Neil Johnson is a Louisiana photographer living in Shreveport. Learn more »
Photographer Neil Johnson, born Neilson Lea Johnson in Shreveport, Louisiana, on September 1, 1954, has built an impressive career as a freelance photojournalist and commercial photographer. Johnson has compiled an enviable resume, with his photographs appearing in scores of regional and national publications, two large-format photography books, and sixteen nonfiction books for children.
While in college, studying photojournalism at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, Johnson served a short internship at the Shreveport Journal but quickly realized that newspaper work wasn’t for him. After graduation, he took a job as a technician in a Shreveport photography lab, where he learned a great deal about photography. In 1980, after a two-week vacation in Europe, he realized that a nine-to-five job did not suit him. The world was too big, he said, for two-week vacations once a year. When he returned to Shreveport, he resigned his job at the lab to take up freelance photography full time.
Since his first magazine assignment for Louisiana Life in 1980, his work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Better Homes and Gardens, Art Forum, Historic Preservation, National Geographic World, Time,American History, Audubon Magazine, USA Today, San Francisco Business, National Enquirer, Travel and Leisure, Wildlife Conservation, Louisiana Environmentalist, Louisiana Cultural Vistas, and Louisiana Life. His list of books, for both adults and young readers, is equally impressive. His 1995 book,Shreveport and Bossier City, published by LSU Press, gives a warm and introspective, yet bullish, profile of northwest Louisiana’s twin cities, replete with images of festivals, sporting events, riverboat casinos, rural landscapes, factories, farms, industries, and the faces of their people. In 1997, Johnson’s photographs were published in a book from LSU Press, Louisiana Journey. He also contributed a number of photographs to a 1989 book on the internationally acclaimed North Louisiana artist Clyde Connell.
Johnson’s most ingenious work is a series of books created for young readers. With a Southerner’s propensity for storytelling and striking photographs that testify to a theatrical sense of drama, Johnson’s sixteen children’s books to date give young readers a sense of place and history and an understanding of the environment. His book The Battle of Gettysburg (1989), for example, contains dramatic black-and-white photographs taken during a battle reenactment on the 125th anniversary of the pivotal and bloody meeting of two great Union and Confederate armies. A Washington Post book review said Johnson’s photographs would make Matthew Brady envious. “Only being there in 1863,” the critic wrote, “could be more authentic.”
To Johnson, photography is about adventure. “I’m totally a curious person,” he said. “This job, whether it’s magazine work or books, takes me out into the world. I’ll only take subjects that interest me, like riding into the mountains with the cowboys or the farmer north of Shreveport and his sunflowers. Somebody else can say the world is full of hatred, racism and greed and certainly that’s true. I’m not denying it, but I’m going to point my camera at what excites me and it’s the beauty that excites me.”
“I inherited a gene for curiosity and love of travel and music from my dad,” Johnson wrote. “I inherited pragmatism and a love for books and New England (especially the coast of Maine) from my mother. She is from Boston. My Mother is a Yankee who put down deep southern roots. Having parents and family from North and South gives me a love for whole country — not just the South.”
To be a good photographer, Johnson said, you must study art and think as an artist. “I couldn’t take that picture when I first started out,” he said, pointing to a black-and-white image he took while visiting New Hampshire. “It took fifteen years to train my eye and learn about art itself. I love art. I don’t care if it’s painting, sculpture, movies. I’ll go to any art gallery whether it’s glass or an unknown photographer or Remington sculpture. I think that anyone who says, ‘I don’t need to look at sculpture, I’m a photographer,’ is missing the boat. It’s all related. It’s all using the eyes to interpret the world, to learn about the world and to create something to help somebody else learn about the world. Those kinds of issues excite me.”
Johnson has no formal art training, though he does credit other photographers and artists who have influenced his work. “I was first influenced strongly by Jay Maisel, who is also both an artist and a commercial photographer,” Johnson wrote. “He started out as a painter and then moved into photography. His sense of composition, passionate eye for color and light, and dedication to professionalism impressed me enough to take an intense workshop from him in Maine one summer. I have done master workshops with Jay Maisel, Mary Ellen Mark, True Redd, Joyce Wilson and Joe McNally. Each influenced me in multiple ways. All are masters of their medium whose work I greatly admire. I have also been influenced by my friend, the late painter and sculptor, Clyde Connell, for her deep passion and dedication to exploring and producing imagery that has never been done before.”
Johnson has received several honors for his work. In the mid-1990s, the Shreveport Regional Arts Council awarded him a Visual Arts Fellowship and he was inducted into the Northwest Louisiana Artistic Hall of Fame. He also has participated in numerous group projects and grants over his three-decade career, the most recent being “Triumph Over Tragedy,” a Shreveport Regional Arts Council project in which he and two other photographers documented Depression-era buildings across north Louisiana. Johnson also has been nominated twice for the international Black and White Spider Award competition recognizing the best in black-and-white photography.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Kemp, John R. "Neil Johnson." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published September 12, 2012. http://www.knowla.org/entry/1185/.
Kemp, John R. "Neil Johnson." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 12 Sept 2012. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
Johnson, Neil. Shreveport and Bossier City. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.
___. Louisiana Journey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.