Joe Johnson – Office Hours with Joe Johnson
Office Hours with Joe Johnson is a photobook that offers poignant commentary on the world of academia. Johnson, a photography professor at the University of Missouri, photographed his surroundings on campus during office hours – the pockets of time between classroom instruction spent meeting face to face with students, corresponding via email, and fulfilling administrative tasks.
The book is meticulously designed. The cover is screen printed and the interior is risograph printed using black, white, and orchid inks, which adds variation and expands upon the idea of what a risograph book can be. Despite the use of riso, which can often be seen as inferior to other types of printing, or more suitable for making zines and prints, the book feels substantial and satisfying as an object.
Office Hours is divided into two sections. The first compiles Johnson’s images, richly printed on thick uncoated paper. The second section consists solely of bits of text communicated verbally or electronically to Johnson by his students. These correspondences provide an integral perspective shift from the teacher’s images to the students’ words:
It is your privilege, not your right, to educate me.
My time is not less valuable than yours.
Even people who never learned photography, they can do it too.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but in your privileged life, you are going to encounter many impoverished and neurodivergent people in all shapes and sizes.
The last thing you need to be is a snide horse’s ass.
The students’ comments question Johnson’s position of authority, his disposition, and the role and value of institutional education itself. Academia often neglects the notions of privilege, hierarchy, and elitism; these things exist yet aren’t addressed. One can understand the mounting frustration this can cause for students who must navigate these boundaries and dynamics on a daily basis. Paradoxically, the opportunity to receive an education comes with the possibility – perhaps even the responsibility – of challenging its preconceived value systems.
As a photobook, the success of Office Hours rests peculiarly upon the words rather than the pictures. Johnson’s images, mostly vague and angular abstractions of seemingly insignificant objects and scenes, are less interesting as standalone visual pieces than they are when viewed as supporting material in the form of context and setting.
The students’ comments question Johnson’s position of authority, his disposition, and the role and value of institutional education itself.
Shot in grainy monochrome and heavily flash-lit, the photographs provide no internal context for the viewer to know when or where they were taken. To photograph, or even to see, the same space repeatedly requires a reimagining of its components – objects and patterns placed and replaced, forgotten about and remembered, disappearing and reemerging. Different elements of Johnson’s surroundings appear from page to page – curtains, windows, papers, binder clips, a model skeleton. Many of the photographs seem voyeuristic, as if shot from the hip without the subjects’ knowledge. A student’s pair of beaten up Vans and ripped jeans, the back of a student’s baseball cap, another’s eyes peering over a book. When the viewer begins to piece together the individual images, it’s as if Johnson roams the campus as an omnipresent overseer. Whether he documents these things out of a sense of boredom, interest, or a desire to control his environment, one cannot say. More importantly, Johnson’s gaze points toward the idea that the daily minutiae of existence in academia can be so mind-numbing that the eye turns to a variety of different visual elements to entertain itself.
Johnson’s perspective is that of someone who teaches photography for a living but who also seemingly feels the weight of weariness, and perhaps even disillusionment and dread, as he sits at his desk waiting for the next scheduled meeting in an endless string of scheduled meetings.
But perhaps his students are teaching him more than he knows. The academic world consists of an innate power struggle and the navigation of hierarchical structures built around the pretense of the undeniable value of knowledge. Knowledge might be power, but it can also be a detriment to creativity. The more we know, the more we can be bogged down by tradition, expectation, and the desire to maintain the status quo rather than challenge it.
As disillusionment grows, it often carries freedom along with it. While Johnson might possess more photographic knowledge, experience, and authority, his students possess the freedom and ability to think and to create – to choose whether to listen or to speak. It’s Johnson’s students who are in a position to utilize the structures of academia to work for them and not be controlled by them.
Johnson’s perspective is that of someone who teaches photography for a living but who also seemingly feels the weight of weariness, and perhaps even disillusionment and dread…
As someone without an institutional art education, I can empathize with the students’ concerns and the perspective that comes from being an outsider, or someone in a subordinate position. The system of formal education, in the arts or otherwise, is not an echo chamber. It is sometimes better to push back against structure, authority, and canon rather than accept preordained institutional values as your own.
In Office Hours, the combination of Johnson’s images with his students’ words reveals the complicated dynamics of an academic environment. In the end, the book suggests a wider, unforeseen perspective shift – Johnson’s own – that of a teacher who, like all of us, still has a lot left to learn.