Julia Callon, taken by Johan Hallberg-Cambell. Image provided by Wondereur.
There’s something about being invited into the artist’s house that changes the narrative. Suddenly the story moves beyond words and into a world that’s personal and physical. We can see the details, the collectable salt and peppershakers sitting on a shelf. Photos and inspirational messages tacked to homemade corkboards. The sun shining in on the desk where the ideas happen. The art happens. The stories happen.
As a writer, I consider it my job to describe these things so that when I’m profiling somebody you can picture them in your head too. Editors have cautioned me about this, but I like to note the details of paint spilled in studios in spite of most people’s aversion to adjectives– if only to note that the artist didn’t bother to clean it up.
Toronto-based Wondereur realized the potential of using images to tell stories in beautiful and compelling ways. The web and mobile platform is an art store masquerading as a weekly mobile magazine. It pulls inspiration from the photography style of National Geographic, employing photojournalists from around the world to capture the minds and habitats of creative people by giving the reader a passenger seat in the creative process.
Each week Wondereur profiles one artist who is endorsed by leading thinkers in the art world. A scrollable spread (the basis of storytelling is the scroll, co-founder Olivier Berger tells me) of unaltered images is paired with cherry-picked quotes from an interview. The artist essentially tells her own story; the reader is given the option to buy the featured art directly from Wondereur.
Julie Callon (pictured above) was recently profiled. She builds miniature rooms based off fiction written by female authors. “The stories are often about women going mad,” she says in a caption above a photo of a tiny, handmade chair. Later, she lights everything on fire.
“There’s space for innovation. Startups have changed finance, business and many different industries. It needs to happen in the world of contemporary art,” Berger tells me.
I meet him and the second of three co-founders, Sophie Perceval, at their office near Bathurst and Bloor. It’s snowy outside, but it’s warm and everybody feels alive. The two are both from Paris, France, but they met here in Toronto. When they talk, they swirl art around their tongues and I believe every word they say.
Berger’s mother was an art collector who not only fell in love with the work, but also the artists. She would buy books on the artists and place them near the works back in their house in Paris. Berger grew up surrounded by art, but spent his career as an entrepreneur in technology before co-founding Wondereur. He tells me the jeans he’s wearing are five years old. The team pours all their money into the project and makes revenue solely off commission from art sold through the magazine.
Perceval came to Canada to study documentary film making at the National Film Board. It was there she discovered a passion for human detail.
“There’s this idea of how fascinating a real person’s life story can be in wanting to portray the artist in that sort of light. Not necessarily the glamour aspect, but the real complexity of everyday decisions you make as an artist: where you decide to work, whether it’s a little space or perhaps a big space that doesn’t have any heating, but you don’t mind because you love the light,” she says.
I first came across this idea when I discovered the Image Interview, a Toronto-based blog that profiles creative types through photo essays taken in and around their homes and offices. I was transfixed. The added elements of handwritten notes spliced between images told a different kind of story. One that is more human. When I was younger and writing mostly music reviews, I used to picture people eating breakfast in their kitchens with an entire new day ahead of them. I used to feel bad if I wrote anything negative. Something about an artist in her home both inspired and bothered me.
For Joel Yum, the creator of the Image Interview, the blog is more about profiling creative people creatively.
“It all started when I first got into photography. I’d shoot people and try to bring out their true personalities in these images. In that instance, it was kind of hard, trying to find people first of all then trying to get them to open up and show their personalities,” he tells me over the phone.
But the project took off, eventually prompting him to launch the blog in 2010. On top of his day job, he started doing weekly shoots and posting them to the site. He profiles writers, chefs, bands, and publicists, to name only a few examples. He photographs them in their homes with their cats, post-it notes scattered like confetti. Now he’s working on the next iteration of the site. Like Wondereur, he wants to use it to profile not only the subjects, but also the people shooting them.
This notion of telling stories visually is slowly spreading with more sites exploring the human side of the artistic. There’s Industry of One, a Brooklyn-based blog that calls itself a periodical. Their images are wispy and imperfect. There’s also The Selby, which started with one photographer taking photos of his friends in their homes and has since expanded internationally.
All these platforms ask the same questions: “Who is she? What drives her?” Perceval and Berger say it’s a concept that is designed to take you places. If it works, they think it has the potential to transform the art world.
Sheena Lyonnais is a Toronto-based writer. Follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.