We tend to think of photographers as extrovert adventurers, but Lynn Johnson spent a lot of high school poring over books in the library. One day, she happened upon a book of photographs by Dorothea Lange and other documentary photographers who had worked for the Farm Security Administration. It changed her life.
After graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology, Johnson was hired as the first woman staff photographer at the Pittsburgh Press. She stayed at the newspaper for seven years, and during that time she convinced the editors of the Sunday newspaper to let her do photo essays.
Since then, she has climbed the radio antenna atop Chicago's John Hancock Tower, clambered around scaffoldings with steelworkers, and lived among fishermen on Long Island and guerrillas in Vietnam. She has done in-depth portraits of celebrities including Stevie Wonder, Michael Douglas, Mr. Rogers, and the entire U.S. Supreme Court.
The emphasis in doing any in-depth photography is on building relationships, quality relationships. It's what I call 30-cups-of-coffee-a-frame photography.
Johnson is a National Geographic Photography Fellow and a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine. She is known for shooting elusive subjects—language, disease, rape, water—and for asking tough questions. Her gripping photo essays of a family struggling with AIDS, of children coping with the brain death of their mother, and transgender teens are classics of the genre. She prepares for her assignments by reading a lot and listening to people talk about the subject. "I like hearing people's voices," she says. "Research is an internal process of becoming aware of and comfortable with the material, an incremental education that fills you with the subject."
Johnson’s work has been exhibited at the Annenberg Space for Photography, the House of Memory in Milan, Italy, and Visa pour l’image (International Festival of Photojournalism) in Perpignan, France. She has led workshops for refugees in Colombia and for young people at National Geographic Photo Camps.
She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Find out about upcoming programs and expeditions with National Geographic photographers, or view more work by Lynn Johnson.