This post features correspondence between Joan Harrison, Ray Johnson, and Bill Wilson about Joan’s portraits of Johnson on the beach and Bill’s texts about the photographs Johnson took with a disposable camera during the last years of his life.
Joan Harrison is a multimedia artist, historian, author, curator, and professor emeritus at C.W. Post Campus, Long Island University. She met Ray Johnson in 1982 on Bayville Beach, Long Island where they were both were active participants in the local art scene. During the years of their friendship, Joan and Ray went on several photo shoots together, exchanged numerous letters and gifts, attended art openings and events, and spent time with their mutual friends. In 2008 Joan organized the “HistoRAY” Ray Johnson Fan Club Meeting and exhibition at the Mistretta Galleries in Locust Valley and met Bill Wilson at the opening reception on the 13th anniversary of Ray’s death.
Ray Johnson at Lattingtown Beach, 1982, copyright Joan Harrison.
Joan Harrison’s iconic portrait of Johnson on Lattingtown Beach in 1982 depicts the artist staring head-on into the camera as he sits on the ground in the corner of a concrete terrace gripping the parapet with his outstretched arms. Johnson’s arresting stare and imposing yet vulnerable posture make it one of the most striking photographs of the artist during his later years. Joan recalled that Ray seemed nervous and uncomfortable in front of the camera at the beginning of the session, fidgeting and looking around, until he suddenly assumed the butterfly or bat-like pose and looked directly into her camera, alert and ready to spring into action. Johnson’s fondness for the image is evident in the correspondence he sent to Joan referencing their trips to the beach and in his use of the portrait as the basis for some of his mass-produced “Please Add to and Return to” mailings. Ray liked the serendipitous occurrence that Joan’s last name “Harrison” is cast on the metal drain visible in the lower right corner of the photograph–an unintentional signature. Neither of them observed it until the image was printed (this detail is not quite not visible in the online reproduction). Some of their other outdoor photo shoots took place around Joan’s home in Sea Cliff and at the Nassau County Museum of Art. [more photos via Artpool]
Photographs of Ray Johnson by Joan Harrison at various locations around Sea Cliff , Glen Cove, and the Bayville and Lattingtown beaches, ca. 1980s, copyright Joan Harrison
SK- Could you elaborate on the dynamic between you and Ray during your photo shoots?
JH- During the photo shoots Ray and I would just talk. All happened at my instigation. He would ask me what he should do and I would say something like the light is good there or that background would work and the shoot would go from there.
SK- What was he like to collaborate with and to photograph?
JH- The shoots were great fun and when he agreed to do a shoot he was always cooperative. He always changed the subject if I asked him if I could photograph him at his house and I was never there in his lifetime.
SK- Who was directing and posing who?
JH- The shoots in terms of posture and expression were really a collaboration in that he might do something and I would take a few frames and then I would say why don’t we try something else. The picture that gives me chills is the one of him sprawled on the beach with his head on a rock. It was my idea and terribly uncomfortably prescient of his death by drowning to come years later.
SK- Did you or Ray choose the locations and occasions or were they more spontaneous?
JH- Bayville Beach was the first location we chose because it was where we met and the pictures were taken during a long walk. The other images were taken around Sea Cliff, at my house and at Nassau County Museum of art where I had my first or second exhibition and Ray had a major retrospective.
SK- Did you feel like Ray was performing for the camera, acting naturally, or did he seem uncomfortable?
JH- Generally portraiture is a kind of collaborative documentation of a performance or pose. What I was looking for in the real portraits was a point where discomfort drops away and an essence of the person comes through. I think Ray allowed me that in the best of the pictures. It was certainly in retrospect a great privilege that he allowed me to photograph him.
Johnson sent Joan several mailings (above- click the images to see larger versions ) directly related to their photo shoots on the beach: an envelope labeled “Bayville Beach Valentine” which includes a real bird’s wing, a letter that reveals, “I was so glad you didn’t ask me to take off my shirt — the way Peter Hujar did,” and a photocopy of a glove he found on the beach.
Johnson used Joan’s portrait in some of his many “Please Add to and Return” mailings, which he mass-produced and sent to numerous correspondents as prompts for additional collaborations. The images above are examples of responses and additions by unidentified mail artists found in Joan’s archive and Artpool’s online archive.
