Diptych Master

Matt Johnson has built a reputation for combining images in unexpected ways

Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2004

At his Anchorage home, graphic designer and photographer Matt Johnson loves looking at contact sheets, fresh from the photo lab. A negative will usually jump out at him. A window. A nail. A seascape. An oar. Something.

It settles in, and suddenly it has a companion image, any one of thousands that Johnson has taken over the years.

"I have my sketchbook and I make thumbnail sketches as I think of these different combinations and adjust their positions," he said. "And as I get the negatives out, I change things a little bit. I adjust the cropping on one, or the contrast on another, so they can fit together."

Eventually, Johnson, 45, has a diptych - two images printed side by side on the same sheet of silver photographic paper. Somehow they fit together, forming a narrative, or just making you wonder.

Why is there an image of a haggard raven printed above a shot of an iced-over window. And why is this called "Unalaska?"

Diptyches, and triptyches, have become one of Johnson's trademarks, as he's built his reputation as one of the most well-known fine art photographers in the state.

He's had a solo show at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, which purchased a few of his photos for its permanent collection. He's had solo shows in Anchorage and Homer galleries. And he was part of a joint exhibition a few years ago in Brighton, England.

Now, it's on display at the Alaska State Museum. His latest exhibit opened Dec. 3, and includes 26 photos, most including aquatic themes and most from the past year.

"A lot of the stuff that I do is a mystery even to me," Johnson said. "I don't think of them as a puzzle or a riddle. But the images in some way have a resonance for me when you combine them together."

The images at the Alaska State Museum are tied together by Johnson's idea of "faith." Not a religious kind of faith, but a conviction that there's more to the world than we can experience with our five senses.

"I think faith is necessary, and my faith isn't the faith of George Bush, it's more the faith of George Harrison," he said. "And that's that this unknown is meaningful and necessary to our lives."

Johnson was born in Alaska and lived in Juneau from kindergarten through sixth grade. He attended the old Capital School, a block up the hill from the Capitol. His mother was an artist and would often coach Johnson and his sister on "how to see" and sketch.

After elementary school, Johnson and his family moved to Homer, where his grandparents had a hotel and his uncle was a fisherman. During college, he'd return to Alaska and fish for his uncle.

He graduated in 1984, got an advertising job in Portland, then another one in Anchorage. He burned out after two years, and took up commercial fishing again, in 1986 and 1987.

After fishing Johnson had enough money to return to Anchorage and start his own independent graphic design business.

About the same time, his interest in photography had progressed to the point where he was ready to begin exhibiting. At that point, he was just showing single images. He began tinkering with diptyches after taking a photo in the late 1980s from the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

"I realized there were a couple points of interest, things that I could look at it and see that this is what the photograph is all about," Johnson said. "All of the rest of the stuff was stuff that happened to be in the frame of the viewfinder."

Johnson built a cardboard template with three windows, so he could expose three croppings from one negative side-by-side on a single piece of photographic paper.

His time in the darkroom - tinkering with tape, manually positioning images over silver photograph paper, battling specks of dust - is often laborious.

"Sitka Belle," an image of a rocking chair hovering above a body of water, is an example of a digital analog hybrid. The seascape is Sitka Sound. Mount Edgecumbe is visible in the background.

Johnson printed the image of the water straight to silver paper. The idea to superimpose the rocking chair came to him about a year ago, a few days after one of his great aunts died. She spent most of her life in the Navy, and as he thought about her, he began to visualize an empty rocking chair, floating above the ocean.

"I tried a couple different kinds of chairs," Johnson said. "One was a small, wooden chair, and it didn't seem to do it. Then I got ahold of this old rocking chair, and I took some images of that and made some contact prints. It still wasn't what I wanted, and then I realized I needed to be looking up at it."

He went back to the chair and propped it up with little books and blocks. He positioned the camera and took another handful of images, then went back into the dark room, cut out the background and adjusted the brightness contrast. In Photoshop, he converted the image into a negative, then printed various sizes of the images on acetate. After trial and error and dozens of attempts, he arrived at "Sitka Belle."

"It hearkens back to the surrealists to have these objects floating in an environment for no apparent reason," he said.

It also hearkens back to a trip Johnson and his family made to Illinois, a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. They stopped at the Art Institute of Chicago, which was exhibiting a collection of paintings done by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin while they were sharing a residence in Arles, France. A van Gogh painting included a chair, with nobody sitting in it.

"My son, Michael, who was then 4 years old, took one look at it and said, 'This is a picture of nothing,'" Johnson said. "But it's true. It is a picture of nothing.

"For me, the chair ('Sitka Belle') is moving across the water," he said. "It's moving at an oblique angle away from the viewer. It's about crossing the unknown. When you look at the ocean, you see just the surface, but you know there's an entire world under there. It's a rich metaphor for this idea of life. We go forward, and we see the surface of things. But what's beyond the surface?"

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