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Interview With Michelle Johnsen

On a cold February Afternoon, we met up with local Lancaster photographer, Michelle Johnsen, and chatted about her work. Michelle has a free spirit that reflects in her art. From nature to the city, she photographs it all with her unique style and fine-tuned eye.

She tells us about her creative process and how she saves every picture she takes! Her passion for her family, friends, and art radiates in everything she does as evident in this interview.

thankyouplum Instagram.JPG Michelle Johnsen @thankyouplum
Find Michelle Johnsen online
Lancaster Instagram Michelle Johnsen

I see you are wearing a Lancaster shirt.

I am.

Apples At The Lancaster Market Bunches Are you passionate about Lancaster?

Are you passionate about Lancaster?

Yeah, I am. I also like supporting all of our local artists and businesses. This is a FoxDuck Printing shirt, they were part of the Prince Street pop up park, the holiday market. But, I’m actually from Philadelphia, the suburbs there.

Were you born in Philly?

Yup, I was born in Delaware county, and I moved here about 8 years ago. This is like a second home, I have a great family of friends here.

And Lancaster stuck?

Yeah, it stuck for me! I was doing child care for the YMCA and switched to the Y here. I just recently changed over to photography a few years ago. I started learning about plants and herbalism and loved taking photos out in the woods.

Boating On The River Black And White What brought that about?

What brought that about?

I met a whole bunch of people that were very outdoors-y and very nature oriented. I have always felt like I wanted to be closer to that but never was in the environment where I lived. It was woods-y like it is here.

People in Philly laugh at Lancaster, right?

I always get asked, “How are the cows?”

Its is usually the people from Lancaster moving to Philly. So your love of nature kept you here?

Yeah. That's the number one reason. I went to Temple and it was pretty hard to be in that environment. There are like 2 trees on our campus. I started to realize that I wasn't flourishing in that environment and I wasn’t who I really wanted to be there. I came here and I met this amazing group of people and started learning about permaculture and learning about plant identification and herbalism and ecology. I learned how everything is connected physically, and a lot of people take that spiritually as well.

Through that, the observation of the natural world and the different progression of seasons and stuff like that, photography and nature became inseparable to me. Photography was a way to learn pattern recognition and to learn about these tiny micro worlds; mushrooms, mycelium, tiny plants when they start to come up, learning why they are there and how to identify them. I’m a big forager as well and a lot of my friends are too.

Before you came to Lancaster, was anything filling the void for you?

Horse Skull In The Woods With Moss Before you came to Lancaster was anything filling the void for you?

I did a lot of hiking. When I worked at the YMCA I helped run a summer camp program where we were outside all day. I have been playing in the creek and in the woods my whole life but it wasn't until I moved here that I realized these are plants and trees that I have seen all my life and I never knew what they were. I never asked! So when I met these people I got to ask, “What is this stuff and how does it work?”

What drives you and your friends to get behind the science part of nature?

A lot of us are social activists and environmentalists. We are not only fighting to preserve the things that we love, but we realize you can’t truly love something until you understand it. You start to learn about what is there and how is got there and its connection to you. It became this huge thing where everybody realized that we all love this and we want to protect it and make it keep going.

Since nature and photography are connected for you, how did your photography start?

All my life I've had the disposables and the throwaways. My dad was a photographer amateur when we were little so he was always giving us these cameras as kids. He would get them developed for us and it was so cool to see our shots developed. Even though now I print digital, I print so much and keep them in albums just like my parents did. For me it started as a documentation sort of thing.

Even when I was working on the plant stuff, it was also about the people involved and the hearts of the people and these emotional moments. As a photographer, there are moments where you're like, “Click, I got it! I got that real feeling!” That is where it is for me, looking for that real moment.

Looking at your art I wouldn’t just label you as a nature photographer. You do capture these touching scene with people and dramatic lighting.

For me it's just across the board like that. I am really looking for that one moment. I hear a lot of photographers say that same thing- where you are looking for the heart of that moment. And with nature, I know now where to find these things.

Owl In A Tree With Berries I would love to get a photo like you did with the 2 woodpeckers I wouldn’t know where to find them!

I would love to get a photo like you did with the 2 woodpeckers, I wouldn’t know where to find them!

And that's the thing! It's like I can’t believe I’m standing here for this moment. I always have my camera with me.

There is this old famous quote, “F/8 and be there!” That's how you're going to get it. I have my camera in my hand all the time.

I don’t have this fancy camera bag where I am constantly switching things out. I have it around my neck trudging through the woods and the mountains and across streams.

What are you carrying? What camera are you using?

Michelle Standing On The Sidewalk Taking Photos What are you carrying? What camera are you using?

I have a Canon Rebel T3, which is obsolete by now. Before that I had disposables and a regular point and shoot and my friends who I was photographing realized that this is really documenting our time here, what we are doing in activism, ecology, classes, everything.

