It started as a simple assignment for a photography class. Brian Johnson, a 29-year-old Iraq war vet, was pursuing a film degree after returning to the states. He had a cheap disposable camera while in Iraq -- which he used to shoot landscapes -- and a friend's video camera to film a keepsake video. Now Johnson wanted to turn his newly found passion into a career.
The assignment was to pick a photographer he admired and shoot a series of photos using that artist's style.
"I don’t really like photographing people," said Johnson, who looked to photographer Lori Nix for inspiration. She specializes in constructing and photographing dioramas. "I decided well, let me pull some of my son’s toys out and it kind of involved from there."
Johnson took his dinosaur subjects to the backyard of the Longwood, Florida, home where he lives with his wife and 3-year-old son. Johnson dug up the ground, constructing mounds and filling in a little pond with water. The theme was prehistoric armageddon -- the last days of the dinos.
"It was really enjoyable to be able to see the scene in my head and be able to recreate that," said Johnson.
In his favorite photo -- one that shows a T-Rex standing over his latest meal -- Johnson said he used chicken gizzards to make it more realistic.
"My wife wasn’t too happy about me using it on my kid's toys," Johnson said with a chuckle. He hopes to print the picture in a large format and hang it in his son's room.
From dinosaurs, Johnson moved on to soldiers. He uses firecrackers and smoke bombs to create the hazy scenes and converts his images to black and white, then adds a little grain in Photoshop.
He spent a lot of time staring at the famous photo of the Battle of Iwo Jima for his own miniature recreation. And while some people have criticized him for trivializing war by using toys, Johnson says that the toys are at the heart of his message for the soldier series: That "politicians use the military as toys."
All of Johnson's photos are shot using natural light in his backyard -- he just has to wait for the right time of day to capture the perfect lighting conditions. He also shoots all of the images on a Canon 7D using a 28-135mm lens.
If you're wondering what grade Johnson received on the original assignment, it was an A. He got an A in the class, too, and graduated in April of this year from Seminole State College.
Johnson's next project will be a documentary called "My Brother's Story." He spent four years in the Marines starting in 2002, with a tour in Iraq. He says the film will focus on his platoon and how everyone has adjusted to life after the military. He plans to combine interviews of the 27 platoon members with photos and videos they captured during their tour.
If you're interested in seeing more of Johnson's work, you can check out his site: www.brianjohnsonphotos.com