A lifetime passion for photography and chronicling of America’s changing landscapes has resulted in a phenomenal collection of black-and-white photographs, taken by Neal Johnston with a classic large format camera. His work is on display at the Creative Arts Center Gallery in Burbank.
Johnston blends themes — outdoor nudes, landscapes and old wood — producing them the old-fashioned way, without digital tricks or technological enhancements. He produces his art with a gifted eye for composition, texture, geometry and a love of nature, finding as much beauty in decomposition of wooden structures as in the female form. Johnston brilliantly merges his themes, composing landscape scenes with female nudes, blending flawlessly nature’s beautiful subjects.
Johnston is a qualified competitor with the black-and-white reclining nudes painted by Jean Jacques Henner, the last headmaster of the iconic French Academy of Art in the late 19th century. Henner also composed nudes and nature, although he loaded them with symbolism, which has become more important in art by the 21st century than the art itself.
Johnston’s untitled photograph of a female nude reclining on the forest floor, diminished by the soaring redwoods surrounding her, is one of many examples of Johnston’s blended themes; old wood, landscape and outdoor nudes. It is clean, simple and beautiful. It is fascinating to study.
Johnston has caught severe angles and composed geometry in some of his images, placing his women in languid poses or wound into tight balls, then fitting them into the landscape puzzle. His photo of a stand of trees on a hillside is complemented by a female form on her side, arm above her head, lying at the base of a tree on the lacy forest floor. The strength and straightness of the tree, the steep angle of the hill, the quilt of textures and the softness of the female form altogether exhibit a balance of strength and weakness.
Another image that emphasizes this contrast is a female form, shrunk in scale next to the meandering roots of a great redwood tree. She pushes with one hand against a huge boulder, much too large for her to affect. She depicts strength, confidence, softness and vulnerability, all in one scene.
My favorite is a distant perspective of a mighty boulder, and fit into a round crevice is the tiny bundle of a woman, curled like punctuation, accentuating the strength of the boulder and its protective quality, as it gently cradles the female form.
These photos bring to mind the stylized characteristics of the art deco movement in the first part of the 20th century, with Erte, a successful costume designer whose illustrated models had as many edges as curves. Erte ornamented his women with scalloped and sculptural fashions, and they became part of patterned puzzles. His models had attitude, and communicated to the viewer, a relationship with the designs they were a part of. Johnston dresses his women in nature’s lace, and also communicates to the viewer a relationship between his female forms and organic backgrounds.
Johnston’s exhibition at the Burbank Creative Arts Center is something special to see. He preserves a photographic technique, chronicles the changing American landscape and creatively blends natural subjects, all in the pursuit of his lifelong passion. I think that might be the definition of success.
TERRI MARTIN is an art historian, artist and art critic.
What: “Photography by Neal Johnston”
Where: Burbank Creative Arts Center Gallery, 1100 W. Clark Ave., Burbank
When: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday until Jan. 27
Contact: (818) 238-5397