In the shore of Canada’s Lake Simcoe, Richard Johnson lifted his binoculars and peered out over the 280-square-mile body of water in Southern Ontario. It was a cold winter day in 2007—easily minus-13 degrees Fahrenheit with a howling wind—but Johnson spotted a dozen tiny structures specked across the frozen water. In the dead white of winter, he was drawn to their wonky, vibrant facades and the folks who willingly inhabit the huts on the slight chance they’ll catch trout, bass or pike.
A commercial architecture photographer by day, Johnson lurched toward the huts. Lugging a cumbersome large-format camera and tripod, he sank deeper into the snow with every step, trusting the ice’s thickness under his boots. It took an hour to reach this makeshift village, and 15 minutes more to set up, risking frostbite as he took off his mittens to adjust the shutter speed and focus. He pulled the release and captured these ice huts—their irregular forms, their texture and colors—in the soft, dreamy light of a snowy landscape with no horizon.
“These fishermen are solving the problem of being waterproof and warm, but they are being so creative. These are works of art,” Johnson says. “On an abstract level, these ice huts begin to take on the graphics of a face.”
Johnson was hooked, and set out to photograph ice-fishing villages in all ten Canadian provinces—a project that ultimately took a decade to complete, yielding hundreds of photographs, a slew of shows, and the satisfaction of knowing that one of his prints currently hangs in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office. In all these years, he’s still never gone ice fishing, but realizes that he’s not so different from these men after all.
“They can sit out there for hours and don’t catch anything, yet keep going back because maybe they’ll get one fish,” Johnson says. “Which is like my photography: Sometimes the weather won’t be right and I can’t get any photos, but one day there can be amazing light and you get a wonderful picture that will fuel you.”
Johnson, who lives in Toronto, is admittedly an “inexperienced city guy.” But he got crafty. He saw that the fishermen pulled their gear across the snow on sleds and mimicked their technique. He also invested in mittens with heating pads to warm his fingertips after adjusting the camera’s settings. “Ice can be a funny thing,” Johnson says. “Even a bottle of water is going to be frozen in an hour.”
When he can, he chats with the young rowdy guys in their messy huts, typically strewn with beer cans, and the older, more disciplined fishermen who organize their rods in silence. But running into people is rare; Johnson deliberately shoots on off-weekends. Besides, he can’t enter the huts because their warmth will moisten his equipment with condensation that will freeze when he returns outside. “I have to go when it’s lonely,” he says. “I can’t get clean shots if the lake looks like a parking lot.”
Johnson spent the past decade traveling across the country—Chaleur Bay in New Brunswick, Ghost Lake in Alberta—taking back roads to reach these places. He finished photographing the ten provinces in 2016, concluding with a village at Charlie Lake in British Columbia.
Last winter, he returned to Lake Timiskaming, on the border of Ontario and Quebec, where in 1991 he got his first glimpse of a remote ice-fishing village. It was much warmer than it was then, and he grew concerned as he stepped onto the ice. Three inches of water had collected on the surface where the ice had melted. He noticed some fishermen had traded their colorful handmade huts for portable lightweight tents. “I’m happy I started the project when I did. The weather is evolving and the ice huts are evolving,” Johnson sighs. “It felt like the end of an era.”
Richard Johnson’s “Ice Huts” is currently on display at Toronto’s White Wall North gallery. He is also at work on a book. View more of his work at richardjohnsongallery.com.