Wednesday, March 7, 2012

March’s Peculiar Person of the Month: Photographer Nikki Johnson

Mississippi native Nikki Johnson grew up around cameras her entire life. The niece of a product developer for Polaroid, she entered the frame of picture taking at a young age. The seeds were planted oddly enough at her father’s funeral, which then filtered Nikki out with a flash into the many snap shots of the industry. Focusing her lenses on everything from vampire parties to movies about magic urine, she has a wide angle on a world that lives not too far beneath the surface of New York City. Her gathered experiences can be seen in places like HYCIDE Magazine as well as at several art fairs around the city. The latest being at The Pink Gallery. Nikki interacted with This Peculiar Life NYC to give a candid look into her two upcoming books Natural History and Yearbook as she highlights what she feels is most peculiar about her own experiences.

This Peculiar Life NYC:  Who or what got you into photography?
Nikki Johnson: Last week [my mother] told me that she had given away one of the photos of my grandfather in his coffin to a relative. I dimly remember the photos. I asked her who took them. She told me that I did! So I guess I have been deep into photography [since I was] seven. As far as actively taking photos I didn't get into it until I was a freshman. I took my first photo class and got completely hooked. I was an English major who changed to an Art major. I graduated [and] worked in a one-hour photo lab. I left Mississippi to go to graduate school in Rochester New York. By then I had a taste of what it could do as a means of expression, and I was hooked. I earned my Masters in Photography from R.I.T. and moved to New York City.

T.P.L. NYC: Are there any particular themes that inspire you?

N.J.:  I am attracted to unusual things [that] defy explanation, seem out of context, or have an element of mystery to them. What I find myself looking for is ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances or unusual people in fairly ordinary circumstances.

T.P.L. NYC: Where do you go to look for inspiration?

N.J.:  I actually look at surrealists and lots of Greco-Roman [paintings and sculptures] because of the interesting mix of idealization with realistic representation.

East Village Vanitas (c) Nikki Johnson

T.P.L. NYC:  Tell me about your still-life series of photographs that are about meditations on death? How did this project come about?
N.J.:  I had a lot of life-changing events during 2010. I wanted a way to mark the passage of one part of my life into another. This still-life series was a project that I had to get on paper, but just didn't have all of the elements to create it. I had an image of a sumptuous meal. A shark head with grapes and wine, the idea of the finest things in life turned on its head. A shark's head is not easy to come by, but I had a friend who had gotten a job at a fish market. It became one of those conversations where being open about art and ideas leads to a major creative change. She said she had one in her freezer that she had kept too long. Suddenly the photograph was going to happen. I already collected animal bones and decorative skulls. I videotaped the assemblage of these items and felt the process turn into a ritual. It became less about a meal, and more about being a photographic nod to traditional 16th and 17th century still-life paintings with themes of death and mortality examined through symbolism.
T.P.L. NYC:  Why photography over other creative forms?

N.J.:  My undergraduate degree is in painting. I took several courses in photography at the same time, so I was always trying to transfer the joys of one onto another. I just found it easier to convey many of the things in life events first hand and trying to convey them through the medium. Everything artistically that I wanted to explore and express just felt more explicitly available in photography for me.

T.P.L. NYC:  You were recently in HYCIDE Magazine, did you submit photos for it, or did they give you an assignment based on the theme of the magazine?

N.J.:   HYCIDE Magazine was interested in photographs of sex parties and the BDSM scene as part of their new "Sex Issue." They asked me to submit and really enjoyed what they saw, so my work was included. 

Cocoa (c) Nikki Johnson

 T.P.L. NYC: Are there any other art mediums that you like to use?

N.J.:  Yes, I also incorporate text art and video, and have used xerography in the past.

T.P.L. NYC: You have two books you have been working on, Natural History and Yearbook. How did they come about? What are the themes and voices you were trying to express with both of them?

N.J.:  [With Natural History,…] I wanted to present the images that meant the most to me, and I felt a need to gather them together as a milestone to mark [the] ways [my]  life [is] changing. It is a bound museum of the different series with some of the same people weaving in and out of them. My photographs are intimately connected in my mind and…it [is] important [to thread them] together in physical form. Yearbook is a collection of photographs taken through 2011. It is still in the editing phase because I literally shot it up until the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. I've spent the past year closely photographing porn-producer and actor Jean Val Jean, as well as shooting portraits, "collecting blood," creating new pieces, and following some new artistic paths to new destinations.

Natural History Cover (c) Nikki Johnson

 T.P.L. NYC:  Will you be exhibiting anywhere soon?

N.J.:  Yes, I will be in a pop-up exhibition by Pink Gallery on Friday, March 9th as part of Pool Art Fair.

Opening Day: Friday, March 9th
3PM Exhibition opens to the public
6PM Vernissage by invitation or ticke
DJ + Bar
Regular admission to the fair is a $10.00 suggested donation.
The Flatiron Hotel 9 West 26th Street
New York, NY 10010

T.P.L. NYC: The blog is about peculiar things, so what is the most peculiar thing you have seen, did, or photographed? Any peculiar assignments or people you have met while showcasing your stuff?

N.J.:  I've photographed sex parties, vampire parties, a self-created amputee, a cat birthday party / fashion show at the Algonquin hotel, and a former African-American wax museum in which the contents have been disposed of mysteriously. I regularly look for blood on the street because over 8 years ago I almost stepped in a giant pool of blood that trickled past my doorway, down to the sidewalk, past a bodega and into a pool in front of a novelty store.

Porn Star and Homeless Man (c) Nikki Johnson

Ave A Stabbing (c) Nikki Johnson


N.J.:  The most peculiar thing I have done recently was shooting photos on the set of the Zoppa Brothers short film Piss Apostle. This film is about a thief who redeems himself by sprinkling people with his urine, which has magical healing powers. They were filming a montage sequence of miracles, and several actors were in line to get "blessed" for their close ups. I was out of camera range, but lurking near the floor, waiting for the water to hit them while trying to get it on camera. Situations don't often seem odd to me no matter how strange they seem to someone else, but during my time on the set. I felt weird, but I loved it!

Vampire Party (c) Nikki Johnson

T.P.L. NYC: Where can people find out more about you?
N.J.:  My website is and through my site they can connect to me on twitter, flickr, and facebook as well. I also have a tumblr site:

Shedding Blonde (c) Nikki Johnson

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