Whenever we have a chance to
speak to someone we admire,
the hope is, they are thoughtful,
sincere, and generous. This is
exactly what it was like to speak
with photographer Jeff Johnson.
Jeff has recently made headlines
across the photography, surfing,
and climbing communities with
the film 180° South.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jeff, he is a writer and photographer, who after living in Hawaii for fifteen years, set off on a six month journey from Yosemite Valley, California to Patagonia, Chile. Following in the footsteps of Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) and Doug Tompkins (founder of North Face) Jeff set out to see what would happen as he sailed, surfed, and climbed his way down the South American coastline.
Chouinard and Tompkins had embarked on the original trip back in the 1960′s. They documented their travels with a 16mm Bolex camera and kept the footage under lock and key until the late 90′s when a Patagonia employee smuggled it out of the vault and showed it to Jeff. As it turns out Jeff and some of his friends had toyed with the idea of traveling from Alaska to Patagonia, but the trip never took shape. After seeing the footage of Yvon and Doug, Jeff decided that trans-American trip was possible. On the advice of a friend be bought a Leica M7 with three lenses for the trip.
Jeff is a self-proclaimed dreamer. How many of us have entertained the idea of picking up and heading out to a remote place with no real plan? If you are like me, the adventures of Ernest Shackleton in Antarctica or Maurice Herzog’s epic climb of Annapurna inspire ideas of self exploration at the ends of the earth. The extraordinary thing about Jeff is he converted his dream into a reality.
Jeff was nice enough to talk about how his life led up to this momentous film and how he looks at the future. Right now things are really busy for Jeff, so we split the interview into two parts, first some written responses in Jeff’s own words followed by a phone conversation between the two of us. His writing skills outperform mine by a long shot. I hope my summaries do his words justice.
[ Jeff at Home ]
Adam Marelli: While traveling, how do you approach someone when you want to take their picture?
Jeff Johnson: It depends on the trip and how long I will be with the people I’m shooting. The last trip I was on took six months. It began in Yosemite Valley California, then I went south all the way to Chile. Some people I was with for many days, even months. Other times I was just passing through and was with the people for only minutes. When shooting the people while passing through they often didn’t know I was shooting them- I made myself blend in, sometimes holding my camera at my waist and releasing the shutter and getting lucky that way. Sometimes I would ask to take their picture- which will often ruin the moment, so I would fake a portrait of them and when they thought they were done, I’d catch them in a real moment when they went back to what they were doing. The relationship really depends on how much time I have with the subject and what the subject is doing. My approach is always changing.
Marelli: When you have a chance to photograph someone you really respect, like Yvon Chouinard, how do you keep your composure?
Johnson: The first time I photographed Yvon I was nervous. But I quickly realized he was comfortable in front of the camera- he’s done it many times before. That helps a lot. And we have become friends which has made it a lot easier. I just make sure I don’t take too much time. And I try to know what I want beforehand. With my portraits I often do not control the situation- just shoot the person as he or she is, in the environment I happen to find them in.
Marelli: When you were taking pictures of the Gauchos, in Patagonia, or the fishermen, in Chile, how did hearing their stories affect the way you took pictures of them?
Johnson: It always helps to know a person’s story- without it, it’s just a picture. I went on a pack trip into the hills with the gauchos. I heard their music and I knew their stories. I saw that they led a simple, happy life and that it was being threatened. I was looking for that in their faces, their posture, and I hope I got it. I was staying near the fishermen in Chile for almost 3 weeks. I saw them every morning at their work when I went surfing. I started hanging out with them and asked if I could shoot and they were cool with it. I only saw the Abalone Man for a few minutes jumping behind some rock out-cropping on the ocean. I only had time to take 3 or 4 photos. It turned out to be a magical few minutes.
Marelli: Do you believe photography deepens your relationship to a place or does it keep you at a distance from your subject?
Johnson: I believe the very act of taking photos can take you away from the actual experience. In the moment I am focused on the photo. I try to remember to put my camera down so I can be present. If I don’t, I come home with photos and hardly any experiences- my experience will end up being the photo. It’s good to have both.
[ From the Road ]
Jeff is on the road a lot these days. Back in California he had some time to talk with me about how he came to Leica, where he finds inspiration, and how he answers questions for a younger generation of photographers who are looking for some advice. Personally I learned a lot talking to Jeff and added a few comments to reflect on the conversation.
Jeff On Using A Leica…
By the time I was ready to start filming 180° South I was pretty burnt out on digital photography. A friend recommended a M7 for some film work, so I picked one up (along with a 24mm Elmarit, 50mm Summicron, and a 75mm Summicron). Shooting a rangefinder made me see things differently. Normally, I travel with a Canon 5D and a Mark IV. When I pull that camera out people think “Whoa, this guy means business.” With the Leica and its quiet shutter, most people barely pay any attention to it.
I made all of the classic mistakes getting used to the camera. There were times I forgot to take off the lens cap, other times when I shot the camera with no film loaded, and other times when the film would not wind properly. Eventually I got the hang of it, but there was a learning curve.
