Authenticity is what Jeff Johnson is all about. He walks the walk, talks the talk, takes great pictures, and tells the true stories of real-life adventurers, risk takers and dedicated champions of our fragile environment.
He grew up as a skateboarder in landlocked Danville, California, moved to Hawaii after graduating from high school and lived for 15 years on the North Shore of Oahu, juggling jobs as a lifeguard and an international flight attendant. To say that this provided Jeff Johnson with a unique lifestyle and unusual perspectives on the world is an understatement. It not only gave him an in-depth understanding of the ocean from some of the world’s renowned watermen, but also provided him with the ability to travel the globe extensively. A self-taught writer and photographer, he has used these talents to chronicle his adventures in major surfing and climbing journals and in Outside magazine. He now resides in Ventura, California where he works full-time for Patagonia, Inc. as a staff writer and photographer, as well as assisting with product development. He also “divides his time between the mountains and the ocean.” Here we talk with Jeff about his project “180° South: Conquerors of the Useless” a documentary film and coffee table book published in 2010.
Q: In reading the hair-raising tale of your Patagonian and previous exploits in the article “Conqueror of the Useless” by Steve Barilotti published by surfermag.com, I get the impression that you are deeply concerned with authenticity, with paying homage to great adventurers, documenting and preserving your experience through photography, and you’ve even been described as a “reluctant environmentalist.” Can you say something about this apparent dichotomy and also what these Patagonia images mean to you now, five to six years after they were created?
A: First of all, Barilotti also quotes me as saying, “I’m not a big fan of the human race.” This simply isn’t true. I am a big fan. It’s just troubling to see what we humans are doing to the planet. As far as my respect for authenticity goes, I’m guessing it comes from growing up as a skater in the early ‘80s punk scene. Skateboarding and punk rock is all about authenticity. Even today the skate magazines will not run photos of a trick unless the guy actually made it; if he doesn’t make it they run the whole sequence to show he attempted it. So I think this influence has stuck with me to this day. A lot of the people I hang out with, or have documented, I feel are really authentic. It’s what I’m attracted to. Some have become good friends: Chris Malloy, Yvon Chouinard, Tom Adler, Thomas Campbell, Geoff McFetrige, etc. And part of my attraction to climbing is the ethics involved. Odd as it sounds, every first ascent has its ethics to uphold and also its controversies. I think I can be, at times, a “reluctant environmentalist” because I can have an unpleasant outlook at where we’re heading. It can be depressing. But that trip I did in 2007, the 180° South project, really opened my eyes and gave me hope. Seeing these images reminds me of that. And it also motivates me to keep getting out there as much as possible.
Q: How did you get involved with Leica equipment and why did you choose the Leica M7, a 35 mm film camera, to shoot your Patagonia portfolio? What specific characteristics does the M7 possess that were especially useful in your mission? What lens or lenses did you find most useful in your coverage, and which black-and-white film did you use?
A: I was about to embark on the trip of a lifetime and I wasn’t inspired. A recent switch from film to digital sort of took the wind out of my sails. A friend of mine urged me to get back to the way I used to shoot, which is film, and a lot of black-and-white. So before the trip I got a Leica M7 and a few lenses: 24 mm, 50 mm, and a 75 mm. I feel I take more time to think about my images when I shoot film. I’m more discerning — I don’t just fire away. With the M7 you have to load the film, which takes time. It forced me to really slow down and concentrate, to take my time. It was a leaning-curve too, because I had never shot with a rangefinder. Some of the best work you will ever do is when you are learning. You make beautiful mistakes and you are unencumbered because of your naiveté. The M7 is also very unobtrusive. It allowed me to shoot with less attention drawn to me and people seem to be less self-conscious. The lens I used most was the 50 mm; it’s just a classic look. It’s not wide and it’s not too tight. You can be fairly close to your subjects, too. I shot mostly Kodak Tri-X 400 film. I also shot a few rolls of Ilford 100.
Q: What is there about the black-and-white medium that you find attractive for this kind of documentary coverage? Now that we have the Leica M9 and the Leica M Monochrom, do you think you may make the switch to digital? Why or why not?
A: Practically nothing in this world is black-and-white, only film. So it has this specific look that dates all the way back to the very first photographs. It’s timeless. Timelessness is key for me. I never want anyone to look at my images and be able to tell what year they were shot. I don’t buy into the film versus digital debate — one is not better than the other. There is a time and place for everything. I would definitely embrace the Leica M Monochrom camera. I have a hard time shooting digital in color, then processing them into black-and-white. I would rather think in black-and-white and shoot in black-and-white.
Q: Evidently you set off in 2007 and 2008 to retrace the epic 1968 journey of your heroes Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, but fate intervened and you faced your own set of epic challenges. But then, almost miraculously, you met up with them in “a rainy hut,” and, according to the liner notes Chouinard and Tompkins “now value above all the experience of raw nature, and have come to Patagonia to spend their fortunes to protect it.” Are you on board with that, and what was it like to meet up with them at last, and most unexpectedly?
A: It wasn’t totally unexpected that I ran into them. We were planning on it. But Yvon was only supposed to be there for a couple weeks and wound up staying for over a month. And the second climb was totally unexpected. Doug mentioned it out of the blue. I was honored to hang out with those guys. They are some of my biggest heroes. I fully back what they are doing down in Patagonia. Those two really walk the walk. They’ve dedicated their lives to the environment. The things that those two have done in their lifetimes will go down in history.
