A few thoughts on the passing of Keith Johnson
Keith actually hired me for my very first teaching position. I was fresh out of Cal Arts MFA program and about as green a teacher as you get. Keith was also recently a grad of RISD and we shared an office that was really a closet, so small we had to take to door off to make it work, two desks back to back, in such close quarters you become friends quickly. Back in those pre-digital days of 1977 the debate was not a film/digital one but black and white vs color debate. I was the more experimental color guy, Keith the more traditionally based photographer. In retrospect both debates seem pretty silly today.
The main thing I remember about Keith as an artist and photographer is that he remained intensely curious about the very nature of the medium. At the core of most of his work was an examination of how photography spoke to him and he believed everything you needed to know about the work was imbeded in the work and all you needed to do was to figure it by looking at it and understanding those elements within it. He also believed in the value of just making photographs for the sake of discovery. We often did that together.
Some of my best photo memories were of use just driving around looking for photographs and seeing what showed up. Our mutual friend Bart Parker joined us in a one week photo tour of upstate New York one summer. There could not be three more different photo types at play. Bart took the considered approach, more wandering than anything else. I was the more hyper of the three doing a quick scouting of the location and figuring out pretty quickly if I was interested in any of it and Keith was a more middle ground. Bart often would remark that he was sure there were photographs hovering around here someplace. We all learned a lot from each other that summer.
Keith never gave up being an artist. Even after leaving the more traditional academic world for the world of business, working for Sinar, Hasselblad and later in his career Zeiss, he continued to work, exhibit and do some teaching and lecturing. He remained as curious about the medium as anyone I know and it served him well.
The last time we photographed together was a few months before he entered the hospital. He was still getting around but he was clearly fatigued and couldn’t walk very far. I was in Rhode Island for part of the summer and Keith often would drive up to Narragansett and we’d photograph together around Southern R.I. I limited our photographing that day to a more car centric day that did not require too much walking. We’d stop at one location or another, often on a hunch, our motto was always “no veto” if one of us wanted to stop, there was no veto, the other had to go along with it. You often ended up in places you never considered stopping at. Still Keith would make it out of the car and would scan the landscape and you could see he was still trying to figure it all out, to make sense of the world around him as a photograph. In the end Keith never stopped being an artist.