When photographer Courtney Johnson moved to Wilmington, N.C., she knew she would need to find a new inspiration for her projects, which had formerly focused on cityscapes.
She was instantly drawn to the ocean piers that were so common in the coastal region. As an extension of the land, piers provide a way for people to access something previously inaccessible. She wanted to take that idea of increased access a step further by sending a pinhole camera 15 to 20 feet beneath the surface of the water, allowing people a visual entree into a space that wouldn't naturally be within our reach.
"I liked the idea of being able to go somewhere that you couldn't normally go. The ocean is kind of a magical, mysterious place, so [I was] trying to capture something that we can't see as humans."
Drawing inspiration from fishermen, she designed a camera out of a metal cookie tin, a pineapple can, waterproof putty and rustproof paint. She placed a 4-by-5-inch color negative into the tin and hurled it off of the pier. As the camera sank, the shutter of the camera was lifted up, controlled by a fishing line, and the negative was exposed to the underwater light for 30 minutes.
But besides the consistent 30-minute exposure, there were a lot of variables — time of year, time of day, water temperature, weather. "It's like a bad science experiment," she jokes. "My other work is very controlled, and this work is a kind of releasing of that control."
Johnson was so open to experimentation, she even embraced a leak. Early on, she discovered that about an inch of water was entering the camera during its submersion. She found a way to fix it, but then decided that she liked the way the water physically interacted with the film. The results are painterly washes of colors ranging from deep red to radioactive green — something that Johnson couldn't have predicted. "It was so magical each time I got one back that it kept me guessing the whole time I was doing it ... even though I was the one making the image."
She created one exposure at each of the 19 North Carolina piers, so the project is a comprehensive collection. While North Carolina still has a lot of ocean piers, the numbers have dropped in recent years.
"As retail for oceanfront property increased," Johnson explains, "a lot of piers disappeared. And with hurricanes, they're just not rebuilding them." In fact, Johnson created the last image in the series, Nags Head Fishing Pier, the day that Hurricane Sandy hit. She recalls standing on the pier with only one other person, a fisherman in a yellow slicker. He looked at her and said, "You know we're crazy, right?" The waves and the wind were so rough that Johnson feared losing the camera. That didn't happen, but the tin did fill up completely with water, corroding the film, and producing a highly textured, electric blue image, a departure from many of the more mellow, contemplative images.
Johnson explains that the abstract images help viewers experience the water (and photography) in a new way. "I've had people tell me that it's as though you're underwater holding your breath and looking around. It's very much about the exploration and magic that's embedded in photography."
Courtney Johnson is an assistant professor of photography and gallery director in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her series Light Lure is on view at Candela Books in Richmond, Va., through Oct. 19.
Becky Harlan is an intern with NPR Music.