Kevin Johnson photographs men and women with washboard abs, perfect derrieres and pretty faces. In those photos, you’re likely to see flawless bodies that are well seasoned to the lens– who know their way around a photo shoot, whose unwanted hair has been removed and whose eyes know how to “speak” to the camera.
But that’s just part of his day job running his public-relations firm Boots Bryant PR, which handles online marketing, social media, press releases, blogging, and product-demonstration videos and photography for, currently, six companies that fall primarily within the sex-accessories industry.
As a photographic artist, however, Johnson is more interested in models of a very different type. In the pictures he produces for his own pleasure and creative articulation, you’re more apt to see guys who enjoy swigging down a six-pack instead of sporting one. A body covered in hair is one to be appreciated rather than one to be shaved. And what’s being “sold” in those images are provocative ideas, not lubricants.
Johnson himself is a walking, talking study of how media can manipulate (or be manipulated) to present desired images that are contrary to their original subject matter. Before meeting him, I saw photos of him online that showed a seemingly tough, possibly even intimidating, dude who might make for an arrogant interviewee; the person I met, though, was polite and easy-going, and he even fed me lunch.
For someone who has mastered the art of artifice, he is a man who is quite real. In talking to him about why he makes art and what his approach to it is, some of his replies may sound like the familiar verbiage we so often hear from artists, with notes of “therapy” and “express myself,” but, in being present with him, you see the truth in and behind his blue-gray eyes. When he discusses how, before realizing his artistic abilities, he used food to cope, he’s extremely forthcoming in providing details about his own and his family’s unhealthy lifestyles. When he tells the story behind a self-portrait, in which he is maniacally upchucking a jagged, violent ray of red light, his eyes moisten, and his voice becomes delicate, and it becomes clear that the backstory about being “dumped” last year could have had a very different, and unfortunate, ending.
The path he chose, instead of a self-destructive one, is currently on display at Vivid Framing & Lighting, 501 East Broadway. Bearing Light in the Darkest Hours features long-exposure, light-painting photography, a new venture for Johnson, who said that, after his break-up in October, he “needed something new that would hit the reset button.” The process involves leaving an SLR camera’s shutter open, with the device in manual mode, shining a light on a model in a pitch-black room to”paint” them in, and moving a small light source around the model, which leaves an impression as if you’ve painted in the air.
Johnson, who never went to school for photography and instead learned by assisting professional photographers on their sets, said the technique opens up new possibilities for him. “Sure, I could schedule a hot guy to come to my studio and take pictures, and go through them and look at them and gawk at them,” he said. “But then what do I do when I’m sitting on the couch? Light painting gave me something new to think about, like when I’m on the couch, in between photo shoots. So, I just used it as free therapy.”
He says he doesn’t think he’ll tire of light painting and instead will build upon what he’s already done. He’s contemplating ideas for his next series, called The Art of Self-Sabotage, which, he says, will explore how we are our own worst enemies and how we can destroy things for ourselves faster than anyone else can.
I made his acquaintance at his Long Beach home one Tuesday afternoon. An air of welcomeness was evident there: his accommodating assistant was around to lend a hand; Johnson was dogsitting a black Lab named Lola; and a friend named Coy was visiting from San Francisco, with his Chihuahua Sassafras in tow. Johnson demonstrated his light-painting technique by using me as a model, then we sat and ate pizza and breadsticks as we talked, and our conversation veered easily from creative technicalities to the profound impact that self-image plays in an artist’s work.
First of all, what’s the story behind the name “Boots Bryant?” And did you know that there’s at least one other “Boots Bryant?”
A wedding planner?
This one is a middle-aged woman who handles technical support of cellphones for AT&T in Clarksville, Tennessee?
That’s funny. She probably hates me– she goes to Google herself and gets an eyeful. “Boots Bryant” started as a joke, and now it’s a business with a bank account and a line of credit. I was at a party in 2006, and everyone was drunk and was like, “What’s your stripper name?” Your first pet and the first street you lived on. So, my first cat was named Boots– all-black cat with white paws, and the white went up, and it looked like boots. And we lived on Bryant Street, up in the Valley. So, that’s how it started, and then the next year I was writing for a magazine, and they sent me out to cover events.
AVN (Adult Video News). So they would send me out to write about an event, and they would send me with a camera to do the event photography, and they didn’t want my editor name and the photographer’s name to be the same, so I started using “Boots Bryant.”
Your art features a lot of nudity and sexual situations. In fact, one of your series is entitled The Art of Cruising, which was made into a very sexy calendar. Why do you think sexuality plays such a strong role in your art?
I’m a very sexual person, and I always have been. I mean, since puberty, ever since I can remember. And our PR company, all of our clients are adult toys and personal-care cosmetics, lubes, stuff like that. So, it’s just a big part of me. And my art is what I use as a form of free therapy, you know. It’s how I express what I have inside, what I need to get out so it doesn’t eat me alive. The Art of Cruising, in particular, I’ve been working on since 2009, and I just Googled “infamous cruising spots Southern California,” and I just went and photographed them all. And then I went back to, not necessarily that spot, but just found a new location where there would be nobody, with models, and we would re-create encounters and scenarios. It was a calendar in 2011, and now I’m working on a coffee-table book. I have 77 pages laid out.
How many of those cruising spots are in Long Beach?
I think 40 percent of it was shot down here.
Are there any in Signal Hill?
Not that I know of.
I saw an oil derrick in one of the pictures.
