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Creative Process: Norman Wong
The rising star of fashion photography lets his portraits of Canadian music heroes take the spotlight

Before he landed in the pages of Flare and Toronto Life, or the nu-glossies of cult like Bad Day and Sup, Norman Wong was just a kid learning to use a camera, with unparalleled access to Canada’s emerging music stars at which to point it. Since May 23, portraits and candids from Wong’s personal collections, dating back to those early years in 2005, have been on display as part of the ten-year celebration series for landmark indie music record label Arts & Crafts. It’s also his first solo exhibit, where you’ll find Feist, or Metric’s Emily Haines. The boys from Eight and a Half, or Broken Social Scene. I meet Wong on the last day before his exhibit, in a Queen West gallery space that doubles as the temporary headquarters for A&C happenings, is packed up and re-imagined for concertgoers at Field Trip, the culmination blowout festival happening tomorrow at Fort York in honour of the label’s decade of Canadian tunes. For music, fashion and art fans alike, this is an exhibit you’ve got to see by any means. 

Wong says that shooting portraits — especially the ones he began about five years ago to document the rise of Arts & Crafts and its artists — is something that he’s “always fought for, personally.” “Looking at the history of our music scene and what other photographers were doing, no one was taking portraits the way I wanted them to be seen.” Now a fashion photographer by trade, he says that translating runway looks into imaginative, inventive spreads was able to influence the work he did when it came to dealing with music stars again, and vice versa.

When I ask Wong about what made him interested in photography, you can tell I’ve asked a loaded question, like there was never a premeditated plan for success. “It was accidental,” he blurts out. Originally opting for the collegiate route at the University of Toronto, majoring in linguistics with some visual studies work, he intended to pursue filmmaking, so he found work at a production company and worked his way up from intern to top assistant. “The music department asked me to do some behind-the-scenes-type documentation for Live 8, [2005’s massive global charity concert].” So he took an intro photography course, and during that gig he became acquainted with members of Broken Social Scene, the baroque-pop collective co-founded by Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew. And so he caught the bug.

 Amy Millan and Evan Cranley of Stars. Photo by Norman Wong.

Soon after, Wong caught something else: the eye of fashion model mogul Elmer Olsen, who commissioned the gifted beginner to shoot his army of pretty for portfolios and client cards. “He took me under his wing and basically trained me. He trained the shit out of me,” recalls Wong. “[He taught me] how to light, or how to bring out the girl.” You can tell Olsen’s emphasis had a lasting effect. Wong’s style is nothing if not succinct and cohesive, both in his work and conversation about it. For most of the shots in this Arts &Crafts retrospective, subjects are photographed with the same one light and appear to have the same elegant gradation from black to white, with very little retouching for a natural, organic experience. It gives new meaning to minimalism. “[All the artists are] different, but this is about community. Everyone had to be the same. Consistency and continuity are important to me.”

So what makes for a good portrait? “Someone that speaks to you; the more you look at it, the more it reveals about a person. You know it’s only one moment, but…” he trails off. It’s everlasting, I finish the sentence in my head. He goes on to explain why photography won out over video work, looking around the gallery: “I’m a collector, I like collecting. This is it.”

Obviously, Wong knows how to give credit where credit is due, and several times during our tour, he cites his great appreciation for the warm welcome the Arts & Crafts artists like Canning, and their teams, gave him from, well, the start. “Slowly, but surely, I was the kid that they trusted. And I met everyone, who started noticing my photography. Kevin [Drew] warmed up to me. Then Stars. Then Metric.” And the list goes on.


