Pia Johnson

Interview By Steven Winstanley
Pia Johnson Photographed By Nick Orloff

Pia Johnson came to photography in her mid-twenties and her command of the medium has seen her carve out an illustrious career to date, her images being snapped up by private collectors and the National Gallery Of Victoria.

Her photography exudes a deep, natural flair for composition, light and technique and a passion for the medium; her performance captures for the likes of The Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne and her outstanding portraiture demonstrative of an artist whose as equally at ease and engaged with her camera as that of the subject before it, even if that subject might be herself.

Pia sat down and talked to Calder Western about her personal journey within the art form and how it has helped shape her and her place in the world.

Why is photography important to you as a creative medium?

Photography and seeing the world through a lens has been very freeing for me. It’s allowed me to create photographs that reveal my sense of ‘being in the world’. Photography wasn’t my first artistic medium, so it represents an important shift in my creative journey too.

Some of your personal works explore the self and a feeling of ‘otherness’, particularly in the context of space and culture. Would this be a fair appraisal?

Yes, definitely. This subject matter has been a constant in my personal work for a long time now. Understanding notions of identity, belonging and otherness through cultural spaces, and in the Australian sociopolitical landscape, is particularly important to me, partly so that I can share my experience of being culturally diverse as well as to be able to shape and impact the spaces we live in.

Self-portraits are very much about self-reflection. What has your self-portraiture taught you about yourself?

Hmmm, I’m not particularly sure of the answer to this – it all feels like a work in progress!

What words of advice would you offer a young Pia Johnson?

I would tell myself to trust my instincts, be kinder to myself, and not feel pressured to be ‘one’ thing.

How do you know when you have captured something meaningful? What feelings are conjured?

I don’t think I always know this in the making process. It’s probably something that comes later, and mainly around the impact that the work has on others.

Cusp Series by Pia Johnson
Cusp Series
The Glass Menagerie production - image by Pia Johnson
The Glass Menagerie (The Malthouse Theatre)

How does the quality of the medium contribute to the meaning of the piece? How does your technical aptitude nuance the message within your art?

I feel very strongly about the marriage of ideas with technique/craft. I take a lot of pride in the photographs I take; the way I print and present them, and how they talk to my ideas to the viewer. I definitely keep researching and developing my skills as a photographer, and I think this delivers a stronger ability to be more nuanced with my ideas.

What are the challenges in capturing performance well?

Oh gosh, there can be lots! Photographing performance is a constantly evolving and dynamic skill for me. I learn a lot about photography, different art forms and my own craft when photographing performance – it’s a rich experience for me.

What has been your most enjoyable photographic endeavour?

I do really love taking photographs so there are many enjoyable moments. Something more recent that has been very enjoyable, has been working with other artists in a collaborative dramaturgical form, to make new performance works.

Understanding notions of identity, belonging and otherness through cultural spaces, and in the Australian sociopolitical landscape, is particularly important to me

What achievement are you most proud of in your career to date?

I have been fortunate to have a couple of things.

The first was having my series 'Who’s the Chinese Lady That Picks You Up From School?' (2009) exhibited and collected by the National Gallery Of Victoria (NGV). It was incredible to have people resonate with the ideas on being Eurasian Australian in that series.

The second was creating a triptych for the 'All We Can’t See, Illustrating The Nauru Files' (2018) project that raised awareness about the harrowing situation of refugees, specifically engaging with the Nauru Files. This project had a huge impact on me personally and creatively, and I’m very proud to have been part of it and been able to share my values through my artistic work.

Your portrait work is stunning! Who would you love to photograph?

Thank you. I’m really invested in taking more portraits of women, and culturally diverse ones that are changing how we understand and perceive our current times. One person that fits this is Penny Wong.

The New Yorker ran a piece titled ‘In the future, we will photograph everything and look at nothing.’ Given the popularity of the “photography as currency” platform Instagram, what are your feelings on the future of photography?

I think the future of photography is exciting. Photography has always been the popular medium, and I am constantly inspired by new areas of photography, new mediums and the proliferation of the photographic image. That said, there is a lot more complexity around how we understand and contextualise photography today, and how we measure value and artistic merit.

Untitled II - By Pia Johnson (All We Can’t See, Illustrating The Nauru Files)
Untitled II (All We Can’t See, Illustrating The Nauru Files)
Portrait of Tim Rogers by Pia Johnson
Portrait of Australian singer Tim Rogers

In which artists have you found inspiration?

Soooo many! I’ll name a few in no particular order – Anselm Kiefer, Annie Leibovitz, Dorothea Tanning, Fiona Tan, Sally Mann, Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrew Wyeth, Simryn Gill, Wei Leng Tay….

What films have had an impact on your life?

I love Andrei Tarkovsky films, they are full of visual inspiration.

Do you enjoy music? What artists do you currently have on high rotation?

I enjoy music, and have an eclectic music interest, from classical to country, pop to rock, and I make daggy playlists that I rotate all the time. I currently have Brandi Carlile on high rotation.

You live in a beautiful part of the world. Does nature inform your creativity in any way?

I recently created a series titled Cusp that was exhibited at Stockroom in Kyneton last year. All the images were taken in regional Victoria, and explore how the country landscape shapes our experience.

How did you come to settle in Woodend?

My husband and I used to spend weekends in the Macedon Ranges, and when we looked at buying a house we thought the area would be an affordable and wonderful place to live in.

Eurasian In Singapore Series by Pia Johnson
Eurasian In Singapore Series
Apocalypse Meow Production - image by Pia Johnson
Apocalypse Meow Production (The Malthouse Theatre)

What places would you recommend people visit when exploring Woodend?

All of the Macedon Ranges is beautiful and there are lots of favourite spots. One closer to home is the pine forest on Black Forest Drive.

You can invite three people over for dinner, living or not. Who would they be and why?

Artist Fiona Tan, writer Deborah Levy and late Surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning. All three of these women are pioneers in their respective fields, with their ideas and artistic works providing a strong influence on me and my practice. I think having them around the dinner table would make for an intense evening of conversation and ideas.