States of Independence
Dazed's ultimate guide to US creativity

Getting too close for comfort in Chicago

SAIC grad Stevie Raelynn Johnson invades our personal space in the fourth Class of 2014 instalment

I Did It All
I Did It All For You Stevie Raelynn Johnson

From desert ghost towns to NSFW portraits our Class of 2014 series has tripped from SVU to RISD to Parsons so far. Now we're moving onto SAIC – Chicago's immensely popular art school and an undeniable hub for new talent. Stevie Raelynn Johnson, who graduated this year with a photography major, shoots the awkward intersection between familiarity and intimacy. In I Did It All For You, Stevie's graduate project, she reflects on the female vs male gaze through a repeated echo of a former lover's portrait, exploring the powerful obsessions photography can cultivate. We caught up with her to find out more.

Where does SAIC fit into your photography story so far?

Stevie Raelynn Johnson: My background in photography was pretty minimal before SAIC. I started with a darkroom class in high school, finding my love for shooting film. Then I graduated and wanted to pursue psychology so I spent a year at a community college near my home in hopes of transferring to a university. In an interest to balance my course load that first year I took an 'Intro to Photo' class. It’s where I realised that photography would be a career worth pursuing because it was the only subject I couldn’t lose passion for. I started looking at art schools around the states and fell in love with Chicago. When I started at SAIC my eyes opened to what art could be and was everything I was looking for because I wanted to learn about art without any boundaries.

How did your I Did It All For You series come about? 

Stevie Raelynn Johnson: The grid of men was created in my last year at SAIC. I’m not very fond of studio work, I prefer outside anyday, but since I could finally work the lights after taking a studio lighting course I decided to recreate an image I took a few years back. The original shot is of a past love whose image I never quite got over. The work I’ve made of him is an obsession of his image and fuels the desire to archive the men that have influenced my life. I had asked friends and classmates to participate but most of them still have no idea that it’s an homage to one man. When we got in the studio I just asked them to take their shirts off, put their arms up and look at me. 

What did shooting them all in the same pose symbolise for you? 

Stevie Raelynn Johnson: Again it goes with recreating the single image I took in the past. But I won’t shy away from the symbolism it provokes either. I understand it’s a vulnerable pose and it sparks the male gaze and questions a female gaze. Sadly I wasn’t even conscious of the Saint Sebastian imagery until after I created it. But it was never my intention to symbolize the men in a certain way as much as create an assembly of one man.

I Did It All
I Did It All For You Stevie Raelynn Johnson

In Held, your ongoing series, you're taking self portraits with the people you're closest too – what inspired that and how do you go about setting up those shots?

Stevie Raelynn Johnson: The ones I’ve created so far are with my closest friends to represent my relationship with each of them. I love to nurture and support them so I asked each of them if they would let me hold them on my hip. They didn’t question it. I’d set up the camera on the tripod, instruct a couple of test runs get some laughter going and then I’d hit the timer and try to get a couple of good shots. I’ve recently moved to Belfast a few months ago so I wouldn’t mind incorporating strangers in the future, I’m always searching for new connections.

Were the shoots ever awkward for you?

Stevie Raelynn Johnson: Well it's only awkward if you make it awkward. I do embrace being uncomfortable in any situation if need be because I think its important to overcome. By pushing myself past what others think it allows me to find comfort in being vulnerable with someone else and I wouldn’t want to see it any other way. 

Who, for you, is pushing the boundaries of uncomfortably personal photography in America?

Stevie Raelynn Johnson: LaToya Ruby Frazier

What's your favorite place to shoot at in America?

Stevie Raelynn Johnson: I don’t really have a favorite place because I’m drawn to the people that inhabit whatever place I’m in. I guess I could say my favorite place is wherever I am at the moment.

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