I have a hunch that we’ll look back on this moment in history, and Dan Johnson will have quietly captured the essence of a time. His work will hang on the walls of galleries like the Morrison Hotel, visually documenting the characters and spirit of a generation.
Master photographer, Richard Avedon (1923 - 2004) documented the Civil Rights Movement and photographed cultural icons like Audrey Hepburn and Andy Warhol, focusing on the inner worlds of his subjects. The famed shutterbug’s minimalist portraits “helped define America's image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century" (The New York Times). At the same time in history, Allen Ginsberg (1926 - 1997) was influencing a counterculture movement; taking casual snapshots of like-minded friends who “bonded because they saw in one another an excitement about the potential of American youth” (the internet). Even though Ginsberg didn't consider himself a photographer by trade, his photos now help shape our current understanding of the American Beat Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s.
To me, Dan’s body of work is a Jaydiohead-esque mash-up of the two artists. Dan feels deeply, and like Avedon, instills his images with a sensitivity to the world around him and a relentless experimental drive. And he draws mutual inspiration from creative friends a la Ginsberg, capturing the everyday lives of his own circle of Merry Pranksters. An outstanding listener and intense observer of his surroundings, Dan is a person whose senses are always on high alert -- like a traveler exploring a new country. He has an ability to view and capture moments that embody both realism and fantastical elements, with unique perspective. Dan’s camera lens is a magic wand, used to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Travel and lifestyle photographer Nick Onken says that outside of technical considerations, to be a good photographer, “Be an interesting person, hang out with interesting people, and go interesting places.” According to this definition, Dan is the best photographer I know. He has a nomadic spirit, constantly seeking out new visual and emotional inspirations. He lives bi-coastally between LA and NY, but only recently started renting an apartment in one of those cities -- on any given day, he could be flying to Mexico to photograph a friend in Sayulita, driving to Utah for an impromptu month of snowboarding to make the most of freshly fallen powder, or scuba diving in Nicaragua. Dan loves the opera, he lived in Senegal for five months just to learn French, and he’s dedicated to his morning meditation practice. Open-minded, he's always up for an adventure and open to thinking through any idea, regardless of how small or ridiculous that idea may seem to other people.
Wherever in the world I am, whatever I'm doing, it's never out of the realm of possibility that Dan might show up!
Dan unexpectedly appeared in Montauk to celebrate my 30th birthday with a group of my nearest and dearest. That April Friday, he was released from a hold on a NY photo-assistant job, so he hopped on the Hampton Jitney bus (after missing Long Island Railroad train :) with a tiny backpack. I picked him up on a street next to the beach. His shoes were off, camera around his neck, skinny jeans cuffed, per usual. He dove right in to the dance party happening in my friend Morgen’s (fifty coffee #4) beat-up Subaru, and suddenly it was hard to imagine Dan not having been there all along. A few weeks later, I received the most special birthday gift: a Dropbox folder of astounding photos that captured a rare and magical gathering of my family and closest friends, perfectly preserving the best weekend of my life.
I’d love to crawl into to Dan’s mind, and see the world through his eyes. He grew up in a small, conservative town in Missouri and tells me that he was a very shy child (two things you wouldn’t guess if you met Dan today on the streets of New York City). Over the past few years, I’ve watched him break out of that shy social and creative shell, boldly coming into his own in both realms.
Since meeting Dan, I knew he was a thoughtful old soul with vision. But the moment I discovered the depth of his talent wasn’t until after our friend's weekend birthday celebration in the mountains. Per usual, he had his Canon camera flung around his neck and was snapping away throughout the festivities. The result was a breathtaking digital album of memories that truly captured the spirit of a very special, joy-filled gathering of forty friends who traveled from near and far to be together. Dan’s moment-driven images of the dinners and dance parties and glitter bombs from that weekend were brimming with incredible energy, movement, and magic.
Dan lives the life of a true artist; not only a fab photographer, but also an eloquent writer, thinker, designer, creator. When he’s telling a story, he’ll often uses his hands and arms to help express the grandness of a thought. He’s handsome, and never overly concerned with his wardrobe -- which makes him appear artist-like at all times. He is kind-hearted, generous with his time and talent, and cares deeply about his friends and family (especially his three-year-old niece, Ava). He thinks deeply. Feels deeply.
Dan has identified a triangle of personal driving forces in his life, and is constantly searching for opportunities that allow his triangle of driving forces to work in unison. For the majority of his career, Dan has been a freelance web, print, and motion graphics designer. Sometimes finding the triangle sweet spot, like when he created a motion graphics video piece for non-profit Falling Whisltes. But last year, he decided to shift his artistic career path, focusing solely on photography, starting with this symbolic photo series, Rebirth.
Dan is the person most responsible for me believing in myself as a creative person. This support of creative thinking is explored in an insightful book called Creative Confidence, defined as “the ability to come up with new ideas and the courage to the try them out.”
