STORIES

Fleeting Moments

This is the very first picture I took on my first visit to NYC, and the first of many portraits I took of the city’s residents. I was walking around the East Village and came across these two old timers waiting for a bus. I can’t say exactly what drew me to them, but, looking at the image now I do get a feel of an era of street photography that was charming and endearing.
I was not expecting to see a person with slippers on in the middle of a cold fall day. They knew I was going to take a picture and even smiled a bit. I felt kind of awkward because I forgot to ask them if it was ok.
Then I wondered what their story was. Were they born here here? Then I realized that their physical appearance told all the story I needed to know. I could tell they were friends and had known each other for a long time. Those grins were surely a sign of an enjoyable life.


The first day I lived in New York with my permanent address, I was amped with inspiration and excitement and, although my body was tired from the move, I absolutely had to get out into the city and explore. I tried to figure out where to go and I couldn’t imagine anything better than Times Square to kick off my first adventure. That night was filled with fleeting moments and extremely limited friendships.
Upon exiting the subway I was approached by a woman in her late 40s, named Sunny. She was from Bayside, Queens.


Sunny asked me if I wanted to follow her to this hotel bar where her friend was playing the piano. Of course I went along for a while. I had my camera and was ready to document anything I could to remember this monumental occasion.

We stood there for a while listening to the music, which was as drab as I had expected. After a few quick hellos were exchanged between us and him we headed off to the heart of Times Square, where the Ball drops on New Year’s Eve.
There was so much energy flowing in the air from the lights and people swirling around. It was about 10 p.m. What we discovered was that Bon Jovi was doing a concert in conjunction with the MTV music awards, which were happening a few blocks away. A truly awesome time to sink into celebrity and NYC high-energy event fun!

The concert was an awesome free event. It was too loud to talk to Sunny but she kept saying things to me. I took some time to shoot a few crowd shots. Everything felt larger than life. Here I was a photographer in NYC doing what I loved with the world at my finger tips. After a few songs we headed over to Radio City Music Hall, where the awards were taking place. Sunny told me she wanted to get a picture of Michael Jackson coming out of the theater, so we walked over.

At the theater entrance there were a lot of barricades, as expected, but there were not too many people waiting. I felt this could be a great opportunity to see someone. We were about 10 feet from the entrance and had a clear view of the red carpet. And before I knew it, there he was. I only saw him from behind, and it was for maybe one second, but how cool was that?!!

I hung out for about another half hour to see if there might be another celebrity I could get a glimpse of. But that was it. I felt my night was complete and decided to head home. I said good-bye to Sunny. I knew I would never see her again. As I walked off there were these funny guys holding this sign up: “Legalize Masturbation.” I had no idea that was illegal in NYC. I thought, I’m in for an adventure here.




Meeting Di

Meeting Diana,


 Mid September 1995.
 Before I head out to work in the morning I usually catch the local news to see how traffic was. I was alerted to the fact that there was going to be grid lock in midtown right in the middle of where I was going to be working. 57th and 5th. Gridlock in New york is unlike any other city congestion. Especially if it was to escort a high profile figure through-out the city such as a diplomat or president. The UN was not too far from where the gallery was so this was a common occurrence. However, on this day I learned that Princess Diana was going to be in town on benefit and if timing was right I might just get a glimpse of her.

I had been working at the prestigious Photography art gallery Pace Wildenstein MacGill on 57th and 5th Ave. I was in awe in heaven on a regular basis with this gig. All the masters of my craft where exhibited here and if they were still living they would come thru from time to time and say hello. Upon my arrival at work I was instructed to deliver a sold piece toa collector in the afternoon. I had some art handling tasks to complete before heading out of the gallery to deliver this work. It was in the foreground of mymind that I had hope to see Lady Diana most of the morning. I had finished my work and was ready to make the delivery. Heading down the elevator I remembering feeling dazed and puzzled as to what I might say to her if we met. Something like “ Hi I’m a photographer… NO… Lets meet for tea, Definitely not. “

After I exited the building, I noticed that all traffic had stopped, including pedestrian traffic. 57th and 5th ave was pretty quite and I knew exactly what that meant. I headed west toward 5th ave and immediately came across a few police officers. They waived me through, and as I walked closer to the corner, I noticed the line of black SUV’s, Limos and Secret service men walking along side this motorcade.

