‘Shrines & Altars’ at Steynberg Gallery is open to interpretation, artist says

The partial reflection from a mirror at the base of the construction becomes part of the composition in ‘Home is Where the Heart Is.’
The partial reflection from a mirror at the base of the construction becomes part of the composition in ‘Home is Where the Heart Is.’

Eric Johnson said that he considers his photography series, “Shrines & Altars,” at Steynberg Gallery to be “psychic snapshots.”

His initial intent was to create compilations to reflect topical subjects, including those from the past, such as U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy’s assassination. But they morphed into something like self-portraits, the photographer said.

Along with his own photographs, Johnson uses various items that he has collected that resonate with him on some level, from keepsakes to miscellanea.

What some consider junk becomes props, said Johnson, who arranges items such as photographs, machine parts or sheets of textured glass, then shoots these assemblages, adds to them, and takes more photos.

“They really operate more like paintings than photographs,” said Johnson of his work, “paintings with a multiple amount of information drawn from a camera lens.”

In a sense, his compositions are still lifes, Johnson said, but he still focuses on creating a sense of motion, such as a photograph of his daughter running, hair flying, or floating fabric.

“I use layers of material or transparent pieces of glass to create another layer of energy for contrast,” he said.

Johnson said he also ends up with “high art and low art” by combining Victorian furniture and artifacts with big-box store advertisements in his constructions. Combining energy and contradiction is always at the forefront of his mind as he works, he noted.

Johnson also juxtaposes images, such as in his “Victorian Love,” to reflect conflicting sensibilities, which he describes as being “somewhat provocative, in contrast to Victorian mores.” One of his props, a Victorian chair inherited from his mother, often takes center stage and serves as a setting in itself.

Most of the assemblages are vertical, and many include medical X-rays of his lumbar. As he arranged the components before take photos of them, something caught his attention, Johnson said.

“I began to see the stacking more as a spine,” he said, so he consciously played on that image.

A professional photographer for nearly 40 years, and now in his 30th year as a professor teaching the subject at Cal Poly, Johnson has seen a lot of changes in the field.

“The world of the camera and world of the paintbrush, in terms of method, are a lot closer than they used to be,” he said.

Even the printing techniques, with the latest in archival-pigments and a next-generation printer, weren’t possible a year ago, he said.

But the possibilities of interpretation remain endless. As far as what his works actually signify or what the symbolism is, Johnson said, “I think it’s for the viewer to really see that.”