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Photo Preservation

Image Consciousness


Published February 23, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Some pictures are not really worth the proverbial thousand words; others are worth a whole lot more. The sumptuous "adventure photography" of Brian Mohr and Emily Johnson, currently exhibited at La Brioche Bakery in Montpelier, fall into the latter camp. And "camp" is an apt expression here, because the Moretown couple has spent many an overnight in some of the planet's wildest environs in order to capture these images.

In fact, their exhibit is titled "Wild People, Wild Places," but its purpose is not simply to show pretty pictures from exotic locales. Mohr and Johnson have an earnest mission behind their methods: to promote the enjoyment and protection of natural resources, and to "generate greater awareness of the wild areas" in our own back yards. Toward that end, they enlisted sponsorships from local businesses and organizations, such as the Green Mountain Club and Forest Watch, which share a devotion to ecology and conservation. The exhibit includes, for example, a descriptive display about the Vermont Wilderness Proposal and a map of the Long Trail. Altogether the images and text represent a collusion of environmentalism, activism and art.

"The show is really about the protected areas in Vermont, and not just wilderness and the Green Mountain Forest," Mohr says. "It's also a matter of smart growth, sensible town use and how we use the remaining open land in Vermont... We're hoping this show generates some interest in what we have to do and how to get there."

Many thousands of words have been employed on these subjects in Vermont alone, and the loquacious Mohr is happy to contribute to the dialogue. But consciousness-raising aside, his and Johnson's photographs -- they share credit on everything -- can also be appreciated simply for their beauty. In the nearly 50 vivid shots at La Brioche, the spectacular views provided by Mother Nature are enhanced by this couple's skills in composition and in capturing the interplay of light and shadow. And while some shots were spontaneous, Mohr and Johnson often put themselves in the right place -- say, the top of a mountain -- and wait patiently for the right light conditions to come along.

Of course, inclement weather might come along, too. "If it's wet and blowing around, it can be tough," Mohr concedes. "I use a UV filter to cover the lens. When that gets wet, I'll pull out another one ... It's a constant struggle, but it makes it a whole lot of fun."

In fact, when most of us are seeking cozy shelter, Mohr and Johnson often go with the snow. "One of our favorite things to do is go out in a storm and be in it -- not only survive, but have a great time in it," Mohr says. "We'll ski up to a shelter, listen to the wind roar through the treetops, and spend the night until it just ceases altogether." In the morning when the sun is shining and the snow is glistening, "it's really magical here in the Green Mountains," he says. "The changing of the seasons, and the schizophrenic weather, make it really easy to stay motivated as a photographer -- every day we wake up it's a little different."

The images at La Brioche tend to portray the calm before -- or after -- a storm. All depict glorious nature, from mountain vistas to close-ups of dewy plants. Most are full-frame, but some images are cropped to squares or long panoramics. Most are people-free. When Mohr or Johnson do appear, they're hiking, skiing, ice climbing or hurtling down rapids. Yet he insists their abilities are nothing special. "People think we're extreme skiers or paddlers, but we're not," Mohr says. "We just do enough of it that it becomes ordinary to be on a mountain with a 60-degree pitch below us. The kinds of places we're visiting, anyone can do."

Maybe. But not while shooting perfectly composed, sharply focused images. "Well, you definitely have to know what you're doing, technically speaking," Mohr admits. "But people who want to capture the kinds of images they see in galleries just need a few pointers. I encourage those people to take a class or talk to someone who does it. The camera is quite simple, really."

Brian Mohr wasn't so sure about shooting when he got his first camera at age 12: After happily snapping away for hours, he was dismayed to find it wasn't loaded. He didn't give photography another thought until high school in Sherburne, Massachusetts, then abandoned it again when he headed to Rocky Mountain College. But eventually the lure of the lens won him over.

In 1998, so did fellow shutterbug Emily Johnson. When they discovered they also had a mutual interest in traveling, a shared life clicked into place. "Within a few months we embarked on a bicycle tour of Europe," Mohr says. That was followed by a 3000-mile ride down South America; the couple spent 80 days camping and biking in the Patagonian Andes. This July they'll begin a different kind of adventure: Mohr, now 30, and Johnson, 28, are getting married.

The pair left Colorado for Vermont -- Johnson is an East Montpelier native -- but their adventures continue to take them far from home. When people see their pictures, "They often ask, 'Don't you have jobs?' or 'How do you get all that vacation time?'" Mohr says with a chuckle. In fact, they do have jobs: Mohr is also a freelance writer and regular contributor to Backcountry, Vermont Sports and other publications; Johnson teaches photography at U32 High School in Montpelier. The couple sells their photographs not only to outdoor magazines but to clients such as Karhu USA, Mad River Glen and the Vermont Ski Association.

Nature isn't their only subject -- they also shoot weddings and portraiture -- but it's their favorite. "Our passion is really in doing it all; creating images, and weaving words through the images, that inspire people to get out and enjoy this amazing planet we live on," Mohr enthuses. "You've got to go beyond everyday life -- and often into some pretty wild places -- and seek out the extraordinary. And you don't need to travel thousands of miles to do it," he adds. "More than anything, our travels remind us not to treat the extraordinary here in Vermont as ordinary."