Michael Johnson: A self-taught artist and educator

Panoramas fill the gallery's walls. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Michael Johnson did not study photography in school. He never spent hours poring over photographs in books or magazines, nor did he pick up a camera as a child and know that he would dedicate his life to the art. Photography simply didn’t occur to him.

Yet today his panoramic images that span the vibrant cliffs of Gay Head and cloudy winter skies over Lucy Vincent Beach and his photographic studies of Inkwell Beach and other Oak Bluffs icons hang in some of the Island’s best known galleries and artisan markets. He has become a staple among photography educators on the Island and one of the foremost Oak Bluffs cultural documenters, thanks to a last-minute decision and some advice from good friends, or, as he calls them, his “angels.”

“I’ve always believed in Peter’s Principle of Pull,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview with The Times. “Push is when you go to school and you work hard to do all these things. Pull is when you find people who have more power than you and use their talent to pull you along.”

Mr. Johnson grew up a music lover in Englewood, N.J. He sang in rock bands throughout his youth before deciding one day to take a different direction, though what he would do he did not know — until his first Peter’s Principle encounter.

“I don’t mean it metaphorically when I say that God spoke to me,” Mr. Johnson told The Times. One day he heard a voice in his ear, he said, that told him to go to school for video production. At age 29 he enrolled in a class at Bergen Community College, discovered an affinity for visual art, borrowed $350 from his father to buy a 35mm camera, and headed to the Vineyard.

“I had nine days off from a crappy job,” he said. Mr. Johnson alighted from the ferry with few belongings aside from his camera in May of 1981. The morning after he arrived, he said, “I had a job and a place to stay by 11 am. That’s how the Vineyard was back then. And those 9 days turned into 15 years.”

Inspired by the rural character of the Island and its quiet winters, Mr. Johnson began chronicling up-Island locales such as Cedar Tree Neck and Aquinnah through black-and-white film photographs. He turned to the books and built a darkroom in his Oak Bluffs home where he perfected the art of developing and printing while using the Vineyard artist community’s support and feedback to train his eye. Mr. Johnson credits the Dutch and Flemish painting masters with the emergence of his artistic style: traditional in technique, original in execution. “I love their use of light,” he said. “I try to emulate that emotion in my work.”

Throughout his 30 years as an artist Mr. Johnson has grown from classic black-and-white images of cosmopolitan Oak Bluffs to expansive panoramas that vividly depict the Island’s most beloved landscapes. A glimpse at the large images, comprised of smaller images digitally stitched together and printed on canvas, will take you directly to the foot of the Gay Head Light or the sands of Inkwell Beach.

Peter’s Principle of Pull brought Mr. Johnson back as a seasonal resident after he attempted to leave the Island for San Francisco in the 90s, he said. Due either to his humble nature or to pure disbelief that he, an autodidact, could be included among the trained Island greats, Mr. Johnson said that it took some persistent convincing by his friends in the art community before he considered attempting to live off his art during Vineyard summers.

Thanks to the late artist Richard Lee and his wife, Claudia Canerdy, and Cousen Rose Gallery owner Zita Cousens (“gallery angels,” as he refers to them), Mr. Johnson’s works now hang in his Main Street Vineyard Haven gallery, nestled among a verdant garden next to Nat’s Nook, and on the walls of Cousen Rose Gallery on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. His latest projects include an exposition of the life and culture of Oak Bluffs, a town that “has not gotten its due artistically,” and street photography set in Cuba and San Francisco’s Mission District, where he lives seven months of the year.

Recognizable by his warm smile and an open, friendly demeanor, Mr. Johnson greets passersby from his Vineyard Haven gallery on Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays, and Mondays. He sells his photographs and merchandise at the Chilmark Flea Market, and he curates the Featherstone Photo Salons at which experienced photographers offer their insight and ideas to emerging artists. On Monday evenings, he teaches the art of the darkroom photography to learning photographers at Featherstone’s Open Darkrooms.

“I think the tech aspect is relatively easy,” he said. “Training your eye and developing your narrative are the hardest and most ongoing parts.”

Michael Johnson’s Photo Studio is located at 34A Main Street and is open from 12 noon to 5 pm on Thursday, Friday, Sunday, and Monday, or by appointment. For more information, visit michaeljimage.com.