by Tom Sims
Michelle Ranee Johnson and her family are longtime friends of mine, and I am a longtime admirer of Michelle’s vision and work. As a photographer and a geologist, she climbs high mountains to see what others cannot see. She captures perspectives and hidden treasures that we all miss.
I have followed her adventures in art, science, and business in real time and on Facebook. Recently, however, she launched a very impressive online show that our readers need to see.
It is a visual feast.
Normally, I have a great deal of writing and editing to do in these interviews, but, in this case, I threw out the questions and Michelle did all the work.
Tell us about the show. Where is it? What is the gallery? How long is it? What is the theme?
I have several exciting shows right now! My main exhibit is an online solo show at Red Bluff Art Gallery in Red Bluff, California, called “Cloudscapes.” It is a year-long online exhibit that I’m so honored to be in. I will be making a coffee table book of the show (still piecing it together, so it is not completed yet). Here’s the link to the exhibit: redbluffartgallery.com/michellejohnson.htm.
I also have several photographs in R Gallery’s (Boulder, Colorado) online permanent exhibit titled “National Parks of the United States.” You can find it here: rgallery.art/collections/national-parks-of-the-us.
I am also a Loupe artist, which is a streaming video platform. You can find my streaming channel here: loupeart.com/stream/artist/michelle-ranee-johnson?present=true&showQrCode=true.
You have a varied background: geologist, climber, photographer, equestrian, funeral counselor. How does it all fit?
I’ve always been fascinated by a variety of things. Like William Cowper’s quote from his poem “The Task” says, “Variety is the spice of life.” I grew up riding horses, which was my stress reliever from growing up in a funeral home. It breathed life into me while dealing with families grieving. After high school, I got my B.A. in Anthropology with a minor in Art History. After that, I took a break from school, kept working for my parents, and rode horses competitively. I then had a bad accident, and I realized I needed to go back to school to help my brain recover from my TBI (traumatic brain injury).
Since I had always been fascinated with volcanoes since I was a teenager, I decided to get my M.S. in geology, focusing on volcanoes. My field area was the Mono Craters on the eastern Sierra. I fell in love with the area when I was an undergrad, so it made me excited to do work there. It wasn’t easy, though, since I had to relearn how to learn after my TBI. So, my M.S. took me longer than most. But I persevered and graduated in 2017. I had some wonderful experiences, like helping install seismometers for the USGS at various locations.
The funeral home taught me that I need to live life every day, but the funeral home was not easy for me. As an empath, it was tough. I was good at the job, but it was too emotionally draining for me to keep it up. So, I had to find another job instead of sticking with the family business.
I tried finding jobs in geology, but finding a job in volcanology is exceptionally difficult. Most teaching jobs are at city colleges where only a few classes are offered, not enough for full-time work. And I wasn’t interested in working in oil and gas, where most of the jobs are. This was depressing, but what kept me thriving was photography. It made me come alive every time I went out to shoot, and I got excited every time I would go to edit. It was all I wanted to do (besides climb).
So, with the support of my family and friends, I started up my own photography business, and I am delighted, even though financially, it can be challenging.
As far as climbing, ever since I heard about Lynn Hill free-climbing (not free-soloing) the Nose of El Capitan (she was the first person to do so back in 1993, and in 1994 she free-climbed the route in a day, again first person to do so – it made me so fascinated by this beautiful sport. It took the subsequent climbers (Tommy Caldwell and Beth Rodden) ten years to repeat that ascent.
As a teenager, there were no climbing gyms, and I didn’t know anyone who climbed. So, when I retired from competing on horses when I was twenty-nine, I went to our local climbing gym (at the time, it was Yosemite Fitness. Now, it is Metalmark). I went outside with people I trusted, and the rest is history. My second climb outside was Royal Arches, a fifteen-pitch climb in Yosemite.
I’m also a climbing photographer and love it! Unfortunately, last July, I reinjured my shoulder (I had a bad accident when I was twenty) and have been in Physical Therapy trying to heal it. It’s getting there, but not 100% yet. I hope to be back to climbing and climbing photography soon.
