The holiday season is upon us, and with it, the usual holiday challenges. What to do for dinner on the 24th? Nobody likes to cook on Christmas Eve! What to get for my parents, who not only have almost everything, but in fact have several of everything? And how best to share gratitude and good fortune with those less fortunate? After all, one of the best ways to express appreciation is by helping others.

For as long as I can remember, the United Way has been a key feature of Canada’s charitable landscape. Facilitating aid at a community level is their mandate, and they’re resoundingly good at it. Of course, subtle reminders in the form of donation drives and public awareness campaigns are part of the process too, which leads inevitably to another kind of holiday challenge; how to differentiate the United Way campaign from the dozens of others that appear at this time of year? Even in the charitable realm, competition is fierce.

A few months ago we were approached by Taxi Canada to produce and shoot a TV campaign to meet this very challenge. Working with the general theme of “Possibility”, Taxi was tasked with communicating the idea that behind every changed life, there are many people who helped make it happen, and by extension, behind the United Way there exists a network of donors who, through their contributions, are the ultimate life-changers. The writer, Jake Boguch, and the art director, Yuko Brown, came up with the idea of shifting attention from foreground to background characters by using focus-pulls as a visual metaphor; an elegant and potentially very beautiful approach. To further distinguish the visuals, they also hoped to make use of an unusual post-production effect known as the Parallax technique, and had already retained the services of Joe Fellows at Make Productions, perhaps the world’s foremost Parallax expert, who came to their attention through some stunning work he did last year for the World Wildlife Fund.

In essence, and without giving too much away, the Parallax method is a way of using various digital transforms, effects, and animations to breathe light, life, and a sense of depth into a series of still photographs. The WWF piece is a tour de force, all the more remarkable for the fact that Joe had to work solely with supplied imagery from the Foundation archives. With the United Way project he would, for the first time, have completely bespoke photo assets — custom images produced specifically with the technique in mind.

We were awarded the job in mid September, and embarked on a merry few weeks of script discussions, treatment writing, conference calls, scouting, on-the-fly casting, and technical troubleshooting. The agency was able to bring Joe from the UK to be on set with us, which was invaluable; his expertise and enthusiasm added tremendously to the experience. Once the shoot wrapped, he returned to London with the final selects and compositing elements, and began the post production and effects work. The end result – built entirely from still photos – speaks for itself. Shot completely on location, using almost exclusively ambient light and working only with actual United Way clients, client facilities, volunteers, donors, and staff, this distinctive spot is one of several that will be rolling out over the next little while and will serve as the basis for their 2015 national campaign. For more about the project, including some fun behind-the-scenes shots, head on over to the Westside Studio blog, and make sure to also visit Make Productions to check out some more of Joe’s terrific work.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Has it really been six months since the last bulletin from Planet Shapton? Apparently so. Well, what can I say, it’s been a busy half year. In truth, I’ve also become increasingly ambivalent about the professional benefits of certain kinds of social media, blogging included. It feels like we’re all in a giant room together, and everyone is yelling “look at me, look at me!” at everyone else. It’s had the effect, lately, of making me want to just tune everything out. In an online world where we’re all crowing about how special we are, isn’t the reality actually that we’re much more similar than we care to admit? But that’s a discussion for another day.

What got me thinking about writing again, in spite of this, was a recent assignment photographing social media juggernaut (and, not incidentally, retired astronaut) Chris Hadfield, for the UK’s Guardian Weekend magazine. He’s a remarkable individual, genuine and good natured, with a crushing fighter-pilot handshake and an easy laugh; every bit as compelling and charismatic in real life as he seems to be from his prolific Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, and Tumblr activity. The key thing that sets him apart is that he’s actually hugely accomplished, distinctly and tangibly so, with real things to talk about and a clear vision as to the larger possibilities and benefits of the social media realm. I have no doubt that he has done more than any other single individual in recent memory to fuel interest in science education and space exploration — an invaluable and necessary effort given the anti-science, anti-intellectual currents that seem to swirl through our popular culture.

I photographed him in his home town of Sarnia, Ontario, and he was a dream subject; un-selfconscious, friendly, engaging, and thoughtful. I’ve talked before about how one of the best things about my job is the opportunity it affords me to meet different kinds of people, but I’ve never met anyone quite like Mr. Hadfield and I have to rank this as one of my favourite assignments, ever. I also got to meet and work with the acclaimed Emma Brockes, who wrote the article – it’s not often that the writers are there when I am shooting, which is too bad as it definitely adds to the experience.

Make sure to pick up Mr Hadfield’s new book when you get a chance. Emma Brockes also has a book that has just come out — while you’re at it, you should pick up a copy of that as well!

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I’ve written before about the challenges and frustrations of celebrity photography, but good things often arise from creative adversity, and over the years numerous assignments from Maclean’s magazine have resulted in what I think is a pretty coherent and solid set of shots. It’s nice to have that perception affirmed; the magazine is hosting an exhibition of portraits from the past 100 years as part of this year’s Contact Photography Festival, and I’m proud to say several of my images are among the 50 that have been included in the show.