And then the 2nd to last Vehicle was passing me. The window was half way down and I moved closer to the curb. The Limo stopped and Princess Diana leaned forward to look out the window. I felt a chill of excitement and serene calmness run up my spine at the same time. I felt the energy of both eyes gazing at her and her at me and I smiled as big as I could. She also smiled back and for a brief few seconds we were connected. And of course instinctually my right hand raised and offered a few royal ways to the princess. We both chuckled and she was then.. gone.

Lets fast forward to another adventure I was about to go on In October 2014. Back in 1995 we didn’t have social networking via Facbbook and others, but now many of us use it as a means to getting information. I was patrolling my feed as I do daily to see what the newsfeed chatter had to offer me. Diana Von Fustenberg was going to be in Bellevue at Nordstrom flashed through my screen. I knew she was a big designer and thought how cool it would be to  meet a big designer such as her. I have photographed her designs many times and other big designers but, I rarely have a chance to meet them in person.

I was having a great day. I landed 3 new clients and was excited to be going out to meet Diana, I figured it would be a good opportunity to meet like minded people as well. DVF, known for the wrap dress, but also for a great soul who keeps reality in her foreground

After I arrived at Nordstrom I asked a sales clerk where she would be and he told me at her store a few more steps inside the shopping mall. I was a bit confused, so I headed over to her retail store. I went inside and was greeted by a nice person on staff. I asked if she was here yet. She said “ She will be here in a few minutes, you should get in line outside the store. So I purchased my copy of her new book and got in line. Which seemed still confusing to me, because there was only 3-4 people there. I was second in line and as I approached the person greeting she asked my name. I relied “ Derek Johnson “ She looked on the list and didn't see anything.  I was wondering why was there even a list I had no idea. Again She asked my name and could not find it on the list. Then she looked up at my face and into my eyes. “ I know you , your Derek the Photographer .” I was in shock, I was like how the hell do you know me. She said “From the internet… Come on in!”
As so I went back into the store. Walked over to DVF and said hi. She didn’t have much to say to me, I felt she was kind of uncomfortably quiet. Who knows, maybe jet lag or something I thought. I had her sign a book to my wife Sherry and walked to the side. I stood there a while. Before long there were a room full of mostly women milling about the store and getting a signed copy of her book.

 I used to go a lot of celebrity ridden parties in NYC and I always find them interesting. But this time I was seeing our connection through a different level. After I hung out for a while and watched other people get their books signed I spoke with the event coordinators. I then discovered they were a PR firm I had done a project for about 7 years ago. And that job included a portrait of a successful restaurant Entrepreneur that owned a restaurant I worked in and had met about 7 years before. I love this chain of events. We are all connected, we all have value within each other. My belief is that relationships are the most real thing we have on Earth.
My relationship with you may not go beyond this post, but its very real with purpose. The value may only be for a few seconds or for a life time, either way its perfection.

I found my thrill on the front porch.

Fats Domino Home Studio

In the summer of 2005 I was working full swing on a project that would take me to most of the major cities around the country for the next 6 years. While at my home base that summer, the news broke about Hurricane Katrina and I was glued to the TV a week before it hit. I observed this event from a distance and began feeling helpless and angry. I was in the middle of this photography assignment and all I wanted to do was go to New Orleans and give a hand. I let go of the possibility of going there and stayed focused on my project. However, there was an embedded, yet silent yearning to help those people who had lost so much.

Two years after Katrina my project was taking me to Nashville, much closer to New Orleans than any place else we went. I had an “aha” moment—I thought that Nashville would be close enough for me to drive down and find a way to help out when I got there. So it was…

After a week in New Orleans I had discovered an amazing cultural compendium filled with music, food, friendships, and more music and more food and… and… as you can imagine I fell in love with the place and its residents (at least the few who had moved back by then).

One highlight from the trip was the work I did with Tipitina’s Foundation on the day they celebrated the homecoming of one of the more well-known residents affected by the storm. I documented the return of Fats Domino to his residence, which he hadn’t seen since he left in 2005. This was such a big deal because Fats had a rule that he would not leave home ever again, and when Fats makes a rule everybody abides, especially him.