Q: This image of a megalithic stone statue with smaller stones at its base, standing alone on a barren expanse of land with clouds in the sky evokes a serene but melancholy feeling. Do you agree, and what were you thinking when you took this shot?
A: Easter Island is definitely the most interesting place I have ever been. It’s the most remote habitable piece of land on Earth. Although the locals are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered and the natural beauty of the place is astounding, it also has a melancholy cloud hanging over it. It has such a checkered history. The Moai statues represent all of it. The ingenuity it took to build, transport and erect those things is mind-boggling. And a lot of them were fully actualized without the use of the wheel. Eventually all the statues on the Island were knocked down. The people lost their belief in them and began warring with each other and knocking them down. The ones we see standing today were re-erected in recent years. Some believe the obsession with these statues is what decimated the island’s resources and culture. The populations dwindled down to almost nothing. This photo of the Lone Moai tells the entire story.
Q: This image shows an attractive young woman in a black bikini with bandaged wounds on her hip and shoulder, yet she is smiling and seems genuinely happy.
A: Her name is Makohe Akuna. She was born and raised on Easter Island (Rapa Nui). I stayed at her house for a month and she continued on with us on our boat to Patagonia, Chile. I shot this photo after we had surfed a big swell at the local big wave spot called Tehai. She had a really bad wipeout and had to go to the hospital. She was really banged up and had to get stitches on her hip. She is so tough; it didn’t seem to faze her at all. She was laughing about it.
Q: Another enigmatic image evidently shows a man who has been knocked down and is being pinned on the floor by an adversary who is standing over him. It is a powerful image, especially because of the out-of-focus framing figures in the foreground that draw your eye to the action. Where was this taken and did you find out what was the fight about?
A: That was shot in a town called Pátzcuaro, Mexico. I was walking through a bazaar in the back alleys and suddenly this fight broke out. I worked my way closer to the scuffle just as the guy dropped to the ground, and I took the photo. No one seemed to be affected by the ruckus, people were just walking by. His opponent was saying something to him, trying, I think, to talk sense into him. Then they got up and walked off together. I was under the impression they were friends and they just had to work through some sort of differences.
Q: There is definitely a whimsical quality to your picture of a tattered, crudely made basketball hoop on a rude stick with the letters NBA written on it. Where was this taken?
A: That hoop was something I saw on an Island in the middle of a lake high in the mountains of Mexico. I thought it was interesting, the Nike swoosh. No one is free from commercialism.
Q: There is a kind of tension and resignation evident because of the expressions on the faces of two climbers resting with their ropes and gear in what looks like a narrow passageway. It is certainly a compelling image that suggests the challenges and stress of mountain climbing, but there is something universal about it that goes to our common human experience on this planet, or at least the experience of those who pit their skills against the natural world. Do you agree, and what was actually going on here?
A: That image was shot about 2,500 feet up on El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, California. It was the last day of a seven day climb. We were just waking up on a ledge and making breakfast and getting ready for the day. The climber in the foreground is Dave Turner. He is a seasoned big wall climber, one of the world’s best. The climber in the background is professional surfer Keith Malloy. Keith had never climbed before, and it is unheard of to have a climb of that stature as your first. He was pretty scared and uncomfortable. It’s also a great scene in the movie. This image shows the two polar opposites. One who is confident and somewhat cocky and the other is totally out of his element.
Q: This image shows a muscular young guy with gear, ropes, and a can of beer in the foreground, who is evidently arranging his ropes while squatting on a mat on a grassy plain with craggy mountain peaks in the background and lush plants in the mid-ground behind him. He certainly appears to be in the middle of nowhere, and the concept of “man with his stuff in the middle of nowhere” is kind of surreal and tragicomic. Am I reading too much into it, and if so please set me straight.
A: Yeah, maybe a little bit. The climber is Timmy O’Neill. He is racking up for our climb in the meadow below El Capitan, Yosemite. He’s not really in the middle of nowhere (Yosemite National Park) but he is definitely in his element. He’s also a seasoned climber and he’s getting really psyched for the climb. The cold Coors in the weeds is mandatory.
Q: Since conquest in its personal, physical, and metaphysical dimensions is evidently one of the things that motivates you, have you any plans to go on more adventures to different places in the near future, and do you plan to document them in similar fashion as well?
A: I’m always embarking on some sort of adventure — either work related or personal. Lately I’ve been looking into the Leica S-System. I think I could apply it to documenting some unique situations.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan to explore any other genres such as street photography, nature photography, portraiture, sports photography, or maybe something else entirely?
A: Good question. I will always be traveling, climbing and surfing and documenting it along the way. Shooting outdoors is always challenging and you never get it wired, so that’s an ongoing thing. I really want to continue and develop my portraiture. I have a few subjects in mind. I have also been messing around with more fashion-forward lifestyle photography, which has been interesting — totally different than what I’m used to. I like to be a fly on the wall and fashion photography is just the opposite. But I like shooting it like a fly on the wall anyway and I’ve been getting some fascinating results.
Thank you for your time, Jeff!
– Leica Internet Team
Join Jeff at Leica Store and Gallery Los Angeles on Sunday June 23 from 6:00 p.m – 8:00 p.m. for his talk Jeff Johnson – Writer, Photographer, Surfer, Climber. Click here for more information. To see more of Jeff’s work, visit his website and 180° South.