Q&A: Eirik Johnson: New Work

Photographer Eirik Johnson seeks extreme landscapes, their temporary inhabitants and the informal economies that sprout in them. His latest images are centered on two distinct habitats: Inupiat hunting cabins in Barrow, Alaska, and mushroom hunting camps deep in the Oregon forests. Whether he’s capturing those seasonal societies or their structural ghosts, Johnson brings curiosity and luminosity to his work. The Dwell contributor, Cornish and UW teacher and 2012 Neddy Award finalist spoke with us about the allure of nature.

Tell me about finding your camps and cabins. 

The cabins are at a seasonal hunting camp outside of Barrow, Alaska, that the Inupiat Eskimo population goes out to and hunts for migrating waterfowl and whales. The cabins are right on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. They’re made out of salvaged materials from the nearby Navy base and other sources, individually by each family, so they’re very idiosyncratic and very sculptural.

In August 2010, I was in the area on a different assignment, and photographed all of them between midnight and three in the morning. During those hours the Arctic sun hangs right next to the horizon. It never sets, so there’s this beautiful, consistent, strange, magic light that happens during that time.

The other images are from a longer-term project photographing mushroom-hunting camps.

What are those like?

These commercial mushroom hunters gather morel and bolete [aka porcini] in the springtime, and in the fall the matsutake. They spend two or three months camped out in the forest in these very improvised shacks. They’re built out of tree branches and sheets and tarps, but they trick them out with oriental rugs, power generators, and wood-burning stoves. I mostly photographed abandoned shacks that are slowly disintegrating in the forest. Eerie, beautiful objects. Then I photographed the mushroom hunters themselves.

Who are they?

They’re a cross-section of American culture. You have the older, rural counterculture folk in parts of Oregon who’ve been doing it for a while. Starting in the ’90s, Southeast Asian families started going into the mushroom hunt, and they’ve become the predominant group. You’ll have Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Hmong families from as far away as Stockton, California and Vancouver, B.C. descend on the forest in Oregon. It’s kind of like a family reunion in which after picking mushrooms and selling them to the buyer, they’ll come back and play horseshoes and listen to Cambodian pop music and cook pho. It’s a total trip.

Did you stay with them?

I camped with Laotian friends from Weed, Calif. One is a union trade welder who gets a yearly leave of two to three months to hunt mushrooms. He grew up doing it with his family. And when I grew up in Seattle, my family would hunt chanterelles and morels. I fell in love with it as a kid. You’re moving much more slowly, looking down, and you’re focused. I like that experience, so finding these communities of mushroom hunters, I felt a kinship to them.

Reception: May 3; Artist Talk: May 19