Wednesday, February 5, 2014

In a Word... Michael Cooper, photographer

Eyes Wide Shutter
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.

CHARPO:  I cannot tell you how happy I am to finally have contact with you. I think you, your brother David and your niece Emily have each been featured as our picture of the week more often than any other photographers. How did this become a family vocation?

COOPER: I grew up in Toronto,  always fascinated with photography as a child. I always loved the magic of the dark room. Now that magic has shifted to a desktop but the passion is still there. 

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.

CHARPO: Correct me if I'm wrong, but performing arts photography as a possible profession is a relatively new thing.

COOPER: The performing arts is a special place to work where make believe comes alive. I feel very fortunate to have had a career in the arts. We have all matured, together.

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.

The diversity in my work brings the excitement. From the performing arts one day, then off to a nickel mine 4800 feet below ground, into a helicopter and then back to shoot an editorial piece. That actually happens…over four days, life isn't always so ambitious!

After working at Shaw Festival for the first summer, I went around Toronto with a portfolio of theatre images from the festival productions.

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.

CHARPO: Although opera is insanely photogenic, is there an arts form more camera-ready than another for you?

COOPER: Opera is an amazing world to be a part of. Everything is bigger than life and extremely detailed. The Canadian Opera Company runs most seasons in rep. One night might be a classic set and the next more avant guard than anything seen elsewhere.

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. 

CHARPO: Now tell us about your process for a shoot. You can use a specific example if you like.

COOPER: I love shooting the performing arts, all kinds, even just a single singer on stage will have  'moments'  that when captured will make or break the photograph. Every show has its quirks and challenges.

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!

CHARPO: Was the transition from film to digital easy for you? Welcome?

COOPER: In the days of film, you had to have multiple cameras, two for B&W, one as a back up as well as a always ready to shoot camera (rewinding and loading means you miss a lot) and then two cameras for colour transparencies (slides) one for daylight and one for tungsten lighting.

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.

CHARPO: We see a lot of pictures at CharPo and most are atrocious. What key advice would you give to a photographer walking into a production?

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

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