Blurring the Boundaries Between Blight and Beauty

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Peter L. Johnson poses in his St. Paul studio with “Father Hennepin Park Earth Day clean up of toxic stream #146″ along with the items featured in the photograph.

St. Paul photographer Peter L. Johnson thinks we all have an innate need to connect to beauty. He just seeks it in places a lot of us would rather avoid.

“I intentionally go to polluted sites and witness our mistreatment of the earth,” Johnson says. “As I am searching with my camera for beauty amidst the dystopia, I see without judgement or anger and if I’m lucky, a moment enlivens me and I am able to capture part of that in a photograph.”

In his artist’s statement, Johnson says his transformative approach to trash gives him “a peek at the path toward a more caring relationship with this planet.”

His recent study, Specimens, focuses on detritus Johnson finds strewn along the Mississippi River: discarded pipe and Styrofoam become a quizzical face against a marble backdrop; a length of telecommunications cable and a plastic soft-drink bottle become a floral bouquet in a sun-dappled stream; an abandoned rubber ball becomes a view of Earth from space.

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Made in China rubber ball in toxic stream entering the Mississippi River # 133

With more than 25 years of traditional and digital darkroom experience, Johnson highlights shapes, colors and forms to enliven each image. He doesn’t use software to enhance or alter his photos, nor does he crop his images. “The integrity of the frame when I take the photograph is sacred,” Johnson insists.

Right now, Johnson is preparing his work for a summer exhibition at Bloomington Theatre and Art Center. Called Impact, the exhibition opens today and features the work of Johnson and two other environmental artists, Michael Karekan and David Lefkowitz.

To bring people further into the work he does and the larger issues it represents, Johnson will be exhibiting his work in a new way; specifically, next to each photograph that features a found object, he’s displaying the actual object on a table or in a museum specimen case.

Johnson has also been building frames from driftwood or discarded wood he finds near his photographed objects. “It’s one more way for me to bring somebody to where I am and what I’m doing without actually taking them there,” he says.

Karen Schik is an ecologist and project manager at St. Paul-based Friends of the Mississippi River. Newly introduced to Johnson’s work, Schik finds it quite fascinating. “I marvel at Mr. Johnson’s ability to create beauty out of pollutants,” she says. “While he is clearly making a statement, he has a certain non-judgemental approach that I find refreshing. He isn’t chastising humanity for our evils, but he’s bringing awareness by creating these photos that have a haunting sort of sad beauty.”

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Wire and jug washed up on the Mississippi River shore # 120

With the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a show like Impact may have added weight, but visitors won’t find Johnson preaching about environmentalism; he prefers to let the art speak. “I just don’t believe in that dogmatic way of saying what we should do,” Johnson says. “We need to see it and really understand it at a different level if we’re going to actually change it.”

“Impact” runs July 16 to August 27, 2010 at the Bloomington Theatre and Art Center. Johnson is scheduled to do an artist talk on August 12 at 7 p.m. in the BTAC’s Inez Greenberg Gallery. See more of Peter L. Johnson’s work at peterljohnson.com.

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