Jeté by Catherine Osborne
For most of his career, Richard Johnson has approached photography as an anthropologist might, by going back again and again to build out a body of work, collecting each frame as if they were a specimen. To date, his most recognized creative works are the Ice Hut and Ice Village series, developed over a ten-year period of carefully planned road trips to frozen waterways from coast to coast. Over that time, he has revealed a quintessential slice of a Canadian pastime that hadn’t really been recorded before.
The ice huts seem lightyears away from where his eye has since wandered, to the curtain walls of city towers, and to this series: nine portraits of the Eiffel Tower, the most recognized architectural structure in the world, and definitely among the most photographed. His subject matter may have changed, as well as his pictorial sensibility to frame a single shape within an impartial landscape. However, his creative impulse is still bound to measuring time.
There’s a backstory here. Last February, during Paris Fashion Week, Johnson came upon a temporary pavilion built especially for the launch of YSL’s autumn/winter 2019 collection and its runway show. Covered entirely in a grid of mylar squares – each set at a slightly off-kilter angle – the pavilion’s reflective walls instantly turned the historic Place du Trocadero into a massive cubist work of art.
Johnson was stunned by the effect, especially how such modest shimmering panes could deconstruct the nearby tower so completely, turning its famous wrought-iron latticework and brown grills into an ever-changing pattern of scrambled pieces. He captured these flitting moments over the course of three evenings, observing the tower continually being thrown apart. From four in the afternoon until dusk, the light he found was perfect for telling the storyof an icon with uninhibited sentimentality.
What attracted him, too, was how so many renderings could be derived from a single object – essentially, the same curiosity that led him to those makeshift ice huts. But there is something else happening: the flight into a painterly space that has replaced Johnson’s natural instinct to document reality without impediments. This series slides beyond the bounds of a single frame and into illusionistic space, where the viewer’s eye can’t help but bounce across each image in an attempt to shuffle an abstract puzzle back into its logical order.
So much is happening. Beyond the scrambled tower itself, there is the sky, the time of day, the sparkle, shimmer and glare of artificial light. The unrestrained energy befits the series’ title Jeté – ballet’s most show-stopping move, when the dancer becomes airborne for a decisive split second; one leg thrown forward, the other in arabesque, and the arms in a high fifth. It is one those remarkable human accomplishments that takes years of training to master, and in turn, for a fragment of a second, it embodies the magical sweetness of life. It is pure joie.
Catherine Osborne is a writer and editor based in Toronto. She is the former Editor-in-Chief of the architecture and design magazine Azure.