Derek Johnson Muses

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A moment never seems as happy until it has past. When it passes, you remember it ten times as fondly as it ever was when it happened, even you can remember thinking to yourself at the time you were sad or angry or unhappy. 

Cow Spot

It's Staring Right at You

It’s Staring Right at You

Recently, I scrolled back through the old notes I’d written on my iPhone (and, a device ago, my iPod touch) over the last three years. Good times. 

Twisted Streets



Large bodies of water always mess up a large city’s traffic, and make their streets run in odd directions. Above is one of the few streets that come out from Wisconsin‘s state capital and runs between the lakes smack-dab in the middle of Madison, Wisconsin.

Below is the forced end of both a street and city, San Francisco to be exact. Behind the sign is a beach full of birds, drifters, seals, and other sun-soaked things.

The Very End of the Street

The Very End of the Street


Ideas Left Behind


It Changes

Possibilities and ideas pass through my head all day, whether I’m doing the dishes, walking on the trail, or just driving someplace. I file them away. Some of them turn into ideas that I post here. I’ve had whole visions of running off to California, or working in national parks. But some, like writing for a real website or selling my photographs, have come to fruition.

The enthusiasm of a new idea always fades, but when it does, it the truth becomes clear. Humans are always destined to see more paths than they are able to walk. We don’t need to take it so personally, it just means we have great imaginations.

What’s Left



I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this blog, or more accurately, a lot of time forgetting this blog while I write for Huskermax and script videos for USA Today. I can’t even write a decent post about being stumped for something to write about.

But I figured I can still share my photograph, buried deep on my computer and my phone. After all, it’s a shame for all that pretty stuff to go to waste, isn’t it? The photo above is from northeast Iowa, somewhere west of Dubuque off US Highway 20.




I had been thinking for a long time about what to write about with the picture above. At first I thought back to when high school, through two-and-a-half years of youth group, the time spent maturing on our little acreage west of Seward. No story came to mind.

Then I tried to think of a quality, like sadness or control. No idea presented itself. Trends around Seward? Nothing. Stuff at church? I’d use a different photo for that, if I had anything.

Back when I started this blog, someone asked me what the theme of it was. Defiantly, I told her I didn’t need a theme. Now, I realize if I had come up with an answer to that question, I might not be as stuck as I am now.

In case you are curious, the photo above was taken in Clearwater, Nebraska, west of North Platte a ways. The reason it is crooked is, at the time, I didn’t feel like slowing down or stop, and decided to wing a photo. Thus a distorted perspective.

The Photo that’s Just So Important

Originally, I had tried to think of something to write about a human flaw, just so I could use the photo below in a post. But I struck out, so here it is. Just the photo.

Hometown Store

Hometown Store

I photographed this store on a road trip I took two years ago. It was trip that I took and told no one about, and even now, the only thing I’ll say about it is that it was to one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country. It was a three-day trip. The first day featured glorious weather. The next two featured bothersome rain.

Tell me, is this picture pretty enough to stand on its merit? Do you need to know the name of the town it is in, that I took it in the afternoon, that it is the only significant town for several miles? Do I have through in long exposition about how I rolled into town looking for a coffee shop but didn’t find one, then continuing to push on towards a state borderline? Does it matter that a whole town full of people spent years of their lives walking by this store, and that part of me feels like I traveled a whole world to find it? It is, after all, just a store, sitting out there on the prairie, with so much in between.

Or is this just another desperate ploy on my part to get attention? Probably, but I hope the other stuff matters too.

Through Trees and Branches Across the Nation


Presidio of San Francisco, April 2011

Whenever I would take a photo like this, I would think it was great until it was on my computer.

Kansas, Fall 2009

Kansas, Fall 2009

I mean the bush in the foreground dwarfs the shoreline in back. It’s incredible!

Southern California Palms

California Palms on Coronado Island, San Diego, California, December 2009

A couple of them I took when I was on a hyper-relaxing vacation in sunny weather while Nebraska drowned in snow. Those photos, I took because the world seemed to slow down.

San Antonio, March 2011

San Antonio, March 2011

Some of them were taken when I was in the south, amidst the ruins of a Catholic mission from several ceturies ago.


Sleep Bear Dunes, May 2010

This one was from one of the greatest evening of photographing, along Sleeping Beer Dunes in northern Michigan. The shores and winds run forever, and it’s a great place to get away from city stress and get into nature.

Tree, Interrupted. Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan. May 2010.

