Lisa S. Johnson is the author and artist/photographer behind the stunning new coffee table book, 108 Rock Star Guitars (September 16, 2013), an embossed red leatherette-bound, 396- page collection of images of some of the worldʼs most iconic and cherished instruments. The book is the culmination of a 17-year journey that began when Johnson had the opportunity to photograph the guitar of renowned musician and inventor Les Paul, recognized as one of the early pioneers of the solid body electric guitar, during one of his regular Monday night sets at New Yorkʼs famed Iridium Club.
Johnson, whose nomadic upbringing eventually led to her career in photography, was working in New York as a technical sales rep for Kodak. In an effort to gain as much knowledge as possible about the products she sold to labs and commercial photographers, she had armed herself with her own gear and shot extensively, experimenting with processes and every type of film she had in her inventory.
Though her photos of Paulʼs guitar were the catalyst for creating the book, Johnson began shooting guitars while she lived in the music mecca of Memphis, just one of many locales including Houston, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where she lived and worked for Kodak. There she met and dated Hank Sable who co-owned Rod and Hankʼs Vintage Guitars. Her dad–a musician who played numerous instruments and organized regular hootenannies at his farm, where a teenage Johnson sang her grandmotherʼs songs and photographed the scene as a way to better connect with him– asked her to keep an eye out for a Gibson mandolin. She wanted to present the instrument as a gift and when a 1917 Gibson A-1 came in, she and Hank struck a deal: “Photograph some guitars,” he told her, “and weʼll make a trade.”
Johnson recalls that as the first time she fell in love with her photography, the first time she was truly excited and wanted people to see her images. She had already begun to develop what would become her artistic signature style—macrophotography—conjuring the abstract while intentionally illustrating the intimate details, the “personality marks,” of the instrument—exposing the passion scratches, well-worn grooves, and personal touches that embody the essence and true spirit of the musician.
Like those of the instruments she shoots, Johnsonʼs own life is full of “personality marks.” Born in a small town in Northern California, her father found work as a television cameraman and moved the family to Hollywood while she was still a baby. By the time she turned seven, the family uprooted again and headed to Slave Lake, Alberta, a tiny enclave on Indian lands belonging to the Sawridge First Nation and a former fur-trading outpost, where Johnsonʼs father had family. They occupied the living quarters attached to her Auntʼs grocery, before moving to their own small trailer. They eventually settled into a little house where Johnson remembers her mother singing constantly, the songs of country greats including Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and others.
“I grew up listening to all those amazing guitarists and voices and would learn to sing their songs with my mother,” she recalls. “Even now I get emotional thinking about it as it was during such a hard time of my parents break up. Many of those songs back then were about break ups, alcohol abuse and hard times. It all rang true around our house.
After her parentsʼ divorce Johnson, her, older sister and mother moved to Penticton, British Columbia a few hours north of Vancouver. They had very little money and lived a simple life, but one filled with the music that brought them closer together. In fact, Johnson remembers learning to drive on the rural gravel roads in a 1955 Ford 150 truck while the three belted out Dolly Parton songs.
Always a hard worker, Johnson held down three jobs for a year to save money for travel. At 20 she embarked on a yearlong adventure trekking solo across Europe and South Africa. After her travels, she moved to Florida, where she had an epiphany. She noticed the numerous billboards that lined the roads, and realized almost all of them featured photography. She decided it could be a career, and ultimately one she pursued with conviction despite her fatherʼs vehement disapproval.
She studied photography at Brevard Community College, a small liberal arts college in Cocoa, Florida and subsequently went to work in nearby Melbourne, at Atlantic Photo Technologies, an underground photo lab that handled high-level, often secret projects for many of the local aerospace and high tech companies including NASA, GE and Grumman Aerospace. Here, she learned more about printing and processing film, experimented with Photoshop and various types of image software.
She developed a working relationship with the rep for Kodak and asked about career opportunities at the iconic company. Within a year, she had been hired and moved to Rochester, New York, for a nine-month training program where she started learning about the various films, paper and processing chemicals she would soon be selling.
In addition to her passion for music and photography – and deeply ingrained into every aspect of her life – is her spiritual devotion and practice of yoga. She fell madly in love with the ancient discipline and pursued a path of teaching. When she left Kodak in 2002, she became an instructor and opened two yoga studios near her home in Las Vegas. She would often photograph famous rock guitars when their owners came through town on tour. She sold her yoga facilities in 2009 and devoted herself full time to the book. Her connections to the legends of music deeply satiate her artistic leanings, fulfill her familial past and indulge her aesthetic eye. When she reaches out to stars with her request, the response is often refreshing, “You just want to shoot my guitar? Thatʼs cool!”
Currently, Johnson resides in Las Vegas where she shares her life with her partner Michael and two dogs.