In an age when smartphones have made us all amateur photographers, Kenny Johnson is a true pro.
Johnson, one of the city’s best-known photogs, works locally and nationally. He has taken virtually every kind of photograph there is to take. He does weddings, of course. He does corporate headshots. He shoots ballet dancers in flight. Lately he’s been shooting pro basketball players while they use a made-in-KC product called ShotTracker.
Kenny also creates gorgeous fine art prints. Blue Gallery started showing Johnson’s art photography this spring; a series of big, lush but subtle landscapes and skyscapes shot in the Flint Hills of Kansas.
Johnson, a member of the board of a rekindled Kansas City Society of Contemporary Photography, was born in Washington, D.C. He came to Kansas City in the first grade, and has lived in the city all his life. He first fell for photography while attending F.L. Schlagle High School in Kansas City, Kan., and credits an art teacher, Judith Philgreen, for inspiring him.
“She had a big impact on a lot of students,” he said. “She really let us be creative in the darkroom. There was just a lot of freedom and encouragement. That kind of sparked it all for me.”
Johnson went to K-State and finished his education at Johnson County Community College, studying commercial art. He doesn’t draw much of a distinction, though, between fine art and commercial work.
“I just love the process. That’s why I love assignment photography so much. I don’t see commercial and fine art as different mindsets. I more just see them as different avenues. It’s just another set of parameters.”
He spoke of finding an emotional truth in his subject, whether it’s a child’s face or fancy watch.
“I just like getting as close as I can to a subject,” he said. “Just going from nothing to something. A great picture is anything that makes you feel something when you look at it. It’s not any particular thing. If you can derive some emotion, good or bad, then it’s a successful photograph.”
But the process of taking a good picture, he said, is different for everybody.
“There’s a lot of compositional things that people forget about. It may seem like you are just pointing the camera and taking something randomly, but there’s a lot more to it. Composition and lighting. For me, I’m always thinking, ‘What’s my lighting? What’s the background? What are my settings going to be?’ As soon as I walk into a room, I’m thinking about all those things.”
Even if he doesn’t have a camera with him?
He laughs. “I pretty much always carry a camera with me. That way I don’t have to worry about shutting it off.”
Of course, there’s more to great photography than f-stops and exposure settings. Kelly Kuhn, owner and director of Blue Gallery, said it’s about eye and instinct.
“Kenny has the presence of mind to know when just the right moment is happening,” Kuhn said. “In the Flint Hills series, he has captured these all-too-fleeting moments of natural beauty. There’s something so deeply satisfying about seeing a modest landscape at its most sublime and powerful. It takes someone very special to capture something so subtle. ”
Unlike a lot of his fellow photographers, Johnson is no equipment junkie.
“I found a camera that I like, the Nikon D-800, so I just kind of work with it,” he said. “It’s comfortable in my hands; I know what it can and can’t do. There’s no reason not to use it.”
He’d like to see more people share his love of shutter-bugging. Toward that end, Johnson is excited about the rebirth of the Kansas City Society for Contemporary Photography. Local photography collector Antonio Racela founded the first group in 1984. It dissolved after 23 years of promoting photographic arts. Now, 15 years later, KCSCP is back.
Johnson refers to the folks putting KCSCP together as “the mamas and the papas” of Kansas City’s photography community. The group, he said, will offer exhibitions, seminars on different techniques for film and digital, and showcase lots of photography from KC and around the world.
The future for Johnson also includes more fine art. The bigger, he said, the better.
“I’ve got some things that I’d like to talk to Kelly at Blue Gallery about. I love seeing a really good-sized print hanging on a wall. Making a big print is really kind of lost art.”
For Johnson, at least, that art isn’t lost yet.
▪ The Kansas City Society for Contemporary Photography is staging its first juried members’ exhibit, presented in partnership with Dolphin Archival Printing and Haw Contemporary. A submission of as many as three images is free for all members with entries due no later than Sept. 4.
▪ KCSCP board president Angie Jennings, along with artists Fidencio Marinez-Perez and Kristin Powers Nowlin, soon will show at the Kansas City Artists Coalition, 201 Wyandotte St. The opening reception is Sept. 11.