From photographing daily life in Crete, Greece to the tranquil moments at home, photographer and educator, Stella Johnson explores the elements of light, composition and shadow. Challenge yourself to find the extraordinary in everyday moments that surround you in Stella’s upcoming Leica Akademie online workshop from October 4-25. Learn more here.
1. How has the pandemic impacted your approach to photography?
My approach to photography definitely changed during the pandemic. I was living in Mexico and expecting to be teaching in Colombia and later in Crete, Greece. Now, I was in my home in Boston which is drenched in beautiful light all day long. I’ve always loved the light in my house and this was the moment for me to photograph it. It was about seeing the everyday and about seeing inward, reflecting on memories made in this house, which belonged to my grandmother. She planted a pear tree in the yard that is still standing and producing, over 50 years later. Looking at light informs all of my photography and I really enjoyed following the light in my house on those cold days of March and April. It was actually very soothing in the face of the pandemic. I felt safe bathed in that light.
2. How do you find inspiration to make images under today’s current circumstances?
I found out early on that it was never about inspiration. It is about taking my camera for a walk every day- even in the house. It is about those 10,000 hours of work. Photograph every day and you will be inspired. Every single day.
3. What initially sparked your interest to document culture, identity and the everyday moments in between?
My interest about culture was sparked by my grandparents who talked endlessly about the lives they left behind in their Greek villages. They talked about the light, about the flowers, about the trees, about the food or lack thereof and what they missed and they talked about our culture, the religious and cultural rituals which I realize now are very similar to the Mexican culture. I was raised in a very ethno-centered home. I am Greek and my recent book ZOI was photographed in Greece. I have been very curious about my culture since I went to Greece when I was 17 and saw the villages without running water and electricity that my grandparents grew up in. That sparked my interest to go to Mexico 35 years ago. I could drive from Boston to Oaxaca to investigate the villages I saw down dusty roads from the highway. I met people who invited me into their homes and their lives, and I have been visiting every year since. Later, I was assigned by Earthwatch Institute to go to Cameroon to photograph an American nurse and her volunteers, who were working to eradicate parasites amongst the villagers of Djohong and finally, out of curiosity, I visited the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua 25 years after the revolution there. I wanted to know how my grandparents lived in these remote villages with no access to running water and electricity and I found out and saw and documented the friendships and extended family relationships that sustained them.
4. Out of all the images you’ve made, which image speaks to you the most, and why?
The image that speaks the most to me is one of the first successful images I made in Greece, the pink plate. It was my attempt, outside of my editorial and corporate career, to photograph in color, and I was told that color needs a friend. The pink and blue work well, as do the generations of women. It is a layered image on many levels and it is complicated. This is the loving caress of a grandmother and her granddaughter. Roula is not screaming, though that is most people’s first thought. Roula and her family were my first friends in Mytilene, the birthplace of my grandmother, so it somehow feels fitting that they created my first successful photograph of that project, ZOI.
5. Tell us about the type of camera equipment you use.
All the photographs for my first monograph, AL SOL, were made with the Leica M6 film camera and a Leica Summicron 35 mm lens only.
Constantine Manos was my mentor and insists that the 35mm is the closest to the way the human eye sees so that’s the lens to use. I use zone focusing, outside in the sun, which is why I love photographing with both the M6 and now with M10. I do not have to focus the camera after I figure out the range I want to focus in and can concentrate on making my image. I use my Leica cameras like high end point and shoots.
During the photography of my second monograph, ZOI, I used the Leica M8 and M9 as well. In addition, I love photographing with the Leica Q but now, during the pandemic, since I do not want to be so close to my subjects, I prefer photographing with the M10 and my 35-mm lens.
6. As we continue to navigate through the pandemic, what is one advice you have for photographers to help encourage them to find inspiration through their surroundings and in everyday moments?
Have your camera with you all the time and photograph the things that you never photographed before. Open your eyes and your heart to new visual experiences. There is no need to continue to repeat the way we were seeing before. Now I am photographing still lives, flowers, trees and light and I love it. I follow no rules, just my instinct. It is very liberating. I feel privileged to have this opportunity. I am really happy to be able to photograph nature and I never thought I would say that.
Seeing the Everyday Workshop with Stella Johnson
Online Workshop | October 4-25, 2020
Re-calibrate your ability to find pictures, develop photographic projects and find the extraordinary in everyday moments with Stella Johnson. Each session will combine a lecture and a critique of the student’s photographs. We will look at light, composition, filling the frame, watching our edges, and talk about moments, which could be a gesture, the way the light strikes, or the look of an eye. We will discuss making images with depth, both visually, via layering, and with content.