Looking behind the lens: Our photo shoot at SPAO

Here at LTO, I think we’ve clearly demonstrated our love for local photography – and particularly – for some of the work that has been coming out of the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa.

After a great Q&A with photographer Olivia Johnston, she was kind enough to invite us in to get a glimpse of the space, as well as snap a couple of photos of us – professional head shots and a few in her signature style.

Check it out:


LTO founders Amy and Jessey (Photo Credit: Olivia Johnston)

Photographer Olivia Johnston

We had a lot of fun – Olivia produces great photos, for sure, but we also saw first hand how a lot more goes into portrait photography than just having a good eye. As neither of us had ever really had our photo professionally taken, Olivia had to do a significant amount of work to help us get comfortable (read: not look ridiculous).

This led us to have a few more questions about her craft.

Describe to us the most difficult subject you ever had.

I wouldn’t say I’ve had one most difficult subject, but my most difficult subjects have always been the people closest to me. They have a much harder time seeing you as a photographer or artist and not the person they’ve known all their life, and so they question your direction much more. I think they also are more uncomfortable with the idea of posing – it’s quite a foreign concept to a lot of people, but it’s probably easier when you don’t know the artist.

How do you get a subject out of his/her shell?

Usually when I’m doing a portrait sitting, I’ll take some time to have a conversation with the subject beforehand – it calms people down, and helps them to get into the atmosphere of the studio. The atmosphere is huge for me – I find when I’m not in the right mood, I won’t get the right mood from my subject; they give to me what I project to them.

Why do you think it is difficult for some, but not for others?

I think some people are just more comfortable and relaxed in front of a camera – they know their “angles”, so to speak. I also find that portrait sittings also tend to go better if the subject has no expectations; this probably explains why the people close to me have a harder time posing for me – if they are close to me, they want to “perform well” behind the camera.

Thanks for giving us a personal tour of SPAO – it is a very cool place. Can you talk a bit about how SPAO is a “transformable space?”

SPAO is a really interesting space – there are about five “classrooms”, all of which are transformable in their own way. For example, during the day, the studio becomes a classroom space – computers, desks, chairs, the like. When it’s not being used as a classroom, more often than not someone will be shooting in there. At the end of the year we remove almost everything from it, repaint it, and it becomes a gallery. The other rooms are similar; for example, during our Open House event in November, the digital lab – where we usually do photoshop and inkjet printmaking – becomes a digital gallery with all of our work featured in slideshows on our laptops. It’s really important for us that the space is so transformable; we would need a lot more rooms if it wasn’t. It also allows the students to really own the space – it becomes what they need it to.

How do you feel about the SPAO as an art space?

I think SPAO is a fantastic art space. I think it’s truly showcasing some of the most interesting photo-based artwork emerging out of Ottawa right now. It’s also a huge range of work; there’s such a range of people that there has to be a huge range of styles, and so there really is something for everyone at our end of year exhibition. One of our recent exhibitions, Exhibition No. 6 in April, featured anywhere from a photo documentary essay on the Amish in upper New York State (Caroline Tallmadge) to a series of the mayoral candidates of Ottawa in this past October’s election (Kathy Roussel) to a study of Ottawa and its environs – underground (Cory Shepherdson), as well as many others. My own project was a series on women who had recovered from eating disorders, which sounds very different from all of the above projects, but they all fit extraordinarily well together on the wall.

Thanks for having us to SPAO and teaching us more about your craft Olivia! Do you want to drop by? The Red Wall Gallery is currently featuring a show called “Fish Permutations” by Joseph Jeremie Roy. To visit Olivia’s website please click here.