Johanna Stickland is a Canadian-born photographer and painter.
After spending her early formative years on the other side of the camera — traveling the globe and walking for the likes of Yohji Yamamoto and heading up campaigns for designers such as Jil Sander, all at the tender age of 14 — Johanna’s creativity has since spanned mediums across continents. The polymathic talent’s portraits and paintings both echo an intimate yet delicate humanity, created through the eyes of an artist who has experienced her own life as an art form in itself.
In the aftermath of her successful first solo exhibition in NYC at Thames Art Center, Johanna talks to YUN Journal about creativity through isolation, and how photography began as a means of escapism in the conservative city from which she hails.
You are a multi-disciplinary artist, with a background in design and painting, and a focus on photography. How do your different practices inform each other?
Photography will always be my true passion, but about 8 years ago I started painting in my spare time. I paint in a similar way I take photos, I enjoy immediate results so I love watercolor and gouache and putting paint to paper quickly and seeing what happens. Photography is more literal and intimate, painting I can make come to life whatever is in my mind. Sometimes I will take photos of things just to paint them later. Lately, I’ve been printing my photographs on matte paper and adding some painted elements to them and I feel like that’s an exciting way to marry my two biggest loves.
WHEN DID YOU START TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS?
When I was a teenager I bought a Canon AE-1 camera and expired film (all I could afford at the time), and just began experimenting.
There was a lot of trial and error in the beginning, but I was hooked immediately and just wanted to continue learning and making images. I’d photograph my friends and go on little road trip adventures and document everything. I’d photograph my parents, friends, and eventually I started taking self portraits.
Your photographs feel very intimate, and sometimes sensual but there always remains a deep, yet delicate humanity in your subjects. How do you create this specific energy in your work? How do you help your subjects feel relaxed?
I’ve always been drawn to intimate photography, I think it’s just personal taste but I dislike when anything feels too posed or forced. I like to go with the flow of a shoot and respond to the person I’m in the room with, just by being present. I try to move through every shoot in a relaxed, unhurried way and see what develops naturally.
Trust is a big part of taking photos, I want whoever I’m photographing to feel completely at ease and comfortable. To build that trust I feel that talking is key, curiosity about your subjects and just being a relatively easy going and peaceful person. Sometimes the intimacy and sensuality comes together after the edit, the in-between moments are always my favorite and I enjoy cropping images to create more mystery and sensuality.
You have lived in many different cities. In what ways have these places influenced your work and creative process?
I grew up in Calgary, Alberta in Canada. My Dad is a playwright and my Mom is an actress so I grew up around artists and the theater. Even though it’s a more conservative place, that’s where I really started taking photos.
It felt like a small town even though it’s a city of a million people, so I used photography as a way to escape and dream of a bigger life and world.
When I was 14, I traveled for modeling and spent time in New York and Paris, where I saw a lot of museums and art and those cities really inspired me and made me feel that anything is possible-including being an artist.
For the last 10 years, I lived in a small town in Portugal, which gave me the space and freedom to become an artist and dedicate my time and life to taking photographs and painting. Because where I lived was so isolated, it made me dive deeper into self portraiture and documenting my surroundings.
Who are some artists or photographers that have inspired you?
I love the tenderness and intimacy of Lina Scheynius, Nan Goldin, Hajime Sawatari and Araki. Helen Frankenthaler is one of my favorite painters. I am really inspired by films and love Krzysztof Kieslowski and David Lynch.
You also were the cinematographer for the short film, Nadia (2020) directed by Malorie Urbanovitch. How does your process differ between moving images and still?
Making a film is a much bigger scale than just shooting still images, it requires more energy, dedication, focus and time. I think I approached shooting a film in a similar way though, finding the details in a scene the same as I would if I was photographing it, paying attention to details, the characters’ facial expressions and following what they are going through.
I loved the process of making a film because it involves a lot more teamwork and collaboration, it’s something I’m definitely interested in exploring more in the future.
You shoot a lot of portraits. Who would you most love to photograph and why?
I would love to photograph Willem Defoe and Isabelle Huppert. They both have amazing and expressive faces with so many subtle emotions happening all at once.
What has been your most memorable experience so far with your work?
Last month I had a solo show of my photography at Thames Art Center in New York and that was amazing. Having my work featured at the Photo London Festival a few years ago was very memorable- It was an exhibition featuring 9 Contemporary female photographers through Huxley Parlour Gallery.
There were so many people there and it introduced my work to a lot of new eyes so I felt very thankful to be part of that. To have been included in the book “Girl on Girl: Art & Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze”, was a big moment. I went into The Strand bookstore in New York and saw my work, which was surreal and exciting for sure.
What are some goals of yours for your photography career? Where do you envision yourself in say, 5 years time?
My goal is to show my work more, whether that is in galleries or magazines or books. To continue evolving as an artist is important to me. Also to continue with exploring things that interest me, be it painting/mixed media, making films, releasing photo books. My biggest goal is to stay curious and never stop working.