‘Lens Luthier’ – Interview with Lisa S. Johnson, the Shutterbug of the Six String

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On September 3rd, Lisa S. Johnson saw 15 years of work and passion come to fruition when Ron Robinson hosted her and her book, 108 Rock Star Guitars, in Santa Monica. The reception and signing was a great success, and GGM was lucky enough to snag a few minutes of Lisa’s time to get to know the artist behind the axes!

[Cover Photo Credit:  Johnny Buzzerio]

V: We’re here with Lisa S. Johnson, who has just released the book, 108 Guitars

L: 108 Rock Star Guitars!

V: Yes, rock star guitars– nothing that isn’t in that realm! So, what made you interested in just shooting guitars rather than guitars, drums, etc.? Do you play?

L: I grew up in a musical family; my father plays multiple instruments, and my mother is a singer, a country western singer, I grew up on country western, and then my brothers and sisters who are all older, they were into classic rock.  And so I listened to that with all my friends. I had a country background and a classic rock upbringing, with some blues and jazz as well. Then I ended up going to school for photography, and I ended up working for Eastman Kodak. I wanted to be a photographer; I ended up working for Kodak. All us reps at Kodak, we were all aspiring photographers; we all wanted to be photographers, and we all had access to as much film as we wanted.  So we were always shooting films and testing films to make sure we understood our products, and we could sell them to our photographer clients, and I was in and working for Kodak in Memphis Tennessee, and I started dating the guitar player at church.  My father told me growing up I was not allowed to date musicians, so I called my dad up and said “Dad, I’m calling to confess, I’m dating a musician, however, he is the guitar player at church and he owns a vintage guitar store, that’s his business”. So Dad said, “Oh, well, that’s different, he’s not a touring musician; he owns a vintage guitar store, huh? If he ever gets in a Gibson mandolin, I’ve always wanted one; let me know.” So two weeks later, he gets in a 1917, mint condition, Gibson mandolin. And I said to him, “I want that for my dad, how much?” He said, “You can’t afford it, but if you photograph some guitars for me, that I have to sell that I don’t want to sell, I’ll trade you for the mandolin.”  Now at that time I was shooting objects; I was studying the films, and I was shooting objects, and I was hand coloring them. At the time Kodak had a new film out called Kodak TNXP3200 that had grain, beautiful grain, and we had a new paper that had come out that was specific for hand tinting images, so I was practicing, experimenting with that, and so that’s what he was talking about, ‘I want you to photograph some guitars for me, like you do these objects, and hand color them and I’ll trade you for the mandolin’. So that’s how I fell in love with photographing guitars, at that point. Then I would go into his store, and I’d bring home any guitar I wanted, these beautiful, vintage guitars. One of the first ones I shot was a Fender paisley telecaster, and not long after that Kodak transferred me to New York City, and I thought, you know, every photographer needs to have a niche, something that they have a strength on, and so I thought, well, my signature imagery is going to be guitars.  And I may as well photograph famous ones, if I’m gonna do it, so Les Paul performed every Monday night at the Iridium Room in New York, and I went down there; I used to go by myself, and they had a bar in the back, in the old-school Iridium Room, the original one, and I’d go back and I’d sit there, and I got to know his bass player, his fiddle bass, stand-up bass player, and I said, “Do you think Les would let me photograph his guitar?” and I showed him images that I’d been doing in Memphis, and he said “Let me ask him.” And Les came back and said yes, and twelve years later, he wrote the foreword for my book, 108 Rock Star Guitars.

V: Proof of ‘who knows, when you ask…?’

L: That’s right; you gotta ask.

V: Now, has your filming changed over the years; have you gone to digital or do you still use the hardcore film techniques..?

L: I transitioned to digital; having worked for Kodak, of course I’m a film person- I love film.  It’s just that the digital process is so much more efficient and easier, and faster…! What’s cool about this book is that not only is it historic in that it captured all these historic guitars, it’s also historical in that this was project that took 17 years to complete. And 15 years of it was shooting, then assembling and creating the book. So for 15 years, I began with film, I transitioned to the new digital, I got screwed on a couple of photo shoots because the digital technology wasn’t really there, or so good in low light situations, and I was always shooting in low light situations backstage, so I learned, though, about digital, and then, now- I always was Nikon and went to Canon for a few years- and then I’ve just recently switched back to Nikon DE 810, it’s phenomenal, and I still use my same lens I’ve been using for years.

V: It’s a signature for you now?

L: Yeah, I love that lens; it’s a 35 to 72 8 f-stop lens, and it’s got a macro setting on it,  so I can move in on the subject, and that’s what I do; I photograph the wear and tear details of the guitars that personify the artists without them being in the picture.  How their pick hits the pick guard, how Keith Richards’ skull ring etches out in the pick guard, you know you can’t see that unless you get up close and personal with the guitars, so that’s what I do. I look at life that way, as close-ups; I like to look close at things and so, I do photograph the whole guitar; I also hone in on the details.

V: When I was reading about you, and I was looking at some of your images, I noticed that you really get into the detail, and I thought, ‘that’s interesting, I bet there’s a story there’.