My thoughts on Jeff…
Professionals are humans too. We all make tons of stupid mistakes when we are learning, though not everyone admits it. I have made all the same mistakes as Jeff plus a few more. It can be frustrating and humbling to have a camera that is not afraid to make you look bad, but after some time the highlights begin to outnumber the mishaps.
On Leica Lenses…
In my everyday work for Patagonia and magazines like Surfer’s Journal I do a lot of wide angle work. Shooting with the 50mm is great practice because it has a very cinematic view. There is no distortion, so the content needs to be good otherwise the picture looks terrible. It is the lens I shot the most.
I have tried a chunk of lenses for my Leica and the 50mm gets the most use. Sure the exotic wide angle lenses are fun and the 90mm is a great way to capture people in a crowd, but the 50mm is the most versatile. It takes great portraits, but allows for some scenic work too. To date it is my favorite all around lens.
On Shooting Film…
You know those pictures that just look like they are digital? I feel like I see way too much of them. Whether I am shooting film or digital I like my images to have a natural look. I find that when I shoot film, I take fewer pictures and am way more thoughtful than when I work in digital. It’s not really a cost issue, since I don’t pay for the processing; it’s just how I work with the camera.
But nowadays most photo editors want all digital work, but the editor at Patagonia is really cool. She lets me shoot film and digital which is great. When I first started shooting for them it was all film, so it’s something I would like to continue.
The films I like to use are Fuji Provia 100, Velvia 100, and Kodak Tri-x 400. I really love using the slide film for surfing shots because the color jumps out at you.
I really like that Jeff prefers natural looking images and sometimes it’s tough to tell his digital work from his film work. In the end we should shoot what we like and develop our own style. Whether it involves hours of post-production or if it is a straight negative it will be the most fulfilling if it makes you happy.
I don’t really have any photographers that were very influential to me. I grew up reading National Geographic and looking at lots of images, but I was more interested in the pictures and did not pay attention to who shot it. If I had to name a single photographer I would have to say Henri Cartier Bresson, but I know lots of people would say that too.
Actually, I feel more inspired by writing than I do photography. I think it’s why I write and take pictures. I feel like reading good stories gets me out there, then I take pictures and my own writing helps me reflect on the experiences. It’s a big cycle.
Naming photographers has never been my thing. When I was in art school, it always felt like everyone else knew more photographers than me. This used to bother me, but over the years I have remembered some names and forgotten even more. Einstein once said “It’s not worth memorizing anything I can look up.”
Advice for younger photographers…
If I had to say just one thing, it’s that you have lots of time. There is no need to rush into a career. When I was in my early twenties I had no idea what I wanted to do. Growing up in a landlocked town in northern California, all I wanted to do was surf. I decided that I had to move to Hawaii. I spent the next fifteen years living on the North Shore of Oahu surfing and eventually taking pictures.
There are tons of surf photographers on the North Shore and I had no interest in standing on the beach with a huge telephoto lens. So I got a job as a flight attendant which let me travel for free. It gave me a chance to visit a lot of places. I was young and did not know where I wanted to go next. Hawaii ended up being a great place to live because it is really transient. People travel to and from the islands so I had a chance to meet more people than I could have being at home.
Eventually I made friends with some photographers who set me up with a simple Canon film camera to take on the flights. I would come home and give slide shows in my garage. I never knew if it would amount to anything.
At the same time I was testing clothes for Patagonia. They sent one of their photographers out to the North Shore and I showed her around for the week. I took pictures with her and she submitted my photos with hers. The editor ended up accepting some of mine too. I was super stoked. At first they would just pay for my film and processing, but eventually they started buying my shots. The whole process was really organic and I never knew what the next step would be.
It’s really strange now having young kids ask me,” Hey Jeff, what should I do?” It’s such an easy question to ask but a hard question to answer. I don’t think anyone can answer it for you. Usually I tell people that if they have a dream, follow it, and if they don’t have a dream, don’t force it. Whatever it is you are looking for will find you, in the meantime, travel.
I am about ten years younger than Jeff and only in the last year have I come to understand that there is no rush. It’s best to do things one thing at a time. Eventually all those little steps gain their own momentum.
On Balancing Life and Work…
Everything takes time to develop. I spent fifteen years surfing on the North Shore in Hawaii and over the last few years I have been doing more rock climbing back in California. 180° South was about 10 years in the works from the day I had the idea to its completion. In a strange way it needed that much time to come together. Everything in my life has evolved organically. All the little steps led up to bigger ones and none of them seemed like too big of a leap. But it’s kind of amazing to see how it all happened.
Favorite Place in the World…
Easter Island has to be my favorite place so far. The people are so warm and friendly. The place has a strange past and the island seems to be turning around. Right now it’s not overrun with hotels and tourism, but I can’t imagine it will stay like that for much longer. It’s a good time to go there because in a few years it will probably look very different.
I can’t wait to head to Easter Island.
Check out more of Jeff’s work on his site at www.jeffjohnsonstories.com.
The film 180° South is available on: