REFLECTIONS FROM THE NOT SO DISTANT PAST IN OMAN (VOLUMES 1 and 2)

This two volume book series commissioned by the Royal Court of the Sultanate of Oman was described as a masterful synthesis of stunningly executed portraits and heart wrenching poignantly written biographical texts about  the elders of Oman, who despite the hardships they endured before 1970 managed to survive under the most difficult of circumstances.

A PHOTOGRAPHIC PILGRIMAGE

In  2004  Dr. Eugene H. Johnson had a thirty year retrospective of his photographic works that was described as one of the largest corporate and public sponsored exhibitions in the world. The concept of producing a catalog of some of the over 250 photographs displayed metamorphosed into a hard covered volume that has gained wide acclaim.


SOMETHING'S FISHY

One Thursday afternoon, while walking around in a fishermen's village, something happened that changed my perception of fish forever. I was feeling a bit depressed as I had been unable to find a human subject of sufficient photographic interest to warrant unpacking my overfilled camera bag. I therefore decided to call it a day, but as I trudged along the beach I heard a voice coming from between a pile of rocks. Quite distinctly it said, "hey what about me?" I stopped, turned around and began to look for the messenger. Again, I heard the same question and for a brief moment I  began to doubt my own sanity. After sitting down in the sand to gather my  wits, I noticed peeping out from between the rocks, a majestic yellowfin tuna with a seemingly mischievous grin on his face. He had an enormous left eye that was definitely not reflecting the soul of any human being I had ever encountered. After careful scrutiny of this piscine character it dawned upon me that a fish is capable of radiating a personality as strong as that of any of the thousands of people I have photographed around the world. I was so intrigued by this tuna that I made my very first portrait of a fish and named it rather appropriately, 'Catch of the Day'. Something's Fishy is a collection of nineteen portraits of fish who were kind enough to grace my camera lens.


REPRESENTATIVE COMMENTS ABOUT PAST AND PRESENT PROJECTS


"I have personally not seen the work of any living photographer who so consistently produces portraits of such an exceptionally high quality. Your images have raised the bar in capturing the emotional impact of a subject. It is good that we came along at different times as I would have hated to have had to compete against you." --Gordon Parks-Life Magazine


After seeing a number of Professor Johnson's portraits, Mr. Brooks Jensen, editor of Lenswork magazine avowed: A wonderful body of portraits that are simply spectacular. One of the pictures of a blind woman, so impressed Mr Jensen that he asked for, and was granted permission to use its title, "Vision of the Heart" for the name of his new podcast. In commenting on the portrait, Mr. Jensen declared: "The photograph and its title describe everything photography means to me.--Lenswork


Professor Johnson skillfully cruised through the waves of emotions and the agony of those he interviewed. With his words, he was able to portray the image of how Oman was before 1970; and with his camera he documented those who carried us through this same period of time."- -His Excellency Abdulaziz Mohammed Al Rowas, Adviser to His Majesty the Sultan for Cultural Affairs.


"Anything Johnson touches undergoes a magical transformation, lifting the mundane into a mesmerizing work of lasting beauty and perfection."--Oman Observer


"The images of Johnson are stunning. It is rare to see such consistently fine work."-- Black and White Magazine


"Johnson manages to capture the essence of an individual's life in a single image."--Estado de Sao Paulo


“Reflections From the Not So Distant Past in Oman” is the title of these two generously sized books that I had the privilege to read the  first two printed copies of. I say “privilege” because that is what I truly felt when I first gazed at these masterpieces of storytelling in every sense of the word “storytelling”. They will grab your heart and your eye in a way I think few books ever will, regardless of genre or origin. Eugene Harper Johnson has perhaps created THE two books that will stand out in the world of portrait photography and storytelling. Most such books are either written by the photographer who primarily wants to promote his pictures, or by an author who needs illustrations to his texts. A rare master of both photography and words, Eugene Harper Johnson has created two symbiotic wholes. The texts and the pictures are so tightly interwoven, so full of surprises and precision. They can be read and seen again and again. You will still find new twists and turns to the texts that will change your view of the person portrayed ever so slightly. You will find depths in the pictures that you didn’t see before. Until maybe one day you get a sense of “whole” which must be rare in any art, in any world, for any person. Enjoy.--Terje Bruun Lien, Oslo, Norway


"These extraordinary books bring together two almost lost arts in their classical form, the art of pure black-& white photography and the art of precise and eloquent portraiture that seeks to capture something of the complexity of the person portrayed, a way of seeing that is respectful of the uniqueness of the person whose visage is thus being preserved  for times to come. I have now had these two volumes for three days but have not gone through even one of them. I prefer to linger on each of the photographs and move from one to the next very slowly."--Aijaz Ahmad, Distinguished Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, School of Humanities, University of California, Irvine






Reflections from the not so distant past in Oman 


 13/03/2021 Oman Observer 

By Maggie Jeans OBE – 


 This two-volume set of books weighing in at 3 kg each is a tour de force. It is the work of Dr Eugene H Johnson who has travelled the globe over the last forty years capturing the lives of people not only in exquisite monochrome photographs but also in short narratives telling the story behind each portrait. Now he has turned his attention to Oman and has created a permanent oral history record of the lives of those born before Oman’s Renaissance in 1970.

 “As a young boy, Said’s father had often told him about an old man who had prophesised that one day there would be boats made of steel that would fly in the sky and others that would move on the ground. He also told them that one day there would be small boxes from which sounds of men would come and others in which people would move about.” We now know that he was describing planes, cars, radios and televisions but at the time he was thought to be majnoon (mad). 