Let's give her this camera so I had 40 people, friends from here, family, friends from California and from Hawaii who all put money in this. On my birthday when

I was 28 we went camping on the cliffs above the Susquehanna River at a place called Bear Island and they gave me this card. It was this gigantic card and when I opened it all these signatures of all the people I love were inside.

Then they gave me this box and I was like, “What's in this box?!”, and it was this camera! I took that very, very seriously! Now I have the true intention to give back to these people to give them what they have given to me. They want their time documented and to have a story in photos to say, “Hey this is what happened when we were here.”

Did you find that that was extra pressure on you?

No, it was a huge weight off. I knew I had a gift and I was too modest about it. I would say, “Oh I just took these on a cell phone.” I had people coming up to me constantly saying that my photos were really good and asked if I sold prints. I was like, “Sell prints? No, they're from a cell photo, I can’t sell prints!” I never even thought of that before. So when I got this I thought that now I can put a gift and a machine together and create something to the best of my ability. I finally had a tool for myself to create what I wanted to create.

Do you remember what that camera was?

It was a Nikon P510. It had this 42x zoom, which was incredible.

As soon as you get it, are you learning its features?

Yeah, but it wasn't a DSLR. I knew at some point I was going to upgrade but this had the depth of field that I was looking for. I didn't have to get a zoom lens right away, it had this incredible zoom. I just started to shoot immediately. I just started to shoot like 100 photos a day and still do! It drives people crazy with the click, click, click all the time!

You mentioned you make prints, how do you do this?

Cards That Michelle Makes Hanging You mentioned you make prints how do you do this?

I go to Coe Camera usually, over on Prince Street. It's been there for a long time. The quality is fantastic. I’ve had things printed 4x6 and printed 16x24 and it is always amazing. Online you can get those 100 prints for $1 and I do that for a lot of pictures of my friends.

I don’t do my professional ones that way but it is so much cheaper and easier. Or if I go to a craft show, I’ll bring those with me. I don't want to bring all these prints so I just bring a little 4x6 flip book that shows an example of what they could get in the larger size.

You go to craft shows?

Yeah, or an art show. I sell prints of all sizes and handmade photo greeting cards. I will do them by season or theme. I do them single or by packs.

A photo of yours on the cover and blank all the rest?

Yeah, it's blank in the middle. Sometimes I do special messages if it's for a certain thing. If I am doing a Valentine's pop-up market then I will do Rumi quotes, I really like is poetry.

What is your process to match a quote to a photo?

Usually I only write something if it is for a themed event. If I have a stack of birthday cards I don't really have a quote for them. But for love, I have some for those. I have always loved poetry as an english major. Sometimes I hear a quote and I think of the photo and not the opposite. I have an archive in my head of all these years of photography, so I’ll be like I need that picture of that Woodpecker for this quote and I’ll go back. I have everything by date and day.

How do you store your photos?

I store them on my computer and I have two external hard drives. For each camera that I have had, like the Nikon P510 is one folder and the Samsung before that is another folder and the crappy Kodak before that!

Are they all organized?

They are organized by the day and by date. I have a folder for almost every single day!

Do you have a piece of software to view them?

Concert In Black And White Jam Session Do you have a piece of software to view them?

I use google Picasa for viewing. Its super simple and the interface is incredible easy to use. I do have Photoshop and Lightroom but I rarely use them, unless it's for a wedding. I will go back to a photo I thought I couldn't save before and lighten it. In general, I try to do everything in camera, keep it straight and keep it cropped the way that I want.

Do you have them in .jpeg or raw?

I don’t shoot raw. I don’t understand much about it yet but I am still learning. I’m still learning A LOT about the camera!

Do you worry about losing you photos?

All the time. I once lost photos on my old Mac. I lost about six months worth of work.

That has to be heartbreaking!

I cried for sure! I didn’t have an external hard drive then. Now I have them as a back up and I keep them on my computer. I upload to Facebook, which of course in not great quality or Instagram.

May I recommend Google Photos?

Well I also have box, or Dropbox. Google Photos just took me too long to upload, it was just a bit different in timing.

So you save them as .jpgs. Do you also back all your stuff up on Facebook?

Lancaster Landscape At Sunset Evening So you save them as .jpgs. Do you also back all your stuff up on Facebook?

No, Just my favorite stuff I will put on. A lot of times I will put it on a private album. Every professional job I do I share through Dropbox. That's where I keep those. It's the easiest way to share.

I am going to be doing work for the Lancaster Conservancy and my folder for them has spots for photos from Kelly’s Run, Trout Run, Shiprock Preserve, and so on. Then they get to go through each one and pick out from there. That way I have it available remotely. Then, when I take new pictures I can just add them into there.

What are they going to do with the photography?