The wind-wiped-out half-tree above is one of the hallmarks of Sleeping Bear Dunes. Bottom line: if you’re a tree, hope your seed gets blown inland a ways.

Central Wisconsin off WISC HWY 21, September 2013

Central Wisconsin off WISC HWY 21, September 2013

Can you tell by the fuzziness of the leaves here that these are classic fall foilage in the woodlands of central Wisconsin, miles off of the grid, or does it just look like the lint you pull out of your dryer?

Middle of Nowhere, Who Knows When

Middle of Nowhere, Who Knows When

This burnt building is in a barren area of the country, and that is an understatement. Every 40 miles, there is a town of around 3,000 and that about it for 500 miles in any direction. In between are a bunch of small burnt-down ghettos like this one.


White noise.

There are of course plenty of trees closer to my roost, like these in the Platte River valley off Nebraska Highway 92, lighting up the lowly March morning sky. (Okay, these I did something with when I got them on the computer.

Florida Tree

Florida Tree

This is a special one. I used to keep an 8×10 print of this tree within line sight of my bed, so I could see it when I got up in the morning and fell asleep at night. It always seemed menacing, like an orge.


Open Box

This group of sticks was on the borders of one of the fields I used to go see out at Hastings. There’s a farm in the distance, not that you can see it clearly.

Living Room

Living Room

And these sticks are a few miles from where I live. How about that.

Nebraska at Michigan 2013: in Pictures

I’ve written a detailed recap of Nebraska’s win at Michigan over at, but I want to take some time here to share some photos from that great day in Ann Arbor.

Caught Michigan's police escort to the stadium.

Caught Michigan’s police escort to the stadium…

Northwest corner

Northwest Corner of The Big House…



A memorial

A Memorial…

Wolverines taking the field under their famed banner...

Wolverines taking the field under their famed banner…

Huskers enter a few minutes later...

Huskers enter a few minutes later…

The opening kickoff....

The opening kickoff….

Michigan backed up....

Michigan backed up in the second quarter…

The game's final moments...

The game’s final moments…

Final Score!

Final Score!

My Fall Photo Show at the Seward Civic Center: Rails and Rural Stuff

I’ve been mentioning it for a while now, but finally, here’s a post on my show at the Civic Center. Big thanks to Clark Kolterman, Pat, Wayne, and everyone else there for allowing me this great opportunity. In addition to the video, there are a lot of barn, silos, old buildings in small towns, a buffalo, and a boat in a field of grass. (I’m not kidding.)

The reception is going to be Saturday, October 6 from 1-3. RSVP on Facebook and hope to see you there!


How My Journey of Photographing Barns Began

As God told Eve after the fall, births are never painful. How I became a photographer was a rough journey. It took place in two parts. One was a trip to Wyoming in August of 2008. The other was a day in 2009 when I went to visit a field by central Iowa and had a panic attack.

The trip to Wyoming was to visit our alfalfa grower by Otto. Otto is small town about50 miles east Cody and the gates of Yellowstone . Calling it a town is an exaggeration; it is more like a collection houses and old buildings. There are roughly four households there, and a post office that is run out of a small room in our grower’s home. Mail is delivered to the town twice a week, and you pick it up.

The drive from my home in Seward to Otto is over 750 miles, roughly twelve and a half hours. The problem with that is, it is just over the amount of time that you can make it in one day. Add in the time I spend visiting with the grower, it was a three days. The trip is more rural than any of the trips that I go on, and I travel to rural areas all the time. Sure there are great places along the way: Hokes Cafe in Hastings, Cabela’s in Sidney, Sierra Trading Post in Cheyenne. But it’s empty land, and I have never passed more farmyards littered with old trucks, tractors, and other broken down machinery from the last four decades. It’s like they expect another depression to hit any day now. (Given the greedy morons who run our economy and our gutless politicians, they may be on to something.)

But while I was passing also rotting barns, breaking down sheds, and combines that were older than I was, I got to thinking about how cool it would be to drive through that country and just take photographs of everything. It could make a good coffee table book or home art; I could remember the painting my grandparents kept in their farmhouses. I stowed those ideas in the back of my mind and while I mostly photographed the landscapes and roads around me.

