Native Minnesotan and Phoenix Memories Founder, MJ Johnson, is becoming a highly sought-after photographer, cinematographer & editor in the Twin Cities, with a growing wait-list of clients vying for available spots on the calendar, up to a year in advance. Yet he is one of the most un-assuming and humble people you will ever meet.  Contrary to his popularity on the film scene and with Twin Cities professionals and clients, he doesn't like to be in the spotlight at all.  In fact, he wasn't thrilled with being interviewed for this article, because he would much rather stay on the down-low, than have people herald his praises and work. MJ is simply a passionate,  knowledgable and thoughtful artist who is grateful to be able to do what he loves full-time. Having said that, and because we know this will make him squirm even more while being dragged into the spotlight . . .  we will be delving into his past -- and I mean, way back --  in the hopes you will be able to get to know this elusive artist better, and understand why his popularity is continuing to rise here in the Twin Cities.  

MJ has a deep appreciation of life's beauty through the lens of his camera,  however, the early stages of his life were less than beautiful and filled with a strange mix of adversity, poverty and neglect, with a tiny bit of surprising privilege. This juxtaposition of two opposing  worlds is what made him who he is today, but also had him questioning quite a bit about why he was really here at all. 

At the early age of 6 mos. MJ was adopted through Catholic Charities (closed adoption), and never had the pleasure of meeting his biological parents.  The only knowledge he has been given is that they were young teenagers who fell in love -- his biological Dad a football player, and his Mom a cheerleader -- and were forced to give him up.   He was born somewhere near Hibbing, MN in a town over-run with poverty. His adoptive parents divorced when he was 7 years old, and as a result, he had a rather tumultuous relationship with, and rarely saw his adoptive father.  However, the times he was able to fly out to Los Angeles or Las Vegas to visit with his father, were the times that filmmaking became implanted in his soul, and the desire to become a filmmaker began. Mj's father was a financier in Hollywood at the time, so as a young boy, MJ loved attending world film premieres at Mann's Chinese Theatre, in L.A. with him, as well as running around on key film sets talking to the celebrities and actors.  His favorite experience as a young boy, was being on the set of "Any Which Way But Loose" with Clint Eastwood & Jeffrey Lewis, talking to the cinematographers and camera guys.  He loved seeing them work, and took every opportunity he could to ask questions.  MJ felt more at home on a film set, then in any real-life home.

Back in Minnesota, inspired by the film set life experienced, he quickly picked up a camera of his own, and started capturing everything around him.  Even though life with Mom was completely different -- wrought with poverty, far away from the bright lights and entitlement of Hollywood that his Dad pursued -- MJ took the time to learn as much as he could about filmmaking and photography, and began making independent movies of his own. His area of interest was Avant Garde cinema.  He appreciated the raw experience of independent filmmaking.  In his early 20's he set out to get to know others who had the same passion in filmmaking, as well as enrolling at the University of Minnesota to gain a higher education.  Ultimately this drew him directly into the horror film industry, which was quite prevalent in Minnesota at the time.  Getting to know different people with different backgrounds was intriguing to MJ, and many of the people he met were great, and very welcoming.  However, he learned through time that working in this particular genre of film may have inspired creativity, but it ended up taking something very precious from him, which he thought he could never get back . . . inner peace and solace!  So he went on a quest to find it, in a different way.

I felt it envelope me . . . this light side inner peace and love beyond understanding that I had never experienced before, and I knew at that moment, the answers to all of my questions, and what I was truly called to do in life.
— MJ Johnson

 The years passed, and life brought MJ two beautiful children, a multitude of film credits, more than 500 live events and weddings under his belt, as well as a quantifiable network of film industry connections and VIP invitations to events . . . but the other side of his life was mixed with a tremendous amount of personal turmoil, so MJ found himself at yet another crossroads, with the same quest to find truth, inner peace and hope regarding the direction he was supposed to go.

One summer evening he got in the car and headed to Long Lake, in Mounds View, MN, with his camera. He walked the lakeside trail, enjoying the beauty of nature, and looking for the perfect spot to settle in and capture his beloved sunset photos. As the sun was going down, and glistening beautifully on the water, he began to ask his Creator a few important questions, because he was very confused about where life had taken him. It was then, something profound happened! "I felt it envelope me . . . this light, this inner peace and love beyond understanding that I had never experienced before, and I knew at that moment the answers to all of my questions, and what I was truly called to do in life. I felt whole and complete, with a deeper resolve to use my talent with photography & filmmaking to make a positive difference in the lives of others, and not just mine." So he began to depart the horror film industry and started focusing more clearly on capturing the purity of love and light. His core priority was to be a positive influence on his children and produce work which reflected those values.  Even though Phoenix Memories Photography & Videography had been well-established up to this point, he made an even greater effort to make it the best imagery company he could, by investing in and implementing a staff of incredible talent, who have the same level of passion to create meaningful life-giving imagery, as he does.  He knew this team effort would ultimately take Phoenix Memories to the next stage of client care and professionalism.     

Because of the last few years of perseverance in taking the company and his personal life toward a more positive direction, there has been a significant rise in client bookings, and 5 star reviews.  Wedding couples know right away, as soon as they meet MJ and the PM staff that they are in the best hands, and are taken care of with great integrity.  People often wonder why the company is called Phoenix Memories when it is clearly located in Minnesota.  The answer is this . . . just as the mythical Phoenix bird rose bravely and courageously out of the ashes of destruction into new life, so too has MJ.  It is his hope that clients will value the imagery he and the team capture, and understand what it has taken to get to this place.  That they will understand he is not a hobby photographer|Videographer|Editor, nor just a guy with a camera, but a seasoned professional who understands his life's call to capture their memories with care, precision, love and purity . . . which will last through the generations, and remind each one of the beauty that life has to offer through the lens. He also wants to be an encouragement to all the creatives who have a talent and want to share it with the world . . . he wants them to know that if you ever feel like giving up, just remember how the Phoenix Bird made it through the fire and soared into victory.  Keep moving ahead, keep soaring, and keep knowing your calling . . . and above all may the force be with you!


If you enjoyed this interview, please feel free to share with others.  Thank you!

A Few Samples of MJ's Photography:


An Extended Wedding Highlight Video - MJ Johnson Videography | Editing Example 


Interview | Article written by:
 Kelly Barry-Miller
 Executive Creative Director
 Phoenix Memories Photography & Videography
All content copyright 2016 by Phoenix Memories.  All rights reserved


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