Q&A with Paul Perrier
Documentary by Sean Jackson & Q & A written by Michaela Wong
Paul Perrier is a Canadian photographer who has turned isolation into inspiration, creating a beautiful photo series using the architecture of Toronto as his backdrop and random passersby as his subjects. He posts his work on the Instagram account @thetorontoportrait, which has garnered a small following of over 1200 users; his work is also displayed in Bathurst’s Stackt Market. He has cultivated a way of shedding light and positivity during one of the most difficult times in modern human history.
Q: When did you start taking photos?
A: I remember distinctly my first photograph. I was 12 years old and I took a photograph of my brother with a Polaroid Instamatic camera. I watched the picture develop in front of my eyes, and I thought it was magic. And I’ve been taking pictures ever since. So I guess from the age of 12, I started taking pictures.
I love doing it. I went to university in Montreal — I’m from Montreal — and dropped out of university when I was 21. I backpacked through Europe for seven months, and I took a camera with me and I took photographs. I was traveling around Europe and the Middle East, and I came home and I didn’t know what to do with my life. So I developed my film and I saw this picture that I took that I thought was really good.
And I just went, “Oh, maybe I can be a photographer.” I didn’t know what that meant, really, but I thought I had the talent for it. I’ve been doing it for a while, you know, for fun. And so I studied at the Dawson Institute of Photography for two years. And then I started freelancing as a photographer and I moved to Toronto in 1991 to pursue photography. And I did it commercially. I’ve done everything. I’ve done magazines, advertising, corporate work, weddings, parties, anything.
Q: When you first discovered your love of photography, you were traveling. Were you taking portraits like you do now, or has there been a variety over your career?
A: Yeah, I’m trying to think. I think when I started taking pictures, yeah. I would take mostly pictures of people, but as I got into it, I took pictures of everything I did.
I think my strength as a photographer is the portrait work I shoot. Shot thousands and thousands of portraits. But I also did some other stuff, like nature stuff. I frame it all as a portrait, so I can shoot anything right now. I think if people look at my body of work, it’ll be my portraits though. And I think the body of work that I did in the first lockdown was probably, you know, what I’ve been doing since the age of 12: taking pictures. It’s all led up to me being able to do that.
Q: What inspired you to start that specific project?
A: The Instagram site, the Toronto Portrait , I started two years ago. I had this fake brick wall backdrop that I would take around Toronto and I’d tape it up to their walls. And I asked people passing by to stop to pose for a portrait and I gave them a picture.
So I did that in the summer and spring, summer of 2019. And I think over a six month period, I shot about 400 portraits of people against this wall. I didn’t do it during the winter just because of weather. Then in March, you know, the world had changed. And the first portrait I shot was March 18th, 2020. And I was actually going to go out and continue the Wall project because I really like doing that.
And that day I couldn’t get the backdrop to stick on the wall with the tape. It was too cold or something. So I just had my camera and I saw this woman with the mask on and I just wondered if I should start with the idea I had that for some reason the mask was going to be the symbol of what was coming up. And so I did this one portrait of this woman with a blue, those blue paper masks that were, you know, you saw mostly at the beginning.
And then I decided, I’ll just shoot that. I’ll just forget the Wall series and I’ll start a new series with the mask. And instead of having a wall, I’ll shoot them. I’ll go around Toronto and shoot them on different walls.
Q: In terms of your audience on the Instagram, when transitioning from the Wall series to the Mask series did you see any noticeable growth in your account?
A: It’s been interesting and a progression. I think I have over eleven hundred followers now, which I think is good. But I also think I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t caught on a bit more because there’s a couple of things about the project.
And I think, you know, I always try. I have some issues with social media sites and stuff, but I find most of them ridiculous. But I think that you can use these sites for art in a really creative way. And that’s what I’ve always tried to do, whether it’s my Facebook page, which I don’t use very much anymore, or Twitter, which I do use.
And if anybody else is interested, that’s interesting to me. So between the Wall series and the Mask series, I’ve been shooting close to one thousand portraits, so I have eleven hundred followers. So that’s just a bit more than people I’ve shot. I always thought that this would be a bit more viral because the other part of it, the hard part is when I shot or when I shoot these portraits, I post them like ten minutes afterwards. So it’s kind of — not real time — but as close to real time photography as I can get. And it’s interesting.
I think that’s a really interesting part of it, because I stop people, they have to wonder, you know, take a few seconds to decide, am I going to pose for this picture? And I don’t know, and the ones that do, you know, ten minutes later and they’re a part of this project and they have a really cool portrait.
