Guest blogger tonight: Leila Courey is the Senior Art Buyer at Leo Burnett Toronto and just finished judging the PDN Photo Annual.
I know lately it’s been all Vancouver all the time with HMAb, but these days Leila’s pretty excited about Vancouver-via-NYC shooter Andre Pinces. So excited she’s done a big fat interview with him. But first the work:
How long have you been taking pictures for?
I got my first camera as a kid. My parents had this huge yellow bookshelf of National Geographics, and I took that camera everywhere. Years later, when I looked through my photo albums [I made] as a kid, I was definitely photographing everything just to see what it looked like photographed. Even then, I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.
In junior high, I was in the yearbook program. We were left to do the photography and the film and processing; it’s how I learned to use a manual camera. We were free to check out these Canon AE-1s and roam around shooting everything: sports, friends, whatever. But there again, photography never really stuck.
A number of years later, a friend of mine owed me money for some musical equipment I had sold to him. He never paid me back, so I went over and said let’s settle this once and for all; I said I was going to take a bunch of his stuff. We were good friends, so it was mellow. I grabbed a motorcyle helmet and binoculars and a camera bag. I didn’t know what was inside, but it ended up being a pretty decent camera. That’s when photography became real for me. I’ve never looked back since.
When did that happen — before you finished university?
I studied print making in the fine arts department at [the University of Alberta], but never graduated because it was during that time when I became more serious about photography. I weighed the options for the program there and the program at a technical college; I looked at my friends who had graduated and none of them were doing what I wanted to do. So I decided to do it on my own.
It’s not every photographer that goes alone who gets invited to work with Christopher Makos. How did all of that play out?
I wanted to dive into shooting fashion, so I stopped going to school. Because of growing up with my mother’s collection of Harper’s Bazaars, I had dedicated so many photo shoots to memory. I had a friend whose girlfriend was one of the big models in town. She posed for me, fashion-type photos, sort of as a favor. I set up a studio in my garage and the pictures turned out really well.
It always helps to have good talent, doesn’t it?
Oh, it’s huge for sure. When we got the contact sheets back, she was so excited that she called her agent on the spot. I met with her agency — it was one of the big ones in western Canada — and they started sending me people for testing. That was instant portfolio development for me. I took it upon myself to create different looks for each of the models: if the agency wanted to send a girl to Milan or Asia or New York, that’s how we’d shoot her portfolio.
Most of the time, I would shoot these models’ entire portfolios — ten, twelve, twenty shots — which was the case with another good friend of mine who was modelling in NY. He was up and coming there. He called me one day, very excited, and asked if I’d ever heard of Christopher Makos. I’ve always been a huge fan of pop art and contemporary art, and I was a big Warhol fan, so I knew all about Makos. My friend said he was at a casting in his studio, and he said that Makos really liked my book and wanted me to call him. I was blown away. I’d only been shooting for a year or so at the time. So I called Chris up, and he told me if I wanted to come down and work for him, that’d be great. Within a week, I packed up, booked a ticket, and had headed to NY. It was a dream come true.
That’s interesting, because when I look at your influences and the people you studied under, your work is very much your work. Most artists who show me their books don’t have to mention who they studied with, because I can see the connective tissue aesthetically.
Makos had worked with Man Ray, so when I look at his work, I can definitely see some influence there. It’s similar to other photographers who’ve worked as assistants and then gone out on their own — like Michael Thompson, who worked with Irving Penn, or Martin Schoeller, who worked with Annie Leibovitz. He is unique, but also very technical with his lighting.
Speaking of technical approaches, you work with various photographic mediums: film, Polaroid, digital, et cetera. Is that premeditated, or is it impulsive, depending on subject, light, and moment?
There are determining factors for which medium I use — mainly whether it’s a commissioned project or assigned work, or just my own creatives. Sometimes I shoot commissioned editorial work with a point-and-click camera, and that’s something those pubs appreciate about my aesthetic — whether they know how I achieve it or not. We’ll discuss the nature of the project and align to a look, but I never walk in and say, “Oh, I’m shooting this with a disposable camera. That’s how I work!” With a few magazines that I work with regularly, we’ve developed a relationship over time; they are happy not having instant digital gratification, where they need to know what they’re going to get and see it on screen. I understand that’s almost unheard of nowadays, and [extremely] rare on commercial assignments.
At the same time, photographers who are technically sound can get any look they want. They don’t have to rely on a specific type of camera, especially now. For me, part of it is the sense of freedom of having a point-and-shoot camera in your pocket. I’m not encumbered by having a big screen on the back of it; I shoot very quickly with that approach. With commercial work, everyone assumes we’ll be shooting either on medium-format or twenty-megapixel digital — everything is going to be tethered, there’s going to be a digital tech on set. Most of the time that’s the case. But when and wherever I can, if I’m able to shoot film as well, I really enjoy it. There’s definitely a look to it. But either way, I’m always happy to oblige. At the end of the day, there is no consequence to my clients, as long as they get exactly what they need.
When did you move into motion?
