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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A long term photographic career seems to require choosing one of two paths; keeping an eye on stylistic trends and moving quickly to incorporate them into your work, or choosing one way of working and sticking with it, adapting on the fly to technical developments while leaving the essence of your method unchanged. I lean towards the latter approach.

I consider myself to be something of a photographic essentialist. I like to pare “technique” down to the very basics; ambient light, a location, a camera, a tripod. I’m fascinated by simplicity and transparency — photos that are looked through, rather than at. By this I mean that I’ve come to really admire images that are understated and nearly invisible, almost like windows, facilitating an audience’s view of a subject rather than calling attention to themselves.

This being the case, I much prefer reacting to and working within the limitations of a space, rather than imposing a lighting design upon it or oppressing it with an over the top style or “look”. Of course, this isn’t always easy; the need for repeatable and predictable results over a set of shots, for example, often means it’s simply impossible to use only ambient light. However I’m always surprised at how effective it can be to just stick with the basics whenever you can. And the nice thing about working in such a straightforward way is how naturally it lends itself to different kinds of jobs. Even after nearly fifteen years of shooting in more or less the same manner, I’m still being presented with new opportunities from new clients, and I’m happy to report that this tried and true approach still has tremendous merit.

Over the past few months, rather unexpectedly, I’ve started to shoot a lot of architectural and interior imagery; recent assignments have included work for Dwell, Wallpaper, and Toronto Life – I’ve included a few samples with this post, and you can see the full Dwell article here. Surprised though I was by this turn of events — after all, I primarily think of myself as a portrait photographer — it seems to be a good fit, perhaps because I’ve always tried to incorporate a strong sense of space into my shots regardless of the subject matter. Also, I love working with people in locations they’ve suggested, and have always considered these kinds of environments, particularly people’s homes, to be extensions of their personalities. Approaching these recent jobs in a similar way has worked surprisingly well. Conceptually, I’m still shooting portraiture, except that as often as not, people are a much smaller element in the frame — in fact sometimes they’re not even in the shot!

While it’s true that I’ve had dalliances in the past with overwrought technique and experimental styles, those days are long behind me, and I don’t really miss them. Your photographic identity is inextricably tied in with your world view — I’ve always maintained that every photograph is on some level also a portrait of the photographer — and for years now I’ve found simplicity and subtlety, both in my life and in my photos, to be much more rewarding then change for change’s sake.

If this is your first visit to Planet Shapton, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear what you think. You can also subscribe and follow me on Twitter and Tumblr.