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Picturing the Cosmopolitical

The Photography of Jay Mark Johnson—

When I first moved to New York in the early 1980s I lived in a loft on Great Jones Street with two Greek American brothers and it was an interesting scene. The younger brother was my friend John, who I went to school with in Philadelphia. His older brother Mark was a photographer who’d been living in San Francisco and was now playing in a band. The loft was big and run down and in the front room bands from the downtown post-Punk scene would come rehearse, some of them fated to be famous. At night we’d often walk East to drink and shoot pool at this Ukrainian bar on 1st Avenue called The Blue and Gold that had been around for a long time, and that’s where I met Jay Mark Johnson, who has found in his photographs a unique way to reorganize and generally mess with with our experience of space and time. Please Click to Enlarge

Insistently flat, Johnson’s photographs are mostly formatted in long horizontal strips in which a recognizable object moves across a background of banded color. The content—cars, trucks, rollerskaters, waves, a tai-chi practitioner—rests on this receding plane like a Maraschino cherry on a dessert from another galaxy. The objects Johnson chooses often pertain to work and production in the global economy—a truck maybe, or a man pushing a handcart loaded down with goods. In one especially affecting series Johnson trains his sights on a dancer, and we see disturbing but elegant forms of the familiar female figure stretched and distorted in expressive ways. There are many seascapes too, lines of small breakers cresting in elegantly draping filigrees, their patterns repeating in ways that don’t quite fit our experience of actual waves in the physical world, but that register nonetheless as linked to the real and therefore somehow “true.” This intensive combination of oddness and truth-value is a signature quality of these photos, and it is directly linked to the unique slit scan camera Johnson uses to record the images.

The slit scan camera features a stationary vertical aperture that records an image along a temporal as well as a spatial axis, so that the final image is the recording of an entire event that may last several seconds or far longer. The animator and inventor John Whitney developed the slit scan camera to help craft the title sequence of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and it was also used to create the star gate sequence of Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. Faithful and precise recordings of visual data, scanning cameras have been deployed extensively by NASA to capture visual data in the extreme environment of space, and also to adjudicate the winners of tight horse races and other finish-line contests. Among Johnson’s innovations was the idea of training this new photographic technology on familiar, earthbound subjects. The resulting images present us with a reproduction of motion in the visual field that does not match up with our organs of sense perception, or our sense of temporal sequencing. What we see instead are continuities of space-time we cannot directly perceive. In philosophical terms, this disconnect from our senses immediately positions Johnson’s images within the phenomenological gap that has preoccupied Western thinkers since Immanuel Kant—the gap between knowing what our sense organs are configured to perceive, and knowing what is actually real.

The Blue and Gold was a cramped, low-ceilinged space organized around a small tilted pool table with a stained felt surface. Over various games of 8-ball in the early 1980s I sometimes found myself talking politics with Johnson, who knew a lot about what was going on at that time in Central America. My friend John was working on a project for the Committee to Protect Journalists that involved US-sponsored atrocities in El Salvador and Guatemala, and there was a general sense of alarm and outrage at the resurgence of right wing militarism that was being aided and abetted by the Reagan administration. As I recall, Jay was working at that time for an architect (Peter Eisenman, I think), but also dabbling in political activism. Eventually he told me he was planning to move to El Salvador to join the armed insurrection against the entrenched brutally repressive US backed government. And then I stopped seeing Jay at the Blue and Gold, and from a mutual acquaintance I learned he had actually made the move, and was, among other things, working with one of the media collectives of the FMLN, writing and producing television and radio spots.

Looking at Johnson’s photographs gives rise to an uncomfortable tension; they are uncanny in the way Freud described, their strange un-homeliness registering on the level of sensation—these, again, are not images our minds evolved to perceive directly. Complicating this sustained eeriness, Johnson chooses many of his subjects from the global poor, showing us that man pushing a cart in India, that bus in Latin America, as if seen through extraterrestrial eyes. The mixture of familiar and uncanny grants to these images the kind of powerful defamiliarizing impact valued by formalist aesthetics, but extended into the posthuman and the cosmological. The term defamiliarization will alert students of culture to how Johnson’s images relate to the history of left wing experimentalism in the arts. A hallmark technique of artists inspired by Marxist theory such as Victor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht, defamiliarization seeks to disrupt the operation of habitual responses to social and psychological experiences, thereby reminding us of the constructed nature of our sense of the real and the possible. Johnson’s work makes the slit scan camera into a kind of temporal prosthesis extending the capacities of the human mind down into our experience of time and duration. For me, this extension into space-time renews a somewhat hopeful notion that alterations to our perceptual apparatus might enable us to respond more adequately to the dangers confronting us today.

