Oh Susanna: Johnstown revisited

I LIKE TO REVISIT MY OLD WORK. This shouldn’t be a shock coming from someone who spent over four years digging through their archives and posting what they found. So when Suzie Ungerleider (aka Oh Susanna) emailed me about revisiting the shoot we did for her Johnstown record over twenty years ago, I thought it was a great idea.

The easiest part of the challenge was finding the locations where we shot in Liberty Village, a now-gentrified neighbourhood in west end Toronto. Slightly harder was recreating the portraits we took just beforehand, in my Parkdale studio. The studio is long gone – we had to move out a few months after my shoot with Suzie – and I haven’t done a lot of studio work since then. I don’t even own the stool that Suzie sat on any more, which meant a quick trip to Ikea to pick up a new one.

Suzie with Stupid Cat in the “studio,” July 2019

By the end of my time in my studio I’d started using a deceptively simple lighting setup that involved most if not all of my strobe heads clustered around my camera to create a focused light on the subject. After years of trying to mimic natural light or recreate old glamour lighting, I’d become attracted to a lighting scheme that looked basic but actually required a lot of tinkering.

What the photographer looks like.

I still have the strobes and the light stands I used on Suzie’s 1998 shoot, either stored in the loft in the garage or down in the basement, but I’ve moved away from strobes to continuous light since I returned to shooting. Ultimately I rented a pair of Westcott Ice Lights, my favorite portable light source, and set them up to bracket my Fuji X-T2 top and bottom – an even more pared-down lighting scheme than the one I used twenty-one years ago.

Getting Suzie to mirror her poses from two decades ago became a challenge when you consider how hard it is for someone to inhabit the same physical and mental space they occupied at a specific point in their past. We couldn’t help but talk about this – when my stupid cat wasn’t trying to distract us. We’d had an email exchange earlier in the week about Suzie wearing clothes that approximated what she brought to the shoot in 1998, but it occurred to me that a lot of time has passed, so I told her to wear what she’d bring to a photo shoot today.

I already knew that the loading dock behind the “Castle building” in Liberty Village (originally the offices and factory of the E.W. Gillett Baking Powder company) wasn’t there any more – demolished when it was renovated from raw lofts back into offices again. But finding the spot where we took the shot was easy enough. It’s become a bit tiresome to hear people complain about how the decrepit or abandoned parts of their cities have disappeared with gentrification, but it’s not hard to compare these two shots and feel nostalgic for all that picturesque ruin, even if it didn’t generate much economically.

I left the last two locations for last, knowing that the light was nowhere like it was on that November day in 1998. The courtyard doorway into the Gillett building was both in bright sunlight when we arrived there and changed in a few unfortunate ways. I took the liberty (no pun intended) of removing the sign on the archway above Suzie’s head, but I had to alter the composition of the shot thanks to the Porta Potty just out of the right side of the frame.

We’d also shot in the hallways of the Gillett building – Suzie’s home for a couple of months when she moved to Toronto – but I knew that the security system and key cards meant we wouldn’t get access to the interiors today, so we headed to the final location, near the corner of Dufferin and Fraser. We were, once again, in bright sunlight and not flattering overcast, but at least one of the bricked up window bays in the wall where we shot wasn’t tagged with graffiti.

It was a great idea, a fascinating exercise – both technically and as an examination on the passage of time. Suzie, of course, gets to see how she’s changed in two decades, and I got to revisit the way I framed and lit and handled a subject all those years ago. A lot of time has passed, but my working methods didn’t feel too alien. Most of all I learned how much I miss having a studio space. Maybe one day I’ll have one to go with my new stool.

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