I mean, a lot of people, most people don’t know who I am when I stop them, but I have a pretty vast body of work. You know, shot everybody from celebrities to athletes, politicians to you. Yeah. So that’s an interesting part of it, too. I guess I try I try to remain anonymous. It’s not oh, this is me.
Q: Is there very little editing or is it just camera-to–post?
A: I shoot on a Canon OK. And for this series I use a thirty five to three fifty zoom lens because the part of the series with the masks is I have to be six feet away from people, so the zoom lens helps with that.
So I shoot it on that, and it takes literally under a minute and then I transfer it to my phone, I’ll pick the one that I think works and I will edit and crop a bit and touch up the colours and do a little editing and then post it.
Q: When doing these photo projects for long periods of time, how do you keep yourself engaged in the project?
A: Well, I mean photography engages me. It’s like a musician doing a show, but going out there to do photography. And I think it came from this that trip I took when I was 21 years old.
I was out on the streets. I didn’t know where I was going. The camera was a bit of a tool for me to meet people. And so during the pandemic, that first walk out I was out with my camera every day and shooting these portraits. And it was one of the most interesting experiences as a photographer because it was like Toronto was like this big empty movie set. And I would ride around and, you know, there were people there. But that first lockdown is drastically different from this lockdown.
Q: So you would say that because of Covid in the lockdown’s kind of enhanced your creativity a little bit in terms of your motivation?
A: Yeah, I think creativity thrives. And, you know, usually it comes out of dark situations. And, you know, there’s a light in doing something rooted in creativity.
And photography’s all about light. So I think I’ve seen a lot of people who want to be musicians or you see it now in television or podcasts. And so I think people who have had all this time on their hands, you don’t have something to distract you. That’s how you get depressed. And that’s why depression is rising. And I think creativity is a vital part of mental health. And I’ve done documentary-style, and my documentary work deals with addiction. I think you have to have a creative outlet. It’s as important as getting out and getting fresh air and sunshine, for sure.
And I don’t mean to pat myself on the back, but it is an important body of work and it came out very naturally. I didn’t have any ideas other than I wanted to do something to keep myself occupied.
You put something out there and they take on a life of their own, whether they go the way you want to or not. So it’s kind of following the heart and rolling with the punches. Yeah, I never expected to have a show of my work and I certainly didn’t expect people to want to stand outside in minus eight degree weather. So to see people come out and do that, I think that’s a real gift. And that’s the importance of art.
And art is very important in these times. Well, it is in any time, but it usually gets ignored and it’s the first thing that gets defunded. But it’s important and it’s important for everybody to do something
Q: You previously mentioned photographing celebrities and political figures. Who has been your favourite subject to shoot?
A: So I was able to do a photoshoot with Bill Gates in 2002. I think he had just become the richest man in the world at the time. I had a client whose client was Microsoft. And Bill Gates was speaking at a conference not far from where I am, just by the old Eglinton movie theatre, which had just shut down, and they were using it as a venue area.
And Microsoft, they were releasing, I don’t know which Microsoft, some version of it. And Gates was speaking at it. And I was hired to shoot the event. And I asked my client if I could shoot a portrait of Bill Gates. And my client said to me, “Well, I’ll see if I can ask, but I doubt you’ll do. Well, anyway, they asked and he agreed to do it.
So I got to shoot that portrait of them. And it was a crazy situation because there was so much security and there was, like, the prime minister who was there. There were dogs around, it was really crazy. It was almost like a closet to shoot a man. So I had to get a white backdrop then I was going to shoot them again.
So they had to duct tape upside down in this closet because I couldn’t get my stance in there. I thought I’d set it up. So I adjusted to what I was given. Then before he was going to speak, he was going to come to me and I would shoot him, and then he was going to go do his presentation. So he came out. It’s all very like this, so many people. So that was hard.
I take my position. I take two shots and then I get my top two exposures and I get a tap on my shoulder. And it’s his assistant saying that’s all the time Mr. Gates has. And I’m like, I literally had twenty seconds. So I had this kind shocked look on my face. When he walked by me, he said, “Stick around, I’ll come back after.” And I was like, oh my God.
And he did. So he went out and spoke, came back after and gave me, I don’t know, a couple of minutes of his time, which I thought was amazing because up to that point, I had shot hundreds and hundreds of CEOs and most of them hated having their picture taken. It always seemed like it was such a hassle to them. Here was the richest guy in the world giving me five minutes of his time and letting me do what I wanted to do.
And I got this really cool photo. I think it’s one of the coolest pictures of Bill Gates.