Sunday, July 7, 2013

July exhibition interview (part 1) ::: Pia Johnson

The July exhibitions by Pia Johnson and Bonnie Hanlon are two unique and personal approaches to contemplating our sense of self in the domestic setting.  Therefore I have decided to do this months exhibition interviews in two parts.  Part one is Pia's interview, part Two Bonnie's.  I thought it would be interesting to frame first questions very similarly, but as with the exhibition outcomes the endpoints are very different.
Pia Johnson 'finding yourself alone #6' - 2012 - digital c-type print
JW - 'Finding yourself at home alone' is a deeply personal and intimate body of work, using yourself as subject.  Can you tell us about what its like to exhibit such intimate self portraits in such a public forum as stockroom, and are you nervous? 

PJ - When exhibiting any new work, I think it’s natural to be nervous. Finding Yourself at Home Alone is the first series of self-portraits I have exhibited, so that adds another layer of ‘putting yourself out there’, which is always a bit scary.

However, I don’t find the prospect of exhibiting images of myself that daunting, as the self-portrait element is integral to the concepts underlying the work.

I wanted to explore portraiture in a cinematic and constructed way. Using myself in the frame meant I could have more time, and take more liberties at experimenting with perspective, the body and light. The work grew out of using the environment I had at hand, and contemplating the way we inhabit our home and the everyday.

Pia Johnson 'finding yourself alone #1' - 2012 - digital c-type print

I think that the vulnerability of exhibiting this series comes from the intimate nature of the emotional landscape portrayed in the work – something I haven’t revealed before.

JW - For me it seems that photography is an ideal medium to portray vulnerability and intimacy as it captures a moment in time.

You mention that by using yourself as subject, you have more time to take liberties with experimentation.  Are your images captured by chance as moments in time or carefully crafted orchestrated scenes?

PJ - Yes by using myself as a subject I actually got to ‘play’ more than I would usually do taking someone else’s portrait.

The photographs are both part chance and part crafted composition.
I took a lot of time to work out how I wanted to take a scene, where the furniture should go, where I should go, if I should be doing anything, what the mood should be etc etc. A few scenes I storyboarded, others I took inspiration from other photographs – including portraits by Erwin Olaf, Todd Hido, Samantha Everton, Kanako Sasaki and Moyra Davey.

Kanako Sasaki
Todd Hido

However, the actual taking of the photos had an element of chance to it; I didn’t use an assistant or someone to take the photographs but instead used the in-built camera timer or my remote to take the shot. Therefore there was a lot of back and forth, retaking and reframing, refocusing or changing settings etc. And each time this would happen there would be subtle changes or alternatively bigger changes to the photograph.

Pia Johnson 'finding yourself alone #3' - 2012 - digital c-type print

JW - So you are one of the rare ones who make a full time living from your photography.  Can you tell us about your commercial photography?

PJ –Well that isn't exactly the whole truth, I still do a little bit of PR work to pay the bills. My commercial photography has grown over the last few years. Specialising in taking portraits of artists and performance, my clients include the Australian National Academy of Music, the Arts Centre, Malthouse Theatre, Strut and Fret Production Company and many independent organisations and companies such as Fraught Outfit, Hayloft Project, Melinda Hetzel & Co, Peepshow Inc and more.
Pia Johnson 'Fraught outfit : Persona'

JW - I'm curious as to how you maintain the balance between your commercial photography and your art practice?  

PJ - Finding a balance can be tricky. I don't have any system or strategy, it just is. My artistic projects have a much longer time frame than my commercial work, therefore I can have a number of projects on the go at one time. And I'm quite driven and love working, so I am always keen to be working, thinking about new work and ideas and what the next project may be. I've more recently also merged the two where I become an artistic associate on theatre projects, taking photos and looking at the bigger conceptual nature of the work, as well as collaborating with theatre artists to produce photographs.
JW - Wow, being an artistic associate sounds like an exiting new direction.  Tell me more about these collaborations with theatre artists.

PJ - I know – very exciting! I’ve worked with theatre artists and performance for a few years now. Plus when I first started out I assisted one of the best performance photographers in the country: Jeff Busby.

The great part about the new direction however is my role isn’t just about documenting the performance (usually in the final dress run for example). I now can be part of the whole process, working on conceptual development, narrative and the visual dramaturgy of the piece.

A relationship I have had for a few years now is with Melinda Hetzel, with her own company Melinda Hetzel & Co and previous company Peepshow Inc.  I recently worked on the development of her new show Fly By Night at the Arts Centre Melbourne. With this show I photographed a number of rehearsals and showings, and have also given feedback and provided inspiration material for Melinda to engage with. Currently we are working on a project about motherhood together, which will most likely have a photographic outcome.
Another recent collaboration was with the latest Melbourne Theatre Company Neon Festival show On the Bodily Education of Young Girls presented by Fraught Outfit. Working with director Adena Jacobs on the project started from its inception right through the audition and rehearsal period.

Pia Johnson, 'Melinda Hetzel & Co - Fly by Night showing' Art Centre Melbourne

As a photographer it’s a very unique role to play within a theatre project, but the essence of the role is very similar to a dramaturg or artistic associate in theatre terms. I hope to pursue this type of collaboration more as it is a much deeper engagement with the arts and performance, that is very satisfying for me.

JW - Im going to let the cat out of the bag now....

You did not go to ART SCHOOL!

I have to admit, it is rare that we show self taught or in the art snob lingo, 'un-trained' artists.  Has this has affected your practice; in terms of being taken seriously and being accepted by the artist and gallery community?

PJ - Ha ha … Correct, I didn’t. Perhaps one day I will. I did however do a degree that combined both art theory and practice, and so have a genuine understanding, appreciation and capacity to engage with art, and even talk the ‘lingo’… LOL.

So no it hasn’t affected my practice, it’s probably enriched it, as my references and research go much further beyond photography and visual arts. In terms of being taken seriously or being accepted into the community, I can’t really say. I don’t have gallery representation, and most of my shows have been independently organised, but my work has been bought by private collectors as well as been acquired into a public collection, so I figure that’s serious.

JW - I'm glad to hear that.  I would be worried if you felt curators and gallerists we're looking for a BFA after your name rather than looking at the merit of your work.

Your exhibition opens at Stockroom on the 13 July.  What do you hope people experience when they check out your show?

PJ - Hmm good question. I hope people find something within the work that makes them think about their own lives.

Pia Johnson 'finding yourself alone #4' - 2012 - digital c-type print
Pia Johnson's Exhibition, 'Finding yourself alone at home' at Stockroom runs from the 13th July until the 4th of August.

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