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Eirik Johnson @ Rena Bransten

Barrow Cabin 7, summer 2010/winter 2012, archival pigment prints, both 16 x 20"


Eirik Johnson documents the quirky and creative ways humans co-exist with nature. Recognized for photographing Oregon’s mushroom hunters and other subsistence communities in the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle-based artist operates at what he calls “the tattered fringe.”  From those words one might deduce an oppositional, countercultural stance, but that doesn’t fully describe the range of his interests.  His architectural photos of innovative and unusual dwellings appear in national magazines; yet he also once devoted an entire series to animal holes, the kind varmints dig to burrow underground.  In both instances Johnson employs a formal, deadpan approach similar to that of the New Topographics photographers.  But instead of shooting strip malls and subdivisions like the first wave of New Topographics artists did, Johnson seeks out anomalous pockets of civilization, capturing them with a combination of precision and empathy that gives you a feel for the people who live in these places. His latest project took him to Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost town in the U.S.  It’s situated 320 miles above the Arctic Circle at the tip of a stubby peninsula that pokes out into the Chukchi Sea, part of the larger Arctic Ocean.  To the north, it’s surrounded on three sides by water; to the south it’s permafrost for 200 miles.

Cabin 2, summer 2010, archival pigment print, 16 x 20"

The most recent census put Barrow’s population at 4,500 people, a substantial number of whom are not exactly fringe dwellers; they work for the federal government and the oil industry.  Johnson, however, trained his lens on a less-obvious target: the seaside hunting cabins inhabited by native Iñupiat. These provisional structures, built from scavenged materials each have a distinct architectural personality.  Some are just plywood shacks; others are considerably sturdier and more elaborate, with second stories, balconies and other features.  For this show, Johnson displays two views of each cabin taken from the same vantage point at different times of year: one in winter, where the cabins (and the surrounding landscape) are shrouded in ice and snow; another in summer, when the architectural details — and a lot of the improvised and found creature comforts, like cable-spool tables, hand-crafted swing sets, dilapidated furniture, toys and plywood footpaths — are visible.

Cabin 2, winter 2012, archival pigment print, 16 x 20"

Collectively titled Barrow Cabins, the images are displayed side-by-side as typological studies.  Depending on the severity of the wind, which blows away walls, toys and furnishings, and in the case of one scene, an entire structure, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether Johnson’s pairings are actually made from identical viewpoints. To underscore nature’s transformative role the series, Johnson juxtaposes two views of the ocean — without the cabins.  They dominate one gallery wall, and as such they function as a kind of prism through which to view the man-nature struggle that is Johnson’s real subject.

In the summer side of the ocean pair, the surf bisects the frame vertically.  You can practically hear the hiss of white foam receding against the brown-pebble beach. (Audio speakers broadcast the sound, which seems superfluous given the power of the imagery.)  The winter half of the pair, shot in the same location, shows a sea of solid ice stretching to the horizon, inert and foreboding.
Arctic Ocean, summer 2010/winter 2012, archival pigment prints, both 16 x 20
About the humans whose artifacts litter the immediate vicinity we can only speculate since none are present.  However, from the evidence shown we know one thing: Against forces bigger than themselves the Iñupiat persist.  Johnson’s photos bring us face-to-face with their struggle, a cycle of creation and destruction whose protagonists appear to be working in harmony. 
Eirik Johnson: "Barrow Cabins" @ Rena Bransten through June 29, 2013. 

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