Josh Ethan Johnson comes at you – a creative ribbon of brightly coloured light, streaked across a psychedelic sky? Multi-talented, he is, in no particular order, New York resident, street photographer, video maker, GFX designer, musician, lover of Asian food, award winner, cool dressing dude (if understated, and with hipster tendencies). Just to label a moving object like Johnson – and he is a talented street photographer – is difficult, if not impossible.
“I love finding similarities in my documentaries, lyrics or photos taken over…sometimes…17 years,” He muses thoughtfully on his hyper creativity. “I realised the same things that I was drawn to then, haven’t changed much at all. Abandoned buildings, early 90’s sounding snare drum, grandmas, bright colours. It’s actually what our song ‘Tendencies’ is all about (Johnson is one half of the excellent musical duo Estate). After listening back to the free-styled lyrics I realized my subconscious was talking about how, for better or worse, you’re stuck with your style and aesthetic: your knee jerk reactions. In the creative process, you make millions of micro decisions that add up to your recognizable style. It’s just my tendencies and I’m stuck with them to some degree.”
Image Credit Josh Ethan Johnson
His sense of subconscious creates in one frame an interesting study of street stillness. Six figures, one in some kind of ‘security/police’ type uniform – one a ‘slightly’ grinning woman partially hidden behind the uniformed man – stand by a stage entrance. A doorman, his eyes half closed and also grinning, seems relaxed in the doorway of the entrance. Three of the other four figures, including the uniformed man, are gazing off to our right as we face the photograph. While a moustachioed man glances suspiciously at the street photographer.
We are curious, it pulls us in, demands unraveling, a narrative, which I soon discover Josh is reluctant to help with. He much prefers his audience to make up their own minds about his street photography.
“I am pretty nosy. Street photography is my excuse to pry,” He tells me openly. “I was in photo class at art school and had to pick my own long term assignment. I decided to ride the Minneapolis bus system at night and take candid and portraits of the riders. At 19 that pushed me way out of my comfort zone. That would be intimidating for me to do now at 37. I ended up meeting a kind of street guy with psychological issues…and did a year-long photo documentary series on him and his wife in their public housing apartment (Kamp and Marry). Street photography was just my excuse to get involved.”
Johnson describes himself as a ‘corn fed midwesterner from DeKalb, Illinois’. He has also lived in Milwaukee before shifting ground to Minneapolis to study art, and then onto his present home in New York, where he is drawn toward street photography by his own obsessive curiosity of the world.
Image Credit Josh Ethan Johnson
A slightly out-of-focus street character rushes threateningly at the photographer. The would-be assailant is holding his leather jacket open to display the legend : ‘Thug Life’ – ironically – in New York Times style font – a staffer? Photo editor perhaps? Surely not!
“I turn my brain off, and trust if something catches my eye, take a photograph and think later,” He says in that understated way of his. “The success rate is very low per frame, but in the edit, you can curate the good ones. I don’t ever go out with subjects in mind. It’s again the difference of conscious or subconscious and I try and let the photo present itself as opposed to me forcing it. I only know what I’m looking for when I see I’ve taken 40 similar photos over many years and think, ‘hmm.. I must be curious about the sociopathic one percenters or people with injuries’.”
Enigmatic, elusive, yet, creatively brilliant, you get the feeling Johnson would rather see what happens than spend time analysing his work. But, this is part of his unassuming charm because I think he knows a lot more about himself, as a street photographer and artist, than he is prepared to give away.
“I was hoping you could tell me….” he responds, evasively, to my question about where he is headed creatively. “I really like making the work. The other parts of being an artist can sometimes be chores, like doing awesome interviews like this where I can be self indulgent, or applying for competitions. All I know is, I’ll probably be doing my thing for the rest of my life but I wouldn’t complain if Martin Parr calls me up and tells me Magnum is putting out 20 Josh Ethan Johnson photo books.”
But it is not only streetphotography.com that has recognised the talent that is Josh Ethan Johnston.
“I’d love to travel more,” He adds and then goes on to reveal, “I’ve actually got some great professional photo gigs lately. One shooting a movie poster on set for a flick coming out next year. They wanted my exact aesthetic so it was an ideal project. I’d love to do more things like this and international photo assignments.”
There is, at the heart of Joshua’s work, the strong, pounding, heartbeat of the documentary. I, for one, could easily imagine him as a searing documentary filmmaker who scores his own music for his movies.
Image Credit Josh Ethan Johnson
“This summer, my wife and I were on a magical Italian holiday,” He tells me about a great documentary series of his photographs he has titled ‘Italian Hot Spring Bling’. “She knew about this hot spring way the f**k up the Tuscan mountains. When we finally arrived, thank you google maps, there were dozens of speedo wearing Italians picnicking, smearing the calcium clay over their bodies, sunbathing and loving life. I’m not even sure why I like this series so much, probably because I want to be loving life half as much as they were.”
His words hang in the rarefied air of cutting edge street photography, we wait patiently for clues.
Johnson is a talented street photographer, but you can’t talk about him without admitting, he is much more than that. Enigmatic, charming, unassuming. As understated as a murderous character from a Coen Brothers movie – I mean that in the nicest possible way and as a metaphor for his straightforward ordinariness juxtaposed with his brimming creativity.
He kind of underplays his own remarkable abilities, but that’s what they are, remarkable.
Note: You can find Joshua Johnson’s website at joshethanjohnson.com where you will find his music, photographs, book: Endangered Species, Kamp and Marry series, and a wonderful video documentary series ‘FACES’.