L: Yes, because fans can’t see those details, and they really capture the essence of the artists and the souls of the guitars.

V: Yes, it could be any guitar until you see that one detail…

L: And then you go “Oh wow, that’s Eric Clapton’s brownie guitar that he wrote and recorded ‘Layla‘ on, or there’s Carlos Santana’s…there’s an Ohm symbol; he was one of the first artists back in the day who was really infusing openly cosmic messages. Tom Morello’s one; he’s in the book and all of his guitars have something on the cover of the guitar that’s a message. If you’re not getting his music or hearing his lyrics, you’re getting a message from his guitar.

V:  When did you know that you wanted to make it a book?

L: From the very beginning. When I decided that I might as well photograph famous guitars, I thought to myself, ‘this is something that I can do for a long time, and I would like to do a book’. So that was always my presentation whenever I made the approach, to photograph a guitar: ‘The images will be used, will be submitted to guitar magazines, and for a book.’

V: Wow, that’s perseverance. For 15 years to keep doing that- that’s amazing.

L: It’s tenacity, but you know, that’s what photographers do and it’s my passion. I just enjoy so much the process and being that close to the guitar. Opening the cases, and you can smell the guitar, you can smell the history.  I get such a joy out of it.  It’s really been the ride of my life, photographing all of these guitars.

V: What’s been the most exciting shoot, where everything either went really right or really wrong?

L: Just about every shoot is pretty exciting, some of the toppers? Jimmy Page’s double neck. I mean not too many people get to get close to that guitar. And it’s his 1968 Gibson SG EDS1275 guitar that he plays ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on live. They asked me, when they agreed, they said “Which guitar would you like?” and so I wrote back, and I said, “Well, I would either like the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ guitar, or I’d like his Les Paul with the bow.”  They said ok, so I didn’t know if both would be there or what would show up, and they brought the double neck, so that’s the one Jimmy wanted represented in the book, and it’s a very well-worn guitar; that’s been his main squeeze for many, many years, and I’m it’s inspired so many guitarists to want to play a double neck.  It’s just a showstopper.

V: Is there anyone you haven’t gotten yet that you’ve wanted to?

L: Yes, Angus Young! Please! AC/DC is my all-time favorite rock and roll band, and I’ve requested Angus more times than anyone.

V: And what’s his hold-up? Scheduling hasn’t worked out or…?

L: No, just…not everyone says yes. A lot of artists do, but … Pete Townsend, I just requested him, and he said no.

V: I wonder why anyone would say no?

L: I think sometimes people don’t really understand the idea? Or, they’re so famous, they don’t need the press; they don’t need to be in someone’s collection. I don’t know, really; it’s personal preference.  I honor and respect that, however, I don’t give up that easily, and Angus Young and Malcolm Young, I would love to photograph their guitars.  Malcolm was a mastermind in AC/DC, behind the music, and now he’s ill and not able to tour with them. However, his guitars are on tour, and being played by his cousin. I just saw AC/DC in concert in Dublin, and I’m going to see them again at Dodgers Stadium here in Los Angeles in a couple weeks.

RELATED STORY:  Interview with Lisa Johnson, the Girl with the Guitar Art

V: It’s an exciting life; you get to travel and see these guitars. Do they know you right away when you come back, “There she is, the guitar lady!”

L: Sometimes; it’s the guitar techs that I work a lot with, and years ago, I photographed Nancy Wilson’s guitar, and her guitar is in the book, and I worked with her guitar tech, Jason Stockwell, and he’s now Neil Giraldo’s guitar tech, with Pat Benetar. So it was really fun when Neil’s people said “yes, let’s do it”, they said “Get in touch with Jason”, so we were like, “Oh hey, how’s it going?”, so it was really fun to work together with Jason again for Neil’s guitars. Oh! Another fun shoot was Roger Waters’ bass. Pink Floyd’s also another one of my all-time favorite bands, and thus far I haven’t been able to get to David Gilmour; however, Roger Waters said yes. So, actually, I was in London, and I had a bunch of shoots scheduled: the Page shoot, Brian Robertson from Thin Lizzy, Pearl Thompson from The Cure,Michael Shenker from UFO and KK Downing I did on that trip, and we had had in a request for Roger Waters, who happened to be having ‘The Wall’, in Athens. So, while I’m in the UK, I get this email, ‘hey Roger Waters said yes, can you get to Athens’, so we hopped a flight over to Athens, and- first class all the way, they had tickets for us, we went at sound check, and we watched the whole sound check, and then afterwards we photographed Roger Waters’ bass underneath the Wall, directly under the Wall, still warm from sound check, so- it was awesome.

V: So- why do you feel like it’s important to preserve these images; because I get that there is a sense of preservation of history in your work?

