Artist takes old-fashioned look at state fair memories

Posted: Thursday, February 05, 2004

There is very little that better defines a rural community than its county fair a traditional end-of-summer celebration of the life the land has provided to those who work and play on it.

The Kenai Peninsula State Fair is no exception, and its relevance to the community and its lifestyle are apparent in a new exhibit on display at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

Kenai photographer and painter Natasha Ala Johnson, granddaughter of 1940s homesteaders and raised on the family farm, has participated in the fair since she was 7 years old, more than two decades ago. That year she and a sister performed a tap dance on the main stage, dressed as polar bears. It would be her final stage appearance, however she would go on to compete in western riding events in later years. Now her children enter livestock in the 4-H competitions.

Her appreciation for the lifestyle of fair participants is readily apparent in her new exhibit of black and white photographs and acrylic paintings, "Fair Days." The 20 large photographs and the handful of acrylic paintings depict the candid moments of the fair participants, be they human or livestock.

"I've come to appreciate more the whole subculture of doing agriculture. People don't do it to make a lot of money, and I really respect that," Ala Johnson said. "I want my photographs to acknowledge and show respect for that lifestyle."

Ala Johnson picked up photography as a ninth-grader, studied photography in college and has worked in professional studios over the years. She is currently pursuing a bachelor of fine arts degree through Kenai Peninsula College.


"Clown Boys" by Natasha Ala Johnson

A self-described traditionalist, she eschews both color and digital photography, preferring to concentrate on black-and-white.

"I'm just not interested in digital photography; it's too far removed from the human touch. Of course, that was the original criticism of photography in general.

"Black and white is just more expressive, and you have so much more control," she said. "I wouldn't want to turn over my developing or printing to someone else. I'm very old-school."

Her technique would be alien to any of the crop of new digital photography enthusiasts whose idea of fine image-making is applying cheap theatrics to their photographs on the computer.

Ala Johnson's images are as holistic as a photograph can be. She develops her own film and makes her own prints. All the photographs in the exhibit are formally called silver gelatin prints, after the style of paper on which they are printed. And her standards are exacting. Many of the images in Fair Days were printed multiple times on three different kinds of fiber-based paper, a tedious, repetitious, though ultimately rewarding process.

And neither does Ala Johnson crop her images. Each photograph is printed "black border," showcasing her ability to frame, focus and set the exposure on an image accurately on the fly, with no reliance on auto-focus or zoom lenses or auto-exposure. Her tools were a Hasselblad 501c and a Nikon FM2, both as manual as cameras can get.

While reminiscent of Richard Avedon's stark portraits of ranch hands and cowpokes in the series "In the American West," Ala Johnson's images are far more candid, bringing warmth and realness to the subjects of the fair.


"Four Steers" by Natasha Ala Johnson

The fruits of Ala Johnson's labor show in her prints. Each of the black and white images displays the finest control over tone and value and preserves intricate detail in both shadow and highlight.

For example, in her image "Waiting for Showmanship," the face of the young girl holding her cow on a leash would otherwise be hidden by shadows from the light that comes from behind her. Instead, Ala Johnson's exposure, developing and printing preserves an accurate representation of the skin's tonal value, all while keeping the sky, her white blouse and the highlighted faces of two boys under control.

She uses the Hasselblad's square format and the Nikon's rectangular format to her advantage, picking the best for each subject. In "Clown Boys," the two young rodeo clowns ham it up for passersby between events. Shoot-ing quickly and candidly, Ala Johnson's image captures the spontaneity and atmosphere of the fair, giving an intimate portrait of the two boys as well as providing a feeling for the ambiance of the fair grounds.

She also takes intimate portraits of the livestock that is central to any county fair. In images such as "Four Steers," "Joe the Rooster," "Highlight on Pigs," and the whimsical, though somehow melancholy "For Sale," she captures the beauty and grace of the animals.

In "For Sale," Ala Johnson used her Nikon to frame a steed with the picture's title painted on its rump. The rectangular framing uses two-point perspective to give the image a three-dimensional depth lacking in any straight portrait. Likewise, the use of one-point perspective in "Four Steers" accomplishes the same feat.

In "Highlight on Pigs," she uses a straight-down point of view of the two pigs, using them simply as shapes in the capture of the late-evening light streaming through the bars on their pen.

The few paintings in "Fair Days" are a result of a new passion for Ala Johnson. She took up painting just a year-and-a-half ago, and already has won acclaim for her work, including an honorable mention and purchase award in last year's Peninsula Art Guild biennial Juried Art Show.

"When I discovered painting, I discovered you can do so much more with it," she said. "Painting was like being born-again."

Her acrylics display a range of styles from expressionism to abstract. Her bold use of color, line and form in "Reserve Champion" is a prime example of her grasp of expressionistic painting. It's also her favorite. The portrait, "Martin's Buck," of a young male goat, is very much in line with post-impressionism, with its strong color, light and shadow.

Ala Johnson's "Fair Days" is on display through Feb. 29 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, hours 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The opening reception for the exhibit will be from 5 to 8 p.m. today. There is no admission and refreshments will be served.

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