What do you see, and what are you looking for when you view the world through a lens? What do you want others to see in your work?
I usually pick up my camera when I feel inspired. I don’t like to waste time, so I don’t just take tons of photos. I want my pictures to say and mean something. I do a lot of environmental photography projects, so if my photos can help protect the land/environment, even better. I also like to imagine the printed photograph before clicking the shutter, so I know what settings to use. Sometimes I sit and wait for the perfect light at a location, but I’m usually lucky and tend to be at a particular spot at the right time.
As far as how I want others to see my work, I’ll state my Artist Statement: “As a photographer, my goal is to have people imagine they could walk right into my photographs and feel themselves present at that location. I want them to feel the wind in their hair or sense the absolute stillness, hear the birds chirping, smell the pine trees, etc. I want to inspire others to not only explore their world but to have the desire to protect it. This world is a beautiful place, and I hope that my work can provide hope amidst the chaos and destruction we see every day on the news around us.”
Tell us a little about your photography business. What is your specialty? Who is your customer? What do you offer?
I’m a fine-art landscape, environmental, and climbing photographer. My photos have been shown in galleries, exhibitions, homes, etc. I usually print on fine-art Hahnemühle photo rag (acid-free) and canvas, metal, and deep matte papers. My customers tend to be people or businesses who want to showcase work of mine that speaks to them. I also work on obtaining grants for large photography projects I am working on, which will then be either put into articles or books.
For example, I have also worked with companies, such as Mad Rock, Arc’teryx, Rocktape, and Tentsile, to do product photography. I also do commissions (a client wants a particular place photographed with a specific look: sunset, sunrise, black & white, etc.).
Is there a differentiation between what you are exhibiting as an artist and what you do as a contract photographer?
I try to photograph everything from a fine-art perspective, so the two usually go hand in hand. But, of course, it all depends on what the client wants.
Do you have any major influences in photography?
Ansel Adams, Lisa Kristine, Sebastiao Salgado, Paul Nicklen, Huibo Hou, Dorothea Lange, Annie Leibovitz, Jimmy Chin, Steve McCurry, Galen Rowell, Armando Vega, Jeff Kerby, Aya Okawa, Mark Edward Harris, Tom Schifanella, Roff Smith, Beverly Joubert, Babak Tafreshi, and so many more!
Art or Technique. Which comes first?
I believe art comes first, and you learn technique as you go. You can have all the techniques in the world, but if you don’t have an artistic/creative mind, it will be technically brilliant, but it will be without meaning.
What would you like for people to know about you and your work?
That this is my passion and love. It brings joy and meaning to my life. I hope it brings peace, joy, and tranquility to everyone who sees my work. That it can lighten someone’s burdens by looking at it. I remember being sick in high school and bedridden with Mononucleosis for three months. One of the things that helped me through that time (there were no social media) was my National Geographic magazines. I would look at the photographs and be transported in my mind to each different location.
So many people struggle with illness, financial difficulties, physical disabilities, or work very long hours with little time to be in nature. I want my work to help those struggling in some areas of their life, like the other photographers who helped me when I was bedridden with Mono.
Do you consider yourself an adventurer?
I consider myself an adventurous explorer but not a thrill-seeker—more on the side of exploring boundaries of mind and body than about seeking thrills. I don’t climb because of the danger; I climb because I am dancing on the rock face, feeling the beautiful rock face and the views I can see. I rode horses to feel the closeness to another animal, to feel their heartbeat through the saddle when they were excited. I love hiking out in nature, usually with just me and my dog Bart, to be one with nature and understand that particular area’s soul. I prefer to hike alone, which many would consider adventurous because it’s just me and the wilderness. Other people can distract me, which may mean I miss a critical shot.
What does a photographer see in the world that most of us miss?
It depends on each photographer, as everyone’s life experiences shape how they view the world, what they feel is essential, and how they take a photograph. So, I don’t know how to respond to this question, per se.
Find more of Michelle’s work here:
Linked Tree: https://linktr.ee/MichelleRaneeJohnson
Michelle Ranee Johnson Photography
710 Van Ness Ave., PMB 195
Fresno, CA 93721