Thursday, September 8, 2016

Suzie Ungerleider

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale, Nov. 1996

I MET SUZIE UNGERLEIDER FOR THE FIRST TIME WHEN SHE ARRIVED AT MY STUDIO for a NOW magazine cover shoot. She had come highly recommended by Tim Perlich, one of the writers at the paper and someone whose taste most closely matched my own.

He said she was a singer/songwriter from British Columbia who went by the moniker Oh Susanna; she had recently moved here and Tim thought she was very, very good. He'd pushed to put her on the cover, which was the sort of thing that NOW, to its credit, was willing to do - devote precious cover space to a largely unknown musician from out of town with just one EP to her name.

I had, by the mid-'90s, begun boiling my studio shooting style down to a very stark template, using simple backgrounds and focusing my light tightly on the subject, tinkering with modifiers - reflectors, soft boxes, grids, bounces, gels - in the most minute variations. I wanted to produce the most graphic photos I could, and I was still using cross-processing to boost contrast and colour saturation in shots like the one above.

The flowers were props left over from another shoot that Suzie picked up and decided to use. Like a lot of photographers, I'd become fond of the look of my Polaroid tests, and laboured mightily to make the final shot look as much like them as possible. This required more work than might seem obvious.

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale, Nov. 1996

At this point the inside shots for NOW's cover stories were still in black and white. I did a couple of rolls of Suzie posing on the love seat that lived in my studio - the spot where I did most of my reading in the north light that came from Queen Street through my windows. I'd come to love this flat, soft light, and decided to use it, turning my seamless stand around, loading it with a four and a half foot roll instead of the customary nine foot wide one and placing it halfway down my shooting space with the windows behind me.

I liked to think of these shots as full-body mug shots, and intended them to run full frame, with all the studio detritus visible on either side of the shot in plain view. The fact is that I loved my studio space, and liked to showcase it whenever I could. Maybe I knew that I wouldn't be here forever, and that I should celebrate it as often as possible. My subjects - people like Suzie, who arrived on my doorstep with barely an introduction - were really just an excuse to do this.

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale, Nov. 1998

I was quite fond of my shoot with Suzie, and after running into her socially a few times, she ended up asking me if I'd be interested in shooting the photos for Johnstown, her first album, recorded with members of Blue Rodeo. We started at my studio, and moved down to an old warehouse on Liberty Street where the album was recorded.

I'd pared down my studio lighting even more by this point, grouping my lights in a tight ring around my lens, carefully balancing them to put a clean, specular spotlight on the face while adjusting the intensity of the background colour by simply moving it nearer or farther from the subject. I had books of diagrams and measurements and ratios to keep track of the tiny variations from shoot to shoot, trying to hone down to a perfect, magic formula.

Suzie Ungerleider, Toronto, Nov. 1998

Since I'd shot her for NOW's cover, Suzie had cut her hair into bangs that reminded me of a film noir actress, so I said I wanted to make the shots outside and in the warehouse to look like stills from a '50s B-picture. As with any shot at this sort of thing, there was probably more than a bit of Cindy Sherman implicated in taking this kind of photo, but that didn't bother me.

Suzie Ungerleider, Toronto, Nov. 1998

I shot a few rolls of cross-processed colour and several more in black and white, a couple by the loading dock at the back of the building that had, by this time, become an iconic location for band shoots in or around Dale Morningstar's Gas Station studio and the Liberty Village area in general. I know I'd used it at least a couple of times before this; since the wholesale redevelopment of the area it's been stripped away.

I was pretty pleased with the shoot, and was a bit disappointed when the record was released with artwork and not a photo on its cover - even though I did quite like the artwork Suzie chose. My shots ended up somewhere inside the booklet, though I'm not sure how they turned out since I never got sent a copy of the album.

Suzie Ungerleider still tours and records, under the usual modest circumstances that this country's best musical acts contend with. She's definitely rewarded the confidence Tim Perlich had in her twenty years ago, when he sent her to my studio to undergo my somewhat obsessive photographic ministrations.

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