Focus on Stella Johnson (English Version)

Interview: Dora Lavazou Coordinator: George Kazazis

 

On the occasion of your current photo exhibition in Mytilene, the island that you came from, would you like to tell me a few words about this exhibition?

I have been working on this set of photographs since 2007, coming to Mytilene to visit my cousins and photograph for a few weeks every year. The images are about my experience in Greece as a Greek-American. I identify with being Greek but I also identify with being American. It is tricky. The work is titled, ZOI (ΖΩΗ) and these images will be made into a book within the next two years.

I have sent my artist statement for you to read. (Read artist statment here)

What is your photo story?

I got my first camera when I was 12 years old, from my god parents. My grandmother, Ourania Karyanni, who was born in Mitilini, Lesbos, was always taking photographs of us with her Kodak brownie box camera. I realize now that this had a huge influence on me. And of course, she had no photographs of her mother or of Greece when she left as a child.

I went to Greece for the first time when I was 17 and saw the familiar faces of my ‘people’ and photographed everyone with my Instamatic camera. 

I took workshops and earned a BFA in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute. In graduate school at Boston University, I went to Mexico in search of village life- I had visited the villages my grandparents grew up in and heard stories about village life and wanted to experience it for myself and to photograph it. My grandmother’s experiences drove my need to understand and that evolved into my book, AL SOL: Photographs from Mexico, Cameroon and Nicaragua, published by the University of Maine Press in 2008. 

After AL SOL was published I decided to reconnect with my Greek roots and visited my cousins in Mytiline. I started giving workshops in Chania, Crete in 2008 via the Maine Media Workshops and have been doing this ever since. 

 

Could you say that over the last ten years you have visited Greece and more specifically Mytilene and Crete recording with your lenses everyday moments of ordinary people, is the Greek portfolio of Constantine Manos in mind, is there some connection, some influence?

Costa Manos has been my visual mentor, but unlike Costa, I know everyone in my photographs. I return to the same people and places year after year. 

On a personal level, I return to Greece year after year out of affection for my friends. As a photographer, I return because as I grow as an artist, my images change from simplistic portraits to layered-moments filled with light and composition.  Even though the place remains the same, I remain challenged visually to produce unique, intimate photographs in the same environments, familiar yet foreign to me especially since I live in the city where pigs, goats and chickens are not part of my life.  

Costa Manos is a street photographer.  He says that I like to get into people’s bathrooms as a way of acknowledging the friendships my image-making fosters.  The Greek Portfolio was the first photography book I ever bought, and I have all editions of it now. It was and is in the back of my mind all the time, and especially when I am photographing in the village of Anogia in Crete, where tradition reigns.

Costa taught me how to compose and continues to teach me so many things even now. We have been friends for 30 years and he has been a tremendous influence on me and my career. 

This is a photo of myself at the opening with Roula who is in the photo behind us, in 2007. The photograph was made by © Elias Marcou


 

Would you like to refer to your relationship with Costa? When did you get in touch with him and can you tell a few words about  your experience with him as a teacher?

I took a workshop with Costa because I was working as a commercial and editorial photographer and working on my personal project in Mexico but I needed visual help and guidance. After the workshop, Costa decided to be my mentor and he helped me learn to see and learn to make strong visual images. He was and is my mentor and close friend. We both lived in Boston and are both Greek and he was and is very generous with his time. I am in his debt, in so many ways.

Do you teach photography at universities in America? What  is the situation regrading photography in America, now? What are the stances? Are there any similarities or differences with us here?

I teach photography at Boston University in Boston MA and at Lesley University College of Art and Design in Cambridge MA. I teach in the film/analog lab and also teach digital photography, video and documentary photography. In addition, I teach international classes in Havana, Cuba, Oaxaca, Mexico and Crete, Greece.

Everyone is a photographer everywhere right now-however, self-identified photographers and artists are using large and medium format film cameras, digital cameras, iPhones, video and of course, we are all on social media, especially Instagram, where I see a lot of great work.

