Interview: Jaime Johnson and the Southern Gothic
In Manhattan, in a little gallery in SOHO, is a small piece of Southern swamp. The hardwood floors of the gallery creak under your feet like an old house. The walls are an unassuming slate grey and are lined perfectly with black and white photos. All the prints are immaculate; the framing and placement are exact. However, the last series in the back stands out against its boxed counterparts: a series called “Untamed” by Mississippi artist, Jaime Johnson.
The photos are unframed, fastened delicately to the walls with small magnets. The paper – a Japanese rice paper called Kitakata – is thin, crinkled, and cloth-like. The ceiling fans of the gallery spin, circulating the air behind the photos. They move up and down against the wall, almost like they are breathing. The photos hang on the walls like animal skins and the images on the paper are even more feral.
Johnson’s series was a winner of Soho Photo Gallery’s annual International Portfolio Competition. Her work is Southern Gothic, a popular genre of literature and art that portrays the grotesque, the macabre, and the supernatural. The genre stemmed from Gothic literature, such as Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allen Poe. However Southern Gothic is very specific on its location: the American South. The work often features a post-bellum South, focusing on the effects of slavery, the decline of the plantation, and the decay of the region after the Civil War. Popular Southern Gothic photographers include Walker Evans, Clarence John Laughlin, Sally Mann, and William Eggleston. Their works are usually monochromatic and focus on dilapidated areas, cemeteries, small towns, the Southern landscape, and, most often, the people of the South.
Nowadays, the Southern Gothic genre is still around in literature, film, and photography. Jaime Johnson’s work is one of the newest in the genre (even though she did not plan it that way). Her artistic statement says that the series “articulates humankind’s capacity to decay as a marker of our identity. Set in the swamps and woods of Mississippi, a natural place where one encounters life and death, growth and decay, the series chronicles the intimate relationship of a feral woman and her surrounding nonhuman environment.”
As a Virginian, I have a fascination with the genre and was very taken by Johnson’s photos. I spoke with her about the series and we discussed growing up in the South, her work and process, and the Southern Gothic genre.
Kaylin Kaupish: So, the first obvious question: Where did you grow up?
Jaime Johnson: I’m from Mississippi, from a town called Poplarville. It’s considered the Pine Belt region of Mississippi, so there are a lot of pine trees in that area. Very woodsy. That’s something you’ll notice in a lot of my images: more wooded areas.
So, for a sense of place… Well, you know all about the Southern Gothic. I didn’t intentionally set out to make work about that, but I think it’s inevitable. There are swamp lands, a lot of dilapidated areas, and the environment, like heat and humidity. Of course, I don’t know if that comes across in the images.
KK: I think that the heat and humidity are huge parts of the South that don’t come across with a lot of the Southern Gothic genre. When people think of the environment of the South, they might usually focus on the aspects that you can see, but what you feel is an aspect that should be talked about more. So, going off that, what are your thoughts on the South? The environment, the people, the culture… I know it’s a big topic to discuss.
JJ: I had a rewarding experience. I grew up in the woods, in a rural area. When I was making this body of work, I was thinking about my upbringing, roaming the outdoors. I have a romanticized view of the South. There are a lot of small towns with poor and dilapidated areas that I know are a part of the literary genre. But it did change my perspective when I would go to other places. Being from Mississippi, I realize there are not a lot of opportunities down here. But for me, it was this magical experience growing up here.
KK: I also have a similar view of the South. I’m currently living in Brooklyn, so I’m far away from my home, Virginia. Especially now, looking back on it, it is romanticized in my eye. I remember the woods and running around and being carefree. It still has that magical quality to me. Probably because I associate it with my childhood, but also because I was surrounded by nature. But let’s go specifically to your series now. What was your inspiration for this series? Where did you get the idea to go out to the swamps with your camera?
JJ: It started in graduate school, at Louisiana Tech University. I was thinking about how I grew up carefree, roaming the outdoors… but now I’m going to be inside all day at a 9-5 job. So, I was trying to reconnect with my childhood. I decided to go outside and see what happens.
