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Longboat Key Monday, Oct. 28, 2019 11 months ago

Longboater Mary Lou Johnson returns with photography book of Sarasota and its keys and islands

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Follow up publication to "The Lure of Longboat Key: From Sunrise to Sunset" broadens its focus.
by: Nat Kaemmerer Staff Writer

For Longboat Key photographer Mary Lou Johnson, the height is all part of the fun, like when she’s shot stilt-walkers in St. Armands Circle from below, to emphasize just how far away they were. Height is great, she says. She loves it. 

Except that one time.

“You know what a Smart car is? This was like a smart helicopter,” Johnson said, referring to a tiny contraption that once took her skyward to snap photos of life below. 

Her pilot turned the thing nearly on its side, she said, to get Johnson a better view of the sharks in the water nearby Anna Maria Island. 

“And I went, ‘Oh, that's great,’” she said. “I couldn't even lift the camera. I was done. I knew I'd get sick or something, but I do love helicopters.”

A helicopter (different one from this story) is what helped her net an aerial shot of a day on the beach, which hangs in the Longboat Key Club’s Tennis Gardens lobby. Johnson has tried to catch everything about the island, even from the sky. 

"Seaside Escape." Courtesy of Mary Lou Johnson.

The photographer, whose name you may recognize from her popular first photography book, “The Lure of Longboat Key: Sunrise to Sunset,” has expanded her portfolio. Her new book, “The Lure of Sarasota and Her Islands,” comes out this week and covers everything from Anna Maria Island to Casey Key and all the beautiful spots between. 

Johnson is a (nearly) lifelong Floridian, venturing away from the Sunshine State for only a couple years when she lived in Atlanta. After a successful career of marriage and family therapy and divorce counseling, Johnson turned to something new after her daughters went off to college: Photography classes at the University of South Florida, and later the New York Institute of Photography. 

“I could not believe how much I did not know,” said Johnson, a former “point-and-shooter.” 

Years later, she’s set down a solid foundation, entering competitions, including a finalist position for Photographer of the Year in “Popular Photography Magazine.” She’s always been drawn back to nature photography, crediting her mother for an “appreciation of God’s beautiful world.”  

"Colors of Waves." Courtesy of Mary Lou Johnson.

“It’s alone time in nature,” Johnson said. “It’s proven that being in nature is a de-stresser; even when somebody looks at a picture of nature it has the same effect.” 

Many of her shoots are impromptu, when she gathers images from daily life. When she travels, and she does, she needs more baggage for her gear than her clothes.

Johnson carries a camera, or at least her cell phone, with her at all times. You just never know when the sun will hit Sarasota Bay just right, like when she was headed to a party and pulled over for a few shots. 

“I looked over at the skyline and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to be late for this party,’” she said. “I took photos for five minutes and then went on. You never know what’s going to happen when.” 

Johnson uses digital painting to amp up her images, blurring the line between a painting and a photograph. As you get closer, the line between the two media sometimes becomes blurred even more. When she first started, Johnson said she had not had a computer before and used her daughter’s to begin playing with her photos. Now, she uses a Wacom tablet for the painting, and says that “way back when,” she took art classes at the Art Center on Longboat Key. 

“Everything I do starts with a photograph,” she said. “I might bring up more color that is there, or more details. I do things until I think it’s done, and I might bring it up later and do something different.” 

Johnson has plenty to play with, given her 200,000-plus images stored on various hard drives. Texture is one of her favorite aspects to dive deeper on, like branches or wooden boardwalks. 

“There’s constant change,” Johnson said. “It’s an obsession.”

Johnson’s love of colors goes past her gorgeous, brighter-than-life photos, deep into her book, down into the spine. The binding of both books is a gold thread, which pairs beautifully with the deep blue color of the cover and pulls a color from the photo on the jacket. 

Cover image "Welcome Home." Courtesy of Mary Lou Johnson.

“I wanted it to look beautiful without the (jacket) cover too,” she said. 

The books will be sold at the Shore restaurant on the north end of the island, the Longboat Key Club (where a gallery of her work can be found at the Tennis Gardens) and of course, at Publix, where it has become the most successful private book sold in the store.

Mary Lou Johnson oversees the installation of her photos in the Tennis Gardens.

The “private” aspect is another important thing. Johnson took to digital photography over film once she realized the thrill of being able to see your photo immediately, and not entrusting it to someone else to develop her artwork. Once Johnson got her book together (growing it from a folder on her laptop called “If I ever do a book”), she knew she could be the only one to actually make it the way she wanted it. So she published it herself.

"Sun Spice." Courtesy of Mary Lou Johnson.

“I didn’t want anybody telling me what to do because they don’t know Longboat,” Johnson said. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else and I wanted the book to be as special.”

Mary Lou Johnson with her book.

The same applies to her new book, whose title, “The Lure of Sarasota and Her Islands,” plays off the personal theme of the intrinsic “lure” the area has for Johnson. Luckily for the public of Longboat Key, Johnson isn’t so private as to shy away from putting her art in the world. 

“You have got to get your art out there,” Johnson said. “It thrills me to no end when someone wants that picture in their home or office. It’s very rewarding. People have written to me that the book helped them through a bad divorce, a cold winter, that they’re able to sit down with the book and lose themselves in it and de-stress.” 

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