In Conversation: Taylor Johnson

Taylor Kay Johnson is a fine art and editorial photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from California College of the Arts. Her work has recently been exhibited at the Aperture Foundation gallery in New York and presented by The California Sunday Magazine’s first all photography issue and exhibition, “At Home: In The American West.” Taylor has recently had editorial projects published in The California Sunday Magazine and Bloomberg Businessweek, and her first book, Kings, was published by D3i Press in 2018 and follows the lives of teenage boxers in Oakland, California.


King’s Boxing Gym is a sweaty sanctuary tucked under an overpass. Many of the buildings in the neighborhood are sagging and bowed; graffiti colors the streets. The interior of the gym mirrors these characteristics – cardio machines are held together with duct tape, heavy bags are split and patched back together, plywood sheets on the floor are so well worn they appear to be marbled. Photographs and posters line the walls, instantly exposing the history of the space and the legends within. There are veterans in this establishment that grew into men and women within the walls of this warehouse. King’s is a fighter’s yellow brick road.

Boxing is strength as well as performance. It is bravery as well as vulnerability. I am interested in the making of a fighter, rather than the result. The moments before a bout can be more complex and charged than the fight itself. Each contender, young and old, has a hunger for something great. My photographs memorialize these fighters before they become kings.

J: Thanks for talking with me. To begin, what got you interested in photography in general and more specifically, documenting young athletes?

T: My high school in Sacramento had a photography class with a super crusty (but gigantic) darkroom. I took it freshman year, probably with non-artistic intentions like better MySpace photos or something … Sharing photographs, seeing how people react to seeing themselves in a way that makes them feel good and empowered was huge for me. The transition into photographing young athletes still somehow feels accidental, even though it was the result of some of the most important life decisions I have ever made. I had a really tumultuous relationship with alcohol and various prescription drugs and separating myself from that was such an emotional process. King’s Boxing Gym was closest to my place of work at the time, so I decided to give it my all. I trained twice a day, generally 2 hours per session, so in the beginning, I was boxing my anger away for about 4 hours a day haha. The owners, employees, and members of the gym started to feel like family. I brought my camera in and started photographing all the kids. In a strange way, they not only became some of my most valued friendships, but they also became my role models.

T: I definitely feel like I was most interested in photographing the girls at the gym even though there were way more boys there. I was interested in young girls being encouraged and supported by their families and mothers to pursue something as traditionally masculine as boxing. I always felt so pushed by my mother to be more feminine than I naturally was, so I was crazy fascinated by these girls celebrating their toughness and strength. However, I felt like the work of teenage boys participated in a similar conversation. The young girls and boys at the gym were both being pushed into such a rigid box of athletic masculinity. In so many ways, they were so clearly not a perfect match to the expectations of boxing celebrities, whether that be due to age, muscle mass, weight, frame.

J: Do you see your interest in photographing femme people in masculine spaces continuing either through new work about other sports or other spaces? Or does that feel coincidental for you?

T: In a way, it was coincidental in that I didn’t know how powerful it would be for me to see young girls being encouraged by their families to box, be strong, and exhibit power. I think that I will always approach photographing athletics in that way because it’s a really unique vehicle for celebration. On the other hand, I find that at every public sports event, like the Olympics for example, there is so much criticism around women’s bodies. I think it’s important to get involved in conversations about the way women are discussed when they exhibit strength, and to find ways of empowering people instead of feeding our cultural habit of stuffing everyone inside this box of what femininity “should” look like.

J: What is it like when you’re photographing? Tell me more about your process.

T: I panic for about 1-5 hours, take way too long socializing with the kids and their parents, and then get super overwhelmed and convince myself that it will be okay and I might get some very saucy photos today. I would say most importantly, I’m super open about directing the people in my photographs and asking for their input. Some kids are beyond stoked to say “I want a photo of myself doing this,” and that is without question my favorite starting point. I also love to notice what they do when they’re waiting for me to load film or fix my flash setting or something. I think those moments of boredom and resting habits usually lead me to be like “Oh my god wait and stay right there.

J: How important or unimportant are the parents in your image-making?

