Portfolio: Stella Johnson, New Work from Greece, Part I

Stella Johnson has four new images from her work in Greece on the New York Photo Festival website. Each image is accompanied by a journal entry about the making of the image. The four images and the accompanying text will be reprinted here in two parts. This post has the first two images; the second two will be posted on Sunday, May 1st.

Boston-based Stella Johnson received her photography training at The San Francisco Art Institute and holds an advanced degree in journalism from Boston University's College of Communication. She was a Fulbright Scholar to Mexico in 2003-2004 and in 2006 she returned as a Fulbright Senior Specialist to Mexico. Stella's personal work has been recognized by a New England Foundation for the Arts, Cultural Collaborative Artist-In-Residence Grant and has been highlighted in dozens of shows. She is best known for her work in developing countries, where she has focused on the lives of women and their families. The work is showcased in the book AL SOL.

Light Bulbs
Crete, Greece 2011

I was walking to Chania from the village of Perivolia in search of photographs. I stopped in a graveyard. A worker shoveled dirt from a grave. The gravedigger was a small figure in the background of my frame. I didn’t approach or speak to him. On my way out he screamed, “photo, photo” and pointed to himself. He got himself into the foreground. No dice, though. The images were somehow unremarkable.

I continued on my three-mile walk on this brilliant wintry day. Sunlight bounced all around me. I saw an orange house. Orange drapes hung on a balcony. I started photographing. The owner of the house had a head of orangey red hair. She invited me in for a glass of orange juice and introduced herself. Her name was Stella. Nice to meet you Stella, I said. And my name is also Stella. The day was getting interesting. This is when orange became my new favorite color.

Back on the road, I looked up and saw light bulbs hanging in the sky and took the accompanying photograph. The sky was so blue it was startling, hyper real. I thought, OK, take the photograph, it is beautiful, not really my thing, but I had to have it. Memory persisted in replaying the countless afternoons I took my mother to the Charles River in Boston to see the sky, the trees and the birds. At the bottom of the frame is a pink blanket. Pink was my favorite color before I discovered orange.

Before reaching Chania, I stopped at a bakery to buy spanakopita. I sat down outside to eat. The baker came out to offer me some sweet bread. Suddenly, he ran inside and returned with a bottle of water for me. I thought this is Philoxenia, the Greek custom of giving hospitality to strangers. It was unexpected, even a little shocking, and amusing. A series of spontaneous and unrestrained demonstrations of hospitality warming me right up. And so not like Boston.

I offered to take the baker’s portrait. He changed into a clean apron and baker’s hat and posed in the doorway of his shop.

These encounters were particularly touching because my mother had died a few short weeks before my trip. Strangers were taking such care of me.

Crete, Greece 2011

Xrissa Kapagioridiou swims in the ocean every day in Chania, Crete. It’s cold in January, around forty to fifty degrees. She swims with a posse of like-minded amphibians whose friends and families think they are crazy. I agree, but she thought I was crazy to walk the three miles from her house in Perivolia to Chania until she did it herself one day. And that led to swimming in the ocean in the middle of the winter. I knew why Xrissa was doing it, maybe a need to eat life whole, but I wanted to see for myself.

We arrived at an inlet. People in bikinis were power walking and playing paddleball on the beach in a questionable attempt to warm up before plunging into the Mediterranean. Xrissa says the water temperature is warmer than the air. Looking at them made me cold.

So I walked up onto the cliffs overlooking the bay, watching them swim. I took what I thought was yet another workman-like photo, something that caught my eye, but unusable since the swimmers were tiny in the frame. Seems the opposite turned out to be true. The tiny swimmers are it.

A change in the way to photograph. These friends in Crete are the ones who are leading me there but they don’t know it yet.

P.S. "Amphibian" is a Greek word that literally means a creature who lives both on land and in water.