The day in August of 2009, I was headed out to rural Iowa to look at a field of soybeans. It was a bad day in a really bad time in my life, and for a variety of reasons a bunch of problems had come to a head that day. After I left the field distraught, I drove down the road back to the highway, and right by the turn-on to the road, there were these two barns, with a windmill sitting between them, its blades facing one of the barns. Here, I thought I would take some of the frustration out of my experience of going to fields, and photograph some barns. So I took my camera, and photographed the barns and the windmills. I often photographed a lot of the little towns I went through, but this was the first time I can remember shooting barn.

An 8’x”10 of those barns and windmill now hangs on the wall by the staircase in our basement. There is something eerie and haunting about it to me, because at the time, I was feeling like a failure. In many ways, that’s what photographing a barn is like for me: seeing ghosts. But now, I taking steps to show my photos around, and I realize that that day, I was starting a new chapter in my life.

Kicking it at the Joslyn

Since today was the first Saturday without college football since August, I declared it to be Cultural Enrichment Saturday. And since it is Saturday, I decided to come to Omaha to enjoy a free admission before noon at the Joslyn Art Museum, a privilege the museum grants every week.

Although the Joslyn’s collection isn’t as large a a major city’s museum, it has a lot of great classical pieces and pieces from the American west. Impressionists, photographs, indian artifacts, and even some church art. Today, I came to see two particular shows: American Landscape: Contemporary Photographs of the West, and From Sea to Shining Sea. As a photographer of rural places, I was intrigued to see both shows and see what insights and reflections I could gain.

Rolling up to the Joslyn reminds of why I love coming to Omaha, and cities in general. The marble building, the courtyard full of those cool brass structures. I rolled in, paid a quarter for the peace of mind knowing that my laptop was in a locker (in San Francisco, I could check my bag for free), and hit the gallery. I was drawn in, by the first photo of a waterfall gorge in Colorado in black and white. It looked like two billion things at one place.

American Landscape was a photo shoot of the west, with a modern hashtags of power lines, thrown away plastic bags, and roads. The philosophy of the show was, man’s been in the American west for well over a hundred years. There is simply no way to hide it in photographs, so let’s just show the evidence of humans. So, the mostly black and white series had its share of open plains in the Badlands and Sandhills and remote rocks hills, but it also had abandon homes, farmhouses, railroad grades, and power dams. I went through the series, reading the captions, the sitting on the bench, and letting my eyes drift over the paintings. (Lesson I learned in San Francisco: enjoy the gallery, and let it come to you.)

So I went through that series, and moved on to From Sea to Shining Sea. Which, alas, was no more than proof that comic book were not just a mere late twenty-first century for men with low self-esteem. The paintings were by Currier and Ives, who immediately remembered as a a line from a popular Christmas song. They were colorful, and almost too idealized. These pictures were what must have enticed naïve, non-english speaking immigrants to come west. (Indeed, even one of the captions in the Joslyn’s other gallery admitted that the west was too idealized in paintings, tall tales, and the Wild West Show.) I let this colors pass through my mind and remembered fondly some of the places I’d been. That was all.

I wandered through the neighboring gallery of abstractions, and then back to the American Landscape. I drifted in between pictures, but there was one photograph that kept calling my name. It was a series by a man who took photographs from a plane. The first confounding one was of a mining hill, with a series of roads scattered all over it (at least I think those were roads). I kept looking at it, looking at other pictures, and looking at it again. Then I approached it from far away and walked toward it, and as I approached, the roads jumped of the photograph, showing the man-made portion of the terrain over the natural portion. I kept trying to look at the photograph as if I were looking out of the plane, which was probably my mistake.

Until I noticed the next to it, which was some old mining field of a substance I can’t remember. This photograph looked nothing like a photograph at all, just black white abstract figure and some white spots. Again, I approached a couple of different times, walking from different points of the gallery. I let my eyes linger on the next wall, photographs of old railroad grades I found more appealing. But whenever I went back to that photo of sheer black and white, even after I walked through the rest of the Joslyn and came back to it, I couldn’t see it as a photograph. That’s how I knew it was time to go.

The Joslyn’s collection of western art reminds me of why I love to take pictures, and why I love to write. The dramatic westerns, the painting from guys who had to drag their painting materials with them across mountains and rough terrains to find their ideal landscapes, then haul them back east. Those guys really inspire me, even if they did over-idealize the west. When I travel these parts, I see a different country. I see rottting barns, old fences, and empty building in the downtowns of small towns that housed restaurants, shops, and car dealerships. I see rural America, just rotting away, with stories to tell if they knew how to tell. Or we knew how to slow down and listen. That’s why I’m grateful for the Joslyn.


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