Spotlight // Samantha Johnston

With another nationwide lock-down in full swing, we catch up with photographer Samantha Johnston in a London studio, photographing hundreds of antique objects. Covid didn’t really disrupt her practice: she’s still constantly staging, shooting, processing and printing. We chat about hauntology, playing with colors and why she’s known as the bag lady.

Being forced to spend more time at home and in your studio, do you miss Ireland?

Sure, but I don’t really have a physical concept of home; home is the music I listen to, the pictures on my walls, the artists that inspire me, the books I read, and the Irish sea of course. It’s the first place I go to whenever I arrive back in Ireland. Don’t tell the Brits, but the English beaches are rubbish compared to the coastline of Ireland. I love their dramatic scenery, the grace of the ocean, the colors. The Irish beach is really where I feel most at home.

Is that also where you get your inspiration from?
Growing up in Belfast I was, and still am, mostly inspired by books. Gothic novels, short stories, poems; they constantly inspire me to create. Sci-fi, Samuel Becket and Simone de Beauvoir. Lots of noir books, old school crime. I don’t watch tv, but I’m a huge movielover. Alfred Hitchock, Wim Wenders, French movies, Italian crime films. Anything from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. I’m drawn to everything from the past. At the moment I watch a lot of movies revolving around hauntology –a philosophy that kind of revolves around a cultural memory and the aesthetics of the past. I think that’s also why hand printing is so important to me. I’m scared that people forget where things originated from. I have a longing for the origins, that’s one of the reasons I want film processing to exist for generations to come.

That was actually one of the first things I learned about you. You’re not just doing all the art direction and lighting. But you also develop and print the images yourself. That seems rare these days?
I know, it’s kind of an obsession. Recently someone offered to process my film and it just made me so anxious. The way you process film really determines the outcome of the image. I do the temperature and the mixing of the chemicals myself. I already know the color that I want the photo to be, so when I’m printing I’m putting specific colors in my work. It’s the same with black and white printing. Not everyone will see it, but little nuances can really determine the authenticity of an image. It is also these moments in the darkroom that I really love, there is something very comforting about walking into a darkroom and seeing your enlarger and smelling the chemicals.

You studied fine arts and painting before doing an MA in photography in London. How and why did you make that transition?
Going to art school was something I never thought twice about. I was just always drawing, doodling and painting. At uni I started working with oil paints and oil bars, getting very physical with the canvas. I was experimenting a lot with different techniques and materials. That's when I started painting with photochemicals, creating these so-called chemigrams. The next thing I knew I was in the darkroom, falling absolutely in love with everything photography. And that was it, I never looked back.

Can you tell us a bit more about your process? It feels like your images have this entire story built around them, but also a sort of absence of the present. Is that intention or intuition?
Cinema and theory create the base layer of the ideas flooding my senses with scenes. I kind of start playing imaginary house in my head, like when you’re a kid. I write down ideas, words or phrases in my notebook, and slowly I'll begin collecting the props. Weeks later I’ll come back to an idea and start creating the scene. I just can't let go of a story in my head until I’ve played it out completely. It’s like this meditative process of setting up a staged set, from lighting right through staging the objects. So everything is very much intentioned. After I complete a shoot I go straight to the darkroom to process the film.

You told me some people have a certain reaction to your work. Someone said they thought your work is very sexual. And that the images show these desires that people secretly have, but don’t always want to react upon. That’s a big sentiment. Is that the emotion you want to evoke with your work?
I always thought that as an artist you just create for yourself. Now I actually do think I want people to feel something, but maybe more in a subconscious way. I’m dreaming of combining my photography with motion pictures and sounds. I’ve got a Bolex camera and 16 mm film laying around, I just need the time to really dive into it. I’d love to create a big production with narratives around my moving still pictures. I imagine it being shown on an old-fashioned projector with ambient music. When the audience walks in they feel some sort of unease, but also a sense of familiarity. I guess that’s also the feeling I want to evoke with my imagery, I want the audience to feel unheimlich. Homely but unhomely, if you know what I mean?

Yeah, I think some of your images can feel ominous... in a good way; they ooze a lot of beauty.
My work is a lifetime of research. I want to give people a certain experience, welcome them into another world, not just my world but different worlds of film, books, words and so on. It’s also a sense of nostalgia, not wanting to give up on the past, finding the beauty in craftsmanship. Or maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic.

Speaking of being an hopeless romantic, you must have some thoughts on narratives happening around your artworks?
I imagine my images being like this travelling circus. Going from city to city, filling walls with my photographs and contact sheets. I want lots of contact sheets in my exhibitions, so people have to get really close to the images to see what’s on it; like they’re all these Sherlock Holmes’.

Where did the nickname baglady come from? Do you really live on the street and curse at strangers?
Oh no, I don’t normally curse at strangers and I actually have a lovely home in South London’s Brixton. But my studio is on the other side of town and I cycle everywhere. It’s quite a trek so I always carry some clothes, my notebooks and all of my camera’s with me wherever I go. It’s the only exercise I get and I get to peek into peoples houses riding home. Oh, maybe don’t write that down, that sounds like I’m a creep. And I’m not, I’m just fascinated by still lives playing out behind closed doors… That’s still creepy, nevermind!

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