The only thing I can say with authority about the photography of Doug Johnson is that it makes me jealous. Week after week, mainly in environments of a kind perfectly familiar to me, he comes up with striking and intriguing images that are often heartbreakingly beautiful as well. They cannot be called unconventional, but they are nonetheless unexpected. They are surprising and often bring a smile to your lips. For seventy years now I have had a camera, and I have surely made well over a hundred thousand photos. Many were made in similar circumstances to those in Doug’s oeuvre, but if any have the technical or aesthetic quality of his, or their revelatory charm, it is only thanks to chance or the law of big numbers. A chimp could have done as well. Looking at a photo of his, after sheer appreciation has sunk in, the painful question always arises: how did he see it and why didn’t I?

The answer that spares me the most is that despite his pose as a part-timer, Doug has the mentality of a dyed-in-the-wool professional. When he hits the street with his camera, he is already on the lookout for motifs. For me it’s the other way around. In the middle of some situation or other the urge to take a picture seizes me and I look around for something photographable. Obviously, this is the wrong way around and I can seize on it for absolution from blame for the literalness and obviousness of my pictures.

But that excuse does not get me very far. Take this example, from “Emily: Brushworks, Florence MA, October 2016.”

Emily's Studio


Here is a perfectly quotidian subject, an artist’s studio like many I have visited. If I venture a guess as to what caught Doug’s eye, I would say it was the slight dissonance between the window bars as we see the lower ones directly and the upper ones as shadows on the shade. But what kind of shade is that? How can it reflect what seem to be Venetian blinds behind us? There is so much geometry in this picture. We see planar surfaces in the brickwork above the window, with its triple relieving arch, the cinder blocks or tiles of the wall, the ceiling planks and the heating pipes. Then there are the more spatial forms of the ventilators and the lamps, not to mention the suggestion of natural forms in the trees outside. The picture does not come together in a composition, any more than the interior itself tracks, but it commands attention, generates interest and compliments us for our perceptiveness in discovering all that content. And when you lose yourself in it, it starts turning into a soliloquy on time and space, color and light. The clock, the fall colors of the leaves, the ventilators that have stopped turning but have not yet been removed, the fey hanging of those dime-store Halloweeny lamps.

Did Doug see all of this before clicking the shutter of his Nikon D7100? No, impossible! But he sensed it, and when he saw it on his computer back home, he decided to publish rather than discard it, to the enrichment of twenty-first-century photography and all of us.

What makes it worse is that being too modest to claim the special gift with which he is undeniably endowed, Doug dispenses hints and friendly suggestions for making photographs as good as his, as if we all can. Although we (at least I) cannot, readers, do not despair. We will all be stimulated by Doug’s essays, and one in I don’t know how many of us (a hundred thousand?) will indeed, thanks to This Is Not a Sawtooth Hanger, produce photographic art. What could be a better recommendation for a book?

Gary Schwartz

Art Historian

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