Mark Hewitt Johnson is an accomplished Toronto photographer who has been active for over forty years. He is a life-long student of the photographic medium who has wide ranging and eclectic interests. I enjoy and admire his work, not just for the strength of the images, but for the thought behind them. With his images, Mark goes deep.
I asked him eight questions about his work and his current projects. You can see more of his images on his Instagram page and on the project “Images from the Belly of the White Whale.” Our online conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
“A photograph is neither taken or seized by force. It offers itself up. It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I’m from Red Head, New Brunswick. Growing up beside the ocean, on the edge of a forest, there was a brook running through my yard to the sea. I was consumed by nature, where early on, the invisible becomes visible to your mind. Through nature, the interconnectedness of everything made a lasting impression. I lived there in the shadow of Alex Colville–an artist who looms large in my understanding of the visual arts. With my first camera, my subject matter was nature and landscapes. Later, when I moved to Toronto to study Photo-Arts at Ryerson, my landscapes became cityscapes, and nature became human nature. My studies at Ryerson exposed me to the masters of the craft of photography; also to the observations of Marshal McLuhan on what makes humanity civilized. One thing that keeps coming to mind is the modern idea of “not seeing the forest for the trees.”
“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” –Henri Cartier-Bresson
What subject matter attracts you, and why?
For me it’s important to realize my images are ruled by my eyes. I see something, I stop and hope for a chance to make a strong image. The rules of every artist are practiced on two levels–images based on perception and chance. I’m concerned with truth, and the subjective nature of beauty, street images, and a degree of chance that happens with perceptually based portraits. I’m concerned with images that are conceptual and take time and thought to develop. Time and thought form the discipline of all visual artists.
Can you tell us about the projects you are working on these days?
I like to explore projects that are on my mind. I’ve been exploring conceptual images for climate change awareness. I have returned to taking landscapes on Leslie Street Spit—the local landfill. I’m always conscious of the staggering images of the environment that Edward Burtynsky is producing, and the thought behind them. With my “Industrial Primitive” series, I’m exploring ways to understand the zeitgeist of modern times and the shift from an industrial society to an information society—always aware of the foresight of McLuhan’s theories.
What themes are you exploring in your photos?
My themes are the environment, and the mystery of the journey that is every person’s life.
“Making your unknown known is the important thing–and keeping the unknown always beyond you.” –Georgia O’Keeffe
In my readings, I discovered that Henri Cartier-Bresson’s favourite book was “Zen in the Art of Archery.” I had been carrying that book around for some time before I found that out. In this eastern philosophy, the archer is both the target and the shooter. Cartier-Bresson said, “It is the photo that takes you.”
It implies ridding yourself of your ego, remaining humble, and believing that all things of value come from craft and hard work. For art to move me, there should be no description–the work must stand alone. In the art of archery, the shooter makes thousands of shots that are ignored until one day the master bows deeply and acknowledges that, yes, the shot is true and worthy of the target. I can understand why Cartier-Bresson would understand that many images fall short of the target. What makes someone a master of anything?
What’s your state of mind when you’re taking good photos? Do you think there’s any connection between your mood or mindset and the results you get?
I like the photographs where I was chasing my eye, and not my mind.
There is a strong sense of symbolism and allegory in your photos. Can you expand on this?
The images that touch me and motivate me to keep practicing my craft are ripe with symbolism and allegory. If symbolism and allegory are not there in my photos, I am just scratching the surface, and they fall short of the target.
Can you tell us a few of your influences?
I’m influenced by images that put me back on my heels, the history of the photographic artist, graphic painters, poster art, primitive artists. I try to look at a bit of everything. You never know where the next shot is—that’s why I delight in chasing them. And I acknowledge the importance of light. The light.
One final question: Can you tell me briefly about a photographer I may not be familiar with yet but you would recommend checking out?
Check out Haruka Sakaguchi. She is a master beyond reproach; she is where humanity lives.
Many thanks to Mark for doing this interview. I’m so appreciative of his thoughtful answers that provide insight into his work. Be sure to check out his thought-provoking photos.