To many St. Peter residents, Shorty Johnson is the one you call when you’ve blown out a tire or need a fresh set of wheels. But the owner of Shorty’s Tire One has a passion for more than just fixing up automobiles. When he doesn’t have a lug wrench in hand, Johnson can often be found carrying a camera in pursuit of his other passion: photography.
Johnson’s proclivity for camerawork is little secret to regular customers of Shorty’s Tire One. Self-taken snapshots of wild horses, birds of prey and magnificent landscapes of Midwestern natural parks adorn the walls of the Shorty’s Tire One lobby.
The auto mechanic said he always had an interest in photography and started taking pictures himself around 15 years ago when he bought his first high quality camera. Johnson is largely self-taught, having developed his talents through watching YouTube video tutorials and applying his skill in the field. Today, Johnson can be found capturing new photos every week.
“It’s kind of like someone going fishing or golfing or something, you’re always after the bigger, better thing,” said Johnson. “It forces you to travel, and with photography, you tend to look at things in a different perspective sometimes.”
In pursuit of the next big shot, Johnson regularly travels to places like the Gunflint Trail, Bear Head Lake State Park near the Boundary Waters and North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. With just a camera and the bare essentials in his van, Johnson will spend several days immersing himself in the natural landscapes and looking for a good subject to shoot.
Many of the memories from these locations and other parks from across the Midwest are preserved in glass frames at Shorty’s Tire One. For example, visitors may see a picture of an island on Bear Lake that appears clouded in fog. But what appears to be fog is actually smoke from a forest fire.
From the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, customers can see shots of a gathering of bighorn sheep and a picture of a lone wild horse running through a field. Johnson said there are around 50 horses at the park and can be usually found running in groups of seven to 10.
But it doesn’t take a vacation to capture a great photo. Some of Johnson’s favorite nearby places to get pictures of wildlife include Hallett’s Pond, Minneopa State Park and the hummingbird gardens in Henderson. And sometimes the best pictures come at times when they’re the least expected.
“There’s a little surprise around every corner,” said Johnson. “You might be driving down the road at the Gunflint Trail or Hwy. 1 up north come around the corner and there’s a moose standing there and you;re scrambling trying to get a picture of them. Half the time it doesn’t work, but sometimes you get a little glimpse of them in there. If nothing else it’s an awesome memory.”
Such experiences have taught Johnson to be attentive of his surroundings at all times. He recalled one of his luckiest pictures was when he captured a photo of a loon hatching from an egg in the nest. He didn’t realize there was a loon chick in the nest until reviewing his photos.
“I was just drifting by this nest and the two loons were there and one was in back and one was sitting on the nest and I just started taking pictures and I ever even knew that was actually going on,” said Johnson. “It was a pretty incredible deal.”
Through his photography, Johnson prefers to take shots of flora, fauna, landscapes and architecture. The one subject he typically avoids is people. Animals tend to be better models anyway, Johnson noted.
“Typically they’re pretty polite and give you a nice pose every now and then that you don’t necessarily get out of people anyway even if they want their picture taken,” said Johnson.
In his 15 years of photography, Johnson has rarely displayed his pictures outside of his home and Shorty’s Tire One. A few years ago he entered one of his works in a photo contest at the Grand Center in New Ulm and placed third, though he modestly chalked up the win to beginners’ luck.
But in the summer of 2022, Johnson was given the unique opportunity to display his work in the Members Art Show Gallery at the Arts Center of St. Peter. Johnson, alongside other members of the Arts Center, was allowed to hang up two of his own works in the collaborative exhibition.
“It was really the first time I got out of the box and did something like that. Ann [Rosenquist Fee] at the Art Center down there did an awesome job helping me out and it was pretty successful I think,” said Johnson. “A lot of people showed a lot of interest in my photographs which is pretty rewarding when you can do something you really, really enjoy and other people like to sort of participate in that.”
The reception was such a success that Johnson was motivated to register at the Arts Center to host a full-fledged gallery of his own. The auto mechanic estimated the gallery may be a year away, but in the meantime he can take even more photos to add to the show.