IT WAS FIVE in the morning in 1992 when Richard Leo Johnson got the call that the storage barn holding all of his photographs was on fire.
Every negative of every image he had created since the mid-1970’s was incinerated.
All those memories—turned to ash.
“It was horrible. It leaves you feeling very empty,” he told me. “Now you can’t have this document of your personal history, your friends and family... And I knew it was artful to a certain extent but the historical significance of it, which I thought would eventually be interesting for people to see, was just vaporized. It was just gone.”
The fire changed everything.
Afterward, Johnson and his wife Jane moved from their home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas to Nashville where he quickly signed a recording contract and began pursuing music full-time.
A self-taught musician who began playing the guitar at nine years old, Johnson took his act as a solo instrumentalist on the road for the next near-decade, playing 150 concerts a year.
Besides a smattering of personal photos and a few portrait series, he stopped documenting his life in photos. Even when he moved to Savannah 15 years ago and began working as an architectural photographer, he still believed the fire had put his work as a cultural documentarian to bed.
But the universe isn’t known for letting things rest. This earth turns memories into ghosts. What was once gone sometimes gets back up and speaks again.
Three months ago Russell Powell was looking through old boxes in his parents’ attic in Little Rock. For several minutes he had been standing over a dusty gin box, considering its contents with a mixture of confusion and curiosity.
It was full of old photo negatives.
Powell, now an acclaimed photographer in his own right, had once served as Johnson’s assistant. Holding the negatives up to the light crawling through the attic’s still air, he began to recognize the people in them.
“He said ‘Are you sitting down? You won’t believe what I just found’,” Johnson’s voice crackled with excitement as he told me about that day.
In 1989, Powell decided to organize and compile some of Johnson’s work to maybe prepare for a show. But Johnson forgot the conversation ever happened and Powell eventually forgot about the box. It was left in the attic in Little Rock for 23 years.
They are the only negatives that survived the fire.
“Russ sent us snapshots with his camera phone of what he found in the box. When I saw them I just said, ‘Oh my god. Oh god, oh god.’ He Fed-Exed [it] to us and when we received it Jane and I were literally in tears.”
The images (which have never been printed or publicly seen before) are the subject of Johnson’s show, ...Once Was Lost..., at Galerie 124 from January 13 - February 16.
Though they represent only about 1/5 of Johnson’s total oeuvre, the images of ...Once Was Lost... are more intimate, more moving, and are flooded with more humanity and reverence for life than the full catalog of any exhibiting local photographer in recent memory.
Totally un-manipulated and resplendent in their exceptional tonality, Johnson’s images let us enter 1970’s-80’s rural America (by way of northern Louisiana and southern Arkansas) through a schism in time.
“They reveal certain things from [that] period: hairstyles, cars, what people did with their hands, the environment everybody was living in—you take these [things] for granted, but in retrospect it’s like, ‘Oh my god! This lady is putting a quarter in a pay phone!’,” he laughs as we look through the prints together in his home studio.
He’s right—what people do with their hands says a lot.
As we stand talking, looking down at the unframed prints, he’s clasping his close to his chest. When he laughs they fly open in harmony with his effusive voice, each peal friendlier than the last. He’s enthusiastic and warm; not a voyeur, but a historian capturing his own curiosity and remarking on it, moment by moment.
He invokes Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank’s names as he talks about his images, all captured as part of a spontaneous reaction; the impulse to hit the shutter comes from his gut. Most of his 35mm and medium format shots were created sans viewfinder—shooting from the hip or with his arm raised above his head.
There’s no remarkable architecture, no magnificent landscapes, no glamour—just people: being together, being alone, being.
A couple sits beside a bonfire with their dog, a little boy watches a woman get a coke from a supermarket vending machine, a girl lays on the floor of her living room. Reduced to words, they sound like banal snapshots. Johnson sifts through those moments for us—capturing the strangeness of a glance or the loneliness of home.
Through his lens and the lens of time we understand that those moments, collected and catalogued, make up our human experience. They’re the seconds, minutes, hours that populate our memories, haunt us, make us who we are.
For all his talent, Johnson remains incredibly humble. He takes care to remind me of something we’d all do well to remember: making art, any art, is a privilege.
“I don’t think there’s anything more special than anything else, do you know what I mean?” he asks me.
“Woody Guthrie said ‘The world is a poet and I am a clerk.’ He saw himself as a clerk who was receiving gifts from the world as he traveled around. That’s kind of the way I saw this stuff. Some people say ‘It’s special because I did it’ but I don’t think of it that way. I think it’s special because it’s there and I just happened to be there,” he explains.
“If it means something to somebody on their own terms then that’s enough.”