“It’s a crazy story,” Richard Leo Johnson begins.
It’s so crazy that both Johnson and his friend Russ Powell have to interrupt each other to tell it the right way.
Here’s the gist: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Johnson was a photographer shooting in black and white around Arkansas and Louisiana. He and Powell, then his assistant, rented a storage unit to store five boxes of photography as they made the move from Little Rock to Eureka Springs.
“Russ took one of the boxes with about 700 negatives and took them to his parents’ house in Little Rock and put it in their attic,” recalls Johnson.
“He doesn’t remember, he’s had too many beers or something,” interjects Powell with a laugh. “They were in all these boxes and they were unorganized. I was young and had all this energy. I decided to organize them.”
Years later, the barn with all the negatives burned to the ground, and Johnson and Powell had to deal with their huge loss.
A few more years later, as Powell helped his parents move to a new house, he uncovered a box full of what he thought was a box of photographs from his uncle. Twenty minutes of examination and Powell realized these were Johnson’s lost negatives.
“Twenty-three years later and I guess my parents had grabbed them,” says Powell.
Those photographs are now being exhibited in “…Once Was Lost…” at Galerie 124, opening Friday, Jan. 15 with a reception from 6 – 9pm.
This is the first time he’s enlarged any of those negatives, so the exhibit is all about a process of rediscovery, as Johnson terms it.
“These days with digital photography, you take a picture, look at the back of your camera, and that’s what it is. I never knew what I had until I developed it,” he says. “You look at it and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that person’s juxtaposition.’ You didn’t know exactly what you had.”
There’s a sense of familiarity and nostalgia that undercuts the exhibit. The photos feel like you’re flipping through your family’s old photo album, laughing at how bad their haircuts used to be and getting a very detailed look at what life was like back then. The images don’t seem at all foreign, even for anyone growing up outside of the deep South.
The show also highlights a significant generational gap between Johnson and photographers of today: the effort of film versus digital photography.
“When I was lugging around a camera, having a tripod, all that, the process of doing it is very labor-intensive, but at that time I didn’t know any better,” Johnson recalls. “These days, everybody’s got a phone and very few people you saw walking around with a camera in their hands, especially in the area where I was doing the majority of the work. It was rural, south Arkansas and Louisiana. If I had my camera with me doing this, people either didn’t pay attention or it was a curiosity.”
Of course, people are still shooting on film almost as much as digitally, but even the idea of physically losing a box of negatives feels ancient. There’s a stark difference between misplacing a photo and deleting a file, and that difference feels miles wide.
Lending to the difference is Johnson’s work in black and white. Color photography was accessible in the 1970s, but using black and white makes his photos seem much older and valuable.
“I fell in love with black and white a long time ago,” says Johnson. “It seemed like color photography was a little too much information and distracted you from the content of the pictures.”
When he shot the work, Johnson was trying to document the content of a place that he felt was worthy of attention.
“I wanted to photograph things that are in some way unremarkable,” he explains. “It’s not some amazing place. People are like, ‘Oh, you’re from Arkansas?’ Of course, the only thing people ever think of is Bill Clinton. I wanted to take the ordinary, everyday and elevate it to beautiful.”
As anyone who has ever lived south of the Mason-Dixon line knows, the South is consistently the butt of a lot of jokes, most revolving around the plot of Deliverance. The people in this series don’t put on any airs about where they live — they’re all having a great time, even if they look a little bit country.
Johnson’s work celebrates the South and all that’s beautiful about it, and that’s largely thanks to his skill. The photographs are all well composed and have high contrast, even without color. Each photo is visually intriguing, and they all have different subjects, but they feel complete together as a set.
“Everything helps describe a period of time that hopefully isn’t adulterated,” says Johnson.
“Hopefully it’s a relatively clear vision of what was going on during that period of time.”