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A Flair for Friendship
Award-winning videographer Ron Johnson's greatest gift was love and laughter
by Jennifer Hambrick
August 2006

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The Three Amigos: Lori Cheyne (left), Ron "RJ" Johnson, and Victoria Ludaway.

Award-winning videographer, freelance photographer, Kansas native and longtime Short North resident Ron Johnson died July 12, 2006. He was 56.

Johnson’s friends called him “RJ,” and remember his magnetic personality.

“I met him the day he came to work at Channel 10, and I can honestly say we’ve been best friends ever since,” said Duff Lindsay, owner of the Short North’s Lindsay Gallery and former WBNS-TV videographer. “He was one of those rare people you meet once in a lifetime. He was such a charismatic person and just really drew people to him.”

Lindsay said Johnson was a regular at the Short North Tavern where he met many of the people in his wide circle of friends.

“Ron was looking to become part of a community. He always considered his friends to be his family and he took that very seriously. I think he discovered the Short North Tavern as kind of becoming the potential epicenter for the community, as it really was in the early days of this community.”

Lindsay says Johnson found the community he was looking for in the people he saw regularly at the Short North Tavern.

“He had an energy that really kind of made him the center of things,” Lindsay said. “It was no cliché to say that Ron Johnson was the life of the party. He was the type of person who would walk into an unfamiliar situation and within a few minutes have made friends with everybody in the place. I’ve traveled with him in other cities; he ended up knowing people and making friends immediately everywhere he went.”

“He just loved laughing, he loved beautiful women, art, music, computers, his son Eli. His son was his joy,” friend Deb Roberts said. Roberts, who organizes the Doo Dah Parade, said Johnson had an eye for style and was constantly updating his look.

“I always called him our Black Madonna because at least once a year he would change his persona,” Roberts said. “He’d be reggae beatnik, then he’d be cowboy. He had several looks going on in the time I knew him.”

Johnson’s 18 years as a videographer for WBNS-TV sent him to the four corners of the world and garnered many prestigious awards. In addition to covering countless local and national events, he filmed the 1990 tumbling of the Berlin Wall and covered operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in Iraq. In 1996, Johnson received the Edward R. Murrow/AP Press Award for his videography in the documentary “Desert Shield Diary.” The Columbus Association of Black Journalists awarded Johnson a Certificate of Achievement in 2001.

Lindsay says Johnson’s videography had an artistic flair.

“He composed video shots very often more like a still photographer might, with an eye for composition rather than just an eye for following the action,” Lindsay said. “I think that made him a great videographer. As a news photographer, you can get very caught up in following what’s going on. He was thinking beyond that. He was thinking of the composition of the individual shots in a way that a lot of videographers don’t have the training to do. He had the eye of an artist. Ron really was interested in the image. He was interested in the art form possibilities that existed in television.”

Johnson left WBNS in 1994 to become a freelance still photographer. His images appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including The Columbus Post, the Cleveland Post, and Girlfriends and Vibe magazines. His photographs illustrated promotional material for Sony/Ratti Rat Records, Capital University, Structure, The Limited, Henri Bendel and Aroma Design, which creates fragrances for Bath and Body Works.

As a still photographer, Johnson was perhaps best known for his sensual photographs of women, which he had planned to publish together in a book, Her Pleasure, Her Beauty, Her Pain. The images slated for the book show the full humanity of woman: as curvaceous, young model, as mother, even as victim of an objectifying society. Johnson planned to donate proceeds from the book to organizations that help women victims of rape and domestic violence.

Johnson never saw the book to publication, but Lori Cheyne, a close friend of Johnson’s and a make-up artist who worked regularly with Johnson on photo shoots, says several of his friends are planning to meet to cull through Johnson’s photos and negatives and discuss mounting an exhibition of his work or publishing some of his images in a book.

Those who knew him say Johnson loved photographing women because he respected them.

“He could get a shy woman to be confident in having her photo taken and know that he’s going to take it in a beautiful manner,” Roberts said. “RJ loved women and respected women. He loved sisterhood. He’d call me his sister. I’m white and I’m not related, but he’d call me his sister because we had a connection of philosophy in things in life, anything from politics to women’s lib.”

Cheyne says Johnson brought out the best in everyone at the shoot.

“Whenever we worked in his studio, it was just magical,” Cheyne said. “I was the best make-up artist in the world because he said so, and the model was the most beautiful model because he said so. And it was just really fun and exciting.”

Al Schulman, associate vice president for Nationwide Insurance and a friend of Johnson’s for more than 20 years, says Johnson began to have problems after leaving WBNS, including financial problems and a consistent worsening of his chronic asthma. Schulman says these difficulties did nothing to detract from who Johnson was.

“He was a good friend. He was a talented artist,” Schulman said.

Another longtime friend, Short North Gazette publisher Tom Thomson, will remember Johnson for his warmth and generosity.

“He had a heart as big as all outdoors,” Thomson said. “I’ll miss him.”

© 2006 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.