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I didn't know what to expect, as his place was only about 50% restored. I was just going along with the ride as a volunteer photographer. Fats arrived with an entourage of about 35 people, and he was greeted by about 200 local kids who had yet to move back into the neighborhood. A few of us entered the house with him. It was unbelievably emotional. We watched tears roll down his cheeks and ours as he gazed at his bedroom and told us about his favorite tie that was left behind—still there in the closet.

We made our way to the second house/studio on the property that was ready for use. Inside there was a cooler filled with cold beer, evidence that there would be no electricity for some time. Outside on the porch, all together we toasted to the new beginning post Katrina. I listened and appreciated the moment so fully. Fats spoke few words to us, but everything he did say was a response in rhythm. It was so clear every ounce of his being was threaded with the vibrations of what he loved… music. What an honor to clink bottles with him!

One thing I learned about NOLA culture is that people unite there though gathering on their front porch. The porch is a place for parents to watch the kids play in the yard. A place to burn some coals and savor some delicious Bar-B-Que. A place to keep it real, feel united and loved.

In this project I stepped out of my studio onto the front porch of humanity, which I do from time to time. I invite you to step out onto your porch and see what’s going on. If you don’t have one, you can come visit mine.

The image below won several awards and was exhibited around the world. It’s one of my favorites. Please feel free to leave a comment as well.

Everyone deserves a mentor.

When we make art, part of that process is to make bad art. Solving the problem of creating art means finding something that does not work and focusing on something that does. It is the same way with every other area in life: when we bump up against a problem we cannot solve, we can either continue beating our head against it or we can turn around and focus on a problem we can solve. A mentor can help us make that choice to turn around. I have had mentors since I was a teenager. They have helped me learn new skills; they have inspired me and given me the support I needed at critical times.

Everyone deserves a mentor.

During my sophomore year in art school, I found myself completely submerged in my work. Every pore, every molecule, visible and invisible, inhaled and exhaled photography and art. There was nothing more important to me than being entrenched in the complete process of making art, and I loved it. However, it also created a unique problem for me. When my projects failed, I felt and knew I had also failed. I was emotionally deflated and nothing could get me out of that dark place. This was my first real feeling of failure and incomplete resolve.

When I first began art school, I was introduced to John Ganis, my photography teacher. He eventually became my mentor, at this dark point in my life. My experience with what I perceived as failure alerted me to the idea that art was not the answer to what I was seeking. I had chosen to pursue photography as a way of articulating the world as I saw it. I was using the full capacity of my heart to do this craft just like Mr. Abel (my high school drama teacher and mentor) would have expected me to, and it was in fact a therapy for dealing with the negative emotions I had from time to time. Making art helped me to share with others who I was through this visual communication, but it was not enough. I wanted something that would not fail, something that I could put my complete faith and energy into, which would always benefit me or others. Hence, I began questioning everything I was doing and why I was doing it. I felt like leaving school and had consulted with my parents and a few friends about doing so. Everyone thought I should stay.

John (Mr. Ganis) noticed my struggle and called me into his office. I explained my feeling of failure to him. Just a few weeks earlier, I had been considering following some sort of religion. I explained to John that I had looked at all the major religions and found that all of them had some sort of discrimination against the others. I could not settle on any one, but knew that there was some underlying truth to what all of them were saying. John said he knew what I was going through and that he had gone through the same thing earlier in his life. He explained the difference between religion and spirituality and suggested meditation as a path to consider. He gave me two books about kundalini yoga meditation (an East Indian meditation path) that was based completely on the act of meditating. This seemed so foreign to me, but at this point I was desperate and I wanted deeply to learn how to manage what was going on inside me. John told me that we could take a trip to an ashram in upstate New York to meet a Guru and receive his blessing for meditation, but not until after I read the books. I left John’s office in deep contemplation, focusing on his thoughts about my situation. I spent the greater part of the next week thinking about this and reading “The Guide to Shaktipat” by Swami Shivom Tirth Maharaj. After about a week I was sold. I needed to go on the trip and meet the Guru. I was extremely skeptical, intrigued, and a little scared, but I needed to go. The trip would take place in February of 1993.

After John introduced meditation to me I felt the aimless quest for the “right choice of work” dissipate. My life had a new direction. And I have realized in the course of my life that a mentor can do just that: help people find a new direction—thereby inspiring them to realize their true dharma, and maybe even their biggest dreams.

