The expressive limits of photography were breached decisively with the invention of Photoshop, and one of the first and best artists invading the new territory was Simen Johan. Norwegian born, Johan used the tools to express dark fantasies about childhood and, more recently, to construct symbolic narratives about the natural world. The growing subtlety of his images has gone hand in hand with a turn to sculpture that is at once humorous and deeply disquieting. Johan’s unique world can be entered at Yossi Milo Gallery (through August 10) and at Scandinavia House in New York in the group exhibition Another North: Landscape Reimagined (through August 6).
Lyle Rexer: I know it’s a little boring, but I want to ask you about technique. In our Instagram age, there is a common assumption that artists don’t need to shoot anything, just appropriate and go to work. But your raw material is imagery you shoot.
Simen Johan: That has always been the case. I draw on an archive of material I have photographed, in and out of the studio. I used to shoot film exclusively, but that was challenging because the scans were so expensive. More recently, the images I have been making are so intricate, requiring thousands of bits and pieces, that it would be physically impossible to do them without shooting digitally.
LR: When I was in your studio, we took a look at the evolution of an image of zebras that is included in the Yossi Milo exhibition. The number of iterations was mind-boggling, and the choices you had to make were overwhelming. Digital technology has given artists a lot of freedom as well as responsibility, because there are so many more choices.
SJ: It’s one of the reasons that I make comparatively few images: it just takes a long time. I had this idea of the light and shadow of a forest interacting with the zebras’ stripes. If I had known how much work the image was going to be, I never would have done it. I shoot most of my animals in zoos, and I can’t control what they do, no matter how many images I take. So I can’t plan, and I can never be sure what I will be able to use, even if I have an idea.
LR: You once told me about seeing an abandoned building and thinking it would be great for something and then never using the photos. Does that happen often?
SJ: Sometimes you get what you didn’t intend. I went up to Alaska to shoot musk oxen for an idea I had. I shot hundreds of pictures of the oxen, but when I went through them all, none was right. But I did use the mountains in the background! Thinking about what you said, I sometimes feel that I have too much freedom but not enough.
LR: Your imagery has evolved from archetypal images of childhood to tableaus of animals, whose relationships seem anthropomorphic. Does this reflect your environmentalism?
SJ: People can’t get environmental ideas out of their heads, but that’s not what I’m after. And if I can explain what the work is about, then I have failed. In fact, I’m not really interested in nature or animals that way. I want my pictures to be believable but I’m not a scientist. My intention is not to be biologically accurate. What I am trying to capture is this sense I have about pure being. The only thing permanent in the world is pure being, something that never changes. And there is a being in each animal. In the new show, however, there are images that move away from animals altogether, toward atmosphere and light.
LR: Finally, tell me about the sculptures. They are mysterious, totemic, uncanny, funny presences in the midst of these complicated illusions that hang on the wall.
SJ: I want an immersive experience for viewers, but for me it’s a break from the computer, and it’s more physical, a process of addition and subtraction. The sculptures clarify what I do in the photographs, and I want people to see them first, to get a sense of the primal. That will move them away from any idea of National Geographic.