T: The parents are an incredible part of the relationship. I think that you always have to be conscious of how a parent feels when you’re photographing their kid. Whenever possible, the parents should be the very first people you speak to. I think once the trust between myself and the parents is built, I feel confident taking more impromptu photos and being more impulsive about when I think a photograph will be essential in that very moment.

J: That makes sense from a logistics viewpoint. Can you talk about your decision to photograph in all black and white? Have you ever used color in your work?

T: When I got to King’s, the first thing I noticed was the walls being lined with historic black and white posters as well as actual darkroom prints. There were signed photographs from boxers all over the United States, thanking Mr. King for being the star he is! I thought it would be a sick homage to the gym, the history of boxing, and the history of photography to start photographing these kids like they were old school boxing celebrities. I think that over time the adults and the kids end up appreciating the quality and overall differences that film has to offer, but sometimes it takes some convincing. Sometimes I have to say something like, “this is the camera they brought to the moon!” for them to [agree to it].

J: I know for a recent past exhibition, you’ve sold some of the work and donated the money to the people in the portraits. Can you talk about how representation and tangible outcomes are important to work and exhibitions?

T: That was the goal! Unfortunately, I didn’t sell a single photograph and I didn’t get any donations for his basketball expenses. I can genuinely say that took a lot of wind out of my sails. I just want the parents that are supporting their kids following their dreams to be seen and appreciated as actual unsung heroes. Also, athletics are freaking expensive.

T: However, there was a very recent experience that kind of wrecked my headspace about the whole idea and philosophy around it. I’m going to leave all the names and details about the image for privacy reasons. A company asked to use one of my images for a campaign they were working on, and they offered $500 to the subject and $1500 to me. The family and I talked everything over and I thought it would be [good] to split it 50/50 [instead]. We all thought they were still underpaying us but were excited about the campaign. The company ended up emailing me saying the photo didn’t make the cut … When I at first contacted [the family] with the news, things were really sweet and positive, but about a week later I got a message from the parents suggesting that I had stolen all of the money for myself. Obviously, this was easily solved by some email forwards of the notices, but it changed the way I felt about almost everything. I have always prided myself on being so close to those that I photograph and their families, with mutual trust being a necessary ingredient when photographing anybody, especially teenagers and kids. To be honest, I’m still absolutely wrecked about it and don’t know if I want to photograph people for a while. I might get past it sooner than I realize but I also feel really confused by the role of a photographer right now.

J: Your response to trying to sell the work and having a hard time with it is probably a bigger conversation that needs to be had about ‘lateral’ art collecting for younger artists and adjacent communities. In some way, photography is a way for you to say “I appreciate you” to the families and kids, but at the same time, only financial resources are really moving them forward tangibly in their sport. I’m sorry that happened to you — it can be so hard to work with communities who have been historically treated like shit and have reason to be distrustful, even if you’re part of them yourself. If you were to take a break from people, do you know some ways you might start to photograph outside of portraiture?

T: Oh damn, Amen. I think we all struggle even to support and collect our closest friends’ work in the way we want to. On another note, I think there is always a part of me that wants art communities to be a little more open and honest with themselves about the cities that they gentrify. I think artists are really quick to throw their hands up and say “but I’m broke too!” when I think we really miss the point. Photography does feel like a vehicle in which I can show appreciation but it also feels like way more should be happening.

T: I don’t know if you’re familiar with this insanely phenomenal artist Jordan Reznick, but I watched one of their lectures at [California College of the Arts] recently and was so in awe of their talent release contract. First, the person in the photograph got to choose on a sliding scale what percentage of the profits they made if the work ever got sold or decide if that money should instead go to charity. Secondly, they received the contract after the photographs were taken, including a list of all the files. The subject could then decide which photographs should never see the light of day and should be deleted permanently. That collaboration felt really monumental to me, like this is what respect and love is … It’s important to always consider that people usually mistrust because they’ve been really hurt in the past. Honoring people’s fears can be a really important part of understanding a friend’s pain. It’s all really fresh and I probably shouldn’t let fear be guiding my practice. However, it might be useful for me to take some space to photograph without my work consisting exclusively of people that I know, maybe working with strangers and being able to say goodbye afterward would actually be a useful weekly or monthly practice for me to kind of relax.

