When prolific photographers turn to words, a particular alchemy is released. Visual tendencies have been flexing, so the expressive spaces balancing on words can unleash a surge of consciousness that visual language can picture, but not always re-create. Is it immediacy that makes writing feel so close to thought, or is it the manner with which we absorb words? For the first time in our history, and only for some of us, the same device we use to write/annotate is the same device we can photograph with. Pencil and paper have historically been far more affordable than the cheapest camera on the market. Although creativity can only, at best, be approximated by any form of output, it makes itself known through how media is used and juxtaposed.
Heather Johnson has been making photographs for two decades, but in the last two years writing has been more prominent in her work. Thematically her identity permeates the work, “slipping out like a lisp,” but structurally, photography has shaped her writer’s voice over time in that manner that makes narrative full and unstreaked by convention. The clarity of Johnson’s writing complements the visual lucidity of her photography, in which mores of cultural power are moved from positions of opacity and blurriness into equations that analyze social and racialized imbalance with overt depth.
The first work I saw by Heather Johnson was a photograph from the series Black Girls. This was back in 2014, at the remarkable I Found God in Myself exhibition, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. For Black Girls, Johnson “highlighted the Eurocentric qualities of ‘ebony’ erotica by removing the model’s skin color and replacing with pure black pigment, outlining their body, clothing, and relaxed (straightened) hair in neon. Stripped of their race and literally colored black, the women become visually race-less. Viewers thought the models were European, Latino, or Caucasian, but never as African American. With the skin tone removed and the long straightened hair, the audience presumed they were looking at whiteness and female gesture: jutting hips, breasts pushed forward, suggestive glances. I was curious with how Eurocentric ideas of beauty had rendered itself upon the black body.”
This analysis of power, mediated visibility, and self-empowerment continues in the new work Johnson will present at the 21st Annual Hot! Festival at Dixon Place. 23 Degrees of Scorpio and Breakups During a Waxing Moon were specifically developed for the upcoming A Tribe Called Butch event curated by Marty Correia for the Festival. Making work about the process of finding her “…‘self’ in the world through emotion and ancestry,” Johnson inevitably confronts the aftermath of erasure that institutional inequity guarantees. The language of photography as a tool for social engagement has influenced Johnson’s writing: “Photography taught me to slow down as a writer and just bear witness to my emotional tenor. It gave me permission to see past the obvious and look for the resonance.”
Our interview was conducted in the first week of July, 2016.
Patricia Silva: Some of what you will be reading at A Tribe Called Butch shares similarities with I Hate The Way You Love Me, collages you made in 2015.
Heather Johnson: The common theme between those bodies of work would be the ideas around legacy. The ones who came before me, my ancestors, and what they had to do to survive American slavery humbles me. Blacks continually have to fight against the subtle but pervasive erasure of our identities.
All of those works explore erasure. In I Hate The Way You Love Me, 2015, I am looking at how a white man, Alan Lomax, who photographed black folk musicians living in the American South or the Bahamas, typified his collection by using occupation or gender instead of names. Some examples of this are ‘preacher,’ ‘girl,’ ‘boy,’ ‘plantation worker,’ etc. Leaving people nameless discounts the individual. In that project, I try to re-imagine their erasure of identity as not just a way to marginalize a group of people, but rather a way of preserving myself and the recognition of my own erasure.
In my short story Breakups During a Waxing Moon I am looking at that same history of erasure embedded in my skin and the complicated boundaries that exist around finding and losing love. I wanted to explore the feeling of not belonging in this world—whether because I am female and look masculine, or because I am “too black”—with the cravings of queer love and desire. To get to that psychological and emotional depth, I wanted to get in between those two beautifully complex feelings and hopefully elucidate the vulnerability and the raw desire that comes from living on the fringes of Eurocentric idealism.
In 23 Degrees of Scorpio you mention romance novels. Blacker the Berry is a visual series that altered the covers of romance novels to give shape to interracial desire. How have these novels and the imagery surrounding them shaped your work?
Johnson: In Blacker the Berry, 2011, I was interested in exploring the fetishized black male body, but instead of hiding the desirous white body behind the lens, like a Mapplethorpe, it is already in the image. Romance novels are a spectacular fiction, in which the scoundrel always gets the vixen and I thought what would that sexually charged cover of wanton desire look like if the man was black? How would that change the narrative or tone of the cover? Well, it changed it a lot. The black body has always been fetishized. Black masculinity, in particular, has always been openly coveted by other races for its perceived athleticism or sexual prowess.
Growing up, romance novels were always around the house. It was sort of my first foray into sexuality, longing, and conflicted romantic relationships. I don’t know if they have shaped me much as an artist or writer. I mention them in 23 Degrees of Scorpio because romance novels and erotica were such a coming-of-age activity for so many suburban kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s, before computers, as a way to understand all of those budding feelings of desire. I remember kids bringing these books to class with all of the “good” parts marked. In Breakups…, I co-opt the exaggerated descriptors of romance novel dialect as a way to enter my narrative.
Have you always identified as butch?
