William Johnson explains how he approaches music with a camera lens
Photographer William Johnson has proven to be one of the most adept documenters of the local music scene, capturing its energy and colorful personalities with his piercing artistic vision, and his work has been published in various magazines including Maximum Rocknroll and The Blues in the United Kingdom.
He’s worked with Alive Records, the legendary all-woman Japanese band Shonen Knife, and AC Entertainment, among many others, and he even covered the punk-centric Vans New Wave Musicfest at a go-kart track in Goa which was the first event of its kind to happen in India.
A musician himself, as a member of Future Virgins and Raiders LA, Johnson’s music-related photo assignments are his bread-and-butter, but he is just as comfortable with portraiture, street, and travel photography.
Right after covering the wildly diverse Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Johnson took the time to answer some questions for The Pulse.
The Pulse: How would you describe your own aesthetic?
William Johnson: My aesthetic is leaving things rough around the edges and at times accentuating the grime and grit. I don’t do heavy processing. I prefer on-lens filters and hard light, which don’t always translate into something people would want for themselves. They don’t typically want their flaws shown or exaggerated; they want them hidden. The more you rely on air brushing and heavy false edits, the more you’re locked into the software of the present, and sometimes it’s a flat-out lie. All photographers are liars in a way, but lie with your composition in the moment, not on your computer at home.
TP: Do you have a favorite tip?
WJ: The biggest tip I adhere to is “shoot every day and shoot everything.” Documentation is my goal. Sometimes the individual image is iconic, and sometimes the whole of a document is what becomes iconic. Like all art, you just keep making it.
TP: How was the Big Ears Festival assignment?
WJ: Big Ears was a treat. There is nothing quite like it anywhere. To shoot music that you enjoy and is very cerebral is a dream concert job. I made a lot of contacts and made a lot of lasting friends. In particular, meeting and photographing Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler of Shabazz Palaces and Digable Planets was amazing, and getting to shoot with Eli Johnson from Knoxville was amazing, because we have similar stories and views on what photography is about.
I got the Big Ears job from connections I made through Stratton Tingle and Soundcorps, after he got me set up to shoot the Tivoli here in town with my colleague Christian Stewart. Big Ears is amazing to shoot because it’s an experimental festival, and you have more freedom to turn in more off-kilter shots.
TP: Can you discuss your travel photography?
WJ: Traveling South India and Southeast Asia was amazing. It was after a tough year I had, and I had really gotten back into photography through my friend Barrot Rendleman as an escape. I traveled with a camera and a small 50mm lens, which in hindsight was a great idea because there just isn’t room to really move around with a ton of gear over there. It’s almost impossible to figure out what to shoot in those places as it’s a visual frenzy; you just grab what you can when you can. It’s easy even as a person who is not religious, to get caught by the spiritual spectacle of those places and the poverty that surrounds everything.
TP: Discuss your gear and process.
WJ: For gear, I prefer full frame when it comes to digital, because it offers me something similar to 35mm. I also still regularly shoot on film, and I’m currently building a new darkroom in my house; nothing compares to B+W film. My personal process is to try and make the client and/or subject comfortable and make sure the session is fun. With street and off-the-cuff shooting, the process is to roll with the punches, sometimes literally shooting from the hip and sometimes asking for a portrait, which I am usually obliged about 3 out of 4 times.
Street photography is art and exploitation; I don’t deny that aspect. The relevance of street shots comes, usually, with time—years, decades and centuries when they become nostalgic or even historical documents—and through time, the most relevant can become mundane, and what is mundane in the present can become powerful.