JAY MARK JOHNSON’S “WAVE LENGTHS” EXHIBITION from Jay Mark Johnson on Vimeo.

Since the early 1990s, my wife has worked in hi-tech post-production in Los Angeles. Some twenty years ago she began to tell me about an unusually cultured and interesting visual effects artist under contract at a post-production facility she managed in East Hollywood. This artist split his time between LA and a villa he owned outside Florence in Italy—that was a brief era when independent contractors could hold their own in the industry. After hearing that this artist was someone I’d enjoy talking to, I eventually met him at a Christmas party held on the rooftop of the Griffith Park Observatory and it was, of course, none other than Jay Mark Johnson. Compounding the déjà-vu quality of the encounter, Johnson looked pretty much the same, and his Zelig-like re-emergence in my life brought the profound cultural shifts that had taken place over the intervening decades into focus. In the early 1980s Johnson’s move to El Salvador suggested to me that we perhaps were not as far as it seemed from having the kind of impact we wanted on the world; encountering Jay in 2000 had the opposite effect, suggesting we were further than we could ever have imagined from impact or even relevance, as if Margaret Thatcher herself were leaning down, her breath smelling of stale canapés and death, to explain once again the impossibility of alternative arrangements. Johnson’s photographs suggest a third possibility in this little dialectic—that we are both near and far away at once from the agency we aspire to.

Centuries ago Copernicus dislodged us from the center of things, and we have been haunted ever since by a root insecurity—we only perceive, again, what our sense organs evolved to allow us to perceive. While Johnson’s images accent the relativity of perception, they also deliver a performative charge, intervening in, and altering, our own sense of the possible with respect to still images. It is not simply that Johnson’s photographs are eerie, what is truly radical is the way Johnson has managed to make them both familiar and eerie at the same time, at the level of sensation. We are coaxed into relating casually to an experience of non-Euclidean space, even to spacetime itself. Our sense of what is possible in space and time is linked to the affordances that insist we perceive them separately, but these affordances are themselves subject to change, and may indeed already be in the process of shifting. Alternately frightening and encouraging, these images orient us toward an event-based mode of perception that encompasses and pre-empts that of object and ground. Cumulatively, Johnson’s images suggest it might be possible to adapt to this very different mode of perception. They open a space we cannot fully occupy—unaided by a machine, it is impossible to see the world this way—but the space itself, once opened, works on us, amplifying wonder. 

In Johnson’s hands the slit scan camera also breaks the unspoken contract we make with our tools—in their basic design and function, tools, we think, ought to serve us. As things-designed-to-be-used-by-us, our tools return us to a position at the center of the world. Refusing to play this role, Johnson’s images presage our worst fears about AI, seeming to arrive from some nightmarish future in which tools we cannot fathom exchange information we cannot use in a dialogue that excludes us. The futuristic uncanniness of Johnson’s photographs makes us grateful almost for the familiar objects that rise up within their saturnine landscapes. We seize onto the familiar profiles of buses and trucks, simplified and compressed as in a children’s storybook, as if they were life-saving buoys for our eyes as they flounder in a sea of unworldliness, afraid of drowning. This is the source of the sly humor of Johnson’s body of work, and its unspoken challenge to our humanistic vanities—if you care so much about your familiar world, these images seem to whisper, why don’t you take better care of it?

Comments

  1. Catherine L Ruane says:

    Place and planet; pulse and pattern all packed in to units of time! Marvelous Jay Mark Johnson!

  2. Henry Shukman says:

    Beautiful essay! Love the biographical anecdotes for sure, and most of all the prodding and cajoling out of a “geocentric” and ego-centric locus of knowing. Deep and unsettling in the best way. Gratitude!

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