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Lisa S. Johnson: A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Riffs

As seen in
Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 22 – Winter 2022

There are many famous guitars out there. Let’s face it; every great guitarist has one. Over time, it’s important to keep these guitars immortalized — they are a part of history. That’s where guitar photographer Lisa S. Johnson comes in, as she is famous for capturing these epic axes.

You might ask how one gets into photographing guitars. Johnson claims she didn’t just become fascinated with guitars overnight. Instead, she was born into a musical family, which heightened her appreciation for all things that rock.

Johnson is known for her photography in her book 108 Rock Star Guitars, but she is putting out a new book that not only captures male guitar heroes but also rallies around women in the rock world called Immortal Axes – Guitars that Rock.

We caught up with Johnson to get a background on her career and to learn more about her new book.

“Lisa is a maestro with her axe photography. The photos pop to life, and the text so wonderfully rounds out the stories. A true collector’s item worth owning! So enjoyed being included in her collection for this edition!!! Rock on, Lisa!!!” ~ Patti Quatro

Guitar photography is a very specific niche; what made you want to get into that type of photography?

I grew up in a musical family with my mother, who sang, and my father, who played guitar, mandolin, violin, and bass. Dad was also an amateur photographer and had a side job in a camera shop so that he could afford his hobby. I eventually went to college for photography and ultimately ended up working for the Eastman Kodak Company for ten years as a Technical Sales Rep for Kodak Professional. I was always testing films so I could understand their technical aspects to sell them. While living in Memphis, Tennessee, I started dating the guitar player I met at church who also had a vintage guitar shop, with whom I ended up doing some photography he wanted done of some vintage instruments in trade for a mandolin I wanted to gift to my Dad. That led to my obsession with photographing famous guitars!

You love yoga; has what you’ve learned practicing yoga ever found its way into your photography?

I used yoga throughout the whole process! My yoga teacher taught me that everything is yoga, from doing the actual postures to drinking a cup of tea or photographing a guitar! I use mental and emotional discipline during the requesting process, and especially if I don’t get the answer I want, I have to practice acceptance and patience. During the shooting process, I use breath and core strength to hold my body in certain positions to chase the light across the guitar and get the image I want. I get a very short time with the guitar, with lots of moving parts all around me during the session, so I have to remain calm and focused in an often intense hour.

“From Peter Frampton’s beginning foreword, to my afterword, top and tailing this great book, enjoy everybody, just enjoy! Cue the applause. Well done, Lisa!” ~ Suzi Quatro 

Is there anything besides guitars you photograph on the side?

I have some amazing travel photography that, perhaps one day, I will share. However, for the past 26 years, I have predominantly focused on guitars as my subject, and believe me, that has been all-encompassing of my time!

Do you play any instruments?

I am learning guitar slowly, and I own several of them!

What was your favorite guitar to photograph in your new book Immortal Axes – Guitars that Rock?

There are so many it is hard to pick just one. I did have the time of my life capturing three extraordinary women in rock guitars, starting with the queen of them all, Suzi Quatro’s 1957 Precision Bass, that her Dad gave her when she was 14 years old. Then her predecessor Joan Jett’s 1965 Epiphone Olympic Special, which took me many years to gain access to photograph and was very gratifying when I did in 2020. Of course, the Queen of Metal, Lita Ford, whose 1983 B.C. Rich Warlock “Morice” guitar looks spectacular on a Chloe Trujillo scarf, her gorgeous 1983 B.C. Rich Double Neck “The Twins” that has a special message stamped on the back of one of the headstocks, and of course, her very fun B.C. Rich Stoli “Classy Lady” guitar that is featured with Michael Anthony’s Jack Daniels bass.

What is the main message you are trying to achieve with the new book?

Guitars will always be a mainstay in American history and music; thus, I feel their cultural fascination will continue into the infinite future. Keeping the legacy alive of many of the featured artists is an important facet of my work, and to also elevate the fans’ view of their favorite artist’s guitar by being able to see into the wear and tear details and personality of the artist that are embedded in their guitars. Immortal Axes also got on to the radar of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, which recently opened a new exhibit called “Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art,” in which my image of Elvis Presley’s 1930s Hawaiian guitar is featured. To be a part of this stellar exhibit is a wonderful achievement in keeping guitar history current.

How does Immortal Axes – Guitars that Rock differ from your highly acclaimed work in 108 Rock Star Guitars?

In this volume, I was able to include many more Guitar Girls! This includes Nita Strauss, Susan Tedeschi, Lucinda Williams, Vicki Peterson, Susanna Hoffs, Jennifer Batten, Orianthi, Patti Quatro, Lita Ford, Joan Jett, St. Vincent, Nancy Wilson, and of course, Suzi Quatro, who wrote the inspiring afterword. I am so pleased to have such influential women in music’s voices to close out the book! Also, there are around 20 or so featured portraits of artists holding their guitars, such as Billy Sheehan, Dave Alvin, Dave Davies, Michael Franti, Tommy Thayer, Marc Ferrari, John Mayall, and more.

What’s in store for the future?

I am currently working on a potentially huge project with Randy Bachman that would be in alignment with another museum in Canada, pending budget approvals. I have a fantastic speaking engagement in Toronto with recording artist David Barrett who hosts a guitar symposium a couple of times a year, so I’m looking forward to presenting a fun slide show of storied guitars and associated music made on them. I’m also working with Hard Rock International on capturing some of their guitar treasures that are under lock and key that I plan to showcase in another book down the line. There is never a dull moment or lack of projects to work on!

Photo by Johnny Buzzerio

Lisa S. Johnson with James Hetfield ESP Snakebyte Guitar

~ By Jessie Dax-Setkus

All photos provided by management with permission to use.

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