Over the last two decades, few artists have amassed such a quietly considered or influential cult following as Daniel Johnston. Counting Tom Waits, Beck, The Flaming Lips and Kurt Cobain among his many passionate fans, Daniel’s music offers listeners a window into his eccentric demeanor and provides a channel for his own thoughts and philosophies. His art – for which he has become increasingly known over the last few years and which is now shown in galleries around the world – presents similar insights into his fantastic universe; one that is highly introspective, yet comical, and conscious of the critical world that surrounds it.
Brooklyn-based photographer Jung Kim has been documenting Daniel’s personal life and career for close to five years. An intimate journey that has taken her both on the road and into Daniel’s home, the project has finally culminated in a new book, entitled, DANIEL JOHNSTON: here, as well as a photo exhibition that debuted at SXSW in Texas earlier this year and is set to open in London on May 30. A testament to Daniel’s passionate fans, the entire project was financed through crowdfunding website, Kickstarter, making it one of the platform’s most successful photography projects to date.
Ahead of the exhibition’s London leg at 18 Hewett Street, I spoke to Jung about the series, her unique experience with Daniel, and what it is that makes the artist such an intriguing and endearing figure.
Jack Smylie: Jung, why did you begin this series?
Jung Kim: It wasn’t meant to be a series when it first began – it was supposed to be one shoot back in 2008 when he played a show in Brooklyn, New York. I had no idea I would fall so deep in collaboration with Daniel but we had a good understanding of each other from the very start and just enjoyed working together. It happened very organically and over time it amounted to this series.
JS: Before this project, had you met Daniel?
JK: No, the first time I met Daniel was the first shoot.
JS: These photographs span four to five years… What have you learnt along the way? Has much changed?
JK: Studying one person for such a long span of time, especially someone with mental illness, made me much more aware of my voice and responsibility as a photographer. The story I’m documenting hasn’t changed but I’m definitely more protective of Daniel. He is no longer just a subject but a friend.
JS: When you started photographing Daniel did you have an idea of how you wanted to capture or portray him? Or have you taken a completely free approach to the subject?
JK: I just wanted to be a fly on the wall in Daniel’s world so it was a completely free approach.
JS: As someone who’s spent a lot of time with Daniel, why do you think people find him so intriguing?
JK: There’s a real childlike honesty and love that pours out of him and into his work, and it is often incredibly revealing, poetic and original. I think people are drawn to that kind of truth and beauty.
JS: If you could pick one photograph from the many you have taken, which do you think best captures Daniel as himself?
JK: That’s a tough one because he’s always himself and in his own world no matter where he is, but the photo of Daniel standing in his kitchen is a good example. He’s drinking a glass of milk, surrounded by his enormous collection of toys and figurines all on display inside his kitchen cabinets, with the cabinet doors all removed. That room is Daniel.
JS: You’ve photographed your fair share of musicians; how has this experience differed from previous ones?
JK: I’m usually shooting portraits or documenting backstage under a limited amount of time with whomever I’m working with that day, which is a different kind of challenge and fun. This project with Daniel was my first on-going documentary on one musician and artist, and it was also my first time working with a more delicate subject. It evolved into an on-going project because I wanted to take my time and take a much more reflective and sensitive approach – and that also had a lot to do with feeling that there was a deeper story to be told.
JS: What can viewers expect to experience at the exhibition?
JK: Glimpses into Daniel’s life behind the music and art.
JS: Is there anything you’d particularly like viewers to take away from it?
JK: It’s cliché to say but viewers can take away whatever they’d like or nothing at all – it’s all subjective.
JS: Let’s talk about the book. How did you go about choosing the photos for this final selection?
JK: I wanted to make sure I selected beautiful images that were individually strong and also fit well into the narrative. I had several tiers of editing sessions in the span of a couple of months, and narrowed down the photos from thousands to 64 which was a point where the story seemed most comprehensive. In the last few editing sessions, it was important to have a second pair of eyes and Art Director Joshua Gurrie, who tirelessly worked on the photo book with me for the past year, really helped with the final selection.
JS: How do you hope the book and exhibition will add to the Daniel Johnston legend?
JK: I hope the book and exhibition will add to the great intrigue that is Daniel Johnston, to help him continue to reach new fans around the world.
JS: Will you continue to document Daniel’s life and career?
JK: I hope so – as long as Daniel and the Johnston family are not sick of me yet!
‘DANIEL JOHNSTON: here’ opens at 18 Hewett Street, London, 30 May and runs through 9 June, 2013.
For opening night, RSVP here.