L: Well, for me…music is very important to me, and it’s really important to a lot of people. Music is the bridge between cultures. It’s a universal language. You don’t have to understand the words to get the feeling. And these artists have shaped our lives, have been there for us, these songs have been there for us, through hard times, good times, and one song can be playing on the radio, and it takes you back to when you were 10 years old, that time when you were doing this or that or with your friends or the prom or the breakup with the boyfriend…whatever! And this guitar is the instrument that it was channeled through.  You know, so…they’re really important in that regard, and the songs that have been written, they’re just historical. There are some timeless songs, that…they’re always fresh, they never lose that…? Classic rock, for me, that rings true in classic rock. Listen to Led Zeppelin, it’s like, I never get tired of listening to Led Zeppelin, it’s just timeless music, and so I believe their guitars should be celebrated, because guitars are not only a channel of creativity, but they’re an art object.  The passion and creativity that goes into making them…the luthiers of the world, we celebrate them! Guitarists love their luthiers, and they love their guitars like a woman; they name them.

Willie Nelson, of course, has his ‘Trigger’, because every man has his horse, like Roy Rogers, his horse was named Trigger, and Willie’s horse is his guitar.  So they name them- of course, there’s the famous Lucille … B.B. King was performing somewhere in a bar, probably a juke joint somewhere in the South, and a fight broke out; they had a big trashcan with a kerosene fire inside to stay warm, and the fight broke out, the kerosene fire got kicked over, the whole building’s on fire, everyone runs out of the building, and he runs out, and he realizes he forgot his guitar inside.  He runs back into the building, and gets his guitar. He later realized, “I could have been killed! I need to name this.” The fight was over a girl, and he asked, “What’s the name of that girl, I need to remind myself not to ever do something so stupid again.” And her name was Lucille. I just photographed his #3 Lucille, and his diamond Lucille, which has two diamonds embedded in the headstock that Gibson made, it’s one of a kind, and those two guitars will appear in my next book.

V: That was going to be my next question!

L: Yes, those guitars are going to be in volume 2…I’ve photographed so many- I’m probably three quarters of the way through shooting volume 2. Joe Perry’s guitar, and- so many, it’s hard to even remember them all.

V: Now you mentioned Nancy Wilson either, since we are Guitar Girl magazine, have you gotten any other notable women?

L: Chrissie Hynde is in the first book. Lita Ford will be in volume two, her guitars rock, I got her Stoly Vodka guitar, and I also got another guitar of hers, it a double neck. Her guitars are so sexy, and she knows how to rock them, too.  She’s amazing. And I’m scheduled to photograph another one of Nancy Wilson’s guitars.  I’ve asked Joan Jett several times; I’m remaining hopeful. Melissa Etheridge we just requested and didn’t hear back…sometimes you don’t hear back … Orianthi, she’s on my list; she’s performing around here sometime again soon. I love going to the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, and I’ve done a lot of shoots there, in fact, I just shot Roger Steen’s guitar from the Tubes there, and the week before I shot Dave Davies from the Kinks at my house, he came to my house, and we did a whole photo shoot with him and his son. When I was a kid, like 17, in one weekend, I saw the Kinks one night, and the second night was the Tubes, and I photographed Dave Davies’ guitar on Sunday, and on the following Sunday I grabbed Roger Steen’s at the Canyon Club.  It was so cool. Lzzy Hale would be another great one to have; I don’t have that one yet.

V: I know you’re running short on time, but is there anything else that you would like to add?

L:  One of the things I love is that Les Paul was such a supporter of my book from the very beginning; before he really go to know me, he’d see me coming and he’d say, “There’s that girl that does that guitar art.” And I’d always go sit in the back with him in the green room after shows, and he wrote the foreword for my book, and so 10% of each book that is sold benefits the Les Paul Foundation, which is a foundation to help children get scholarships for music education and for the hearing impaired, so that’s really cool.

I’m so happy to be here! We’re at Ron Robinson’s today- the infamous Ron Robinson- he’s got the ultimate lifestyle store, here in Santa Monica, and he is hosting me tonight for this exhibit. The exhibit is up for 6 weeks until October 10th, and so this is only the second time that the art is being viewed, and these images are for sale, they’re sandwiched between two pieces of plexiglass. Everything here is for sale. Every image is in the book. I’m signing books tonight, and the books will be here until October 10th.

V: Are you taking the exhibit anywhere else?

L: I would love to take it on a tour; right now it’s not scheduled to appear anywhere else, but…!

One more thing, there’s actually two versions of the book now; there’s the hardcover edition, that’s $108, and then Hal Leonard just came out with the softcover version a few months ago, and that one’s $54. It’s the same 396 pages the same beautiful paper, it’s got two varnishes and a tip varnish on the images so they pop off the page, and it’s more affordable. But the hardcover is the collector’s piece, and they’re nearly sold out.  So now’s the time to get them!

Thank you so much to Guitar Girl Magazine, because Tara, she has been covering my work since I launched in 2013. Tell her I said hello!

V: I will! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat!

To find out more about Lisa and 108 Rock Star Guitars, Ron Robinson, and the Les Paul Foundation, check out the links below! 

108 Rock Star Guitars- http://108rockstarguitars.com

Ron Robinson- http://www.ronrobinson.com

Les Paul Foundation- http://www.lespaulfoundation.org


VK Lynne is a writer and musician from Los Angeles.  She penned the award-winning web series ‘Trading on 15’, and her work has been published in Image Curve, The Elephant Journal and GEM Magazine.  She sings lead for LA-based band, The Spider Accomplice.






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