Johnson: I came out of the closet when I was 13 years old. At that point, I didn’t identify as anything except a dyke. When I was 16 years old my first girlfriend, who identified as butch, labeled me as butch even though I was presenting more female than male. She said she could tell by my jawline. Ha…teenagers…she was right. I didn’t feel comfortable being butch until my early twenties. At that point, I was completely single and a bit of a lone wolf. I was working at a gay national lobby and going to bars pretty regularly on my own. This afforded me the opportunity to really explore my masculinity in a very welcoming environment. Women started looking at me differently and I liked it. I am making this sound like being butch was a choice. It wasn’t a choice for me. I have always been more masculine of center even when I was trying to hide my masculinity, it still slipped out like a lisp. The way I move in the world has always been perceived as male but becoming more comfortable with the in-between space of being a butch woman was was what I had to learn. What I am trying to describe is the joy of flaunting my masculinity and the power of self-acceptance.
I would say my butch-ness has always been pretty steady. I have become more vocal about being butch or masculine of center these days because I am often mistaken as trans. I think it is important to make the distinction that I am butch and that not every person who is masculine of center is in the process of transitioning. A lot of my brothers in the trans community had the opposite problem of having to come out as trans and not butch. The fluidity of gender and all of its constructs need to be honored and respected, which starts with being out of the closet.
We’re living in truly amazing times. I could not have imagined even six years ago that we would be discussing gender spectrums at mainstream level in the way that we now are. There is also much discussion these days about butch identity being rendered obsolete by the prominence and (well-deserved) acceptance of trans masculinities. Any thoughts on this?
Johnson: I do not think that trans men have rendered butch identity invaluable or obsolete. In fact, it has been the opposite for me. I have become more vocal about being a butch woman. For me being butch is, in part, a regurgitation of the masculinity society has thrusted upon me. Sure, I revel in that cultural binary, using the codes and signifiers to pass, but I am a woman first. Trans men are not. Trans men have always been here in our community. Just because they are able to actualize their manhood more credibly now and have come out of the closet, doesn’t erase me or other butch women. In the 1970s, when androgyny was the only acceptable expression of lesbianism, because being butch meant we wanted to be the oppressor and being a high femme meant you wanted to be oppressed, in this new feminist ideology of gendering, the butch woman seemed to disappear as well as the high femme. We did not disappear then and we have not disappeared now.
Yes, sometimes in political discourses, it’s so difficult to bring out such nuances and I love how you just did. In your personal experience, what aspects of butch identity are complicated by blackness?
Johnson: If perceived as male, being black and butch can be as dangerous as being a black male in this society. In my experience, my masculinity has a different effect on different communities. Some men who recognize my queerness can become aggressive either by sexualizing me or challenging me, while in other communities, I find that my queerness is either ignored or feared. But, in most cases it’s hard to know what the general public is thinking or feeling about me. I move through spaces pretty seamlessly but i do recognize the cultural coding of each space and maneuver myself accordingly.
Who I am as a black butch necessarily informs what I do as an artist and a writer. My art and writing are mostly self-portraits taken from the context of my life. Gender and sexuality figure prominently in my work and cannot be escaped. Writing has been a cathartic process for me that is different from my visual work. I feel that writing can exist on so many planes at once in a way that my visual art can’t.
How did you choose material to read for A Tribe Called Butch?
Johnson: I wrote this piece specifically for A Tribe Called Butch because Marty asked for a short story not a poem. So I decided to write a lyrical non-fiction narrative that explores the links between my waking life and my dreams. I am coming to terms with seeing myself as relevant through the eyes of my ancestors while also navigating my relevancy in love.
Has feminism as a term and/or a practice held meaning for you?
Johnson: I do consider myself a feminist. I don’t think I could say I make feminist work except in the vein that I am a woman making work. I am aware that there is a whole discourse on feminism that I am not completely aware of so I’ll just leave it there.
Honestly, I do not think it is some formal discourse that bestows the crown of feminism on anyone. We design our own feminisms in relation to the inclusiveness and progress we wish to see in the world, right? I sensed an array of feminist fulfillment in your writing. How do you experience the process of working across disciplines?
Johnson: I find working across disciplines interesting. To write, I go to a different place in my psyche. I have to loosen myself up, give myself permission to let go of any sort of control. I have to be out in the world to write. My favorite places are coffee shops, the subway, parks. I pull words from stolen conversations, advertisements, and music. For me to create my photography, I am very controlled. I like to be more isolated in a darkened room, searching for archival footage or walking alone around the city and just looking for odd arrangements.
Does this reflect how you grew up? Has that environment influenced the work you’re doing now?
Johnson: I was an Air Force brat. I grew up on military bases. My family didn’t move as often as most military families but we moved at very specific times in my life in which losing friendships felt particularly devastating for me. The inherent isolation of moving to different communities caused a certain kind of disconnect, which was only heightened by my queerness. The feeling of not belonging began there in those new communities. So, I used fantasy and play as a comfort and safe space to create elaborate worlds for repose like most introverted children.