June 26, 2024

Layers of Abstraction

Matthew Johnson

Interview by Mary MacGill

MM: What initially attracted you to photography? When?

MJ: Before photography, my aim was to be a writer. I had written a book at the end of college and the plan was to write another. I bought an around-the-world ticket and, in typical early-twenties bravado figured I’d just head out and let the places I went inspire the next great American novel. But I brought a camera along, and ended up writing very few words. I took photographs instead, finding interest in their ability to, you know, do that whole worth-a-thousand-words thing.


MM: Blur and motion, depth of field, and layers seem to play a big role in your work. How did you acquire these mechanisms in your toolbox?

MJ: I think the blurring and obstruction/layers kind of tie back into the above-- the narrative ability that attracted me to photography. Maybe obstructed photographs feel a bit more voyeuristic, giving you a sense that you’re peering in on a story that you might not otherwise be privy to. The motion stuff started with me just kind of exposing things terribly when I first started shooting film, and then getting those negatives back and being like, hmmm…. okay but what if I did that on purpose.

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MM: Thoughts on film vs. digital?

MJ: Whatever works best for you! There are some obvious benefits to both, but at least so far, there’s just something about the tactile nature of film that I haven’t been able to really replicate with digital photography (admittedly, I’m not at all up on the latest digital technology). But especially with my recent work, where I’m playing a lot with composites and mixed media, I’ve found it incredibly beneficial to have a physical representation of the imagery to work with.

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MM: Thoughts on cinematic film?

MJ: I watch… a lot of movies, and I am incredibly inspired by them. Film is almost certainly a larger source of inspiration for my work than photography on its own. I guess it's writing + photography, so that makes sense, eh? There was a world in which film was the post-college path I took, and sometimes I wish it was, but now I’m hoping that’s just a chapter that has yet to come for me.


MM: How do design and style influence your work?

MJ: I think once I became more aware and appreciative of the world of design, I started to think more about photography’s role in that landscape. I’ve long struggled with ‘photography’ vs ‘art,’ and how a physical photograph fits into a designed space. My Above Ground series, which are the sort of blurry/painterly landscapes, was a bit of a response to that. Straightforward, literal photographs seldom fit into the designed spaces that resonate with me. Over the years, I found that layers of abstraction often made the imagery more relatable, and I think that might be because it gives the viewer the room (no pun intended) to ascribe their own meaning to it.

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MM: How about “place”?

MJ: I’ll use this as an opportunity to express my gratitude for New York City. Once my wife Amy and I moved to NYC, the growth of our work really started to begin in earnest. My street photography, which to this day is my favorite body of work to practice, was born out of the sort of necessity to capture the infinite moments that are happening all at once in New York; it was almost like I had no choice. Amy’s design aesthetic, which feels so uniquely her, was honed, I believe, because New York has the capacity to show you basically everything, and you absorb what speaks to you and ignore the rest. To revisit the previous question, that sort of ever-growing design philosophy definitely influences the style of the physical art I create.


MM: Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration and process behind the Mary MacGill summer campaign?

MJ: I think it was just great timing for both Mary and me. I really haven’t shot much lifestyle or editorial photography in the last five or so years, focusing mostly on fine art work. The beginning of this year was quite slow so I spent a lot of time in my archives messing around with old imagery, playing with composites and mixed-media concepts pretty much out of pure boredom, but it felt like I was starting to land on something. About that time, Mary reached out about wanting to do a shoot, but wanting it to feel a bit different. I had just started to wonder about incorporating the concepts I was working on back into editorial work, so it aligned really well.

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MM: What project are you working on currently?

MJ: I have a collaboration with a Danish shirting company coming up and will also be publishing some work with a new Japanese design and photography magazine that I’m very excited about.


MM: Any other artists that have been inspiring or articularly interesting to you?

MJ: When I was first getting into photography, it was Saul Leiter and Elliott Erwitt. When I moved to NY, I befriended and was somewhat mentored by Renato D’Agostin, who definitely inspired my NYC photography. Right now, I’m finding a lot of inspiration in contemporary artists like Jack Davison and Sarah Van Rij.

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MM: It’s been rumored that you love puzzles. Favorite puzzle to date?

MJ: Always puzzlin’, especially in the winter. It’s a treat whenever I get my hands on a Liberty puzzle (beautiful wooden puzzles), and I’ve tried a bunch of the cool new jigsaw brands, but I guess to keep the theme going, New York Puzzle Company puzzles are just steady and reliable. Any of their New Yorker or vintage Vogue cover puzzles are always a good time. New York Puzzle Company, let’s collab!

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"Self Portrait" Matthew Johnson, 2024.

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