Nestled away off the beaten path behind Claudia Jewelry in Vineyard Haven is a little gem of a gallery owned by Michael Johnson, an iconic presence in the Island’s arts community. For nine years he’s inhabited this brightly painted house that brims with gorgeous photographs of the Vineyard, made all the more luscious by the breeze and dappled sunlight streaming in from the patio and garden. “I want people to feel that it’s a home for them, that it’s a home for me,” Johnson says. “That I’ve created this space that exudes what I’m about.”
Walking into the gallery provides a joyful experience of light and color — with joy being the operative word. Johnson’s most famous photograph is of some 22 Polar Bear Club members with arms lifted at varying angles toward the sky in an exuberant salutation that includes, “I am the source of my joy and infinite possibilities!” — and thus the inspiration for the work’s title: “Joy.”
Johnson recalls that one day, having never heard of the club, he got to Inkwell Beach and began shooting. “It was a beautiful calm morning, and as soon as I started photographing, I said, ‘This is really important, and I really need to capture this photographically, culturally, historically.’”
He didn’t know he had something so transformative on that August day in 2010, but the image started its journey to seminal status the following year at the Chilmark Flea Market. “I put it on a 16- x 20-inch easel next to my tent. Very often people would stop and look at that image and elbow their friend and say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at that photograph!’ and I would have to look out and realize ‘Oh, they were talking about ‘Joy.’”
That was the first inkling that he was onto something that spoke to people. He put it in Vineyard photo contests. It appeared in the front window of the Island House, became part of the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital permanent collection, and appeared in Cape Air magazine … which, he says, “gave it an audience outside of the places where I generally go. But mostly I credit the community, which has embraced it and loved it, and kept it spreading from person to person.”
Johnson isn’t wed, however, to any particular subject matter: “Basically, I’m very omnivorous. I’ll shoot anything wherein I believe I can create an emotive image.” It could be places, people, or things — evocative landscapes, the Polar Bears, or the world-class jazz musicians who have played here over the years.
Johnson is consistently interested in how to keep it fresh for himself and others, so a few years ago he taught himself to shoot infrared. The infrared glass filter can create a dreamlike quality, such as the image of the lone tree standing as a sentinel of beauty and mortality in his black-and-white photograph “South Circuit Avenue.”
“Now I’m out shooting beached boats in people’s yards, cars in people’s yards, and other artifacts to speak to something that’s very much a part of the Vineyard life, but everyone just drives by and no one really notices them,” Johnson says. “To most people, they’re just junk. So I’m raising them to iconic status. Focusing on them as something other than junk.” He feels that this new project “freshens the eye and freshens the mind and your sensibilities, and makes you look at things in a different way, which is readily apparent in “MV Still Life: Relics.” The infrared lens gives the boat “still life” a moody monumentality. It is both of this world, and not.
Equally as stirring is “After the Storm, Cow Bay.” And there is a crystalline beauty to Johnson’s “Promise 2: Ocean Park, OB,” in which half of a September rainbow arcs over the park, landing exactly on the historic Nelson house.
No matter the image, what unites all Johnson’s work is its quiet, dignified beauty. Originally, Johnson lived on the Island from 1981 through 1995. While he spent extensive time studying and practicing photography, he found himself mostly painting houses, but was also a well-known juggler, a teacher of video and photography, and co-founder lead singer and songwriter for the Island band Miracle Cure. In 1995, Johnson moved to California with no intention of ever returning. However, he found himself visiting in 2003, and the call of the Vineyard lured him back after a friend called out from a moving car, “’Welcome home, bro!” Today Johnson splits his time between the Vineyard and California.
While here, in addition to his gallery and bringing his work to the Featherstone and Chilmark flea markets, Johnson runs the Featherstone Photographers Salon, featuring the Island’s top photographic talents sharing their work and inspiration with large audiences. The program has become something of a summer tradition.
Johnson stands out anywhere as a consistently natty dresser, with his signature Italian-made cowboy boots and handmade vests, all topped with a stylish hat.
“As a kid, that is something my mom taught me in what you had control over, the way people perceived you was your dress,” he says. “To have someone say, ‘Wow. I’ve never seen anyone dress like that.’ People remember you. I’m as much my palette as the things on the wall as well. Also, it’s just fun.” And he says, “I’m not a photographer per se, I’m an artist, and will do anything that piques my interest.”
Johnson says his work is “The fruit of my labor and my love. The Vineyard is the best place I’ve ever been to be an artist because it allows people with a passion for the Island to invest in it and to enhance the connection to the Island in supporting the arts and artists.”
Michael Johnson’s art is available at 34A Main St. in Vineyard Haven, every day through Columbus Day weekend, and in season at Featherstone and Chilmark flea markets. You can also follow him on Instagram and Facebook.