I think there is a lot of great talent in Greece- I personally know many talented Greek photographers-Haris Panagiotakopoulos, Eva Voutsaki, Georgia Matsamaki,and Charalampos Kydonakis, aka Dirty Harry, all from Crete and I also love the images of Stavros Stamatiou, who has been interviewed by iFocus.gr.

I think the stance in the art world today in the US is in the conceptual camp of photography and there is less interest in street photography and strict documentary photography. Although photographers such as Magnum’s Alec Soth have been wildly embraced by the art world even though his work in Sleeping by the Mississippi was inspired by the great documentary photographer Walker Evans.

What do you think of photography and its use in social media helps or disfavors the artist or even the art of so frequent exposure?

I think social media is very important but must be used sparingly- I do not look at selfies and dismiss those images and those photographers. There is very interesting work posted on Instagram- I try to follow the photographers who ‘curate’ their Instagram feeds, taking great care to consider which images they upload- how they go together etc. I use Instagram to promote my student workshops-Last year I was invited to take over the Instagram feed for @lensculture and used this opportunity to show my student’s photographs from our workshop and this year I was invited to take over the Instagram feed for @everydayeverywhere and this was great, since there are so many everyday sites to choose from! 

Would you like to give us some tips for new photographers? 

I suggest that new photographers keep their day job and make images because they love doing so. There is no real business in photography, no real money to be made, as there was years ago when I started. But I would also suggest they study the masters and curate their Instagram accounts and form a critique group of people whose work they like. They must keep making images if this is what they want to do. Why not? But do not expect to make money. Do this because you love it. 

What are your next plans regarding photography? Have you thought of publishing a photo book with your work from Greece? Maybe an exhibition in America, do you think Americans would be interested? Or is it all about public relations and marketing?

I intend to publish my photographs from Greece in a book, either this year or next. I have yet to sequence the images, and I will try to pre-sell the book. Instagram and Facebook are good ways to communicate this- marketing is very tough. I most likely will exhibit some of the work at the Leica Gallery in Boston in the next year and may exhibit the work in the US. However, exhibitions can be expensive and I would rather travel and photograph and meet new people and visit with my friends in places I have already photographed in.

What means photography to you, how does this engagement change your life?

Photography has definitely changed me- I was a rather shy person and photography helped me overcome my shyness and gave me the passport to go out in the world and talk to everyone. For me, the relationships I have made via making my photographs are far more important to me than the photographs themselves. 

Which photo comes first to your mind when you hear the word Greece?

The photograph of a grandmother, a yaya, in a house coat. When I think of Greece, I think of my grandmothers.

 

My work can be seen on my website at:

www.stellajohnson.com and on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/stellajohnson/

 

Photo credit: Dominic  Chavez 


Short bio

Stella Johnson is a photographer and educator known for her passionate and honest documentary projects. She received a Core Fulbright Scholar Grant to photograph in Mexico in 2003, and Fulbright Senior Specialist grants to teach in Mexico in 2006 and in Colombia in 2018. The University of Maine Press published her monograph, Al Sol: Photographs from Mexico, Cameroon and Nicaragua in 2008. Johnson’s photographs have been widely exhibited in the United States and internationally. 

 

A dedicated educator, Johnson holds teaching positions at Boston University and Lesley University College of Art and Design. She also teaches workshops in Greece, Cuba, and Mexico. She was a 2013 finalist for the Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship, Photolucida Critical Mass Top 50, and a nominee for the Boston Foundation’s Brother Thomas Fellowship. Johnson’s work has received numerous honors including a New England Foundation for the Arts Cultural Collaborative Artist-in-Residence Grant and Julia Margaret Cameron Award. 

 

Johnson holds a BFA from The San Francisco Art Institute and an MS in Journalism from Boston University. Her work is held in public collections including The DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, The Haggerty Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Portland Museum of Art, and The Southeast Museum of Photography, among others.