In “Borderlands,” a series of lush, almost surreal large-format images at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Eirik Johnson presents urban and near urban areas that have largely been abandoned to nature. Often one wonders about the story behind what’s shown. In Untitled (Sweater), an orange sweater and a brown shirt are tied together and stretched between trees. It turns out Johnson found them in a creek used by urban hobos, with the shirt covered in moss. Untitled (Debris) shows a bundle of sticks on the concrete ledge of a freeway underpass, apparently deposited there by a flood.

Johnson began photographing in his early teens, inspired by Ansel Adams and later by Edward Weston. He and a friend shared a darkroom in his native Seattle, and together they’d shoot everything from old billboards to wildflowers in a nearby mountain valley. Entering the University of Washington as a jazz studies major, then switching to history with a concentration on Latin America, Johnson took fewer photographs. But a year in Ecuador when he was a junior rekindled his interest in photography–and channeled it in a new direction. Everything in Ecuador, it seemed, carried traces of its history, which couldn’t be encompassed in the beautiful patterns of the formalist photography he loved. “There’s a huge indigenous population still speaking Quechua,” Johnson says. “And Inca ruins. I felt the past was so involved with the present.” Returning, he became more aware of Seattle’s history and started photographing freeway overpasses and downtown intersections, built on sites that had once been used by Native Americans for sweat lodges and funeral pyres. To produce stereo images–a format common 100 years ago–he made a camera with two pinholes. The resulting series served as his senior thesis for a double major in history and photography, and the university library bought prints for its collection.

In 1999, two years after graduating, Johnson received a Fulbright for a similar project in Peru, creating stereo images of Inca sites. On that trip, some Andes villagers invited him to go with them on an annual pilgrimage to find the “snow star,” a ritual that dates to pre-Colombian times. “Tens of thousands of villagers hike to a site at the foot of a glacier to worship the sacred mountains,” he says, “an animistic tradition that was later appropriated by the Catholic church. Several days of singing and dancing are followed by a 24-hour hike.” Since then he’s returned for the event four times, working on a black-and-white series.

In college Johnson had been impressed by such large-format photographers as Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth and by the great chronicler of human alterations to the American landscape, Robert Adams. Grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute introduced him to earthworks and to Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, whose walking trips serve as a starting point for some of their photographs. Johnson began taking pictures on long walks through his run-down neighborhood, “trying to find the exotic in the everyday.” This urban series, “West Oakland Walk,” led to “Borderlands.” Both series have roots in Johnson’s childhood, especially the time he spent exploring city-owned greenbelts, undeveloped patches of weeds and forest. One next to his house, he says, included “an old patio with Roman-style columns. I also remember finding a teddy bear that had been left a long time ago with a note attached to its collar. We thought we had discovered the lost ark.”

While in Peru on the snow star trips, Johnson observed how the pilgrims marked their route by placing single stones on piles left by previous pilgrims. For Untitled (Tires), he consulted a tidal chart and waited days for the low tide that would reveal the abandoned tires he’d noticed on other occasions. Then, before taking the picture, he waded up to his knees in mud to place sticks with colored plastic on the tires as markers. Untitled (Tarp) shows the remains of a white tarp against an empty field, the plastic ripped to wispy shreds by the wind and rain, their shapes echoing those of the fennel plants in the background.

Eirik Johnson: Borderlands

When: Through Sat 10/1

Where: Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan

Info: 312-663-5554 or 312-344-7104