Architecture Photographs Make for Minimalist Eye Candy

American Photographer Johnny Kerr has spent hours and hours in Tempe, Arizona getting to know every angle of the minimalist Nelson Fine Arts Center by Antoine Predock for his photography series formed of two parts: Ambiguity.


Little invades Johnny’s carefully constructed balance of pastel pink shaped blocks and complementary pale blue skies except the occasional distant aeroplane, palm tree, or ladder. Appearing almost two-dimensional, Johnny’s images guide the viewer through the Nelson Fine Arts Center by putting forward an appealing presentation of shapes, lines and textures – the precise arrangement of which owe themselves to Johnny’s background in graphic design.


We had a chat with the photographer.

THE PLUS: How did this series come about?
Johnny Kerr:
I stumbled on this series by accident. I was shooting architecture photographs for my Abstractions series on the Arizona State University campus one day and found myself exploring the Nelson Fine Arts Center. On first look at my images of the NFAC, I found that most of them didn’t fit with the Abstractions series. But a few months later, I looked at the images again and saw new potential. I was so drawn to the minimalist qualities of the featureless forms and the way they interact with each other as you move around them in three-dimensional space. I originally envisioned them as stark, monochromatic images. However, once I began processing the images in Lightroom, I quickly realised that I was losing a lot by desaturating that gorgeous blue sky and those subtle, fleshy pinks. I began working with them in colour and was infinitely more pleased with the result. Those images became the first part of Ambiguity.


TP: When were you first drawn to minimalism?
I’ve always been drawn to simplicity in design. I grew up copying the type styles and logos of my favourite punk bands. In high school, I rarely handed in a worksheet to a teacher that wasn’t covered in those doodles. I was always drawn to the grass roots quality of the designs, constrained by limited access to print materials. In other words, they had to look good when Xeroxed or scrawled on a fabric patch with a marker, so they didn’t typically feature multiple colours, gradients or three-dimensional elements. As a graphic designer I honed those skills further, always trying to say as much as I could with as little visual clutter as possible.


TP: Tell us about the process of discovering new angles for this series.
After finishing the first part of Ambiguity, I was very pleased with the images, but something bothered me about the lack of a conceptual bridge between the shots that featured the sky and the ones that didn’t. For example, the images that feature the square windows were among my favourites, but they were few in number and seemed almost like an afterthought within the context in the whole portfolio. But they weren’t an afterthought, they were an integral part of the process. When I went back over a year later, my goal was to find more of those sky-less shots to equalize the portfolio a little bit. I was also excited for the challenge of finding new sky compositions that weren’t just regurgitating what I’d already done for Ambiguity I.


TP: In your opinion, should art’s meaning be ambiguous or have a fixed message?
I feel like this is often presented as a false dichotomy. I think art should be whatever moves an artist to create. Sometimes good art comes out of a specific conceptual vision, united by specific constraints. Other times you create because you just have a good instinct about something and you may not fully understand it until you process it in retrospect. When an artist’s work does have a specific intended meaning, we can do our best to push that agenda with our visual tools. However, ultimately, we are at the mercy of the life experience, values and perception of our viewers.


TP: You didn’t start out as a photographer – when did you first pick up the camera?
I dabbled a little with photography going back as far as about 2006 or so. Mostly I was trying to come up with reference material for possible paintings or illustrations. It wasn’t until around 2011-12 that I got serious and learned about exposure and how to really use the camera as a tool. Very shortly thereafter I was hooked and photography became my primary medium of expression as an artist.


TP: Would you recommend other photographers learn about graphic design first?
It’s been absolutely valuable and integral to my process. If nothing else, I’d highly recommend studying the elements of art and principles of design to build your visual vocabulary. Even just using those as search criteria on the internet would lead to great learning. I see so many photographers making slow progress because they have no foundation of composition design and are just, if you’ll excuse the pun, shooting in the dark. When you can better understand the visual elements in front of you, then you can better articulate the concepts you’re chasing for the image or series you’re shooting and go about doing it more purposefully.


TP: Will there be an Ambiguity III?
I’d say it’s unlikely. I don’t want to shoot that beautiful building to death. I’ve learned much from my sustained investigation of that single subject. I’m sure my Ambiguity series will inform my future work in meaningful ways, but I think I’m calling the series itself done.