From the exhibition catalogue:

“The series Maclean’s: Face to Face is produced in conjunction with the Festival and includes work done for the magazine by iconic Canadian portrait photographers, including: Peter Bregg, Tony Fouhse, Yousuf Karsh, Rita Leistner, George Pimentel, John Reeves, Derek Shapton, Christopher Wahl, and Mark Zibert.”

While I am flattered, I think my inclusion in a list of iconic Canadian photographers is a little premature. And who the heck is this Yousuf Karsh guy anyway? I swear, it’s getting harder and harder to keep track of all these up and coming young whippersnapper photographers.

The exhibit opens today at the Gladstone Hotel, with an opening reception tomorrow night (May 2nd). It runs until May 31st.

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A few months ago I was contacted by Wallpaper Magazine to photograph a residence called the Integral House for a feature about the designers, Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe of Shim Sutcliffe Architects (above). It’s an astonishing structure. At times, parts of the house seemed to have a vaguely mid-century-modern meets Arts and Crafts aesthetic, but in totality it was so singular and fully realized as to almost be an architectural style unto itself. Every aspect of the building, from the texture of the materials to the door and stairway hardware right down to the play of light as it changed throughout the day was considered and refined and seemingly tailor-made for the space.

Walter Pater famously said  ”All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” — but that was before architects and photographers attained the cultural respect and artistic status they have today. I’ve often thought that photography should in fact aspire to the condition of architecture. There is a utility and inevitability about a great building, a harmony of method and emotion that I find very affecting, and I often feel the same way when I see a photo that really grabs me. In both instances it’s almost as though I’ve entered for a moment into the artist’s mind, and afterwards the “real world” seems uncanny and somehow wrong, for a little while at least.

So many things billed as once-in-a-lifetime are in reality anything but. The Integral House however is utterly unlike anywhere I’ve ever been and I’m extremely thankful to have been asked to photograph there.

 

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I am pleased to announce that Planet Shapton has returned from hiatus. It’s been too long. I blame it on the never-ending intergalactic war between Planet Busy and Planet Lazy; I’ve been trying to broker a truce, but so far have met with only moderate success. Enough about that however; this says it better than I ever could.

Anyway, it’s high time to once again stoke the blogfire — and with this post, I’m asking for some help in solving a bit of a photo mystery. But first, the back story.

Years ago, fresh from dropping out of art school, I found myself working in a style best described as “late 90′s overwrought”. I’ve written about it before; my process in essence consisted of densely layering various techniques as a way of hiding the fact that my ideas weren’t very good. The basic approach involved building small sculptures, photographing them using gels and light painting, cross processing the film, printing the shots in a color darkroom, and then torturing the crap out of the prints. Setting them on fire, scraping away the emulsion under boiling water, melting them in microwaves, etc. You name it, I probably tried it.

Quite apart from being messy and time consuming, the resultant final images were so ugly that their usability was pretty limited. I got a few assignments doing spot illustration for editorial clients, but barely enough to live on, and I was frankly getting bored with the whole situation. In particular, I found it kind of lonely; I’d apprenticed with fashion photographer Chris Nicholls before returning to school, and toiling all alone in the dark with a flashlight made me really pine for some chaos and energy. I missed travelling. And sunshine. And conversation.

And then I came across the above photograph. If I remember correctly, I was leafing through an issue of PDN, and the shot was featured in an ad for Hasselblad (I think). I was struck by how self-assured and comfortable the gentleman in the photo seemed, and by the relaxed and natural sensibility of the image. It was a simple, solid, confident shot. I turned the page sideways to read the photo credit and immediately had goosebumps.

What makes an iconic photo? Is “iconic” a cultural currency minted by historians and tastemakers, with value that ultimately derives from widespread, long-term public appreciation? Or is it possible to have uniquely personal iconic images? I would argue the latter. And for me, this portrait is as iconic as they come. Because of this shot, I abruptly ditched my entire working method, scrapped my portfolio, and started working in the straightforward, unadorned manner that has sustained my career for the past twenty years.

The subject? Cary Grant. The date on the image? 1958. I was stunned. I hadn’t immediately recognized Mr. Grant, and was certain that the photographer must be some new, up and coming shooter with a fresh take on natural light portraiture. It had never occurred to me, ankle-deep in the photo-illustrative mire as I was, that a decades-old image could seem so contemporary. My entire body of work up to that point suddenly felt tired and dated.

And who was the photographer? Well, this is where I need some help. I think it was Harry Benson, but I can’t say for sure — my head was spinning from reading the date, and the name quickly departed my addled brain. I’ve scoured the Internet for more information, with no luck, so if you’re able to confirm my hunch, please get in touch. It’s hard to overstate the effect stumbling across this image had on me, and I’d love to know for certain.

UPDATE: Special thanks to reader and Internet search jedi Michael Barker, who has informed me that the image was actually taken by Milton H. Greene! In fact, if anyone cares to purchase a print you can do so here.

I think I might have to buy one…

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