These photographs peer into the weird, psychedelic world of music festivals
Sarah Anne Johnson grew up in a strictly conservative Winnipeg household: her parents kept careful tabs on her whereabouts and subjected her to breath tests whenever she came home from a night out with friends. When she was 15, they uncharacteristically allowed her to attend the Winnipeg Folk Festival for three days (on the condition that she call home three times a day). It was her first taste of freedom—she was camping, drinking, dancing to Ani DiFranco—and she became smitten with blissed-out bacchanals.
In her 20s, while studying fine art and photography at Yale, Johnson graduated to larger festivals—Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert, Shambhala and Unity in B.C. She always tried to document her experiences, but her shots were usually chaotic blurs. After retiring from the circuit a few years ago, she returned to those formative festivals, camera in hand, mission in mind—and, this time, stone-cold sober.
The results are collected in Field Trip, an ever-expanding exhibition on display right now at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The photos depict throngs of hungover fans, parking lot parties and drugged-out trips with varying degrees of photorealism. She uses Photoshop, glitter, collage and acrylic paint to inject the snapshots with otherworldly hues, evoking the sensations and psychological states that straight documentary photography can’t. They’re messy and mesmerizing—just like the festivals themselves. Here, our favourite shots.
This shot, the first that Johnson augmented, helped spawn the surrealist aesthetic of her series.
This hazy image is two photographs of the same pond layered on top of one another.
The faces in Johnson’s photographs are often painted, smudged or blurred to convey varying states of sobriety. Many of the festival-goers were high on MDMA and magic mushrooms.
The mushroom cloud represents the environmental after-effects of music festivals. Johnson photoshopped the dust into the image, then accented it with glitter.
Johnson sometimes followed particularly flamboyant crowds as they left the stage areas to ask for group portraits.
Johnson often climbed onto stages and amp cabinets to shoot festival crowds from above. In this shot, she used a catwalk.
Johnson decided to document the costume component of the festivals—which she describes as Halloween meets spring break with a blast of cultural appropriation—without endorsing, condemning or sanitizing her subjects.
Field Trip, by Sarah Anne Johnson. To June 5. McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 10365 Islington Ave., Kleinburg, mcmichael.com.
More photo essays