In artist and educator J. John Priola’s new book, Natural Light (Prestel), he presents 12 series of images of trees and plants and the spaces in which they live, created over the span of 20 years, with each section prefaced by an archival image taken by his mother. The breadth and depth of the work speaks to the crucial role the natural world in Priola’s art making, and in his life in general. “I photograph inanimate objects, nature, and architectural elements, all to get at people,” he says, from San Francisco. “I’m making portraits of people through these objects.” (For more evidence of this, see Priola’s Instagram, which functions as an ongoing series of images of domestic architecture and their plant-based residents.)
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In this week’s Milkshake, he talks us through several of his favorite images, including the one that appears on the cover of Natural Light: “I love every one of the images in the book – I love the pairings in the book,” he says. “Picking one, I’m going to go with ‘Parasite,’ the cover of the book, and the last image in the book – a picture of lichen on a tree branch where there’s lots of green new little leaves surrounding this dead branch. [It’s about] absence, presence.”
He also expands on his mother’s influence on his work – it was her support that allowed him to pursue his masters degree at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he later chaired the photography department and ran the Low Residency MFA Program until the school’s closure in 2022. “My mom was raised as a city girl, and she married a farmer, moved across the country, and learned a whole new world,” he says. “But as I say in the book, she really is responsible for why I was able to get an MFA in what I really wanted to do. She did that by being an entrepreneur, who realized that farming didn’t earn a lot of money, but she could plant tree seedlings – and by the time her children grew up, she could sell them to landscapers for money.”
For more from John, tune in!
Diana Ostrom, who has written for Wallpaper, Interior Design, ID, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets, is also the author of Faraway Places, a newsletter about travel.
Milkshake, DMTV (Design Milk TV)’s first regular series, shakes up the traditional interview format by asking designers, creatives, educators and industry professionals to select interview questions at random from their favorite bowl or vessel. During their candid discussions, you’ll not only gain a peek into their personal homeware collections, but also valuable insights into their work, life and passions.
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