Arroyo Grande photographer's personal photo shop is a treasure

San Luis Obispo - The TribuneJuly 30, 2013 

Arroyo Grande photographer Dave Johnson admired the photography of Ansel Adams and Edward Westin, in particular their composition and lighting.

When Johnson was about 13, a family friend gave him a 35mm camera, sparking a love of taking pictures. He proceeded from there, buying ever more complex cameras. In the 1970s he wanted to “understand how a dark room worked” and took a class in Los Angeles.

Johnson became the teacher’s assistant, helping students in the dark room. The teacher was a commercial free-lance photographer.  Johnson found he was more into the artistic aspect of photography and not the commercial aspect.

At that point he made a career decision – he took a “day job” – as a traveling field mechanic, while continuing photography in his free time.   His work took him from the Mexican border to Oregon, Nevada and Arizona.  He found all kinds of interesting out-of-the-way structures and old buildings to photograph.

Johnson transferred from L.A. to SLO to operate a shop in 1990.  This job did not involve traveling and kept him busy for long hours, curtailing his photography interests.

Then came 2008 and retirement.  That “gave me time to get back into photography,” he said. He can “do things with cameras now that I couldn’t even dream of before.” 

“My passion is the Urbex,” Johnson emphasized.  That stands for Urban Exploration, a genre of photography that looks at abandoned, decayed buildings and industrial sites. 

“The real gems to get to are back East – old steel mills, refineries, distilleries,” he added.

Nevertheless, Johnson has found all manner of interesting buildings to photograph. One such place is the old, closed swimming pool at Fort Ord, a U.S. Army post on Monterey Bay, which was closed in 1994.  The photograph shows the colorful graffiti drawn all over the pool.

Another of Johnson’s photographs could be called the “Peace Barn.”  It’s a photograph of an old barn with a large peace symbol on the side.  He found this barn near Solvang.

Other places he has photographed include the power plant at Morro Bay, an old water park outside of Barstow, and an abandoned refinery in Ventura.

Once he finds something to photograph, Johnson takes from two to nine exposures at the same time, called bracketing.  He puts these images on the computer.  The software stacks them on top of each other, giving some darks areas and some light areas. He uses HDR (high dynamic resolution) in some of his photography.

Johnson says, “The exciting thing about the computer is you can get it all done on the computer,” adding “I zero in on what I like, pick out stuff that fits my look.  I have a ‘signature’ look.”  He also does landscape and auto photography.

There are all kinds of options on the computer software, allowing Johnson to sharpen and soften images, lighten and darken, “tone map” (set colors and exposures the way you want), create borders and more. With a 13-inch-by-19-inch printer, Johnson can then print out his photographs.

Johnson’s photographs will be on display at Art After Dark this Friday at Growing Grounds at 956 Chorro Street, San Luis Obispo from 6 to 9 pm. His work is also at Hands Gallery on Higuera Street.

Find Johnson’s work at

Gayle Cuddy’s column is special to The Tribune.  She and Cynthia Lambert write the South County Beat column on alternating Wednesdays.  Reach Cuddy at 489-1026 or

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