Michael Johnson has been photographing rural America for more than forty years. He is a traditional large format photographer, producing silver/gelatin prints from view camera negatives. His large black and white photographs have been exhibited throughout the United States, Asia, and Europe. They are acquired by museums, corporations, hospitals, and private collectors.
A self-taught photographer, Johnson traces his inspiration to the European master painters of the 17th century. However, his vision has been shaped by the land itself, especially by the landscape of the driftless area of Northwestern Illinois.
Johnson's love for the land extends to other areas of his life as well. He and his wife, Patricia, have planted thousands of trees on their family tree farm near Mount Carroll, Illinois, where they operate a small sawmill and sustainable hardwood lumber business. They were named Illinois Outstanding Tree Farmers in 2003 by the American Tree Farm System.
In response to numerous questions over the years, I offer the following thoughts about making landscape photographs.
All of the photographs on this site are created by traditional, silver-based processes. The prints are enlarged from 5×7 view camera negatives. I am comfortable with this format for two reasons. It is a slightly longer rectangle than the 4×5 - 8×10 ratio, and it seems to work well with predominately horizontal images. Also, it is the largest format camera, with lenses, film and auxiliary equipment, that I can comfortably carry in a backpack. Ansel Adam's basic Zone System is used for exposure control and tonal management.
Making photographs is a highly intentional process for me. Rather than exposing many negatives in the hope that some will turn out well, I spend most of my time looking at the land and planning the finished image. Composition is particularly important, both for creating an illusion of three dimensional space in a photograph and for constructing a dynamic design. Consequently, I often return to a promising landscape when the light or clouds are more favorable, or wait for hours while shadows sweep across the land.
The rendering of specific qualities of light is fundamentally important. Rather than trying to impose an arbitrary range of values on each print, I strive for a tonal range that affirms the specific character of illumination that caught my attention in the first place. The Zone System is an exceptionally powerful expressive tool for controlling the final print values. Basically, the exposure, filtration and development method for each sheet of film is determined before shutter release, rendering the best negative for producing the final print.
Making the print is as much a part of the creative process as exposing the negative. In fact, I have probably spent more time in the darkroom than with any other part of the photographic process. Fine printing is an intense, exhaustive, physical procedure in which, for me at least, the anticipated result is approached but never completely achieved. Ansel Adams' metaphor, that "the negative is the (musical) score and the print the performance," is singularly apt. Every time a negative is printed, there is an opportunity to make a different, perhaps more perfect, print.
The printing process is one of the conspicuous differences between analog and digital photography. Most digital photographers work with an image file until it is adjusted to their satisfaction, after which any number of identical prints is possible. For the darkroom photographer, the possibility of improvement is constantly before him. Another significant difference is in the way digital and photographic prints reflect light. One utilizes ink on paper and the other silver (in various forms) in a gelatin emulsion. Each has a particular look and expressive feel. Each process has its specific advantages and disadvantages. I make no claims for the superiority of either, only that I am in love with one of them.