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Picturing an Imaginary Animal Kingdom

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Untitled #174, 2013

I first saw Simen Johan’s work at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City a couple of years ago.

I was totally struck not only by the beauty of the imagery but also by how much it expresses, in a very personal way, ideas about habitat, climate change, critical species, and man’s impact on nature.

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Untitled #153, 2008

These are ideas that are very important to us at National Geographic. We report these issues in a documentary, photojournalistic style, while Simen expresses these concerns in a conceptually artistic way that is deeply emotional. It appeals more to the heart than the head. His work presents questions and challenges us, as creatures that are all sharing the same planet, to look at nature from a fresh and provocative perspective. I find this moving and stimulating in an entirely different, but just as powerful, way as our more realistic approach.

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Untitled #163, 2011

Every year in January we have our annual National Geographic Photography Seminar. It is a gathering for photographers, professionals in the photo industry, and National Geographic staff to celebrate and be inspired by great photography and visual storytelling. We invite select photographers to come and present their work to us. We look for work that is fresh, challenging, even unpredictable. I invited Simen to show his project “Until the Kingdom Comes” because it does exactly that.

Proof invited Simen to say a few words about his work.

*****

PROOF: Your work shares some of the same subjects as traditional nature photography and might even be mistaken for it, but your conceptual approach is very different. Are you influenced by that kind of work?

SIMEN JOHAN: Some of my work emulates traditional nature photography, and there’s some intended irony in that. But there’s also sincerity, because I really do enjoy making beautiful images of nature. Beauty alone, though, doesn’t echo my experience of the world, which is more complex and multilayered, so in my versions of “nature photography” I also incorporate darker qualities.

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Untitled #159, 2010

PROOF: How does your process free you from the constraints of straight nature photography?

SIMEN: A few of my images actually are straight photographs, but because I’m more interested in what the world feels like rather than looks like, it’s rare that I see something that I want to simply photograph and not change at all. When constructing or manipulating images, I’m still limited by whatever raw material I’m able to capture on film, but I have more creative freedom to be imaginative.

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Untitled #169, 2011

PROOF: What are you trying to say that you couldn’t say in a straight photograph?

SIMEN: Nothing, really. I mean, I’m not a conventional photographer, the way a poet or a novelist is not a journalist, or a dramatic filmmaker is not a documentarian. The world as it appears is not enough of what I want to say. I like to create more than I like to observe.

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Untitled #178, 2013

PROOF: Is there a message in your project “Until the Kingdom Comes”? What themes are you playing with?

SIMEN: I work intuitively, and anything I might say about this work is afterthought. I do like to capture the world the way it appears when you look at things deeply and realize that things and situations are not what they appear. The familiar becomes unfamiliar and the boundaries between what’s real and unreal, or what’s beautiful and what’s threatening, begin to blur. The work is multilayered and open-ended, with biblical as well as political references scattered throughout, but ultimately it’s a visceral response that I’m after.

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Untitled #140, 2007

PROOF: What was your work like when you were first starting out as an artist? How has it changed?

SIMEN: I originally studied film, but financial constraints pushed me into photography. Before there was Photoshop, I was staging and collaging images and doing darkroom experimentation with chemicals and such. My technical abilities have evolved, the subject matter has changed from self-portraiture to children to nature, but the core essence of the work has pretty much stayed the same.

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Untitled #162, 2010
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Untitled #172, 2013

PROOF: Do you ever worry that someone who isn’t familiar with your work might mistake it for reality? Has that happened before?

SIMEN: It happens, and I like when it does, because it affirms how deceptive perception is. Reality is an illusion. Meaning is pliable. That being said, I hope there’s an experience to be had beyond the relevance of whether my work is real or not.

PROOF: What do you hope your work makes people think or feel?

SIMEN: I hope they’ll think less and feel more.

*****

See more of Simen Johan’s work on his website.


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