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LUNAR LENS: To the moon and back with Courtney Johnson

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Whether it’s from Hollywood’s latest space adventure blockbuster, NASA’s newest video tour in 1080 pixels or the Apollo 11 landing video, the moon’s barren landscape, grey tones and deep craters are rooted in our minds. Apart from the handful of folks who own a high-tech telescope, most people have never seen an HD image of the moon with their naked eyes (myself included)—leaving NASA and Hollywood to supply the photos for us. But what is stopping NASA from editing those images?

2019, pigment print on metallic rag, 20-by-30 inches, by Courtney Johnson. Courtesy photo


Photographer Courtney Johnson is interested in collective memory and photography’s ability to deceive. Her new exhibit “Moons,” as part of Lumina Festival of the Arts, will be on display July 16 – August 30 in the Cultural Arts Building Gallery at UNCW. Johnson will be raising questions about reality vs. belief, the tension between past and present and the impact of technological advancement.

Johnson began the project by making blueprints for moon rovers and fast-moving Super 8 motion picture film. However, she discarded her original ideas and narrowed down the exhibition to three major themes to simplify the experience and maximize impact.

“The exhibition felt like it had to be slower and more simple to represent how our experience with the moon actually is: It doesn’t dominate our experience; it’s something in the background,” Johnson explains.

It was during Johnson’s time in college—earning her BFA at NYU and her MFA at the University of Miami—that she developed an appreciation for experimental photography. Experimental methods and alternative processes allow Johnson to combine her love of science and art.

“I love science, technology and discovery so most of my work deals with those themes,” the UNCW associate professor explains. “I try to find the best alternative process to highlight the theme, which is why so many of my techniques are really different. I like to push the boundaries of photography by experimenting with light to make image, or blending the old processes with new ones in a way that’s never been done.”

Johnson’s previous series have reflected her interest in science and alternative processes. One process Johnson seems to have perfected is the cliché-verre technique. French for glass negative, cliché-verre is a photo-painting hybrid process. As one of the leading scholars, Johnson’s experiments with variations of cliché-verre includes etching, painting or drawing on various surfaces, including glass, thin paper or film.

Johnson’s love of space inspired her latest cliché-verre series,  “Cycle of Cities: Afterlife,” which depicts dead stars. It has been shown in exhibitions from Richmond to Germany. Johnson recreated the images of dead stars by hand-painting images using smoke and natural dyes from beets, turmeric and spinach on glass negative. The result is a bright explosion of various colors and patterns that surround a faded remnant of light in the center of the photo.

“[With my space photography], one of the things I struggle with the most is not creating cliché beautiful space images because there are already so many of those. Instead, I want to add elements of mythology and science fiction into my work because that is what I’m interested in,” Johnson describes.

“Moons” will push Johnson’s experimental boundaries once again, this time combining pictures of real and artificial moons. Johnson chose not to use cliché-verre technique for the exhibit, instead, she took pictures of sculptures created out of sand, dirt, flour, dough, papier-mâché and clay to mimic the moon’s surface. Johnson imitates the moon’s shadow by shining a light on the sculptures. She also will incorporate a few real photos of the moon taken with a digital camera.

“I want people to wonder about the past and future of images because the line is very thin between real life and photography,” Johnson iterates. “With editing and Photoshop, it’s easier to trick people with an image if it’s really close to believable. I don’t want to say which material I’ve used on which photograph because part of it is looking and trying to decide for yourself if it’s the real moon or sand and clay.”

Although Johnson wants her photos to remain mysterious, she did incorporate small Easter eggs in her artificial photography that, when discovered, clue the viewer into the false nature of the picture. “It’s important that you can catch glimpses of the process because it encourages awareness,” Johnson explains.

The exhibit will be a mix of analog and digital photography. Analog uses a wet bath chemical process to create photographs and digital uses electronic photodetectors. By presenting an old technique alongside a new technique, Johnson once again explores the dichotomy between the past and the future and how images of the moon fit into that storyline. A lot has changed for space travel and photography since the Apollo 11 moon landing, which launched on July 16, 1969 (subsequently, the 50th anniversary will fall on the same day as the exhibit). NASA is releasing higher definition images of the moon every few years.

“A mix of analog and digital is a good representation of what has happened with the moon in the past and what will be happening with the moon in the future,” Johnson explains. “The moon has been around since the beginning of time, and we are still fascinated by it.”

Johnson hopes the exhibit raises questions for the viewer about the negative impact technology can have on our future.

“It’s an appropriate time to be questioning what our country’s future intentions are for the moon,” Johnson says. “The richest people in the world are spending all of their money on exploration and advancements, which is a troubling endeavor. The space race was as much about politics as it was about discovery. This obsession of always being the fastest and most advanced is not sustainable and will lead to nowhere good. I want people to experience the peace, quiet, and beauty of the moon that we will hopefully keep intact.”

The public is invited on Tuesday, July 16 to a free opening reception at the gallery from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Courtney Johnson art exhibit opening, July 16-August 30
5:30 p.m. – 7 p.m.
Cultural Arts Building Gallery
UNCW campus,
601 S. College Rd.

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