Lisa S. Johnson’s father was a guitar player, and her mother was a singer. Her father loved photography, so she studied it in school to bridge communications with him. While working for Eastman Kodak, she began dating a musician who owned a vintage guitar store, and he was first to recognize the singular soul of her artistic guitar portraits.
“I fell in love with photographing guitars. The shape, sexiness, the history, the way they smell,” Johnson says. But more than that, she says, “a guitar is an extension of the player. Most guitarists develop an attachment or a relationship to their guitar.” And all the wear and tear, dents, and scratches are just visible traces of their spirit.
This particular creative niche has led to some whimsical and wonderful rock-star interactions over the years. During Art Basel, Johnson will present the exhibit "Soul Lullaby," debuting three rock-star guitar portraits at Gallery 88 in Miami Beach. Here are Johnson's stories behind Lou Reed’s Bolin NS, Jimi Hendrix’s Strat, and Les Paul’s many contributions to her career:
On Lou Reed: "Lou was known as a lyricist, but he was also an amazing guitarist. He was crazy on guitar. He was also a photographer, and he loved funky things. I was working for Kodak at the time, and we had two mutual friends. Both of them said, 'You’ve got to let Lisa photograph your guitar.'
"Lou wasn’t there the day I photographed the guitar — I worked with his assistant. But about a month later, I was at an event standing at the top of the escalator, and there he was, coming up the escalator. I introduced myself: 'I’m the girl who photographed your guitar.'
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"Three weeks after my book launch, I got a message on my Facebook page, saying, 'Lou would like to know, do you have those digital files, because we would like to post these images?' I sent them. The next day, Lou posted them on his Facebook page. And then he died two days later.
"I didn’t know he was on his deathbed. I don’t think anybody did. He really wanted those images to be his final sayonara. I was so humbled. I’m really pleased to be able to honor the work of Lou Reed as part of my Art Basel exhibit."
On Jimi Hendrix: "This exhibit is the debut of this photograph of the historic 1968 white Fender Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock. That’s huge. No one gets access to that guitar. I was able to get ahold of his sister, who gave her blessing but said you still have to ask the owner. And you know who that is, right? Paul Allen [the billionaire cofounder of Microsoft].
"It took two years to get it scheduled. We finally got it May 1 of this year. And I’m closing this year by going right after Basel to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to photograph three more Jimi guitars — but this exhibit is the debut of the white Woodstock Strat. The wear-and-tear details are incredible, all the nicks and scratches from years of use. That’s his spirit; that’s him left behind.
On Les Paul: "I sought out Les Paul at his standing gig Monday at the Iridium Room when I first moved to New York. I convinced him to let me photograph his guitar. That was the beginning. The night I asked him to write the foreword for my book, I brought a stack of images, and they were all Les Paul guitars. I said, 'I photographed your guitar first,' and I showed him all these different Les Paul guitars. 'You’re their hero. Would you ever consider writing the foreword for my book?' He said, 'Your guitar pictures are going to inspire young kids to pick up the guitar and play so they can customize it their own way.'"
Opens with a private event Sunday, December 3. On view to the public Monday, December 4, February 28, 2017, at Gallery 88, 237 20th St., Miami Beach. Admission is free.