Photographer Interviews

Eirik Johnson Pairs Large-Format Photos of Tree Carvings with Vinyl Record in New Project, “PINE”

July 6, 2018

By Dzana Tsomondo

Graffiti is the province of youth. When we are young, we mark our presence on the world. Anyone who has surreptitiously scrawled their heart’s secrets on a desk has imagined that their message might be there forever. And if you happen upon a street where, as a child, you used a stick to sketch your name in freshly poured cement, a part of you still expects it to be there.

© Eirik Johnson

© Eirik Johnson

Eirik Johnson’s project “PINE,” which he plans to publish later this year with Minor Matters Books, investigates a specific type of graffito—messages carved into the bark of trees. Through large-format photographs made at night with long exposures and illuminated with different light sources, Johnson’s project explores the urge to create a lasting record of love, inspiration or simply one’s place in the world. Several of the carvings Johnson photographed referenced musicians or song lyrics, so Johnson also collaborated with six musicians on a companion vinyl record. Together, the photographs and songs reference the intense emotions of adolescence.

The wooded settings for Johnson’s photographs connect to his own childhood in Seattle, “where at that point, the middle of the city felt like the suburbs,” Johnson remembers. “Our house abutted an urban greenbelt and my brother and sister and I would spend afternoons and weekends playing in our treehouse and the surrounding wooded brambles. On the weekends we’d go out into the mountains hunting mushrooms or hiking.”

Johnson never lost his affinity for the wild Pacific Northwest, and when he moved back to Seattle in 2011 with a young family, he was eager to share his love of the place with them. It was on a nature walk with his son that the seed for “PINE” was planted. They were hiking a ravine in the late afternoon, dark enough that Johnson had to use a flashlight. As they came around a trail bend, his light fell on the words “I LOVE LEANNE” carved into a tree trunk. “It was the hour of aquamarine twilight and it was dramatic enough of an ‘aha’ moment that I remember grabbing my camera, buying film and going back out that same week,” he says.

Soon Johnson was hunting for tree carvings obsessively, first around the Northwest, in urban parks and the greenbelts on suburbia’s peripheries, and then further afield. The images in “PINE” are drawn from disparate areas, from Cleveland, Ohio to the Hawaiian islands, from sheep trails in Idaho and Montana to strip malls in Los Angeles. Johnson wanted to showcase different types of flora and fauna, while parsing differences in language and expression.

© Eirik Johnson

The carvings Johnson found that are dedicated to musicians and bands connected the graffiti to a time in his youth when he made mixtapes for friends. The connection lead him to collaborate with several musicians, producing a record of songs inspired by the images. © Eirik Johnson

On a typical outing, Johnson might circle a tree after dark, looking “off his rocker” with his often-unusual lighting equipment. “I started initially with a flashlight and some gel filters, which worked but it also was limiting. I wanted it to be a little more playful and unexpected, which is why I started to think about using colored sparklers, or fire itself, prismatic light or the light of a full moon,” Johnson says. Best-known for his documentary work on projects such as Sawdust Mountain, his look at the Northwest landscape after the timber boom, Johnson’s use of light and color in “PINE” represented a more personal approach to image-making. Illuminating the carvings “made me feel a connection between me and the maker of the carving. I wanted something that involved a performative response on my part, and I specifically wanted to do that through color,” he explains.

Johnson’s connection to the work was visceral, tied to memories of adolescence and teenage longing, he says. Early on, he stumbled across a carving that read “THE WILD WOLVES AROUND YOU,” and the phrase stuck with him. Later, Johnson discovered that it was a quote from a Bon Iver song. “I started to think about that time in your life when you’re full of emotion, perhaps enamored by a fellow student in school, or conversely, feeling deeply alienated and ready to disappear into the woods to carve those feelings into a tree known only to you,” he explains.

Johnson is also a musician; he studied music before moving into the visual arts, and he never stopped writing and playing music. While working on “PINE,” he found carvings dedicated to musicians such as The Smiths and Kurt Cobain, and he began to connect the carvings to the mixtapes he made as a teenager for friends and crushes. He began approaching musicians whose work he appreciated, with the idea of collaborating. The response was overwhelmingly positive. The vinyl record that will accompany the book features songs by Tenderfoot, ELIA, NEWAXEYES, SassyBlack, Whiting Tennis and DEDE. Johnson contributes a performance of his own to the album, a cover of Tom Waits’ “All the World is Green.” “Initially it was just about approaching other musicians, but I started to feel like it would be disingenuous to not try to do something myself,” Johnson says. “I kept coming back to ‘All the World is Green’ because it had this connection to this one photograph of a faded valentine carved into a tree,” he says. Johnson self-funded the recording and resulting vinyl pressing with the help of a fellowship from Artist Trust, a Washington State-based nonprofit focused on local artists.

“I imagine someone opening the book, taking out the record and putting it on, then sitting down to page through the book as the songs play in the background,” he muses. When Johnson points out that the vinyl record is itself a carving, it’s hard not to think that “PINE,” in its own way, is Johnson’s carving; an audio-visual tribute to his love for music and photography, a paean to the woods, and those fleeting moments when again we feel—not just remember—what it was to be young.

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