by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
Michael Cooper is an award-winning commercial photographer with an acute eye for detail, lighting and composition. Aside from the frequent appearances of his work on this site as Picture of The Week, he has also produced Pictures of the Year and received a CharPR prize this year for lifetime achievement. (Read the citation) Among his clients are Canadian Opera Company (official photographer for 31 years, production still and portraits), Livent (official photographer for over 10 years, production stills, advertising and editorial), CBC (Documentary photography, environmental portraits, studio sessions for publicity). Corporate clients include CIBC, TD, Rogers, Candu, Xstrata Nickel, Atomic Energy of Canada. Michael has shot many diverse advertising assignments for ad agencies including Ogilvy and Mather, Publicis, Wunderman. His brother, David, is also a performing arts photographer who was named photographer of the year in this year's CharPR Prizes, and his niece, Emily, has also had her work features several times as Picture of the Week.
My introduction to the performing arts photography was though my brother David. I was studying photography and David was working as the staff photographer for The Shaw Festival.
He needed help developing, printing and shooting shows. My brother was living in Vancouver so to me it was a win win situation. I got to work and be with my brother.
Shaw Festival back then was beginning to change into the powerhouse it has become. Christopher Newton, the artistic director, made the people who worked at Shaw feel like they were a part of a company. Not just working for a company.
Even to this day I still feel a part of the Shaw Festival when I go down there to shoot a show with or for David. I've also shot at Shaw with Emily, David's daughter, who in her own right is an amazing digital artist.
I have modelled my photography after the ideas used on stage. Working with some of the world’s best directors and lighting designers rubs off on you!
I have taught advanced studio lighting at Ryerson University to 3rd and 4th year university undergraduates for 4 years.
A simple lesson about the quality of light is that drama unfolds in a photograph with what you don’t light, rather than with what you do light.
Being a freelance photographer my work now takes me all over the map, literally. I have travelled as far as China on assignment.
When people ask me what I do, I simply state, “I shoot people!” Which can sometimes get me in trouble.
No one wanted to speak to me and they first asked me if I had shot any of the performing arts. I said I have been shooting at the Shaw Festival. The answer I got in return was….we can't afford you …bye.
I plugged away, I remember one month….making under $100 in photography! I finally landed my first client, Theatre Passe Muraille. From there I worked with most other companies in Toronto. This year I returned to Theatre Passe Muraille to create some posters and shoot the production stills for their season. Again it still feels like home.
That in itself, always makes it a challenge as a photographer to document the show and preserve some of the intent of the production company. I always try to see a performance or rehearsal before I shoot it. That way I can be prepared for the sense of the piece.
I used to sit and take notes, timing things and drawing myself pictures. I guess after 31 years of shooting for the Canadian Opera Company (COC), I now just sit, watch and enjoy. Getting a feel for the production and loosely staking out the flow of the show.
For Pelleas and Melisande at the COC, I was shooting one dress rehearsal and I ran to the 5th ring to get a shot. That effort was rewarded by the COC producing a 10' poster for the building to advertise the show.
I have started to work with a burlesque company, Pastel Supernova's Love Letters Cabaret and they have been wonderful to shoot. Fun, sexy and great dancers. I will be mounting a show of this work….when I feel it is completed!
Now I run two or three cameras and capture the images and process them later as I remember the set. Colour is no longer an issue and low light photography never looked better. I will often shoot an opera until 10:30 or 11 pm then come home and work on the images until 4 am. Sleep for a few hours and get ready to meet the COC staff who pick images at 9 am and need them for press that day. I used to do this with film too. I would shoot the show, process the film and leave it to dry for my assistant who would come in really early to make contact prints. Same service, just no toxic chemicals!
I have a lot more control of the quality with the dSLR's of today. When I first bought an…"expensive digital camera", the quality wasn't what it is today, yet it was better than that of colour transparencies. I had to struggle more to produce a good quality image.
COOPER: The best advice I can give a budding photographer is…do your homework, open your eyes to what is being presented and think how you can document it, keeping the production team's integrity too.
Michael Cooper's website