By Hannah Yakobi
Photography by Robin Gartner
Hair and make-up: Joanne Parks
Caitlin Cronenberg’s pictures speak for themselves. Although she has photographed some of the most prolific actors of our time, arguably the most memorable part of each photo is its photographic presentation. The pictures are creative, they convey emotion and feeling. They speak to you, draw you in.
As we sit in TIFF Bell Lightbox, which is home to Toronto International Film Festival where many of Cronenberg’s photo subjects frequently make an appearance, she shares the story of how she has built her career and the trajectory it is taking right now.
HANNAH YAKOBI: You are currently working on a new book. Could you tell us a little bit about this project?
CAITLIN CRONENBERG: It’s my second book and it’s called The Endings. It’s a book of short stories, told through photos, and each story is about the end of a relationship. So it’s essentially about break-ups, but not always in a negative way – it’s all fictional, so it’s really like a short film. Each story ‘stars’ a different actress and I’m working on it with my friend, who is also the art director and co-creator of the project. We’ll hopefully get it done in the next couple of years.
What made you decide to work on a project like that? Was there a certain incident that sparked this idea?
Not really. I mean, funnily enough, both of us are in happy, well-adjusted relationships: she’s married and I’m getting married this year. So it had nothing to do with personal experience, more just experiences from our past.
We wanted to try a new way of shooting, where we basically create a scene and let our subject improvise, and then I just shoot it as if it’s a film and I’m shooting with a motion picture camera, even though I’m not.
It’s been a really interesting experience and many subjects have found it enjoyable and different, because they really get to act and there’s no posing involved. There’s no freezing, it’s all movement. We shoot thousands of photos for each story. Going through it afterwards is great because you have to find the singular moments within real movement, which I guess is something different than in film where the scene itself is very powerful, but you don’t get to look at one frame and say: ‘Wow, that’s really where the emotion comes alive.’ We’re excited about trying this new kind of medium.
Where exactly are you doing the photoshoots?
So far, we’ve done shoots in Toronto, L.A. and New York. We’ve tried different locations and we tailor-make our stories based on who we’re shooting; sometimes we work with actors to come up with the story. There’s a lot of freedom and flexibility. Originally, we were hoping to get to 10 shoots, but there are many that we want to do, so we’re going to keep doing them until we feel satisfied.
Our first session was a local Toronto actress, Christine Horne; she’s just phenomenal. She really set the bar high. I won’t list everybody, but we’ve done Sarah Gadon, who is my favourite person in the world, Nina Dobrev, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Charlotte Sullivan, Mena Suvari and Alison Pill.
It’s not just Canadians, we’re also trying to get Americans and Europeans, and we want a broad range of people and ages.
Do you have male subjects as well? Because you’ve just mentioned women so far.
No, it’s only women. The concept is to tell the woman’s side of the break-up. Men go through devastating heartbreak at times too, but for this particular project we wanted to focus on women and show their broad range of emotions.
We also portray happiness, because when something is meant to end and you end it, you feel elated. We are not documenting real break-ups. We are creating worlds where nothing is real. Some of the stories have become much more outrageous or fantastical, since we were just letting ourselves do what we want.
How many photos will you run from every set?
It’s a series; it varies based on the story. Some stories can be told in fewer photos, but with some you just can’t stop picking and they look very cool in a sequence.
You studied fashion design. What was the progression from fashion to photography?
I always loved photography as a hobby and I loved sewing, so when I decided to go to university I applied for photography and fashion, got into both and had to make a decision. I thought that photography is something that I can learn on my own, as opposed to sewing techniques and design; so I did fashion. In my fourth year, I took some photos of a friend and a magazine wanted to buy them after seeing them on his website. I ended up working part-time for that magazine in my fourth year.
After graduation, I realized photography was what I wanted to do and that being a Canadian designer was a challenge I wasn’t ready for and not passionate enough about it. I have friends who are doing so well from my program and they really, really wanted it – they wanted it more than I did. I really just liked sewing, I didn’t want to be a designer. So I’m really happy that I made that change.
Do you ever make clothes for yourself?
I haven’t had a lot of time to make clothes for myself in the past few years, but I do think about it. Sometimes, I make Christmas stockings!
What type of photography do you like to do best?
My favourite is celebrity portraits, editorial and fashion with celebrities because we can have a lot of fun together. When I shoot models, their personalities in the shots are dictated by the client and the clothing, while even if you take actors and put them in very specific clothing, they still have their own persona. Actors are creative and they have their own ideas, but it’s fun to push the limits of what they’ll do.
If I’m shooting, then it’s a good day. I’m always happy as long as I’m working.
Do you have a memorable photoshoot that really stands out for you?
My shoot for men’s Italian Vogue with Michael Fassbender was really memorable because it was my first time shooting anything Vogue-related. And it was the cover. It was a lot of pressure, but in a good way. We shot in downtown L.A., in an abandoned train in a parking lot. We almost got arrested and our fashion editor literally bribed the police with chocolate! He was about to arrest us and charge us $10,000 bail each, but luckily it was at the end of the shoot. It was really outrageous and very memorable, as well as kind of a turning point in my career. That was in December 2011.
You wear a lot of clothing by Canadian designers. Are there any specific designers who you really admire?
I love Greta Constantine [Stephen Wong and Kirk Pickersgill] – I went to Ryerson a few years after Stephen, and I just admire that they’ve come so far and that they’ve done so much with their brand. Whenever I get a chance, I shop at The Room [at The Bay]. I’m actually going there after our interview. I don’t follow fashion as closely as I did when I was in school, I just see what I like and then try to incorporate it into what I’m doing.
How would you describe your style overall? And do you feel like it’s changed over the years?
My style definitely changes: I was more of a Goth at one point, dyed my hair black, had a lot of piercings. I still wear mostly black, but that’s just because I think it’s flattering and sexy.
When I’m working I want to be comfortable because I have to move around in strange ways, crawl on the floor and climb things – so I’m very casual on most days. But if I dress up, I like to have fun with it and try to combine accessories and clothes that I think are a little bit weird. It also depends on the occasion, I try to throw my own spin on it.
How do you feel travelling, and seeing different landscapes and cultures, has influenced your photography?
Every single experience that I have affects my photography, whether it’s very obvious or not. So anytime I’ve travelled, anything I see, even just walking down the street, still influences me. I really think it’s more about every single experience you have that makes you grow as a person. And it may take years to actually see a change.
Do you have any photographers who you really look up to in terms of their style or their accomplishments?
I love Mert and Marcus. I think their style is incredible because they do a lot of fabulous celebrity portraits and fabulous fashion photography. Their work is always a little bit dark, twisted and so creative. I also like Steven Klein.
Their work is sort of in the vein of what I hope to achieve at some point.
Is there a person in your life who supports you the most?
My family is incredibly supportive: they have always encouraged me to keep trying new things and they are there whenever I need to vent frustration or celebrate something. Without my family’s support it would be impossible to do this.
Special thank you to Modus Restaurant for providing the location for this photoshoot.