“Fruits of Our Labor,” an exhibit of images by photographer Susan Johnson shot during the summers of 2021 and 2022, features the bounty of her and her partner’s numerous gardens and the ensuing harvest.
On display at Homer Council on the Arts through October, it also showcases Johnson’s mutual passions for gardening and photography and is intended to compel the viewer to pause and consider the many nuances of a harvest.
“It is a simple beauty that comes from the ‘Fruits of Our Labor’, a simple thrill derived from the picking of the daily harvest,” she said. “For the small grower, there is an immense sense of pride in the final product. Even if it’s not technically grocery store perfect, it is perfect, because it has been lovingly looked after, cheered on through every stage of development, eventually ripening into the eagerly anticipated harvest.”
Included in the exhibit is Johnson’s photograph “Six of One” that shows a bowl of eggs in various shades of blue and green. This image is one in a separate series of photographs she has taken over the years that focuses on the colorful eggs her Easter Egger chickens had been producing.
“Hanging Pumpkins” features small pumpkins growing on the center trellis in the couple’s high tunnel, the result of Johnson’s passion for small pumpkins, which she grows inside vertically every year.
“Cartful of Carrots” shows bundles of carrots, a showcase of her partner’s handiwork, as he is the one that takes care of their large, outside garden.
With these photographs, Johnson celebrates the color, shape and texture of the harvest, while providing the viewer an opportunity to stop and appreciate the simplicity of the fresh harvest.
“Our food sources are often taken for granted and it’s important for us to learn more about them,” she said. “We should also take the time to understand and respect the work involved.
“Growing one’s own food is a full-time job, for sure, but the effort is worth it to be able to continue to taste the harvest throughout the cold and dark of winter. During this time of quiet, while we still enjoy the stored fruits of this year’s labor is also a perfect time to start planning for next year’s harvest and photo project.”
Johnson and her partner, Dennis Bossie, live in Kasilof and have been gathering and growing the majority of their food for the past several years. The couple’s gardens include a 20- by 25-foot high tunnel where they grow peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, beans, peas, pumpkins and corn; a garden with 50-foot rows for potatoes, carrots and strawberries; a moose-fenced area for raised beds and fruits and berries; two mushroom beds where they grow wine cap mushrooms; and two small greenhouses — one dedicated to garlic and onions and the other to cucumbers and zucchini. They also keep several chickens for eggs, have in the past raised a hog, dipnet the Kasilof River and surf cast for halibut off Kasilof Beach.
Johnson’s exhibit title “Fruits of Our Labor” is intended to recognize her and her partner’s shared effort, which has for the past two years been a full-time and year-round job for them both. Capturing the beauty of their efforts through her photography, Johnson has reconnected with her longtime love for the medium, having studied photography at college in Boston, followed by 30 years working in traditional photo printing. She moved on from photography to X-ray technology when analogue photography was evolving into digital and she saw the photo business as unstable during the transition.
Re-immersing in photography and eager to learn to print her own images, Johnson has for the past several years been teaching herself digital photography and printing. Now she shoots during the summer months, soon after harvest, and spends the slower winter months processing and printing her images, which she has exhibited numerous times locally, including Homer Council on the Arts, the Homer Public Library and year-round at Ptarmigan Arts.
Drawn to the Kenai Peninsula for the natural beauty and creative community, Johnson moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Homer in 2014 after visiting her daughter who lives in Anchorage.
“I knew that Homer was my spot in the universe and a place where my soul felt right,” she said. “My former career provided stable employment, but not a means to create and I felt like something was missing. I wanted to live and work here and was energized by the prospect of being involved in such a beautiful and creative community.”
From 2015 to 2021, Johnson worked at the hospital as an X-ray technician, exploring photography in her downtime. Between 2019 and 2021, she traveled back and forth between her home in Homer and her partner’s home in Kasilof several times a week as the couple built their greenhouses, gardens and high tunnel.
After slipping on the ice outside of work and when problems associated with post-concussion syndrome began to interfere with her being able to do her job, Johnson chose to retire and move to Kasilof to live and garden with her partner full time. Now she spends the summer months gardening and fishing and the winter months immersed in her photography.
While she has a family background in farming — including her father’s family being meat and dairy farmers in Connecticut from the late 1800s until the mid 1960s, an uncle who continued dairy farming after the main dairy closed who she helped with haying, and her parents own large garden that she helped to tend — what ultimately inspired Johnson to learn and try to grow her own food were vendors at the Homer Farmers Markets and Don McNamara and Donna Rae Faulkner, owners of Oceanside Farms out East End Road.
“The market and farm were both, by far, my biggest source of inspiration and information,” she said. “I’ve been going to farmers markets my whole life and I remember spending a week in Homer with my daughter in 2010. We bought food for our trip at the market and it created a lasting impression.
“Along with the strong arts community here, the Homer Farmers Market was a big consideration for my decision to move here. I lived near Don and Donna’s Oceanside Farms and every time I saw them, they would share some bit of knowledge. Their high tunnels inspired ours and I ate from their farm for years and wanted to continue to do the same. Now, more often than not, most of what is on our plates we either raised, fished or grew.”
No matter how busy Johnson is with gardening and harvesting, she makes time for her photography. This winter she will be working on her “Egg” series as a continuing focus on sustainability, with the hopes of a future exhibit in Kenai or Anchorage.
“Creativity is a necessary source of strength for me when I feels that something is missing in my life,” she said. “Nothing can center me more effectively than the process of planning and working on a photo project. Except maybe gardening.”