Oh Susanna – Johnstown

MY COPY OF JOHNSTOWN TOOK TWENTY YEARS TO ARRIVE. Somewhere along the way it turned from a CD into a vinyl LP, which is something I never would have anticipated. It’s a long story, I guess, and a lot happened along the way. It was a big twenty years, both for myself and Suzie Ungerleider, aka Oh Susanna, who had just moved to Toronto to record her first album.

I’d met Suzie a couple of years previous, when she was sent to my studio in Parkdale for a NOW magazine cover shoot. Tim Perlich, then one of the editors of the music section, had liked her first EP and pushed for the coverage. Suzie and I got along, the cover turned out well, and when it came time to put together the package for the Johnstown CD, she asked me to shoot her portraits for it.

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale studio, 1998

I had been in my Parkdale studio for a decade by then, and had been refining my studio portraits with increasingly stark, focused lighting. For many years, under the influence of pictorialist photography, I’d been using gels and dry mount tissue and Japanese rice paper to “age” or “distress” my photos – to take away the sharpness of a modern negative and add texture and grain.

But I’d been moving away from that look as the decade was coming to a close; I’m not sure why I decided to revisit it with the shots I printed for Johnstown. It might have been Suzy’s description of the record – a song cycle inspired by a flood that destroyed a Pennsylvania town over a hundred years previous, spiked with the odd murder ballad or two.

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale studio, 1998

I can’t make my photos look that way any more in the age of digital – not easily, in any case. So these shots – scanned and processed a few months ago when Suzie contacted me last year with news that Johnstown was being released on vinyl for its 20th anniversary – are more like what I shot in the studio that day in November of 1998, and in and around Liberty Village, where we went afterwards to get some variety of poses and locations.

Suzie Ungerleider, Liberty Village, Toronto, 1998

Liberty Village doesn’t look the same any more – it’s been gentrified, filled with condos and cafes and restaurants and offices. And I didn’t know it at the time, but my shoot with Suzie would be one of the last – perhaps even the very last – portrait session I’d do in my Parkdale studio. The eviction notice arrived around the same time, and I haven’t had a studio since then. Things got pretty chaotic when it came time to move, and I forgot to ask Suzie for a copy of her CD. Frankly, by the time the end of the millennium rolled around, I was wondering if I was still a working photographer.

Johnstown turned out to be a hell of a debut album, and the basis for a career that’s survived a cancer scare and the multiplying insecurities of an independent musician in the digital universe. And somehow I’ve also managed to survive and even return to shooting. Seeing my work for Johnstown again pulls me up a bit short; it was work done at a turning point in both our lives, I think. I feel lucky to have had a small part in it.

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