They are going to use them for brochures and any other paperwork that they send out. Also, they are campaigning for people to be using more of the preserves. Lots of people go to Tucquan Glen, it's a big deal and it's so beautiful but it's extremely overused and eroded. It's basically overrun, it wasn't meant to be used that way. The conservancy is basically saying, yes it's extremely beautiful but we have many, many places here in Lancaster County that we own and maintain that are just as beautiful and you've never seen them! That's where I come in because I can go to all of them and I’ve been going for years.

Tubing Down Creek With Cows Summer

How did that come about? Did you contact them?

Yeah. I spend a lot of time over at Modern Art (529 West Chestnut) and we've collaborated on many things over the years. Libby Modern does their brochure work. She was telling me how she uses stock photography for that and I said you can use my photos because I want them to be somewhere! Sometimes, I’ll take pictures of musicians and they'll use it on their album and that's very fulfilling or they’ll use something for a news article and then it will go in the article and it's done.

But, these nature photos, I have so many and they're my life’s passion and I don’t have a lot to do with them except selling prints. I’m really not trying to hustle like that! This is a way for me to combine all the things that I love to promote these places that are so beautiful. I want people to have a connection to the land that we live on and to want to protect it more. If they know about a place and think this is a really beautiful scene I wonder where it is, then they go to it.

Other than your photos, is their photography bland?

Landscape With Turkey Vultures Fall Other than your photos is their photography bland?

No, they have a great photographer that works there. But I don’t go out intentionally looking for something specific. I just find a bunch of cool stuff that maybe others don't notice as often, and that's helpful for them.

I think I'll be an asset to them because I’m out there anyway. I’m not getting asked by them to go take a picture of a waterfall. I’m going to be out there exploring for hours and I’m going to get that waterfall but I’m also going to get snails and springs and birds along the way! Thats where my education has become this huge asset to me. I know what to look for.

Nature is strong in your photography, but I would also say so is the city.

Yes, street photography is another passion. I have so many, it's funny. Nature is my favorite so that's what I've been talking about, but I also love abandoned exploring in cities and elsewhere.

Violin Playing In Swimming Hole Summer

What do you like about that?

I just love the decay of everything. When civilization breaks down the earth comes back and takes over, these things are left and discarded. I feel like in many parts of my life, including my activist life, there are ways you can be a voice for all these people and things which can’t say anything. There is still so much beauty there, it feels lonely there, it feels beautiful, magical, and melancholic in those places. I take photos to give these forgotten places a voice.

In a way you are celebrating nature’s defeat over civilization?

(Laughs) In a way! You can print that too! We can produce and build so much and then just walk away from these huge structures. I’ve been to abandoned hospitals, churches, schools, steel mills, amusement parks. They have been there for years and years and what are they doing here? How did it even happen that they remain closed? They represent collapse, but even so, they're still beautiful.

Do you find yourself often out on expeditions? Just random places? And how do these things happen?

Michelle Holding Hands With Mural City Do you find yourself often out on expeditions? Just random places? And how do these things happen?

Often, yes, like everyday! I just have a lot of friends that are super adventurous and they just want to go do something. Hardly anybody that I hang out with all the time, watches TV. I don't even have a TV.

We are not into the mass media type of stuff to do. We like to go and create our own things to do. Walking around the city and just taking alleys is really fun. Some of my projects include murals and street art, so I’m trying to do a comprehensive post about all of the art I find. Its taking a long time now that I've been working on it. Six months and nowhere near done!

You have a lot of these little projects you create for yourself, right? You are the one, if I can remember correctly, who likes to take the scene from all different seasons.

Right. I have about ten scenes, but none of them are finished yet.

Do you have any other mini projects you're working on?

Yeah, I've been working on these photos where there's a long corridor of some kind - trees, cars, fences - and it forces your eye to look down at that center. Most times with a person down that center line.

Like your most recent popular snow scene!

Snow Covered Road After Storm Like your most recent popular snow scene!

Yup, exactly. That is one of many like that that I have done, and I've shared several on facebook, but I don’t always post them one by one like that. It's good if you want to showcase a single photo for a day or two. If you post one, more people like it and more people like it, but if you post 100 pictures you are not going to get exposure for all those individual photos. So for a special one that I am like, “I love this one, I want people to see it,” I put it on by itself.

You are methodical in your posts?

Yeah, I learned a lot about the algorithms, when to post, when people see things.

Is it different for Facebook and Instagram?

It is. With Instagram, posting first thing like 8-8:30 in the morning. A lot of people are checking in before work. I don’t work a 9-5 day so I always think about and feel bad for the people that do. And I wonder what they're doing at work, what they're going to see today, and I’ll post this! And then again, I’ll post around five when people get out of work. I try to be overwhelmingly positive on social media and in real life.

What other social media are you focused on other than Facebook and Instagram?