J: I love their work; that’s a radical model of image release compared to what we’re used to seeing from companies and other photographers. I also understand feeling torn up about where you’re situated in this mess with a camera. What did you feel your role as a photographer was and how has that changed? How do you think you might make your role as the photographer more transparent in the future as you mentioned? There are definitely a lot of different avenues to doing that.

T: I put a lot of pressure on photography to be this thing that magically connects us, and that vision is still 100% there for me. I mean, would Instagram be so powerful if we didn’t think we “knew” people from looking at a photograph of them? Closeness is also what makes my role as a photographer difficult. I’ve never photographed a kid crying or with a bloody nose after a fight because I know I wouldn’t do that to a friend.

T: Strangely enough, I think one of my biggest weaknesses is not showing people work that I’ve made that I don’t think is ‘good.’ I used to tell myself all the time that I would bring in contact sheets, so they could see the process. Every time I would see all the failures on a roll I would tell myself, ‘no, you can’t bring this in, then everyone is going to know you suck at taking photos and every win was actually an accident.’ I mean, obviously, I know that’s not ‘true’ but it feels true in my head. I think what all my confused babbling is trying to say is that: I am open to suggestions!

J: How do your exhibition edits and sequences change from exhibition to exhibition over the years – for example, Kings, shown in this article and which you’ve shown exhibited times?

T: I would say the way in which I’ve approached exhibiting Kings has changed massively. My first ever show was a lot more experimental; I included screen prints of some of the work I made, but I got a lot of feedback that it wasn’t really working. A lot of people wished that the screen prints were photos. I would also often build the show around my favorite print, which would always be the biggest one. Then once I started photographing pro boxers, I changed the sizing to make every photograph a mural print, so the photos of the kids were the same size and importance as the photographs of the pros. I think the most intricately I ever looked at sequence was when I made my book with D3i Press, which is run by friends I met in my undergraduate program at [California College of the ARrts], Jiajun (Sean) Wang and Flavie Liu, both whom of which are incredible artists. Sean has this way of sequencing that just blows my mind, and he really taught me a lot through this bookmaking process. Now, even when I submit my work for review or for competitions, I use a lot more diptychs and sequencing techniques.

J: I also noticed you’ve done several commissions recently for California Sunday on similar topics to your personal work — how do you separate or merge the two different areas?

T: First of all, I want to give a massive shoutout to Jackie Bates, for being a freaking angel. The last assignment I did for her, I was able to choose my subjects, two being teenagers I had worked with before (Zyrria and Keanu). She basically said in our meeting while pointing to photographs that I already had of the kids, ‘more stuff like this,’ except in a much more eloquent, pointed, photo-editor kind of way. I am always going to approach photographing kids in a similar manner, wanting them to feel heard and also wanting to represent the sides of themselves that don’t usually get shown in front of a camera. I would say the only difference between my personal work and the work I’ve done for California Sunday is when I’m shooting editorial, I know what the story is and what I need to address. When I’m shooting for myself, I have no idea what the story is or what I need to expand upon. I think there are pros and cons to both, and I always feel challenged and invigorated when shooting editorial. It’s such a blessing, dropping into the most vivid aspects of people’s lives and documenting that. I don’t think I’ll ever lose reverence for that process.

J: That’s a good point about dropping into the most vivid aspects of people’s lives for a moment and the privilege that can be for a photographer. How do you approach photographing people in those moments with empathy and understanding, even if you don’t know them or their everyday story? Also an interesting point about the differences in knowing the ‘full story’ shooting for others versus your personal work.

T: As simple as it sounds, it goes back to approaching everyone with the intent of a friendship. Even if you don’t have the ability – financially, geographically, etc – to return to them and meet with them, you should always treat someone you’re photographing like you’re gonna see each other again. I’m also lucky that I usually photograph people in an environment where they’re surrounded by their loved ones. Watching the way people interact with their friends and family makes it really obvious the way they enjoy being treated and what puts them in a comfortable space … I feel like this should be said more often in relationship to photography: people aren’t down with being treated like they’re disposable. Don’t do that.

J: Definitely true. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on your process and images!

T: Thank you so much J!

To view more of Taylor Johnson’s work please visit her website.