Q&A with Ottawa photographer Olivia Johnston

Olivia Johnston

Born and raised in Ottawa, Olivia Johnston has been involved in the local arts scene for almost her whole life. A long-lasting involvement in the music community led her to another artistic passion: photography. Olivia is currently in her second year of the portfolio program at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa.

You mentioned that you started taking photographs at age eight. What were your first photographs of?

My early photography consisted of what I imagine most children’s day-to-day existence consists of – my friends, my house, my neighbourhood, but mainly my pets; there must be hundreds of 35mm images of my cats. Eventually, my parents refused to keep developing roll after roll of my cats and I stopped shooting until I received my first digital camera at age 14.

You left Carleton University to fully dedicate yourself to an education at SPAO and a career in photography – was this a tough decision?

My choice to leave Carleton University was a difficult one – achieving a degree at university often seems to be the only option when you are in high school. A solely academic education was not for me, but I needed to spend a year at Carleton learning that. While I was at Carleton I was also taking part-time classes at SPAO and they really were worlds apart. Recognizing that the world of SPAO could be my everyday reality was probably one of the best realizations I’ve ever made.

Photo by Olivia Johnston

How are you finding your time at SPAO?

SPAO really is an amazing place – it’s a very young school, it was only founded in 2005, but we are definitely making a difference in Ottawa’s arts scene. It’s really great to be a part of what SPAO represents and to be so involved in the beginnings of an artistic photographic community.

I registered with the school in order to follow my passion and it really has changed the way I see photography and art in general. Second year has been particularly important for me; this year has definitely allowed me to build my artistic foundation and figure out what is important to me artistically.

Portrait by Olivia Johnston

Portrait by Olivia Johnston

I find it interesting that you specialize in both portraits and self-portraits – is it more difficult to take a photo of yourself than of others?

My approach to self-portraiture is somewhat different from a standard definition of a self-portrait. I see all the art I produce as self-portraits; whatever I choose to photograph ultimately represents my interests and my aesthetic as an artist.

That being said, there is a very definite difference between my portraiture work and my self-portraits – my portraits are shot very formally, in studio, while my self-portraits are shot in many different locations and might not even have me in the frame. I often shoot interiors and landscapes and they fit into my self-portrait genre. There are difficulties in each genre and I deal with an aspect of the unknown in each, especially since I shoot film, but my self-portraits are probably emotionally more difficult – it’s always hard to explore one’s self intimately.

Self-Portrait by Olivia Johnston

What is your favourite space in Ottawa to photograph?

Truthfully, my favourite spaces in Ottawa to photograph are the studio and my house – I do the majority of my shooting within confined spaces.

However, if you know where to go, there are a few places in Ottawa that are awesome to shoot. I personally love shooting the transitway – it’s really neat architecture and sometimes it looks like the set of a sci-fi movie.

It’s great to capture funny things like that within our own city – it makes people start look at their everyday differently.

Ottawa’s Transitway by Olivia Johnston

How would you spend your perfect day in the city?

My perfect day in Ottawa would be in the summer, of course! I’d get up late and meet friends at Bridgehead in the Glebe for a latte. Then I’d walk down the Rideau Canal for a late lunch at the Scone Witch on Albert.

After that I would head over to the Bytown Museum to check out some local history, then I would bus back to my neighbourhood to check out what’s playing at the Mayfair. After that I would grab a bite to eat and a drink at Quinn’s.

The only thing that would make that day more perfect is spending it with good friends and a camera!

Thanks for sharing your photos with us Olivia! Would you like to get involved with Local Tourist Ottawa? Everyone is welcome – just send us a note!