Landscape photographer sees world in black-and-white

Sunday, March 16, 2003

MOUNT CARROLL, Ill. -- The filtering effect of dusty light, a storm broiling over a northwestern Illinois field or light glittering through an old barn.

That's the workshop of Michael Johnson, who has been photographing rural America for more than 30 years.

Acclaimed as a master of large-format, black-and-white landscapes, Johnson's work is exhibited in many museums, corporations and private collections throughout the world. A self-taught photographer, Johnson came to northwestern Illinois about 30 years ago when he enrolled at Shimer College, which used to be in Mount Carroll but has since moved to Waukegan.

When black-and-white fine photography was regaining its popularity in the 1970s, many photographers were going to California, the Southwest and the Sierras. Growing to love the driftless area of northwestern Illinois, Johnson wondered: Why go West when there is so much fresh beauty here to photograph?

Johnson traces his inspiration to European master painters of the 17th century. He has several painter friends who give him ideas of things to photograph.

Wearing rustic clothes and sporting a graying beard, Johnson laughs when his artist friends say they can just paint over a utility pole that stands in the midst of pristine beauty.

Some of Johnson's photographs hang at the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian in Washington, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Illinois State Museum in Springfield and the San Jose Museum of Art.

For a time, Johnson worked in Chicago at a commercial photography studio, photographing fashions and furniture. After about a year, though, he began freelancing "so I could come back here and do what I really wanted to do.

"It took quite a few years, maybe three or four, before I felt I had enough of a portfolio together of quality work," he said. "Gradually, I improved my techniques."

Large corporations began buying Johnson's work for display on their walls.

"I started working on making larger and larger prints," he said. "When you have a view camera, you have this large negative, 5 by 7 inches, so you can make serious enlargements. These really gave me an advantage in the marketplace."

Although he has larger 8-by-10-inch format cameras, Johnson generally uses a 5-by-7-inch view camera made in 1930 by the Deardorff Corp. in Chicago for many of his landscape portraits. He can pack the camera in a backpack along with several lenses for treks across the country to find his subjects.

"I spend far more time in the studio than I like to admit," he said. "I only spend 3 percent of my time photographing. The rest of the time is in the darkroom and studio."

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