© Eirik Johnson, Coquille River, Oregon


1. The "Sawdust Mountain" project is closely related to a specific part of the landscape and territory of the United States. It is the Northwest constantly evolving, changing. Could you tell us something more about how the project started? What exactly pushed you through this investigation?

Eirik: The idea of making work about the Northwest had been on my mind for quite some time. I grew up in Seattle and had spent many years with my family hiking through the region’s forests and exploring the towns that dot its inland mountains and coastal shores. During my childhood, I had been profoundly affected by witnessing the routine and massive clear cutting of the region’s forests.

It wasn’t until I had lived away from the Northwest for some years that I began to envision a project that wove together a story about the tenuous relationship between natural resource industries such as logging and fisheries, the communities and individuals they support, and the landscapes they impact. It is indeed as you mention, a story about a specific part of the U.S., but the issues and challenges that face the Northwest are quite universal.


© Eirik Johnson, Tola, Lower Hoh River, Washington


© Eirik Johnson, The Road to Forks, Washington


2. In the foreword of your book Elizabeth A. Brown wisely talks about Carleton Watkins. We are pretty sure that he was a significant inspiration for you. Did you make any particular research about the territory while working on the project? Was it important to know as much as possible about how that landscape had already been photographed?

Eirik: I was very aware of Carleton Watkins and his beautiful work from along the Columbia River Basin as well as his work from California. I was equally if not more inspired by the photographs of Northwest loggers and homesteaders taken by the early 20th Century photographer, Darius Kinsey. Both Kinsey and Watkins were definitely touchstones for my own image-making and several of my photographs pay direct homage to them.

There’s a certain quality of light in the Northwest, a soft hazy overcast light that oozes mood and character. If you look at any of Kinsey’s vertiginous photographs of loggers amongst big trees you see that light. You also see it in the paintings of Northwest artist Morris Graves, in which brush strokes seem to flow off the earth tone canvass. I tried to convey that same mood and character through my photographs as well.


3. At the end of the book we find an essay written by Tess Gallagher. Could you tell us something about this collaboration? She and Raymond Carver had an intense life in same regions that you photographed. Is there any sort of connection between the poetry and prose of this two authors and the way you’ve described the Northwest?

When I first envisioned how the final book would come together, I always hoped to include work by writers from the Northwest. Whenever I was out making photographs in coastal mill towns or camping along rivers, I would bring along books of short stories or poems by Tess and Raymond, or David Guterson and Ivan Doig, among others. I admire the way in which the landscape itself becomes a central character in many of the stories. You can feel the rain and smell the damp cedar bark in their prose and poetry.

What I really love about the essay that Tess wrote is that it’s not specifically about my photographs. Rather it’s about her life and her childhood in the Northwest. But when you read her account of a childhood spent working for her parents logging business and her reverence for the region’s landscape, you start to refer back to the book’s photographs.


© Eirik Johnson, Freshly felled trees, Nemah, Washington


© Eirik Johnson, Missy with wildflower watercolors, Forks, Washington


4. How did the collaboration with Aperture begin? Have you directly proposed your work to their attention? They are a historical non-profit foundation and they promote only a small number of artists per time.

Eirik: I first brought the work in its early stages to Michelle Dunn Marsh at Aperture. Michelle grew up in the Northwest as well and I think the photographs resonated with her. As I kept working on the project, I eventually brought a more refined book maquette to Lesley Martin and the rest of the Aperture team. I can’t say enough good things about the folks at Aperture. They’ve been extremely supportive of the work and more importantly they saw the opportunity to do something really unique with this book. They are a non-profit and as such, they can only commit to a small number of books annually. I feel quite privileged to have “Sawdust Mountain” among their titles.

© Eirik Johnson, Harold Balderson, Neah Bay, Washington

5. The book was printed with a very special paper. Could you tell us something more about the creation of the book ( editing, printing, etc.)?

Eirik: As I mentioned earlier, Aperture and I saw the opportunity to do something unique with the design of the book itself. My first book “Borderlands” was very much about the book as an object, a brick of earth in a sense that opens up to reveal landscapes printed on thick cardstock, like a children’s pop up book. I never envisioned “Sawdust Mountain” to be as much of an object per se, however I did want the design and materials of the book to reference the pulp and muted tones of the region.

I find that too often photography books simply adhere to a status quo template of both design as well as material. We chose to use a matte surface paper for the pages of the book, which echoes the muted rain-soaked mood of the Northwest. Likewise, we left the edges of the cover and back exposed to reference the pulp from which the book is made. One other design detail that I really like is that the type-face we used for the title is based off the font used for car license plates. There are a number of old pick up trucks throughout the book’s photographs and that type-face is such a perfect fit for the project.


Interview by Daniel Augschoell and Anya Jasbar