Sometimes we need to be reminded of the sweetness of life. These reminders take the form of holding a door for a neighbor, complimenting an outfit seen, or shared appreciation for good weather. For a neighborhood like Englewood, where negativity makes headlines more than every day positive actions, the work of Kenneth J. Johnson Jr. becomes necessary. Kenneth uses his lens to describe his neighborhood. His images push aside negativity and refocus our view onto the real people who live there. The excitement and virtue of his neighbors seeps into our reality forcing us to see again. Is that not an important job of Photography? Changing the world would be nice but isn’t looking again the beginning of triumph? Kenneth reminds us that while there are plenty of negative news, or people, or things going on in the city many still choose harmony. Many still choose sweetness. At The Frame Shop, we are excited to present Kenneth’s recent series of photograph titled “I Am Englewood.”
Are you originally from Chicago?
I am originally from Chicago. Born and Raised.
How long have you been a photographer?
I have been a photographer for over 5 years now.
Do you shoot film or digital?
I shoot Digital currently. I haven’t shot in film since the 90’s. My aunt showed me how at that time.
Where in Chicago is your favorite place to photograph?
My favorite place to shoot in Chicago would be the lake; I find the water very peaceful.
Who are some local artists who inspire you?
Local Artists, I would say from photography it would be my mentor Michael Kirkland. He has opened my eyes and taught me so many things. He made me comfortable and encouraged me to think outside the box with what photography and art is. Other than that, I would say musicians have influenced me. Locally, Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, Common, Smashing Pumpkins, Chevelle, Malik Yusef.
You use color to direct the eye in an interesting way. How did you arrive at this technique?
I walk down the street and I stop, look, and listen to everything. I break it down into specific categories.
What was that noise I heard? What was that smell? What is that color? Why does that color stand out? As I am asking and getting answers to these questions I try to pull out the uniqueness of that specific item. I love colors. Having items/pictures presented in black and white and then highlighting a specific color draws attention that most people do not normally see. It forces them to analyze a shot a little harder. Draws their eye a little closer, and makes them feel ways that they weren’t imagining. It forces them to question the photo, their interpretations of the photo/scene, and it forces them to step outside the box. It is something I very rarely see and have never seen on this level.
How do you get your sitters to be comfortable in front of the camera?
I shoot a lot of street photography. When shooting street photography, it is necessary to talk to people and get to know them. This allows for a more open person. It allows for their comfortability to show on the photo. So being comfortable starts with a greeting and a quick or lengthy chat.
How has Englewood changed since you started your project?
Englewood as a community is changing for the better. While shooting over the past year, I have noticed steady streams of improvement throughout the neighborhood. More business development is the key. It is beautifying certain areas that were once barren. In addition, I am noticing more people taking action in the community. Showing up to more community meetings, rallies, and events has brought an increase of positivity that may have been lacking.
Do you feel your images give back to the community?
I do feel my images give back to the community. My images showcase nothing but positive actions. They are designed not to promote the negative energy we read and watch about Englewood. My images are to show the positive, good natured folk of a community that is proud. They are proud of their area and proud of their people. They just need more opportunities to show to the outside world that they are still there. Still in Englewood and still matter to Chicago.
As artists, what can we do with our work to make Chicago better?
As artists, we can give back more to the communities in Chicago. It does not have to be big, but we can find ways to give back something. We have been given a tremendous gift. We have the ability to change the world. With that power comes responsibility. In order to get the blessings, we have to be willing to give it back. So I strive to do something everyday that is of a giving nature. This gift can be a compliment, some encouraging words to uplift someone, or showing a child how to use an $800 camera properly. I want to show people that they are more, can be more. They just need to dream. That’s what artists do. We force people to dream. So to highlight the amazing gifts we have, I challenge every artist to reach out to someone/ anyone, and help them. Help them dream again and pass that knowledge on. Do that and continue the blessings that were once given to you.