A promotional video for Field Trip featuring some of Wong’s photographs

Eventually, Jeffrey Remedios, the founder and president of Arts & Crafts, began asking Wong to photograph his acts in a formal capacity. “For every shoot they hired me, I always took one portrait for myself, and I’ve never showed Jeffrey my archives.” But he was hesitant: “It felt like I was giving up something. I didn’t want to do it. I don’t strive to do shows, I don’t want to do shows. But these are people I love, and I think these people really changed Toronto.” For Remedios, mounting an exhibit felt like a well-deserved, almost overdue, thank you – and an act of deep gratitude. “Norm’s family. He’s been such a constant and tireless supporter, documenting our artists since long before we could afford to pay for someone with his talent,” Remedios writes me. “Our tenth anniversary finally gave us a fitting platform to turn the lens around and focus on him.”

The exhibit represents a visual history of a very specific group of people that helped shape the Canadian musical landscape on a global scale way long before Drake and Justin. The photos are personal, reflecting a group who witnessed, from the other side of the lens, the first sparks of Wong’s burgeoning photo career, people that you can tell he’s admired greatly for a long time. “This whole portrait series, for me, was about iconizing them in a way. I’m a lot younger, and I came in as a young kid, too. So my perspective is not equal to them, it’s underneath. I was looking up to them, glamourizing them.” Clearly, Wong places these musicians on a pedestal, but still manages to make them human, and that’s what makes his work arresting, yet amiable. On the walls, you’ll see “vintage” shots of Feist alongside Gentleman Reg and Dan Mangan, and newer ones featuring members of Timber Timbre. The oldest in the collection, a 2006 portrait of Apostle of Hustle lead Andrew Whiteman, is also Wong’s favourite.

When asked what he’s learned about the biz in the five or so years since going pro, the 29-year-old Toronto native gets blunt: “I’m still trying to learn right now,” he laughs. “I’m a total idiot, I think. I’m so envious of all my heroes, of all these people, they’re on it.” But Wong has his own fans, too, like music video director Claire Edmondson, a fellow creative documenter of the country’s music scene. “I’ve hung around on many of Norman’s shoots, and everyone is relaxed and Norman works fast, so there is no room to over think things,” she says, commenting on his style-in-action. “You can always tell when someone is trying too hard, people sniff out inauthenticity quickly. But I think the way he works is very intuitive, and, because of this, his photographs end up feeling genuine and that’s what people respond to.”

Apostle of Hustle frontman Andrew Whiteman. The oldest potrait in the series is also Wong’s favourite.

We move to the back of the gallery, to a hidden corner where friend Tamar Rosenberg, a ten-year design veteran of fashion retailer Aritzia responsible for the artistic direction of window displays, has created a breathtaking floor-to-ceiling wall of memories comprised of Wong’s personal, private candid photos. You’ll find old snaps of Kevin Drew’s parents in what looks like an arena, or an outtake of Metric’s Emily Haines looking badass during the session for the band’s Fantasies album. The wall is also a way to pay homage to the hidden talent that makes Arts & Crafts tick. One of those talents is record producer and sound engineer Marty Kinack, featured in several comprising photos. “He’s the goofball and the clown, but really the man behind the sound for all the live acts. He’s an important part of the family that doesn’t get to share the limelight,” reflects Wong on the man whose campy nude-ish shot dominates the centre of an entire wall (see above). “That was my idea. He’s always naked, and we did this recently because I wanted to make fun of my own work — it’s an inside joke.” He continues: “I’m sure some people hate certain photographs here, but it’s not supposed to be perfect. The wall is supposed to create feelings.”

Now back on assignments, the photo star says he might soon relocate to New York to assist legends like David Sims — “to see the big guns in action” — and you can be certain this protege could overtake any master. Once, maybe a TIFF or two ago, I had a rare, although brief, opportunity for a portrait session with Wong at a pop-up photo studio inside a swag lounge. But I declined, in haste, probably because of something stupid, like messy hair. It will remain one of my rare regrets.

Field Trip happens tomorrow, June 8 at Fort York and Garrison Commons. Tickets start at $93.50, available online. The exhibit will also return to 1093 Queen St. W. until June 15.

————

Paul Aguirre-Livingston is a Toronto-based writer and columnist for The Grid. Find him on Twitter or online.

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