Since graduation from art school, with the help and guidance of my mentors I have done nothing but realize my dreams. My photographic work has been seen by millions of people, all over the world. I wanted to work in the fashion industry. I also wanted to shoot personal projects in which I could use images to communicate stories that would help the world. These dreams are now my reality and my offerings to the world: I am a luxury goods, fashion-photography expert who uses his images to tell stories that help people in different ways. Sometimes it’s through a still-life fashion photo that inspires confidence and creativity in the onlooker. Other times it’s through a portrait of someone who has survived a trek across the Himalayas to find their freedom. All my offerings are “stories that create connections.“


Creative Friendships.

When I moved to Seattle eight years ago, one of the first friends I made was Bonnie Robbins. At that time Bonnie was only 10 years old. Bonnie was not camera shy, and to this day she finds herself collaborating on projects that put her in front of the camera. Being that I am a photographer, this immediately captured my interest in her. I have had the privilege of spending time with Bonnie during her teenage years and photographing her from time to time.
Bonnie's generation has access to a vast amount of cultural influences, from countless outlets. When she began to access these channels in her teen years, she started creating a collection-- of objects. These objects--from absolute silliness to the most articulate, high-art embodiment of anything--required a polymorphic-like meditation of sorts to acquire.
Bonnie's personality exploded in her teens with her immersion in mass pop culture, and her gift of naturally embracing modern technologically aided in the development of her ability to multitask everything. After many years of effort, she has turned the physical spaces in her home (especially her bedroom) into reflections of what she has collected, and on who she has become. It's a photographer's play-land in there. Her bedroom is a montage of strange and wonderful knickknacks from her travels, accented with trend-ful accessories and original works of art, which thread the organized chaos into a single, fun environment. As Bonnie's collection of fashion, art, and wonderfully insane “objects of desire” grows, I’m sure we will continue to collaborate on future photo shoots and eclectic happenings.

Here's a fun video we created:

The True Meaning of Xmas

Meeting Santa Claus.

I am a contemporary, fashion-focused, luxury-driven art photographer with a mission to conquer the world. Never in my life would I have, of my own free will, executed the task of taking pictures of Santa for the general public, for any purpose, in any way, shape or form. But then it happened.

Back in the days when I was assisting, I once worked with an architectural photographer who told me his favorite assignment was the Santa photo gig he did every year for many, many years. He explained further that it was a surprise to him also. He said, “This is an opportunity for so many people to have a positive experience and feel joy, and I get to be a part of it.” Then we talked about being open to different kinds of work, even if it wasn't our specialty. I realized it was important to keep an open mind, even with Santa photos; hence my own feelings of joy do at times come from unknown and inconceivable experiences.

In Rainier Beach my friend Maia Segura is very active in supporting community events and has asked me to help out in the past. This year a new event was procured by her efforts with the Rainier Beach Merchants Association, called “Light up the Beach.” The purpose was to get local business to decorate and have some sort of open house for people to stop by and say hello. “A great networking event for everyone!” I thought.

Rainier Beach is no stranger to hard times. Two things I know that make a community stronger and safer are a cleaner, decent-looking business storefront and knowing your neighbors. This event had the ability to achieve both, at least for one night.

Maia asked me about doing a photo booth for people at the local Safeway. I had some extra time on my hands so I agreed. At first we were going to have it be just family portraits for the holiday. Somehow Santa heard about our efforts and he showed up to help out for the duration of the shoot. I put my best foot forward on this and remembered my conversation many years back with the other photographer.

The night was kind of a blur—there were so many people and lots of activity with new and old friends. I had to keep the production running and it was a lot of multitasking trying to print out the images on site and get them out to participants before they left.

Then it hit me… later that weekend I realized most of the people I photographed had never met Santa before. There were many different ethnicities represented, with families and kids that don’t even celebrate Christmas, and now they were seeing that Santa does not discriminate and can bring joy to a child by just being present for a photo. I don’t recall anyone asking him for anything; I only remember smiles. What a lovely experience for me and the international community I live in. Happy holidays, Rainier Beach. You may even see me again next year, doing the unthinkable: a Santa Claus photo shoot.

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