Derek Johnston, "Landscape Specimens", installation of gelatin silver prints and glass bottles, 2003

Derek Johnston, “Landscape Specimens”, installation of gelatin silver prints and glass bottles, 2003

Derek Johnston

The first photographs of America’s natural wonders depicted the landscape in an idealized and romantic fashion. This aesthetic has endured throughout the history of landscape photography and has had a great effect on our perception of and relationship to the natural world. Originally, the object was to establish an appreciation of the natural world, which was successful. However, images within this classical aesthetic have become anachronisms in that we believe that the landscape continues to exist as it did 150 years ago. Today, these same majestic vistas sit in front of our viewing areas separate and distant from ourselves. We have lost connection with the natural world and our experiences of nature are superficial.

Our culture has become concerned with the mere facade of the landscape and has lost its connection with nature’s intricate workings. We have been conditioned to believe that the grandiose places of the American landscape have value, but we do not understand the wholeness of the idea. Many people, when making a pilgrimage into the American landscape, are trying to relive someone else’s vision and experience of a place by standing behind the parapet at the appropriate overlook. Today’s commercialization of nature and outdoor recreation have led many to “get out there,” but the landscape is merely a backdrop for these activities — the more dramatic the backdrop the better. Landscape has become a spectacle to us, looming over the guardrail, out the window and in the television.

“Landscape Specimens” is an ongoing series that began in 1995 when I started to conceptualize my relationship to the landscape as a photographer. I often go to and photograph the clichés of the American landscape, an act that I perceive as gathering visual specimens. This type of experience is empty compared to those that produce my more intimate, abstract, and meditative images of the landscape. I see how the broader American public experiences these places and wonder if traditional landscape photography still plays a healthy role in the understanding of our position within the landscape. For me, the real value and beauty of the natural world is not an achievable physical place; it is about forming a relationship with nature in which one can feel, understand, and participate in the Earth’s cycles. I hope that this series will help people become more conscious of how they relate to and experience the landscape.

Derek Johnston was born and raised in western New York where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario. He received his first camera at the age of seven and this sparked his lifelong passion to capture light. An award winning fine artist, Derek graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology. In 1994 – 95, he earned Artist-in-Residency Grants from Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado. Recognizing that having a mountainous wilderness out his backdoor was elemental to the success of his work, Derek became a permanent resident of the upper Frying Pan River Valley in the heart of the Colorado Rockies, where he continues to live and work. Johnston’s work is featured in the critical anthology, Photography’s Multiple Roles: Art, Market, Document, Science, published by the Museum of Contemporary Photography in 1998, and in 2000 Derek was awarded an Individual Artist’s Grant in Visual Arts from the Colorado Council on the Arts. His work has been exhibited throughout the U.S. and is in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Center for Photography at Woodstock, the Wallace Memorial Library at RIT, as well as numerous private collections. In addition to his personal creative work, Johnston has helped coordinate a successful workshop program, manage photography galleries, curate exhibits on the landscape, and teach workshops and college classes. When not teaching or working in the darkroom, Derek can be found exploring the wilderness of the American West in search of images, wildlife, mountain summits, and other adventures.