Johnny Kerr is a self-taught American photographer who captures his daily life through the prism of minimalism and architecture. Based in Arizona, he agreed to answer our questions. He tells us about his career, his love for photography, his minimalist approach and gives advice to future professionals.
I was born, raised, and currently live in the Southwest US. I’ve never really loved the desert, but Arizona has been my home for going on 36 years. I still hate the summers, but the winters are lovely.
I have explored art in a variety of ways since childhood. I’ve studied traditional Irish music for about fifteen years. Art plays such a huge role in my life, be it watching good cinema, playing or listening to music, making photographs, or sculpting the bushes in my backyard (I shape one like a heart for my six year old daughter).
What’s your background? How did you get into photography?
I went to school for animation and graphic design but the economy tanked shortly after I graduated. I did eventually find work in graphic design but the economy continued to decline so hours and benefits were scarce. I decided I wanted to teach and began pursuing that.
I interviewed one morning for an art teacher position. They told me at the start of the interview that they had filled the position earlier that morning but asked if I was interested in teaching photography. I didn’t know much about photography, but jobs in the arts were hard to find so figured I could lean on my art experience and learn the technical bits of photography as I went along. So, I did. Seven years later it is my primary medium.
Who are the artists and photographers that inspire you?
I’ve drawn inspiration from so many different wells: filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet; artists such as Magritte, Picasso, M.C. Escher, Frank Lloyd Wright, Egon Schiele, and Joe Sorren; photographers such as Edward Weston, Saul Leiter, Richard Avedon, Bill Brandt, Uta Barth, Michael Kenna, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, and Irving Penn.
It’s an eclectic mix, but each of these artists have in some way informed me. I am drawn to artists who are unapologetic for why they make art. They just do it because they have to. Many on this list were not concerned with whether or not people liked their work.
What is the theme you like to explore in photography?
The theme I come back to over and again, regardless of subject matter, is solitude. It’s what I crave as an introvert. I derive great pleasure from taking a busy, chaotic reality and simplifying it into an organized, quiet space. I really appreciate intentional design and so it’s something I always strive for.
How do you find the landscape of your pictures?
I really hated Arizona for a long time. I saw myself moving as soon as I could find an out. But I stayed, mostly for financial reasons and to be near family. When I picked up photography I began challenging myself to look for beauty in my surroundings. Painters and sculptors can create from pure imagination, but photographers have to contend, to a great degree, with reality.
I struggled with how to make photographs in the desert that didn’t look like the last 100 years worth of Arizona post cards, magazines and calendars. I suppose it was my graphic design background that drew me to architecture; working with bold lines, shapes, patterns, etc. Now it’s just a matter of being aware of my surroundings, mindful of how I’m processing them and thinking like a photographer whether I have my camera with me or not. Many of my images were found in the most mundane of places during my weekly routine.
How did you plan your photo shoot?
Many start out as iPhone sketches as I see things in my daily routine. For the ones that really seem to work well, I’ll return to the scene later with my DSLR after watching how light interacts with the subject for days, weeks or months.
I’ve worked in the past with long exposures to create my quiet spaces but have almost abandoned that aesthetic entirely due to it’s mass rise in popularity. I still work with a tripod frequently as I find it helps to slow me down and make me more methodical and intentional in my approach to a scene. Some images still happen very spontaneously. Partly from practicing mindfulness, but also a bit of being lucky in the right place at the right time.
What is the message you want to convey through your photographs?
Again, I come back to good design and quiet spaces. I suppose I’m not really trying to sell a message so much as I am just looking for beauty and processing my surroundings in the only way I know how.
Does minimalism allow you to communicate more easily with the viewer? Why did you choose this style?
I don’t feel I have much choice in it, it’s just how I make sense of the world in front of me. The minute I look at a subject I’m subconsciously abstracting it into its most basic elements in my mind. I look for visual relationships almost automatically, like a person tapping their toe to the beat of a good song. It’s almost involuntary, but I’m also aware I’m doing it constantly.
What gear do you use?
I shoot a full frame DSLR, mostly for printing resolution. I also don’t like noisy images for this type of work and the larger sensor helps keep that to a minimum. I always shoot at ISO 100 unless I don’t have a tripod with me. I use a geared tripod head so that I can make fine adjustments in the placement of architectural elements.
What is the essential equipment you take with you?
The camera is the only thing that’s essential. The tripod is a great tool but it can be cumbersome at times. Most days I’m happy to carry it even if I don’t use it because I’ve felt the frustration of needing it and not having it.
Can you talk about your next project?
STUCCOLAND! was fun but it’s a bit loud for me, personally. I think I’ll likely go to something a little more subdued and contemplative. I’m really intrigued by subtlety lately and I want to explore that some more. As always, I’m looking for my quiet places in our chaotic world.
What would be your pieces of advice to photographers who want to find their own style?
People who are looking to develop their own voice must ignore conventions, trends and fads. You have to not care if people don’t get or even like what you’re doing. You have to be patient and honest with yourself.
I think we all know, deep down, when we are making work that comes from within versus regurgitating something we’ve already seen. You’ll never develop a style trying to be like someone else. It’s also important to realize that styles evolve. Always be trying to one-up yourself and don’t be afraid of change. Be willing to lose a few thousand social media followers who will say « I liked his older stuff better. »
Don’t do it for anyone other than yourself.
Is there a photograph you want us to interview?
Most of the photographers I take inspiration from are dead. Here are a couple names I see on Instagram or Behance that might work if you haven’t interviewed them already: Tekla Evelina Severin and Sebastian Weiss.
To view more of Johnny Kerr’s photography, feel free to visit his site and his Behance and Instagram account.
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