There was one occasion when I saw a deer skeleton, completely clean – the ribs, the spine, and the skull – splayed out. I collected those in a box and I think that’s where this series really started. I collected things, thinking about how I could photograph them. Some of it was literally a process of discovery. I would keep these things around me in my studio. It could be anything: a branch or a nest. I would surround myself with them. One of the photographs in the show is with that deer spine I found; I was working intuitively for that. They [the photos] are all, in a way, self-portraits.
KK: It’s interesting how you collected things and brought nature to your studio to get inspiration. Going back to childhood, it’s almost like being a kid and bringing back leaves or stones you found in the woods. And the one of the deer spine is one of my favorite photos that you did. I didn’t realize that was a self-portrait, so that adds to it.
JJ: Yeah, and before this series, I hadn’t done any self-portraits. It was practical because I only had myself when I was out in the early morning or late afternoon. I wasn’t thinking of them being about me, but I was trying to compare a human to an animal.
I started writing and reading, trying to figure out what this work was about. The first thing I responded to is Thoreau and his work Walden, where he “went to the woods” to “live deliberately.”
Years ago, I read this book called “Women Who Run with the Wolves” and it had some stories of the wild woman archetype. A friend said the work I was making reminded her of the La Loba – which translates to “the wolf woman.” This woman collects bones and once she collects the entire skeleton, she sings over it and brings it back to life. I was struck by that because that is sort of what I’m trying to do. I remember thinking I would embrace this and start thinking about this female character as the “feral woman.” Then all the photographs that emerged were ones that I planned and I started thinking about how I would show her.
KK: Going off that, I wanted to turn the conversation to the Southern Gothic genre. I remember that first time I was introduced to this grotesque, black and white aesthetic as a genre, was the HBO show “True Detective.” It’s often described as Southern Gothic. It’s a crime series, but it focuses specifically on the setting (Louisiana). Do you have a specific moment when you realized that this was a genre, or a moment that you were first exposed to it?
JJ: I have learned about it in literature, mainly with William Faulkner. After I finished grad school, I started teaching in Oxford, Mississippi, which has a huge literary community. Faulkner’s home is there and I knew he was the epitome of the Southern Gothic, with his characters and grotesque themes and sense of death. But for photography, that is something I stumbled into. There are photographers I love, such as Sally Mann, who’s work would be described as Southern Gothic.
I remember my series was being shown at Ole Miss and they asked me if I could frame my work as Southern Gothic. I did some research and realized my work was Southern Gothic, even if I had never thought of it that way.
KK: It’s fascinating how many artists probably weren’t even looking to be a part of a genre and were just doing art based off what they saw, what they felt, or growing up in that environment. But how all those people have a lot in common in terms their thoughts on death, the grotesque, and even the supernatural aspect of it. All these artists are doing their own work, but fell on similar themes and created a genre. But did that bother you when they labeled your work?
JJ: I embrace these things. I do think about whether classifying something as “southern art” is limiting it. But for me, I liked it because it created an elevator speech for me. People ask what kind of photography I do and I struggle to explain it to them.
KK: Going back to your photos, do you originally shoot them in black and white?
JJ: No, I actually shoot them in color. They are so different looking. For example, when I show people the deer spine photo in color, they say it looks “fashionable.” Something about the colors was distracting and took away from the image. I was experimenting with the cyanotype process, which is inexpensive, because I wanted to see it in a monochromatic color-scheme. I was also testing out papers and tried this thin Japanese rice paper. When I switched the processes, it helped focus more on the image and bring out the texture. The cyanotype process is the easiest and one of the first you typically learn. Most people don’t continue their work in it. But after using the rice paper and tea-staining it, it gave [the photos] this neat look and people don’t even realize they are cyanotype. The process is so basic; you literally just process it in water. It mimics what I’m interested in. It reminded me of Thoreau’s writings on returning to a simplistic way of living.
Jaime Johnson’s series “Untamed” is currently on display in the Soho Photo Gallery in Manhattan (15 White St, New York, NY 10013) until Saturday, June 3, 2017. You can view her full series and other works on her website.
All photographs copyright Jaime Johnson.