APIECE APART WOMAN
We’ve long been fans of New York photographer and artist Emily Johnston, both for her thoughtful, carefully-composed photography and for the way her approach to work mirrors the way she lives her own life. A frequent traveler who grew up between Paris and the U.S, the images she shares on Instagram hint at a life experienced in motion: shots of vast highways, wooded forests, quiet mornings, and hints at discoveries gleaned from the wisdoms of the road. We were lucky to catch Emily on a rare week at home in New York, for a discussion on the relationship between person and place; breathtaking beauty; and the places and secret spots at the top of her list.
Emily wears LIPPARD SLEEVELESS DRESS in mallard
What was your upbringing like?
My family moved to Paris when I was very young, but my mother loved to get us out of the city to explore the rest of the country. I have these incredible memories of all of us sketching the cathedral at Chartres together, or a month spent doing our schoolwork by correspondence in a small town near Tarragona. We also had several summers of sweeping road trips across America: I remember having very chapped lips at the Grand Canyon, skinny dipping in Rocky Mountain streams, and stopping for just a day in New York City, visiting family and forming this really broad sense of our country of origin. Equally formative were the days I spent roaming around alone with my Dad’s camera in hand and a solid dose of teenage melancholy — Paris was a good place for that.
Living between two countries for so many years—as hard as it was to never quite know where I belonged—gave me a taste for displacement in the sense that foreign experiences of any kind offer the opportunity to develop new perspectives. I have a really deep curiosity about how different people form their identity in relation (or reaction) to place. I am also very attached to my home. I’m in a constant conversation of sorts with my surroundings, and for a long time it was a self-protective measure, having things just so. As I’ve found more internal stability, leaving home for longer stretches of time, that relationship has become more fluid.
It’s easy to live vicariously through your Instagram travels…can you share some recent under the radar travel discoveries? Are there any secret spots you think everyone should know about?
I’ve definitely been fortunate to have some fantastic opportunities for discovery in the last few years. For awhile I called myself a tag-along traveler, where a friend would have a trip planned and invite me along and off we’d go. Then I became the one to invite friends along, especially for when I would shoot for one of my ongoing projects. Some recent destinations include the tiny island of Ponza in the Mediterranean, a well-kept secret of local holiday-goers. The rustic valley of the Drome in the South of France…I’ve always loved its sinewy villages and the smell of the air. It’s been almost 10 years now, but the central Vietnamese colonial town of Da-lat remains one of my favorite little known spots I’ve visited — it’s temperate and green, and you can rent a scooter and head into the hills for a parade of coffee farms and free-roaming sheep. Also, the hills of Rwanda and Burundi: a few years ago I had the privilege to photograph women transforming their communities from the inside out with savings led micro-finance projects. That experience transformed me as well, and I’ll always hold close the breathtaking beauty of the back country we bumped across in an old jeep.
What have been some turning points in your career?
A little over a year ago on a train somewhere along the Riviera a friend challenged me to “finish something,” and it was kind of a revelation, a major turning point. I’ve always had a project or an idea in the works, but completing any of them was always elusive. I hung my first solo show two and a half months later, and I’m working on a book for fall of 2016. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by unwavering and passionate friends and collaborators who sometimes see the path ahead of me more clearly than I see it myself.
I admire the time you take to create personal work and stay true to your own aesthetic. Has this been an intentional decision throughout your career, or just something that happened as a byproduct?
I definitely challenge myself to keep following my curiosity into new projects, (I hesitate to call them personal, because at the end of the day, those are my real work). I’ve learned the hard way how vital that is when at times I’ve been seduced into making the work that people expect from me. Staying true to my intention and aesthetic is a bit like getting enough sleep…it’s often hard to remember to prioritize it, and I’ll be going along and suddenly can’t figure out why everything feels kinda rough, and then I realize, oh right, I need a long weekend to rest, so to speak. I try to take 90 minutes every weekday where I turn my attention to the thread of what I’ve been making or researching, and because that doesn’t always happen, I also make time to go away for a few days or weeks at a time to focus solely on my own work.
What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about empowering women to live bolder, freer lives. It’s a quiet, personal mission right now, but I hope it will grow into something more concrete.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?
I’m learning to allow myself to move more intuitively between the day-to-day things that need to be done. My tendency has always been to approach tasks linearly, but I finally took what I was discovering in my art practice — how much good work happens when I don’t try to force things that aren’t flowing, but circle back to them later — and began to apply it to my work life. [It makes me] much more productive, and much happier. Deadlines and shoot days don’t always give me the luxury of floating between tasks, but now when I have a day with no outside commitments, I’m no longer battling myself all day. I think more in terms of momentum rather than force in order to get things done.
I’ve also realized how vital it is to my relationships to find spaces to listen better to the people I care about. As an introvert living in New York City, it’s easy for me to live my life constantly on the defense of my personal space and creative energy. It’s good to get away, but when that’s not possible, I love having friends over relax in a home together. I feel more connected than when we’re out at a noisy restaurant, surrounded by visual distractions. Even so, work keeps me busy and I’m always kind of missing my friends.
Have you had mentors or anyone you’ve looked up to throughout your career?
I’m always looking to the designers, artists, and entrepreneurs I work with to learn from their approaches and strengths. I think it’s an effect of being an oldest child, but I’m always wishing there was someone to show me the way.
Emily wears LIGHT-WEIGHT FRINGE PONCHO in black.
What’s your mantra?
I don’t know that I have one, but lately I’ve been turning back to the words by Wendell Berry that my partner David left in my studio on one particularly challenging day this summer, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
What are some of your favorite neighborhood spots?
Abraco has been my coffee place since I moved to the city 5 years ago. It’s this hole in the wall, pure spot with Brazilian vibes and the best olive oil cake you’ll ever try. My dinner go-to is GG’s for the cocktails and the Grandma pie, and I love an early morning walk to the East River Park. I always feel refreshed spending time near that expanse of water.
What do you make for dinner alone?
I love coming up with new salad or veg-based dinners from whatever I have in the fridge that week. I shop the farmer’s market and my local organic grocer on Sunday, then make a point to let nothing in the crisper go bad.
Describe a personal ritual.
Whenever I’m in Paris, there’s a few stops I always make to feel like I’m home: a visit to the Luxembourg gardens, a café-croissant at Le Petit Suisse, a walk through the Place St Sulpice to l’Avant Comptoir for wine and small plates, then down to the river and over to see what’s on at the Centre Pompidou and admire the city from above. It’s my perfect day.
Photography BRIAN W. FERRY | Styling ALEXA HOTZ | Interview LEIGH PATTERSON