In Artist and Educator J. John Priola’s New Book Natural Light In (Prestel), Priola presents 12 series, each containing images of trees and other plants as well as the places in which they thrive. The sections are prefaced by a photograph taken by his mother. The breadth and depth of the work speaks to the crucial role the natural world in Priola’s art making, and in his life in general. “I photograph inanimate objects, nature, and architectural elements, all to get at people,” he says, from San Francisco. “I’m making portraits of people through these objects.” (For more evidence of this, see Priola’s InstagramThis is an ongoing series that shows domestic architecture with their plants as residents.

In this week’s Milkshake, he talks us through several of his favorite images, including the one that appears on the cover of Natural Light: “I love every one of the images in the book – I love the pairings in the book,” he says. “Picking one, I’m going to go with ‘Parasite,’ the cover of the book, and the last image in the book – a picture of lichen on a tree branch where there’s lots of green new little leaves surrounding this dead branch. [It’s about] absence, presence.”

Posies, installation view, Natural Light, Anglim Gilbert Gallery, February 7–March 9, 2019

He also expands on his mother’s influence on his work – it was her support that allowed him to pursue his masters degree at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he later chaired the photography department and ran the Low Residency MFA Program until the school’s closure in 2022. “My mom was raised as a city girl, and she married a farmer, moved across the country, and learned a whole new world,” he says. “But as I say in the book, she really is responsible for why I was able to get an MFA in what I really wanted to do. She did that by being an entrepreneur, who realized that farming didn’t earn a lot of money, but she could plant tree seedlings – and by the time her children grew up, she could sell them to landscapers for money.”

black background framed with yellow and green flowers

Acacia Flowers Archival pigment print, framed 19 x 15 inches, 2018

View of double row black photographs framed with flowers and greenery

Foliage, installation view, 2019, Natural Light, Anglim Gilbert Gallery, February 7–March 9, 2019

Listen to John for more!

black image with small purple flowers and greenery surrounding it

Ceanothus Archival Pigment Print, Framed 19 x 15 Inches, 2018

birds of paradise plant in white pot in front of green background

Cream Vase, Archival Pigment Print, Framed 26 x 21 Inches, 2018

Diana Ostrom has written for Wallpaper Interior Design ID The Wall Street Journal and many other publications. She is also the Author of Faraway PlacesThe newsletter is about travel.

Milkshake, DMTV (Design Milk TV)’s first regular series, shakes up the traditional interview format by asking designers, creatives, educators and industry professionals to select interview questions at random from their favorite bowl or vessel. During their candid discussions, you’ll not only gain a peek into their personal homeware collections, but also valuable insights into their work, life and passions.

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