The stories are poignant and many of them focus on the daily struggle for survival. The major preoccupation of many of these tales is finding enough to eat. This endless struggle is summed up in volume two with the story of a mother coaxing her hungry children to sleep by telling them that the meat was too tough so they should rest whilst she boiled stones which never became tender. 

There are many similar accounts of extreme hardships. Life was about survival. Many men made long and difficult journeys by sea and land to neighbouring countries to find employment. “Work or starve were the only options,” says one participant. Yet these people overcame adversity. There was a sense of community often lost in the modern world and many of those interviewed have lived to a ripe old age and are still active despite all the hardships they have endured. 

“Work is love made visible,” states one participant 

There are also accounts of seafarers and fishermen, farmers and those who depended on livestock to eke out a living. In the mountains of Salalah some families lived in caves. “Life was not very different to that of the free-roaming animals, cattle and camels,” comments one Jabali. 

 Although most of the subjects are men, there are also accounts of life by women. Early arranged marriages were common and their lives were preoccupied with collecting water, wood for cooking, as well as raising children and tending to animals. 

Infant mortality was high, many children did not survive infancy and women frequently died in childbirth. Only traditional remedies were available, including branding with hot irons called wassim or firing. 

Men frequently took more than one wife as described in this extract from the story of a seafaring man from Sur. 

“His philosophy was that if he was going to stay in a place for more than 10 days then it was better to have a wife on site. “Over a lifetime he managed to marry five women from Sur, four from Jaalan and five from India. At times he had four wives at one time.” “In total, his wives presented him with nine sons and nine daughters.” 

There are accounts of seafarers and fishermen, farmers and those who depended on livestock to eke out a living. The hardships of this period are etched in the faces of the subjects. The storytelling behind the portraits is the pièce de résistance of this project. 

HM Sultan Qaboos freed all slaves and granted them citizenship when he came to power in 1970. They became masters of their own destiny. Before this, their lives were full of cruelty including frequent whippings which took courage to survive.In 2010 the United Nations ranked the Sultanate of Oman at the top of the list of 135 countries in the world in the rate of improvement in human development over the past 40 years. These stories precede this progress. Only now are the trials and tribulations of this Omani pre-Renaissance period becoming known. Many informants in the books comment on the importance of making today’s youth aware of this recent history. 

“What can the nation do to develop a sense of understanding of the recent past and not take progress for granted?” commented one of the subjects interviewed from the book. 

With this in mind, a major exhibition of the portraits together with a series of workshops is being planned at the National Museum and a nation-wide project for Omani government schools focused on oral history is also under discussion. These newly published books will shortly be available from the National Museum Gift 

On looking upon Prof Eugene H Johnson’s STORIMAGES


Published Apil 10, 2021 in Oman Daily Observer


By AMITA SANGHAVI


On looking upon Eugene H Johnson’s artwork, I have had the single most enchanting and engaging privilege in my entire life to be introduced to a realm of photography that has since transformed my very definition of photography. I marvel and wonder at his artwork that he has presented in each and every black and white photograph taken across all sections of Oman. Stories after stories unfold from the black and white images I stare, spellbound, in his priceless book, Reflections from the Not so Distant Past in Oman. 


Indeed, it is a journey into the universality of humanity that is so starkly captured and offered in the images. Hidden in these images, are poems that reveal themselves and I write down incessantly, verses after verses, unstoppably. 


The two volumes contain retelling of stories collected after decades of greeting, meeting and bonding with each Omani elders, who represent every nook and corner of this beautiful desert land of Oman. The books are a lifelong wealth to be nurtured and used as first-hand historical research of personal oral accounts of history of those who experienced the days in their misery in the pre-1970 era and then experienced the Omani renaissance, the fairy-tale like transformation of their nation, their entwined fate, and witnessed miracles. Now, they live in the glory of the post 1970s, and to this day, indisputably salute the late His Majesty Sultan Qaboos. 


A total of 250 pages in each volume contain the stories of these individuals of the time, written by Dr Eugene himself. To call these writings literature, historical accounts or exquisite portraiture is not adequate or comprehensive, because they are all of these all at once! So, I have had to call them Storimages. A collection of rarest black and white portrait photographs of each subject in the two grand volumes. The set is at once significant to the contemporary historians as well as the future historians who will want to know the past as it occurred and accounts straight from the masses, authentic and awe-inspiring. But most of all, a must-read for every Omani and every person living in Oman and claiming to love or even claiming to like Oman. 


Rare or impossible it is to find a marriage of the intellect and the heart in an artist’s work. Prof Eugene H Johnson, world-acclaimed and inimitable photographer and literary writer, as well as artist, also superbly accomplishes a dash of light humour to enable the reader to smile with simultaneous tear drops held in the eyes as one goes page after page, image after image, story after story, to realise the insurmountable struggle, woes and victories of the unsung heroes whose survival is now immortalised in their own words with their own portraits. Anyone who values art and literature will be obliged to Dr Eugene H Johnson forever to have been granted an elevated experience that carries them to the highest possible pinnacle, the most objective history in the most authentic, genuinely compassionate yet subdued manner, at once restoring the balance of facts and feelings.


 If a lifetime ought to be spent on a passion with compassion, these volumes are exemplary of human endeavours succeeding beyond imagination, and immortalising the subject and the artist all at once, and if this be the truest accounts of history, then they are also unmistakably worthy of being taught as history as well as literary flamboyances that to a keen reader or student of history and art and literature and photography would enthrall and inspire all at once, reiterating these books as a timeless collection of the Storimages of Oman. 


Amita Sanghavi teaches English at SQU and is also a poet

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