Sometimes great art begins with an accident. A sudden twist of the hand creates a shadow technique the painter might not have intended. In the case of multi-hyphenate artist Jay Mark Johnson, however, an accidental innovation began with the purchase of an $85,000 slit-scan camera.
“Within the field of visual effects, one type of work that comes up regularly involves replacing the background location in a movie shot with a different background image,” Johnson says. “This camera is particularly well suited for that task. I bought it on the idea that, with such specialization, I might have a unique niche to work in.”
The unusual camera captures very high resolution landscape images by slowly rotating in a circle, recording a sweeping panoramic view. It is designed to emphasize time over space. Elements in the environment that remain still are beautifully registered, but moving elements can be a problem. The closer they are to the camera, the bigger the problem.
“A photograph that might seem like a perfectly executed image can easily be compromised by a bird or a plane flying by, by the traversing of pedestrians or vehicles, by the oscillating of tree branches or even the fluttering of leaves,” Johnson says.
Such instances create odd stretched or smudged imperfections in the landscape photos, problems easily solved by digital retouching. Looking at the photographs in another light, though, it was exactly these imperfections that Johnson ended up becoming interested in.
“I couldn’t keep myself from thinking like an artist who employs bricolage, the practice of using discarded junk to create meaningful new compositions,” Johnson says. “Eventually I inverted the entire process. In the timelines I have been shooting over these last years, movement is no longer an unwanted problem. It is exactly what I focus on.”
The expensive camera’s intended object–the stationary background–now blurs into stripes, while whatever is moving around in the foreground undulates unpredictably. The resulting images Johnson creates look like surrealist compositions mixed with the kind of abstract visuals that might crop up on a stoned teenager’s screensaver. But these works are not photoshopped or digitally tweaked at all. Rather, they are the end product of Johnson’s experimentation as he’s sought to mold reality into interesting new forms.
“I have tried to be methodical, even exhaustive in understanding what can be done with this technology,” Johnson says. “Once I began to get a sense of the possible results, I started looking for ways to work with what I had found. I look for ways of mixing the familiar with the unfamiliar, of creating elements that shock or surprise. And once I have the viewer’s attention, I try to find ways of asserting some sort of provocative idea.”
Although he already seems to have pushed the boundaries of what can be done with a camera, the photographer seems poised to go even further. “I enjoy looking at the world through this odd lens,” Johnson says, “so I’ll probably continue.”
Look through more of Johnson’s photos in the slide show above.