Dan is my favorite creative date partner. He's taken me to Drink and Draw (a nude human form drawing class in Brooklyn, complete with DJ and PBR beers), introduced me to the book The Artist's Way, and photo-safari-ed me through the MoMA PS1 contemporary art museum for the first time.
Dan just launched issue #000 of his monthly periodical highlighting a collection of images, thoughts, and inspirations from his current work; as he describes it, “A periodic catalogue of my creative life. It’s a little viewfinder into my artistic process. A visual journal of the people in my life and a digest of the places I gather inspiration from.” Dan had shown me a preliminary version of the first issue while staying at my Brooklyn apartment. He started putting the issue together last fall, but later abandoned the idea. I gushed over the concept and content, encouraging Dan to complete and launch the project. A week later, he launched the first issue! It is a visual feast. (CLICK ON THIS LINK NOW AND JOIN THE MAILING LIST. THANK ME LATER).
Shockingly, Dan is never as wowed by his own work as I am. Even great talents are hindered by their creative insecurity. As part of issue #000, he says, “I’ve spent a large part of my life paralyzed by the prospect of failure, especially when it comes to matters of creation; afraid to undertake an endeavor without guarantee of success, reinforced by a lazy perfectionism, and the perceived need to figure everything prior to doing anything.” SAY WHAT! In regards to the periodic catalogue project, Dan says,
Dan Johnson is like the hot guy in high school who has no idea he's hot, yet. The day he and I sat down for our official coffee date, he casually snapped a few photos as we walked around the city, which I was barely aware of. One of those shots is the picture on this blog's PROJECT page link. Of all the photos taken of me as an adult, Dan’s feel the most like me. And I'm not the only one who feels this way! Dan’s impromptu portraits can be seen on OkCupid, Tindr, and the Facebook profiles of least 30 people I know. Just last week, I saw a guy named Zach Bell post a Twitter photo with the caption, “Thnx @danielnjohnson for the best photo ever taken of me.” Dan’s portraiture captures the personality, soul, and essence of his subjects.
Ansel Adams said, “You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” Dan’s anything is possible attitude, and the people, places, sights, and sounds that he’s encountered with open arms, all contribute to his unique perspective.
Dan throws off his jeans and dives into the chilly January Pacific ocean waters, wearing just boxer briefs. He replies “Sure” to random emails from virtual strangers inviting him to fly to Congo to take pictures next week. He says yes to life, and always keeps a little room in his heart for the unexpected.
1. Unlock your own creativity and see what unfolds
Creative potential is an innate natural human ability within all of us. For the majority of my adult life, I didn’t view myself as creative. I didn’t pay the bills making things that we can see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. Now I realize you can be creative without specifically being a creator. We can all think creatively, problem solve creatively, live creatively -- regardless of our occupations.
Dan recalled the story that when sculpting the statue of David, Michelangelo believed that it was his job to free the human form from a piece of marble he was working with. Michelangelo did not carve David from chunk of marble, but rather allowed David to become what the marble already was. Benjamin Hoff captures a similar concept in his book The Te of Piglet when he says, "I’m not writing this book, that would be Struggle and Difficulty. Instead I’m letting the book write itself, through me. That’s Fun and Excitement. It flows along and I follow as best I can.” I’m tapping into my creative confidence and building fifty coffees from a heart place, uncovering what this project already is.
2. Build a Creative Community
Find people who encourage you to experiment with your wild ideas, and surround yourself with positive creative peer pressure. Creativity can flow more easily when you have collaborators to bounce ideas off of. Mutual inspiration could push your project or thinking in a new and exciting direction - or at least give you the confidence to start, launch, show, post, etc. Plus, it’s more fun to create with friends.
In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell makes the argument that our life circumstances and who we surround ourselves with influences our human potential. He says, "What we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves.” It’s probably not a coincidence that James Baldwin (one of the best authors of our time) and Richard Avedon (one of the most prolific visual artists of our time) were high school friends. Right?
3. Photos tell the story of 1,000 words
Dan sent me an email a couple days ago about the PROJECT page photo. He wrote, “The more I look at this photo the more significance I think it takes on for you and whatever this next phase of your life entails:
- "Essen" - German for eating or food
- "Worldwide Services” - Your influence is going to be more global than it ever has before, and whatever you do is going to continue to be of service to others, even a career for yourself.
- “Synchronizing…” - Umm yes synchronicity/serendipity.
- Taxi / Mailbox Delivery truck - Transportation, communication and connection.
- Camera - You may not be a photographer with a capital “P” but the lens through which you view people in your life is unique and wonderful.
- Bike helmet - Your safety net is yourself. It's with you all the time. Keep taking risks. Also could represent the people you hold close; we’ve got your back, so continue to take risks, and continue to hold the ones you love close to you.
- And you confidently crossing the street, looking fabulous and beautiful, cos you are.” (*blushing*)