This month’s FabArt profile focuses on Virginia born photographer Neely Johnson. Johnson is a graduate of Radford University and the Pratt Institute, she now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.  Earlier this year, Neely answered our call for submissions of work approaching family structure and relationships, with these intimate and subtly cinematic portraits and self portraits. In the following interviews she discusses her personal history, her process and what she’s learned in the making of her series “Daddy” and “Me as Mommy”

FabArt: When did you start taking photos?
Neely Johnson: I was drawn to photography at an early age as a way of remembering my reality. I received my first camera on my 7th birthday, a point and shoot camera from Toys “R” Us. I began photographing as a way to document my life and the life around me. By high school I started experimenting with photography as an artistic medium. I was more concerned with photographing people, rather than objects- staging scenes of my friends and myself. It was not until my first year of college that I knew I wanted to make photography my profession.

FA: What is your process normally like?
NJ: For my personal work, I work primarily with medium format. I tend to visualize things the way a range finder captures them, as opposed to digital. While working on ‘Me as Mommy’, I began with a sketched version of each image, and each aspect of the image was taken into consideration: location, costuming and body language. For the series ‘Daddy’ there was a much more intuitive process. To set up the shot, I simply told him what to wear and where to stand. It allowed for something organic and genuine to happen, and I was still able to capture him as an observer. After shooting, I have my film processed professionally, and then scan the negatives and work with the file digitally.

FA: How are these photos of your family similar or different from your other work?
NJ: With the projects ‘Me as Mommy’ and ‘Daddy,’ all the same technical processes are there: attention to color, space, and composition. However, there is a different degree of vulnerability, especially with the self portraits. I am exploring the personal dynamics between of the parent-child relationship on a much more personal level. WIth my other portraits, I am documenting a female perspective of reality.

FA: You say that your southern upbringing heavily influences your work, how so?
NJ: I will always have a strong nostalgia for the south, both aesthetically and emotionally. I have been greatly inspired by the work of William Eggleston and the concept that day-to-day life which is often considered banal is actually fascinating, and complex.

FA: How would you describe your childhood?
I would describe my childhood as suburban and ‘conventional’ at least in appearance. Growing up our family seemed stable and similar to our social circle from the outside. My parents came from educated families, and had a general sense of success and morality. I lived on a street with a cul-de-sac, went to church every once in awhile, spent the summers at the country club. I never felt afraid of riding my bike or walking alone in my neighborhood. On the inside, there was a great deal of chaos and struggle, both financially and emotionally. My parents were in the midst of a well needed divorce, and my grandparents should have spilt years before. My brother and I grew up, aware that many of our friends had more than us. We could feel the divide, but it never separated us in others’ opinions. I could blame my parents for my less than ideal childhood, but it was always obvious that my brother and I were the most important thing to them. My mother and father are both hardworking to the point of selflessness; I would never want either to think I do not appreciate every penny they gave to make sure we had experiences, travel, summer camp, sports, and education.

FA: What was your relationship with your parents growing up?
NJ: My parents divorced when I was 9, but it was evident that this should have happened well before then. As an adolescent, I considered myself lucky that I could tell my parents anything and there was always an air of open mindedness. I idolized my mother, but didn’t understand her in a lot of ways. We were not conventional, there was tradition set, but we were dysfunctional. My brother and I were exposed to things most children are sheltered from. Our grandparents played a big role in our upbringing, while both parents worked full time, my mother as a flight attendant. I felt a very maternal connection to my grandmother. We were forced to mature independently quickly, which I am grateful for now. My relationship with my parents has strengthened in recent years, as I have let go of resentment, especially towards my father.

FA: In the Me as Mommy series you’re dressed as your mother, are you imitating her from photographs or your memories?
NJ: Both, mostly from memory, but these are all inspired from actual photographs. I plan on working on images that are direct recreations moving forward with the project.

FA: Do you relate your work to other artists who work with costumes and characters? (ex. Nikki S. Lee, Cindy Sherman) Who are some artists that influence you?
NJ: Yes, absolutely. When I began costuming it was a very primitive thing. Now I draw inspiration from Cindy Sherman and Nikki S. Lee. Other major influences include  Rineke Dijkstra , William Eggleston, Gregory Crewdson, Alex Prager ,Gillian Wearing,  Philip lorca dicorcia, and Sally Mann.

FA: The photos of your father show him mostly in domestic space, what role does setting play in your work?
 The space is the house my father still lives in, which was also my childhood home from when my parents were married. The house is completely different now from when my parents were married. It has become a space I do not identify with from childhood, just a space my father inhabits. There are objects in the house, such as a rug, or chair, that I remember being there, yet they have all deteriorated physically.

FA: How has your view of your parents changed by working on these projects?
NJ: My relationship with my father has grown and it has allowed us time to connect on a deeper level. Our conversations while shooting have given me a greater understanding of who my father is, and how similar we are. My view of my mother has changed, as she has given me insight into how she was during each time period of her life that I am recreating, and told me stories about her life when she was my age.

FA: Has moving to New York from Virginia changed the way you think about your parents or childhood?
 Absolutely, I feel fortunate that I was able to learn and grow on such a larger, more open minded scale while living in New York, and be able to view where I was raised from an outside perspective. On the other hand, I now value more certain things about the way I was raised and my relationship with my parents.

FA: What projects are you currently working on?
I am continuing with the ‘Me as Mommy’ project, but now recreating actual images of my mother. I plan on self publishing an artist book displaying my self portraits, with the actual photographs of my mother with text and juxtaposed with the images of my father. Eventually I’ll be shooting images of my father, with myself, dressed as my mother.

Thank you Neely!

Feature image courtesy of the artist.

For more projects by Neely Johnson, visit her website HERE.

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