In further homage to Joan’s portrait, a decade later in 1993, Johnson sent her photocopies of images in which he returned to the exact location of their photo shoot to photograph a card printed with the silhouette of his pose in her portrait and another with the text “Please Add to and Return to Ray Johnson.”
Joan met Bill Wilson in 2008 when he attended the opening reception for the “HistoRAY” exhibition she organized at the Mistretta Gallery in Long Island (more information below). Bill was familiar with Joan’s portraits of Ray Johnson and hoped to learn more about their photographic collaborations as he continued to expand his archive about Johnson. Inquiring about this subject, Bill sent her some of his writing (scanned below) about the photographs Johnson took with a disposable camera during the last years of his life, circa 1990-1995. Contrary to Bill’s speculation, Joan was not with Johnson while he took any of these photos–she was the only one behind the camera during their photo shoots–so she could not provide Bill with any additional information about Johnson’s photographs.
Bill’s mailing includes 13 of these images and several more are available online via the Ray Johnson Estate, however many are inaccessible, hidden, or lost. Johnson’s late photographs are surrounded with rumors and speculations due to their melancholy tone preceding Johnson’s suicide. These photos frequently depict one or many of Johnson’s collages arranged in outdoor settings such as on a dumpster, the windshield of a car, a streetlight, a phone booth, and at cemeteries. Reflections in windows and mirrors are common themes as are the presence of strong oblique shadows, often of part of Johnson’s body, most likely cast by the setting sun. Bill’s texts discuss Johnson’s use of images of drains, manhole covers, telephones, and gravestones, in addition to the differences between reversible abstract operations and irreversible concrete operations.
Click here for a PDF of the texts and images Bill sent to Joan. Please note that the pages are not in a particular nor original order.
Bill Wilson’s mailing to Joan Harrison, December 9-10, 2008
above: front of the envelope
below: back of the envelope
- top photo: Henry Martin and Ray Johnson, photographed by William S. Wilson, 1965
- lower photo: Toby Spiselman with Ray Johnson holding Andrew Wilson, photographed by William S. Wilson, 1964
above: front of the postcard of “Knapp’s Narrows” a painting by May Wilson (note the Harrison Restaurant sign)
below: back of the postcard
Bill Wilson’s mailing to Joan Harrison, June 21, 2008
Link to the text from the 2008 exhibition catalogue pictured above “Ray Johnson: Challenging Rectangles”
Additional information and links about Joan Harrison’s projects
Joan Harrison organized the “HistoRAY” exhibition and event at the Mistretta Galleries in Locust Valley, Long Island, New York, on January 13, 2008. A simultaneous “HistoRAY” exhibition opened at the ArtPool Art Research Center in Budapest, Hungary on the same date, the 13th anniversary of Ray Johnson’s death. The exhibitions included photographs of Johnson by Joan Harrison and her husband Michael E. Ach in addition to copies of Johnson’s correspondence to various people.
Joan Harrison and LuAnn T. Palazzo co-curated “Ray Johnson and Book About Death”(ABAD) at the SAL Art Gallery, C.W. Post Campus, Long Island University, October 31 to November 5, 2010. The exhibition was inspired by Johnson’s unbound book of the same title, pages of which he distributed to his correspondents between 1963 and 1965. In the 2010 exhibition, hundreds of mail artists submitted small artworks related to death which were on display alongside copies of Johnson’s pages of “A Book About Death.”
Joan has written three books about the histories of the Locust Valley and Glen Cove compiling photographs and information from numerous local archives and family albums.
In 2015, Joan participated in a summer artist’s residency in Venice sponsored by the Emily Harvey Foundation during which she continued to develp her work in photography and collage and composed an illustrated prose poem “Advice to Young Artists” inspired by the Venice Biennale.
More images of Joan’s artwork and photographs are available on her website: http://joanharrison.com/portfolios.html
Many thanks to Joan Harrison for inviting me to spend a day with her visiting some of the places she and Ray went together and showing me her artwork and her archive of correspondence from Ray Johnson and Bill Wilson. Her fascinating experiences with Ray and her knowledge about the art scene and history of Long Island have added depth and helpful context to my understanding of Johnson’s later work. I am so grateful for her warmth, generosity, and encouragement. Thank you, Joan!