Donovan Johnson on 'ART OF EXPRESSION'
Interview by Esme Carty
Photography by Donovan Johnson
I: What inspired The Art of Expression, capturing people’s emotion and the subtext written beneath it?
DJ: I’ve always taken a lot of portraits, but getting the maximum amount of expression out of somebody’s face was what I was going for. Originally it wasn’t even supposed to be the art of expression so all of these were shot at a skatepark that I found last semester and it’s pink. I saw it and was like, ‘I have to shoot there.’ We went there originally for a skate photo essay and then I got this first photo here, that’s my friend Josh, and from that photo it kind of inspired the concept of getting someone at maximum expression, allowing the truth to speak about that person. Another thing that really inspired the work was the truth; a lot of times, especially in editorial photography, you’re staging things. These photos were very natural. Josh was in both of these, he was the number one inspiration for it just with the first photo.
I: I like how it was an impromptu project, a meant-to-be kind of feeling. Is that satisfying when you don’t even plan for something to be a certain way but it becomes that?
DJ: Yeah, I feel like that’s the truth of art, it kind of just happens. At the moment, I wasn’t even looking for these types of photos. It’s interesting how it just happens like that; working on the fly and then you get a spark of inspiration.
I: It’s super capturing. The photos would be beautiful if they were posed, but they wouldn’t make you feel as much.
DJ: That was the goal. The pictures are supposed to draw you in because of the expression but I’ve been playing with this idea–because I talked to this one artist this semester, his name is Kaelen Ellis, he’s a producer and he told me that when he was growing up his mom would tell him if he wants to know who he is going to be, look at his five closest friends. That spoke to me because he said that, overtime he became a mirror of his closest friends of who he was and what he wanted to do. When you see somebody, you see a part of yourself too. When you walk into this space, you will be attracted to one photo in particular just because of the expression on their face. I’m very attracted to the first one because I’m in a very joyous and happy time in my life and what the captions do. The reason they’re yellow is to mimic movie stills.
I: The way we react to people is a reflection on how we’re feeling, but sometimes it's forgotten that that goes both ways. The way they react to us is a reflection on how they’re feeling. Also for the captions, I like how the first one is “What do you see when you look at me?” and then ends with “Did you learn something?” Was that intentional?
DJ: That was very intentional. When it comes to art, I know what the meaning is but someone can walk into the space and feel something, but only afterward can they try and understand it. An explanation coming from me probably makes you look at it in a different way, but having the photo speak for itself was big for me.
I: What was opening night like, having your photos on display for the first time?
DJ: It was a blessing for me. I can’t thank Dialog enough for having me. This was one of my bigger scale exhibitions and it happened really naturally. I had the photos done and I was in here one day grabbing coffee and I asked if they did exhibitions in the space, they asked what I had in mind, I showed the frames. From there they were very open to it, they loved the frames, and very thankful to ASU for funding it because I swear to god, these were more expensive than I thought. Dialog trusted me.
I: They look beautiful in the space with all the natural lighting, and even the colors of the photos keeping up a certain consistency with the colors of certain decor pieces in here.
DJ: I wanted it to compliment the space because I love how Dialog looks and the feel of Dialog, not obstruct. At the end of the day, I think this is the best we could do.
I: Oh yeah, it looks incredible. They very well could keep this up and it would look a part of the store and the space.
DJ: I have imposter syndrome when it comes to calling myself an artist because this is my first time doing an exhibition like this, I feel like everybody feels that.
I: Of course!
DJ: Right now when I look at this project, this is really representative of a time in my life where I was searching for some sort of inspiration and trying to make as much as possible to see what would come out of it. This was the byproduct of really challenging myself artistically to try and make a well-rounded project and I really couldn’t be happier with how it came out. Now, post-project, is the most exciting time for an artist because I’m searching for inspiration in everything. I go to vinyl stores and look at the covers of vinyls, they give me inspiration. As far as being an artist, your work is always representative of where you’re at.
I: I’ve never thought about it in that way but it’s only inevitable to show a bit of yourself or how you’re feeling through whatever work you do. One's twenties is so full of expression and experimentalism and this project really represents that. I’m excited to keep up with your work and see how it progresses as you progress. Do you have any inspirations you’re looking towards at the moment for future projects?
DJ: Yeah, I call them seeds. It can be anything from a picture I took on my iPhone to a color, or a sound. My girlfriend and I, Monty, work very close together and we’re very interested in the concept of sonder. Are you familiar?
I: No, what is it?
DJ: So the concept of sonder is, and it’s kind of weird, the realization that every individual has their own life as vivid and complex as your own. I live this life and could be in the midst of a falling out and, at the same time, someone walks past me that I’ve never met in my life and is experiencing something totally different and experiencing life the same way you are. It’s an interesting concept to portray and visualize. I’m good with portraits but visualizing sonder has to go along with some type of story of that person, so we’re trying to play around and find people we find interesting naturally and photograph them in black and white.
I: It reminds me of a photo project I saw once, where a photographer captured celebrities in two photos: one where they present themselves how everybody sees them vs who they believe they actually are. It’s interesting to see the contrast.
DJ: I like this quote that I heard once, it goes, “You’re not your thoughts.” It’s that same concept, I have my perceptions of myself that I think other people would think I am but actually that’s not the truth at all. Every single person might have a unique perspective on who you are so at the end of the day, if there’s so many different opinions, just be yourself. You can’t control who is going to think what. I love that you brought that up because that’s a concept that’s been on my mind; we all have an inner voice that tells us what others are thinking when actually we might just be overthinking it. When I did this project, I get to this point where I’ve been looking at this project for so long and I was trying to add to it but I went back to that notion of, this is a period of my life and if i try to act on it when i'm in another period of my life, it’s not going to make it true to who I was at that point.
I: Thank you so much for talking with us about the exhibit and your work, are there any lasting words you’d like to share?
DJ: To be completely transparent, I am sometimes anxious and personal about the work I do, which makes me scared to put it out. I know there’s artists out there that feel that same way, but I would say just put it out. You never know what the response is going to be, you never know who is watching. Ultimately, when you do put something out that you like and there’s a good response, it fuels you into the next. That’s where I’m at now; I couldn’t be more grateful for this. I feel so much more confident to do more.
Thank you to Donovan Johnson for sitting down and sharing their art and words with us. You can find his art on his instagram.