes. We arrived beyond Salloum where lines of trucks and cars waited for those leaving Libya. Arms in the air, Egyptians and Chinese and Indonesians crossing to somewhere safe. We moving in the opposite direction, elated. Then more journalists, then some we knew. On the other side more people piled up. A hall full of Indonesians, laying about as if dead so I exchanged my Egyptian money with their Libyan, using a rate in their favor and losing $100 in the process. Something to do. Then we walked the 1000 yards or so to the Libyan gate, guarded by men in plainclothes and rebels.

A man in dark sunglasses glanced suspiciously at us. They inspected our passports, we filled out a quick form and walked to Libya, to a road bordered on both sides by tall cement walls. Two Libyans of about 25 offered to take us to their hometown of Benghazi. We jumped into the van, looking a lot like my Jinbei in China. The concrete walls, looking like blast walls, surrounded trucks and cars wedged together in a narrow dusty strip with men wrapped in scarves holding automatics and eying the interior of our ride suspiciously. They were young men, these rebels, with old men in the background watching. No uniforms, like bandits, they were among the opposition who had recently wrested eastern Libya from Gaddafi. They nodded heads with our driver, who sped up, then sped up again, passing cars and whizzing past a littered landscape of wrecked automobiles and buildings and into an emptier desert than Egypt’s.

Faster faster our driver outsped his buddies in the other van, and his eyes faster than anything existing in the desert that day or anytime before. His eyes beyond the horizon, beyond what was happening in the country. All the fighting could not reach the (what was it in his eyes?) it in his eyes. A few windy turns but not many, the highway whisked through abandoned (after coming from china everything looked abandoned) tiny sand towns with few buildings, all small and plain and square or rectangular against the pastel landscape. But mostly phone lines, empty phone lines carrying messages to the west and we were messengers to the west. Driving faster now our drivers eyes not leaving the road. Faulty communication. I know little Arabic and him the word ‘smoking.’ One stop at a road café we ate tuna sandwiches and photographed a man and his gun. Our drivers buddies caught up and we raced each other down the road, the landscape turning from sand to rock then greenery. It began to rain. We made Benghazi by nightfall and arrived at the African hotel. The first night spent in a real bed in Africa, with dirty sheets and one cockroach.


Raised in Washington State, Michael moved to New York and began working as a freelance photographer in 2006. His clients include GEO, Time, National Geographic Magazine, Smithsonian, Fortune, The Atlantic and ESPN The Magazine, among others.

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Michael Christopher Brown