Yes! I’ve done shoots in Signal Hill, but I don’t know that that’s a real infamous cruising spot. Because usually I would go to the infamous cruising spot and shoot that– like if they would post signs like “Monitored by un-uniformed police officers,” and they warn you, these are infamous spots, the cops know about them. So I would go shoot those spots, and when I re-enacted stuff or shot the actual sexy pictures with the models, it was not the infamous cruising spot, because there would be people there, you know what I mean? And, if you bring out a camera in a place like that, they don’t like you so much. It’s like bringing out a camera at a nude beach.
Is it difficult to find people who are willing to be photographed nude?
It was in the beginning when I didn’t have a portfolio of work to really show, because, first of all, it sounds like such a pick-up line– (imitating creepy voice) “Oh, I’m a photographer,” you know? They all think you’re Bob Guccione from Penthouse, and you’re going to try to sleep with them. It’s gotten a lot easier, now that I’ve been doing it for a while, and I’ve gotten some work under my belt and in my portfolio. I have more people coming to me… and I keep a bank of potential future models that I go to, and I try to get those people before I post an ad looking for a model. But, even still, now, yeah, there’s a lot of people who are just shy. That’s why the Macherine, the mask series that I’ve been working on (featuring individuals whose identities are concealed by masks), that’s why a lot of people will opt to do that, because they’re anonymous. Nobody’s going to know it’s them. If they have a tattoo or something, I Photoshop it out. The whole point of that series is about anonymity, and, you know, what people will do if they know they’re behind the cloak of anonymity.
What do you look for when you seek out models to photograph?
It depends on what the project is. Most of my art projects, I shoot different body types, different ages. I don’t really discriminate. When I’m doing it for art, I like all different types of people. When someone hires me to do a shoot for their catalog or something, then it’s up to the client. All of my clients are really picky. They want six-pack abs. They want a perfect butt. They want a cute face. They want someone who’s not going to stand there and look like a deer in headlights. So, usually that’s when I go to modeling agencies, and I pick from what they have to offer.
I noticed that one of your images online has a “censored” box over it. How do you decide where to draw the line, in terms of what is too much?
Well, I’m on my fourth Facebook account because I [thought], “Well, it’s art. I’m not shooting porn. So what if there’s nudity?” And I would just post it, and they kept deleting my account. So now I just censor stuff that’s pretty much for Facebook…It takes you a long time to build up, like, a fan base, and then for all of that to just go away, it’s like, how do you go find all those people?
Being a photographer, as opposed to, you know, a painter, do you ever have bouts of artist block?
Oh, yeah, just like writer’s block. In fact, when I first started doing photography, I was a writer, and I had creative writer’s block because I was writing for a magazine during the day, and I wrote all day for the magazine, so when I got home, I didn’t feel like writing anymore. So, I started picking up my camera to express myself artistically.
As an artist, what would you say is your “point-of-view?”
“Sexy comes in all shapes and sizes.” And people I want to sleep with and date is not the same as who I want to photograph a lot of times. A lot of times, if you’re shooting for a catalog, you’ve got to have that perfect model with six-pack abs and all that– that’s not what I’m attracted to. I like regular Average Joes. I’m in the bear community. I just like real guys, for me. I’ve always found that an Average Joe is a whole lot more fun than someone who looks perfect and has a six-pack, and they just lay there and, you know, just look pretty.
What do you think it is that makes someone– and this is a generalization, but I’m playing off of what you just said– what do you think it is that makes someone who has more of a perfect body, with a six-pack, not as much fun in bed, as opposed to someone who isn’t that way?
Well, I think that the person who’s just a little bit out of shape probably wants to do more to make up for what they lack physically. I used to weigh 350 pounds.
Wow. How tall are you?
6’1”. I had a 54-inch waist. So, I’ve lost, like, 150 pounds, but I’m never going to have a porn star’s body. I mean, once you’ve destroyed your body by being over 300 pounds, you have problem zones. I, for sure, know that I’m doing whatever I can to keep you distracted from looking at my body and make sure you have a good time. So, I’ve just kind of found that to be the case with other people I’ve met– that the chemistry’s better with other Average Joes than the models who just want to be looked at and admired.
May I ask how old you are?
How long did it take you to lose that weight?
I was 350 when I was 19, and six months after I discovered crystal meth, I had lost a hundred pounds, and I stopped doing that, and then I gained some back. And then I slowly tried to [lose weight healthfully] over time and make it more of a lifestyle. So, between [the ages of] 20 and 25 it took me to really balance out and stop yo-yo-ing. But, once I lost the 100 pounds, I never went back past 250.
How did you gain that weight to begin with?
My whole family is over 300 pounds. Actually, I just saw my folks, and they each lost over 60 pounds. My brother has too, and they’re looking really good, and I’m really proud of them. It just comes from– it’s your family. Their family raised them to eat comfort food, and mine raised me to eat comfort food. It gets passed down, and somehow you’ve just got to break the cycle. My brother seems to have broken the cycle with his daughter, my niece. She’s thin, and she’s a beautiful little girl. She’s a great kid. I think it’s part genetics; some of us, we can smell food and gain weight…. I think, with all the emotional problems I had as a teenager, I didn’t do art. I didn’t have the outlet, so I ate when I was upset, and I was upset a lot of the time. So, now, instead of trying to fix a problem with a Hoagie, I try to fix the problem with doing, you know, a photo shoot or art of some sort.
A closing-night party for Bearing Light in the Darkest Hours will take place Saturday, Aug. 17. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call (562) 513-3064 or visit bootsbryant.com .