Emily Johnson on being photographed by Alec Soth

Categories: Art, Dance
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Yup'ik choreographer, director, and curator Emily Johnson came to Minnesota 16 years ago from Sterling, Alaska. She now considers both places her home, often feeling pulled between them. Her connection to place is a large part of her work, which ranges from dance pieces to installations, often using the environment and senses to engage audiences. When Johnson found out that she was going to be photographed by Alec Soth, she was excited because she recognized that connection to place in his work as well. The following is an interview with Johnson about her experience working with Soth, and their snowy photo shoot.

CITY PAGES: What were you expecting when you found out you were going to be photographed by Alec Soth?

EMILY JOHNSON: I've done lots of photo shoots before for different dances and for my company. We had a phone conversation. He asked, "What kinds of things do you like to do?" I made a list of ideas--that's how I approach photo shoots--I don't like dance movement type photos. Usually I like to do use location and think of activities and objects relevant to the piece I am working on. We had this amazing snowfall, and he was interested in working outside. We decided to meet at my place so we could look at props and costumes.

Expectation-wise? I love his work, so I was starstruck in that way. I was excited.

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CP: What was your reaction when you first saw his exhibition at the Walker?

EJ: I love his subjects in relation to place, like somebody looking through a window. Place seems so important--I work with location in my dances often, whether it's a site-specific piece or a building's history in relation to a community. I was drawn to the people in his pictures--not only to their faces and their look, but also in relation to where they were.

CP: Do you have a favorite of his photographs?

EJ:
I cut out one from one of the Walker brochures, it was one of my favorites. It's called Misty. It's of a woman in a blue swim cap

CP: What did you like about that piece?

EJ: I liked her expression, and the simplicity of it. The depth of her face. It's so oddly glamorous. Glamorous and dirty at the same time.

CP: So what happened when he came over?

EJ: We looked at some of my props and costumes. I have worked a lot with fish in past photo shoots. That day I had been literally sewing a fish skin lantern. I told him, "No, I'm not done with the fish." I showed him the fish skin baskets and lanterns. We dug into old props from a piece of mine--from Thank You Bar--and we had some tea.

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CP: What were the props from Thank You Bar?

EJ: Some signs--very simple signs made on poster board. I make signs based on truth or something made up based on the theater we're in to draw people's attention to the space. There are 30 of them, anything from "this is a river" to "this is a graveyard" to "this is an emergency exit sign."

CP:
So then what happened?

EJ: We headed out. We found a location with lots of snow and icicles. We worked outside for rest of day.

CP: Where was this?

EJ: In Minneapolis, outdoors in the snow. We worked in some alleyways, and on some snowdrifts. I liked that he was so directorial. I can direct photo shoots pretty well, but it was nice that he took the lead. He would pick a spot and we'd try a few things in that location. He'd get a sense of what he wanted me to try.

CP: Did you have a jacket? Weren't you freezing?


EJ: We did a variety of shots, some with a blanket so I could stay warm, but some shots were with bare shoulders. It got pretty chilly.

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CP: How was it different from other photo shoots you've done?

EJ: I was a little star struck. I always get nervous for photo shoots. But in this case, I was especially nervous.

CP: Did you build a rapport with him as the day went on?


EJ: It was comfortable as soon as he arrived. He was very nice. We got along well.

CP: What's it like to be on the other side, being the subject of art as opposed to the creator?

EJ: It was two things happening at once. I liked being told what to do, but at the same time I wish I had a strong idea I could tell him--it was a little hard for me to give up that artistic control.

CP: What is it about place that is important to you?

EJ: It's a pretty simple idea. We can't ignore the places that we're in, the places we work. Well, we do ignore that and then end up depleting world resources because we don't put as much thought or care into places as we should.

Read more about Alec Soth's cover, as well as his history with City Pages here.
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