By DAVID AARON GREENBERG, November 2020
For over two decades New York City-based photographer Nikki Johnson has created an extensive body of work which serves as a vast meditation on identity and self-reinvention in an image-saturated culture, challenging us to linger longer and more intensely than we have grown accustomed to in the harsh atmosphere of digital clicks and scrolls. While on the surface Johnson seems to toil in the milieu of a certain hipster grittiness that artists like Nan Goldin and Larry Clark practically perfected, she never drags her own agenda into the drama. Her presence, while not entirely passive, is devoid of judgement.
Johnson’s early work established a uniquely intimate view of urban life. Whether finding subjects on the street of the East Village or at fetish parties, her sympathetic gaze always moved beyond simple documentation, while deftly avoiding the creepy specter of voyeurism. As she was granted an invitation to observe, she was always careful to report with compassion. In the spring of 2020 a selection of this work was to be shown at the artist-run exhibition space Songs For Presidents. The pandemic forced its cancellation.
As most of us were driven into self-protective cocoons, New York City took on the temporary pall of a ghost town. For a socially-minded artist like Johnson, processing this brave new world required a certain distance—both critical and physical—that would challenge both her esthetic and modus operandi. With her day job as a forensic photographer essentially keeping her on the frontlines, Johnson chose to approach this harrowing moment in time with the same unflinching sensitivity that informed her previous art. While her protagonists here are presented in a stark and desolate black and white space, she imbues them with a humanity that is equal parts poetic and modest. Neither heroes nor victims, the subjects of these photographs are more akin to foot soldiers. Their everyday struggles serve as metaphoric mementos of a catastrophe that at times can overwhelm our capacity to fully comprehend.
In Seeing your world from a different angle the side-eyed gaze of a subway passenger confronts us with an unease which is only heightened by her masked visage. As her embrace seems to tighten around her blanketed dog, we are drawn to the sliver of empty space on the subway bench which separates her from her fellow masked rider. In ordinary times this tableaux is so banal as to be virtually invisible. But these are not ordinary times; and Johnson’s composition forces us to recognize the ominous haze which hangs over what was once a commonplace urban interaction. Similarly, in Close, Harlem, Late Summer Covid, the intimate moment shared by a couple riding a bus is laden with an almost claustrophobic discomfort. A gesture that would usually be recognized as tender feels more desperate and anxious here. The disembodied knee that enters in from the edge of this configuration further complicates what is now a rather disquieting narrative.
With Gloved, Post-Covid, an everyday gesticulation becomes a symbolic badge of survival. The outstretched gloved hand that presses against a subway window acts as a de facto surrogate for the tireless essential city worker who risks his or her life to provide services once so easily taken for granted. Simultaneously, this particular gesture calls to mind the cinematic motif of the prison visit through glass. By isolating this simple moment, Johnson echoes the feelings of isolation and imprisonment that accompany our daily life with the Coronavirus.
By late spring, in the wake of various protests against police brutality and specifically the killing of George Floyd, the City was placed under a curfew, adding even more tension to the already highly charged atmosphere. SoHo Graffiti reflects the troubled urban landscape, as a masked man engaged with his phone obliviously passes by a boarded up window scrawled with a graffiti of defiance towards the New York Police Department. The tinderbox conditions seep down from the streets into the subways, as captured in Morning Confrontation, Anti-Masker vs. Masked Man with Skull Cane. Here the artist’s focus is on a faceoff between two subway riders, one masked and in a slightly defensive posture, the other, unmasked and leaning in aggressively, seeming to purposely thumb his nose at the notion of socially distant personal space.
Moving from such very public struggles to a private moment of exhaustion in Subway, Post-Covid #3, Johnson constructs a sort of desolate Pieta for the Summer of Covid. Alone on a subway platform, a young black man collapses into his own palms while seated at the end of a wooden bench. While his burden seems too much to bear, there is an almost prayerfulness to his pose. His mask lowered around his chin, he appears to be breathing in his own divinity. Johnson allows for the full expanse of the platform tiles to cast a saintly glow to the overall composition. Her subject is captured with an appropriate reverence which counteracts the viewer’s potential feelings of intrusion. We have become more than witnesses to the weight of his world. We are now recruits in a conspiracy of empathy.
Providing us with a glimmer of hope in such a dark moment Jacob, Rockstar Forte, Masked presents one of the vibrant denizens of Johnson’s Harlem neighborhood, decked out in stylish garb. Jacob’s polka dot mask becomes an integral element to his highly fashionable steez—not simply an ever-present reminder of the pandemic. Along with his chapeau, over-sized sunglasses, scarf and lapel pin, the word “LOVE” is emblazoned on his jacket in shiny fabric. His striking figure is a joyful reminder of the unique resiliency of New Yorkers who can emerge from the depths of tragedy with a remarkably renewed spirit, looking fabulous.
Because we process images so differently today, the power of photography to shock or surprise us has become muted. Johnson’s deliberate casting of her subjects in a heightened artistic light helps alleviate the kind of mass image-burnout we suffer from as a result of the almost endless bombardment of daily photographic information. Susan Sontag once presciently observed in On Photography how “…the force of photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means for turning the tables on reality—for turning it into shadow.” Nikki Johnson’s photographs of the pandemic help guide us through this particularly troubled time of shadows. WM
David Aaron Greenberg is a poet, songwriter, visual artist and art critic. He is the author of Feeling Gravity’s Pull (Soft Skull Press) and co-author of Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith (Andy Warhol Museum). His critical writing has appeared in Parkett, The Fader and Art in America. He is the co-founder with producer David Sisko of the New York City songwriting and production team Disco Pusher. His visual work has been exhibited in various galleries and is in the permanent collection at Stanford University. Greenberg graduated from Rutgers University, Phi Beta Kappa. He lives in New Jersey and New York City.
Photo by Nikki Johnson.