Those are pretty much the two I use. Instagram the most for photography purposes. My Facebook is much more social and personal. I do have a Facebook page that I use, specifically for photography. I post maybe a photo a day on there. It's not huge, but it shows a lot of my work.

Does it ever feel like a chore to you, posting these images?

Photo Of A Young Child Sunset Does it ever feel like a chore to you posting these images?

No, it's what I love to do and share. It’s so much more than trying to sell something or trying to improve my business. I just want people to see what I'm doing, especially my family. I live here, but I have a big family living in other places, other cities, other states and they tell me all the time that they know what my life is like because they go see my pictures. I do feel like they're an extension of my life and the best things that happen in it.

In addition to the physical albums that you keep, you have these digital albums to document your life. Do you look back at your art that way ever?

I do. Now Facebook has that feature where they tell you what happened last year on that day, so every day they are like, “Hey, you posted these pictures last year.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah! That's right!” There are so many and I go through and it is excellent because you see the ways you have improved and you see where you can still improve. I am always looking to improve.

Do you feel like you have improved over time?

Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely!

In any areas in particular?

Long Tree Corridor Red Winter In any areas in particular?

Because I'm doing my own projects that we were just talking about, doing that type of thing has opened up. Also, the pattern recognition. When I'm looking down a corridor or something, I might just wait there for ten minutes until someone walks by. Then I’ll click it right there. Whereas before, I might have been like, "Oh, no one is here I’m not going to stay." Patience has come to me for sure.

Learning more about manual settings of course, especially at night. I shoot the Lancaster Story Slam and my photos for that progressively have gotten better. It’s once a month, so every month I saw myself getting better at what the lighting was and how to best get that natural skin tone.

Or just when to go black and white, where before I wasn’t into black and white so much because I liked the colorful feel. Now it's like, if you can’t save it you can make it black and white and it will be incredible! That's like a little hack!

I’ve noticed this with you before too, that performance art is another niche for you. Would you agree?

Small Catapillar On A Leaf Green I’ve noticed this with you before too that performance art is another niche for you. Would you agree?

I absolutely agree! That stems from the amazing friends that I have. Almost every friend I have is a musician or an artist, sculptor, jewelry maker, herbalist, florist. They are all doing these different art. They'll be working in a cafe during the day and doing these incredible things by night. It's inspiring and like I said before, I felt a responsibility then to document these people and their lives.

Not just the people who bought me the camera, but just all the people in my life and who support my work. A lot of people have sort of told me that they want me to be there to take these pictures because they're important to all of us. I feel that way too. I love live music and I love going out. It's fun to just have the camera on and get a couple of shots of somebody’s concert and they use it for their marketing. Then they go to another show and I go to that just keeps going around and around in the community. I definitely consider myself a community photographer.

I will basically do any shoot and I don’t always care if I would get paid for it. Again, not necessarily great for business, but I don’t really care so much about that.

You seem to have a very enriched and rewarding lifestyle. Do you have any recommendations to people growing up and starting to get into photography? Any guidance you can give them?

I think that we might feel a lot of times we are expected to do a certain thing and make a certain amount of money, dress a certain way, buy certain things. I have always been so opposed to that. I have worked a 9-5 and I was not happy there, I was spending my whole day inside and I wanted to be outside! I feel like I got lucky, I have this gift that I can use to further myself in business and in my personal love and life.

If you have something that you're passionate about you have to do it, doing it after work or doing it on the weekends, just keep doing it. If it's photography, have your camera on you all the time.

What are some things you would still like to learn about photography? What are some things you still want to shoot?

Wild Flowers In A Field Colorful What are some things you would still like to learn about photography? What are some things you still want to shoot?

One of the things I have always wanted to do was night sky photography. I know a little bit about light painting, I have done some light painting stuff but I would LOVE to get into it more because it's super fun. I would like to do the one where people stand and draw around them. I've seen the steel wool stuff and I've participated, but never photographed an event like that. I think I would like it better with a little sparkler.

I love the night sky stuff and I would like to know more about how to get that focused. I've taken them and they're completely not right. So more things at night and learning more about the relationship with ISO and the f-stop, I know some of it, but I still feel like a novice in that sense. I just want to keep documenting Lancaster in a way that shows that it's so much more than just farms. Even though we can take these beautiful pictures of silos and horses, there's a whole really incredible world surrounding this place! For me, I want people to see that there are things that they need to get out and go see before they are gone.

There's so much happening in our world. I don’t mean to get negative about it, but destroying the natural world is a thing that happens constantly with every industry. If we can take the time to say we were around while this was still pure, like when pure water still ran in Lancaster county, we were there. And we drank it, and we took a picture of it!

You are calling to people to get off the couch and come out and see this.

Yeah, absolutely. This is what you're missing if you're not out here. And it's not going to be here forever and you need to come see it!

Michelle Take Pictures Of Mural Photo

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