In the mid ’90s, I was living in New York, working with Makos and other photographers, but never went full time with anyone. I worked as a bike messenger, too. I would assist often, but I was never the first [assistant]. I was always the second or third, floating around getting day gigs with different people. I didn’t end up learning that much technically. Even with Makos, it was more about networking. He was dialed into the socialite scene there, and we’d go to these incredible parties at every famous address in Manhattan. Gorgeous, old-money apartments with walls full of Warhol portraits; custom collections from Keith Haring and Basquiat.
I’m a very touch-feel-see person. I’m always the one who wants to scrutinize brush strokes in a painting, or touch the sculpture without getting busted in a gallery. I didn’t find Warhol’s movies overly interesting, but I was interested in that approach. Through these random gigs I was getting, I ended up shooting stills on some independent films with pretty decent budgets. I had free reign to shoot anywhere, anything, anytime. It was carte blanche to document the entire production for myself, while making sure they had all of the necessary stills for posters, press junkets, or whatever else. It was there that I picked up a ton of technical knowledge.
I’m not suggesting that I know everything about film in terms of theory — I’ve never studied fimmaking or film history. But being on set and being glued to the cinematographer and the DP and the director, I was submerged in that world. I learned the whole process: acting, directing, camera angles, perspective, sound. It made perfect sense to me to learn this way. I remember some of the cinematographers’ expressions — knowing that film lasts forever, that’s why they take eight hours to light one scene. There’s an ethical approach to getting a shot. That lesson didn’t dawn on me until I was forced to move back home, away from New York.
Why was that?
I had a motorcycle crash in and I needed health care: physio and rehab. I had to give up my whole life there.
For months, I wasn’t doing photography or much of anything. But later that year, I got a job shooting promotional head shots for this local rapper-MC-recording artist; I was able to sell him on the idea that I could direct his video. For years I’d had the desire to dive into motion, but had never shot my own video before. In the end, the treatment was more of a short film than just your typical performance footage mixed with a bit of narrative video. After that, I knew I was ready to jump into more motion. I shot a dace piece that I was really happy with; that immediately turned into three other projects.
In that dace video, there is a motorcycle and bicycle — elements that are seen in your photography a great deal, whether it’s from the riders’ perspective or an observer’s view of talent riding one.
Richard Avedon, who is another hero of mine, often referred to any portraiture as self-portraiture, in that there is an aspect of the photographer in any photograph. Again, I am so fortunate to have had the ability to enjoy carte blanche with some of my clients. Even in early discussions, where there’s that first granule of an idea that creates a critical mass and suddenly we’re collaborating together, my team often bugs me about the job being another self-portrait or even an autobiography. If you know me, you’re going to recognize where some of these notions manifest themselves in the images. If you don’t know me, it’s up to you to infer whatever ideas or feelings or truths that you think are happening.
Most of the time, all we’re really trying to do is sell some dresses, but if there is a feeling that I can recognize, and a way to share that same excitement and emotion, then that’s what I strive for.
Do you notice a difference in your photographs pre- and post-motorcyle accident?
I was never stricken with an eureka moment where all of a sudden I saw things differently. The crash was a blow because it was so physically debilitating. There was never a question of whether I would have permanent damage — it wasn’t spinal or neck-related, but I was in a wheelchair because my knee was really damaged. There’s no way I could have continued doing the work I was doing in New York, living in a five-storey walk up in Brooklyn, hustling and running around, shooting and assisting.
I felt like I had the rug pulled out from under me. I had worked so hard, I put my blood, sweat and tears into my career. Knowing that I was shooting to the best of my potential in the greatest market in the world and surviving was so much more meaningful than cranking out mediocre work and getting paid exorbitantly for it. Having to leave that feeling behind played a big role in the disappointment that I experienced after my accident. The wounds were a lot deeper and wider than just my knee. As with most injuries, there is a lot of wait and see — come back in a week, come back in four weeks, come back in two months. It was almost a year before I had a clean bill of health again. By the time I was ready to go 110 percent, I had developed a new life in Vancouver. I’d been thrust into life in a wheelchair with crutches and constant physiotherapy.
Before my accident, I didn’t look at life the same as I do today. Today, I would never go out without my camera. It doesn’t matter where I am, at the very least I have my iPhone with me — which is actually a great camera. If the accident happened today instead of in the past, I would document the entire story. It would be so therapeutic.
Eventually, though, you restarted your career.
Yes. My girlfriend and I connected when she was going to university for visual communications. This was right at the time when good scanners and good printers became available to the consumer or prosumer. After my accident, although I wasn’t exercising myself photographically, I started to have an interest in graphic design and that aspect of visual communication — typography, design theory, colour theory, colour psychology. I dove into it, and within a year I found myself working as a graphic designer and applying concepts that I had become familiar with through photography.
But you didn’t stay in graphic design. You’ve become a photographer again, and I sense that you’re determined to remain one.
I got a great design outfit going. One year turned to three or four years before I knew it. I had a few people working for me, things were going well, but it started to itch. I really wanted to be shooting again. I knew that I didn’t only want to make a career of photography — I wanted to take pictures until the day I died. That’s one of the big reasons why I got into [visual arts] in the first place, because so many of my heros had done the same. Matisse painted from his bed and his wheelchair near the end of his life. I want to do something like that too.