ART and PHOTOGRAPHY : Midwest Landscape Artist Likened to Ansel Adams

<i> Robert Lachman is chief photographer for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Michael Johnson has earned his reputation as one of the country’s premier landscape photographers with pictures of a small area in the northwestern corner of Illinois, known as the Driftless Area.

Beneath the serene surface of his pastoral photos that capture the simple things in life, there is often a lot going on. In that respect, Michael Johnson is just like his work.

Johnson, a 39-year-old, self-taught photographer, is in motion constantly. In addition to his photography he is a tree farmer, an orchard keeper, a beekeeper, a pilot--and he’s still trying to finish building a house he started in the early 1970s.

“I’m always busy, doing something,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “I haven’t even had time to cut trees for firewood this winter.”


He has been busy with exhibits this month in Santa Fe, Chicago and at the Susan Spiritus Gallery in the Crystal Court mall in Costa Mesa, where his work will be on exhibit until Nov. 12.

Part of Johnson’s success comes from the large format of his finished prints. Most of his prints are 26 by 34 inches. It’s a technique he developed in the 1970s to make photography more acceptable as an art form to non-collectors.

“In the mid 1970s, there were a lot of private people collecting photography. A lot of people were getting out of French decorative and getting into photography. Ansel Adams prints were going sky high,” Johnson said.

“But as soon as the bottom dropped out of that market with the recession, almost all of the private buying dried up. (Changes in) tax laws have helped to dry up the rest of the market. I figured that a lot of the market would be in corporate sales and that’s why I went with the larger prints.”


However, transporting large prints to various exhibits has created problems.

“I would have to air-freight the big prints in big crates,” Johnson said. “The airlines wouldn’t take them so I finally ended up buying an old single-engine airplane with cargo doors and that’s how I get my photographs everywhere.” He flies out of a grass airstrip near his house.

Johnson is especially well known for his black-and-white photography of Midwestern storms. “They really excite me,” he said. “You’ve got the light and shadow on the land, the power of nature all reproducing thousands of different shades of gray. There is tremendous turbulence and power. I also do a lot of roads. They tend to be symbolic.”

Recently, Johnson has begun to photograph people as well as landscapes, though he says he doesn’t combine the two. “I’ve never really learned to convincingly place a person in a landscape. I live in the middle of farm country where people are simple and beautiful.”

Johnson grew up in a small town outside of Chicago and has spent most of his life in the Midwest. “I was always interested in hunting and fishing and being by myself,” he said. “I think spending all that time out on the lake or in the woods helped me to develop an appreciation for natural landscape.”

Once Johnson realized that being a landscape photographer was what he wanted to do, he took a job in commercial photography to learn that side of the business. He quickly got a job running the lab at a commercial studio in Chicago. The studio’s specialty was furniture photography. “By the second time I’d seen the same sofa I didn’t want to shoot those shiny paisleys anymore.”

It wasn’t long before Johnson moved back to Mount Carroll, where he still resides.

“I knew I wanted to move back to the country and do landscape photography, so I needed a kind of photography that needed very little studio equipment.”


He settled on shooting art reproductions for catalogues and galleries, which allowed Johnson time to develop his landscape technique and to pursue his other interests.

Johnson’s work has been well regarded nationally and one reviewer went so far as to dub him “the Ansel Adams of the Midwest.”

“I’m sort of a painter type of photographer. I really think I have many of the same intentions while presenting my art the way Ansel Adams did. The major difference between what I do and what Ansel Adams did was I work more on a human scale and he works on a grander scale, given the nature of the landscape we’re working with.”

Work by Michael Johnson is on view through Nov. 13 at the Susan Spiritus Gallery, 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa. Hours: weekdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday; noon to 5 p.m., Sunday. Information: (714) 549-7550.