Sarah Anne Johnson had just returned from an artist's residency on a double-masted schooner in the Norwegian territory of the Arctic Circle when she began materially intervening into her photographs. "I had taken these epic shots of the landscapes," she explained to A.i.A. over the phone from Winnipeg, where she lives. "But they didn't show any of my hopes and fears and concerns for the future of the space. I had to paint on them to add more layered feelings."
The resulting works, which show frozen landscapes interrupted by bursts of color, became the series "Arctic Wonderland," the precursor to "Wonderlust," her current exhibition of over 40 photography-based works (all 2013) at New York's Julie Saul Gallery (through Dec. 21). In both instances, Johnson interrupts the surface of the prints by cutting, collaging, applying gold leaf, drawing or printing over the original—the difference being that in "Wonderlust," rather than using images of glaciers and abandoned mining camps, she shows couples and individuals in sexually intimate moments.
When asked how she made the jump from landscapes to sex, she explained: "Making the Arctic series, I was thinking about climate change and global warming and getting really depressed." At the same time, she began reading books about intimacy and sexuality including Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. "It made me want to make work that was more personal and vulnerable," she explained.
Rather than using herself as a subject, she enlisted the help of friends. Some of them agreed to participate in the work. Others referred her to friends or acquaintances. She captured them all in different positions—masturbating, wrapped around each other, having intercourse, sleeping, kissing after sex. "Each experience was totally different," she explained of the shoots. "Some couples wanted me to just sit back while they put on a show. Others were shy and nervous because they had never done anything like that before."
In her studio, the intimate moments would become all her own. Johnson, in intervening in each work, isn't really trying to transmit the feelings that the couples have for each other-instead, she's projecting feelings of her own. Her interventions don't make the photographs abstract or their imagery unrecognizable—rather, they enhance each scene so that when you look at them, you don't just see, for example, "missionary style." You think "orgasm" and "passion" and "pain" and "love."
In Sparkles (light blue), two entwined bodies are covered in blue sparkles, and thereby take on otherworldly, almost fey qualities. In Monster, a woman with her face obscured by feathery brushes of white oil paint rides a figure covered in gold leaf—the image is such that her lover looks less like a partner than the liquid rush of an orgasm, or something the woman unwittingly birthed. In Wrinkles, the solo figure of a sleeping woman is covered with a clear oil medium that makes it look like she's wearing a protective shell.
"I put on my subjects the things I think about myself that I would never say out loud," she said. "Doing that was the hardest part. Sometimes, I covered the faces so that I could be harder on them." This is obvious in Happy Face, in which the face of a man embracing a woman is covered in a skin-toned emoticon.
Fortunately, none of Johnson's subjects protested at the treatment she gave them. It's easy to see why. Her interventions are never violent or grotesque. One leaves the exhibition filled with neither disgust nor hunger. Rather, something shimmering remains: the flaking metal of Kissing Gold, the coiled limbs of Long Arms, a sense that lust can coincide with love.