Ann Johansson puts her celebrity portraits to work for the world in “CAUSE + CELEB”

By Shanee Edwards

Johansson’s portrait of John Lydon at Mercede’s Grille in Marina del Rey

Johansson’s portrait of John Lydon at Mercede’s Grille in Marina del Rey

When Ann Johansson began her career as a freelance photojournalist for the Los Angeles Times, she had little desire to focus her lens on fame and celebrity. Johansson quickly discovered, however, that L.A. is a company town.

It turned out that many of Johansson’s assignments would be shooting the glitterati, and over the years she assembled a vast collection of celebrity portraits.

Johansson chose 90 of them to include in her new book “CAUSE + CELEB,” which adds new layers of meaning to the portraits by pairing them with information about social causes chosen by her subjects.

Going one step further, she’s donating all proceeds of the book to those causes — Doctors Without Borders, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Ocean Futures Society, UNICEF and the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence to name a few.

Prints of more than 30 celebrity portraits in the book make up a corresponding exhibit that opens Saturday at The Braid Performance & Art Space in Santa Monica.

Johansson said friends had long encouraged her to do something with her celebrity portfolio, but it was a long time before inspiration struck.

“Once I figured out how to put it together in a way that made sense to me — to reach out to these celebrities and ask them if they wanted to share a cause — that’s when it all came about,” she said. “It’s my hope that the book will inspire people to think about what they themselves care about and what they can do to effect positive change.”

Johansson was able to contact 40 of the celebrities featured in her book — not just film stars, but artists and musicians and entrepreneurs as well — to ask for causes to feature.

“At the time, I didn’t really know what this was going to look like, but I knew this wasn’t a project I wanted to make money on,” she said.

Venice artist Ed Ruscha, whom Johansson photographed at his studio near Abbot Kinney Boulevard, chose to support the Noah Purifoy Foundation. The nonprofit, formed after the visual artist and Watts Towers Art Center cofounder’s death, works to preserve and maintain the 10-acre Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture in Joshua Tree.

“I took a lot of photos of [Ruscha] in his studio with his art supplies, but the one I’m using of him in the book is where he’s standing with his bicycle next to a corrugated door. I liked this one because it’s not the typical I-know-you’re-an-artist portrait. It’s different.”

Johansson was the one who was in for the unexpected when she photographed John Lydon, lead singer of the post-punk band Public Image Ltd and formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols.

The surprise wasn’t that Lydon was “really smart, nice and entertaining,’ it was that the frontman of one of the most outrageous and outspoken bands in music history was feeling a bit camera shy.

They had met up at Mercede’s Grille in Marina del Rey, and that’s where Lydon wanted to stay.

Luckily for me there was a mirror right where we were sitting, so I used that for a bunch of the pictures,” Johansson said.

But Lydon did eventually open up.

“I think I have some photographs of him sticking a napkin up his nose,” she said.

Quincy Jones, Robert Downey Jr., Arianna Huffington, Alfred Molina, Neil Gaiman and chef Susan Feniger also appear in the book.

Asked if any celebrity truly impressed her, Johansson quickly arrived at Brad Pitt, who jumped in to help shuffle heavy tables and chairs she had to arrange for the shoot.

“What surprised me was how nice he was. He really made a point to say hi and make sure he heard my name right,” Johansson said. “He really stood out to me as being genuine and helpful.”

“CAUSE + CELEB” is on view from Sept. 12 to 27 at The Braid Performance & Art Space in Santa Monica, 2912 Colorado Ave., Ste. 102, Santa Monica. Call (310) 315-1400 or visit