Jeff Johnson has made a name for himself in both the outdoor and photography worlds. As staff photographer for Patagonia, he has embarked upon countless excursions with adventure lifestyle legends, as well as starred in Chris Malloy’s seminal adventure documentary 180 South: Conquerors of the Useless. In the photography realm, his gritty, in-the-moment, wind-in-your-face shots have earned him the respect of his peers and an ambassadorship with vaunted German camera maker Leica.
Johnson’s images stand out from the seemingly endless Earth-toned kaleidoscope of outdoor photographs by managing to capture that intangible essence of actually being there. His shots aren’t voyeuristic views into another world—he’s planting viewers squarely within the scene through a combination of patiently impeccable timing and the willingness to do whatever it takes to get the shot.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s climbing or surfing or sailing or whatever right alongside his subjects, keeping pace with the best in the business. He’s not just documenting some lifestyle; he’s actually living it. The reason Johnson’s photos have that intangible authenticity is because they aren’t filled with people posing on premeditated sets, shining headlamps at the sky. They’re an insider’s perspective of life on the fringe, living life to the fullest.
We caught up with Jeff in the rare down time between missions for this thoughtful take on Instagram and what technology has wrought on our culture.
What got you started on Instagram?
I was really late to the game. I didn't want to be on Instagram. Not that I was anti, I just didn't want to be on the phone or computer any longer than I had to. I'm always trying to figure out ways to limit my time on computers. Anyway, my wife told me I was an idiot—that as a photographer I had to be on Instagram. So one day she handed me my phone and said, "I signed you up. You're on Instagram." Now she gets irritated that I'm on Instagram so often.
Has the app changed the way you look at taking photos? What is your favorite aspect of it?
As a working photographer you shoot all the time and there are a ton of photos that don't see the light of day. So the most fun thing for me is to share these photos that haven't been published. Then there's the instantaneousness aspect of sharing an iPhone photo seconds after you’ve taken it. I love following other people for the same reasons—their archive and their real time photos.
I think the app has changed photography in general—for good and bad. There are so many great photos taken every day around the world. It’s incredible. Virtually everyone is a photographer now. And people are scrolling through tons of great imagery all day, every day. So the average person is developing a good eye for photography. It’s an amazing time in history. But, it has also cheapened the photo. You see 10-year-olds with an Instagram account shooting these incredible night shots with stars swirling around. Back in the film days you'd see this and know that the photographer put a ton of time into figuring that out—lots of trial and error, things done beforehand, not in post—and that was part of the appreciation. The craft. The process. A lot of that is gone now.
Is there anything about Instagram that you don’t like, or have you seen any negative impacts from it?
What I mentioned above, and the fact that people seem to be having an experience just so they can Instagram it. Like there's a ‘my life is better than yours’ contest. It breeds jealousy. It’s sad. Some contrived situation and everyone has their phone out. It prohibits people from actually being there. I try to make rules for myself. Leave my phone at home when I'm out at dinner with friends, stuff like that. Of course, then you see something photo worthy and you don't have your camera.
What, to you, is a “good” Instagram pic? What do you look for in your images when deciding what to post?
That’s a great question. More "likes" doesn't mean it's a great photograph. But sometimes it does. If you're just trying to get more likes there's definitely a formula to it. It’s pretty easy to figure out what your followers like, and you can just go down that road. For me, I like a photograph that has great content—something that tells a story, or is part of a story. It might not be beautiful or technical, but it captures a moment. I will often post something I feel is a great photograph and, for various reasons, I know it won't get many likes but I like it and that’s what counts.
Are you an Instagram addict? How many times a day do you check it?
It depends on where I'm at and what I'm doing. If I'm home I check it in the morning and in the evening. If I'm in my office I'll check it while waiting for photos to import into Lightroom or something. There are times when I'm traveling or in the mountains and I won't look at it for days, which is nice. I definitely have to check myself. Put the thing away and read.
Any advice for aspiring photographers out there who want to take better Instagram images?
It depends on what you think a better image is. A lot of people get into photography and immediately go out and shoot what they are seeing other people shoot. Try to shoot what you aren't seeing, something different.
How do you think the growth of Instagram’s popularity has changed the culture? Do you see that reflected in the outdoor scene as well?
Yeah, I think it has changed culture, and not in a positive way, for the reasons I already stated—like not having real, meaningful experiences. It’s culturally better to read books, to talk to each other, to go out into the wilderness and leave your phone behind. I see tables of people at restaurants and no one is talking, they're all looking at their phones. I see people in these wild beautiful places all focused on their phones.
I have a climbing partner who complains that he shoots all the photos when we go climbing. I say, “I want to climb, not take photos.” There is a time for that. You’ve got to put the camera down and just be there. The photographer isn't there. He or she is somewhere else. Put it this way: I like Instagram and have a lot of fun with it. But if Instagram went away I wouldn't be bummed one bit.
I think there is going to be a shift in culture, a knee-jerk reaction to technology. There will be a whole new generation of kids who rebel against it. It won't be cool to be plugged into social media. You're already seeing kids getting into vinyl records now, and cassette tapes. People want something tangible, something they can touch and feel. Kids instinctively know what’s best.
Who are some of your favorite accounts?