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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Georgian Bay

On Georgian Bay, 2019

THE GREAT THING ABOUT MY WORK is that I occasionally get paid to do something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve had my eye on the Chi-Cheemaun ferry for years now, but I was recently hired by the Alternator Group on behalf of Owen Sound Transportation Company to spend a weekend on the boat between Tobermory and Manitoulin Island, take some photos and write a few stories.

My motel, Tobermory, ON, 2019

Cottage country is a big deal up here – not just in Canada, generally, but in Ontario particularly. My family never owned a cottage – we rented one for a week, once, when I was a boy – so I’ve spent my meagre time there as a guest. I’m not a driver, so I had to hire a car to get me up to where Ontario Highway 6 turns a corner by the Bruce Anchor Motel and pauses at the ferry docks in Tobermory.

Tobermory, Ontario, 2019

The ferry takes up where the road leaves off, moving cars across the mouth of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron to South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island, where the highway continues across the island, over the North Channel via a swing bridge before ending in McKerrow. I was only concerned with the highway’s path over the water on the Chi-Cheemaun, however.

MS Chi-Cheemaun arrives at Tobermory, 2019

I arrived in Tobermory with just enough time to check in to the Bruce Anchor before wandering down to the dock to watch the Chi-Cheemaun arrive from its morning voyage across the bay. Since I wasn’t booked on to the boat until the evening sunset dinner cruise, I had an afternoon to kill in Tobermory, which I did with my camera – a warm-up before I had to get on the boat and get to work.

On deck, Georgian Bay, 2019
Manitoulin Island, 2019

I like boats. I like anything that takes me anywhere, but boats have a clear lead over planes and a narrow one over trains. Going somewhere on a boat feels like a voyage, and thanks to ever-changing conditions on the water, each trip feels different than the last. The Chi-Cheemaun has been making itself a destination on its own for many years, but its branding got a boost when the bow and funnel were decorated with murals inspired by local woodland aboriginal artwork.

On Georgian Bay at sunset, 2019

I used my main camera, a Fuji X-T2, to take the portraits and reportage I needed for the commissioned stories, but as usual I took my much-loved X30 with me to capture the sorts of shots I’m always collecting when I travel. The return journey from Manitoulin was dominated by a long sunset that seemed to change every time I thought I’d shot enough and went inside again. A glimpse out the window would reveal another different combination of sky, water and colour, so out I’d go again.

Ferry terminal, Tobermory, ON, 2019

The last embers of the sunset were still burning away when we docked at Tobermory for the night, lining the horizon out towards the mouth of the bay. The sun disappeared and brought a night of rain, which carried in a day’s worth of fog that covered the lake from the moment we left the next morning, hiding the islands on the way out of Tobermory in wisps of steaming mist.

I actually enjoyed my two trips on the Chi-Cheemaun through the fog more than the spectacular sunset cruise the night before. The lake was definitely choppier and visibility was down to a few dozen metres for most of the trip, which meant that the ship’s horn would sound regularly, its muffled echo rolling back through the fog. But the views from the deck were more primal and mysterious, land glimpsed only occasionally through cool fog, the water raked with waves.

Leaving Tobermory, 2019
Manitoulin Island, 2019
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Icon Gallery – Music Prints for Sale

Eric B & Rakim, Toronto, 1987

SO SOMEONE IS SELLING A BUNCH OF MY PHOTOS NOW. This has been in the works for a while – at least a year, probably more, since Lyle Waisman from Chicago’s Icon Gallery contacted me about selling gallery prints of my music photos. It took me a while to get all the images Lyle requested ready for the website, but almost everything is up now and I’m ready to take orders of some of my “greatest hits” – Patti Smith, Prince, Tony Bennett, Fela Kuti, David Bowie – as well as some less-seen shots like the Eric B & Rakim portrait at the top.

Imaginary gallery wall

One of the reasons this has taken so long to set up was me. It probably took about a year for Lyle to convince me to do this, as I’m pretty down on doing the gallery thing. I haven’t had a lot of success selling prints off of walls over the last three decades, and our house is full of framed leftovers from old shows. But Lyle’s business model is an online gallery – I don’t have to make a print until someone buys one, and I don’t have to pay for frames.

John Lee Hooker, Toronto, 1987

While I was going through my files I made a few discoveries, like this shot of John Lee Hooker, taken way back at the beginning of my career. It’s not technically perfect – I probably overlooked it for thirty years because of the blur – but it has an energy I like, and there aren’t a lot of shots of the man smiling like this, so I’ve put it out there to see if there are any takers.

I’m in pretty fantastic company – Mick Rock, Ebet Roberts, Adrian Boot, Gered Mankowitz, Terry O’Neill, Barrie Wentzell and Baron Wolman are among the photographers also represented by Lyle at Icon. There’s a link over on the right that will take you to my page, if you’re in the market for something for your wall. Like I’ve said, it took a while to sell me on this, so go do Lyle a favour and prove him right.

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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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Elora again

Elora Mill Inn, Grand River and the “Tooth of Time”

I FINALLY GOT TO STAY AT THIS PLACE. Elora is probably my favorite small town in Ontario, and I’ve been there a few times now, the last two on business. The Elora Mill Inn & Spa was still being renovated when I visited last year, but I’ve been angling to get a night there since they gave me a tour. A couple of months ago I got my chance.

The mill is as old as the town, and it’s been the star of its scenic views for as long as Elora has been hosting visitors, for more than a century. It’s amazing to think that the “Tooth of Time” – a little flowerpot island that sits in the middle of the steepest part of the rapids by the mill – is still standing. The spring melt had swelled the Grand River when I visited, so the water was raging through Fergus and Elora the whole time I was there.

Time was tight while I was in town so I had to do some planning. I already had the postcards, but I needed to nail down sunset and sunrise while I was in town and figure out where the light would be. I knew I wanted to get a long exposure of the water flowing past the mill, and thankfully this time I had all the gear I need to pull it off – a lightweight travel tripod, a cable release and a set of neutral density filters.

Taking the shot with all the gear

The sunset was a bit muted when I set up on the patio outside the spa – as close as I could get to the spot where some anonymous postcard photographer set up for their shot over a century ago. I’m still not sure about shooting long exposures, but it’s a look I’ve never seriously tried before with landscapes and this seemed like a good place to give it a shot.

Room with a view, Elora Mill Inn & Spa

My room was visible from the patio – on the left side of the new glass addition, just above the restaurant and below the balconies of the deluxe suites. The hotel was nice enough to give me a suite with a fireplace, which I enjoyed the hell out of. I was in town to write a couple of travel features about Elora, but I knew that I’d try to get a post for my own travel blog about the hotel while I was lucky enough to enjoy their hospitality – and the spectacular view:

I did a bunch of interviews for the travel features, which gave me an opportunity for some portraits. Elora’s been a hub for artists since at least the ’70s, and they’ve formed a community whose work has become a key part of the town’s business and identity. I handed in colour shots for the stories, but I took some versions of my own, pretty sure they’d end up being processed in black and white.

David Cross, blacksmith and sculptor, Elora, Ontario
Neil Hanscomb and Gisela Ruehe, glass artists, Elora, Ontario

The whole Elora/Fergus area is ridiculously photogenic, so I ended up with a lot of “end cuts” even after handing in my two features and posting to my travel blog. My visits to the area, while enjoyable, are always too brief. One day I’d like to spend a few days exploring with my camera, though I doubt if my lodgings will be as luxurious.

Ruin, Elora, Ontario
Templin Gardens, Fergus, Ontario
Grand River in the spring, Fergus, Ontario
Grand River at Wilson Flats Access Point
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