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In Conversation: Christopher Wahl, by Nadja Sayej

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Christopher Wahl photographing Marina Abramović, 2012 | © Christopher Wahl / Collection of the artist

Chris Wahl has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. As a portrait photographer, what he really considers himself is a newsman. That’s probably because he has spent over 20 years at press conferences, in government buildings and on airport landings awaiting world leaders, royalty and stars.

He has been called one of Canada’s most renowned portrait photographers and his method includes smoking cigarettes at a backstage door to get celebrities to warm up to him, is still ‘Canadian nice’ after they decline, and tends to shoot subjects against a stark white wall. Having shot for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, his portraits have graced the walls of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Toronto-based Wahl has photographed everyone from Isabella Rossellini to Jodie Foster, Werner Herzog to The Rolling Stones. Naturally, he has shot Canadian icons, too, like David Suzuki and Margaret Atwood, not to mention Michael Snow in his Toronto backyard. Wahl has also shot the royals, from Prince Charles to the Queen, Prince Harry and Megan Markle.

He once rode with royals on a trip through North America for Vanity Fair and stuck in Montauk with acclaimed artist Peter Beard. But his work tends to be conceptual, too, as he has photographed the back of Patti Smith’s head. He has also shot large pieces of meat, which is part of his recent series called Rankin Inlet, which is part of a project where Wahl depicts Inuit life on the Kudlulik Peninsula in Nunavut. Wahl spoke from his home in Toronto about photographing the Queen, touring with the Rolling Stones and why two shots is more than enough. 

Queen Elizabeth II with eyes closed

The Queen, Winnipeg, 2002 | © Christopher Wahl

 What’s the story behind your famous photo of the queen?

Chris Wahl: I approached the Governor General’s office to shoot a portrait and they said no. I had photographed the last few governors general, so had a relationship to them. So, I went on the road and documented her anyway. In this situation, I wasn’t on assignment for anyone so took risks and went in places where I didn’t have to be where every other photographer was. I was standing in the legislative building in Winnipeg. Back then, the golden ropes were fewer and far between, you were allowed to roam more than you can today.

What year was that?

It was 2002. I knew she would come down a hallway, and she did, going on her way to a dinner. The press secretary gave me a look to not take any photos. But the queen stopped in front of me and I raised my Hasselblad camera with a Qflash and shot two frames. One she wasn’t smiling but her eyes were open and the other she is smiling but her eyes are closed. I thought ‘oh my heavens’ that her eyes were closed but we shared a moment of intimacy. 

Do you often take risks for your job?

I’m not a risk taker by any means, I think I play it safe. I’m slow, good pictures are hard to make for me. They’re not good pictures until I spend some time with them.

Why?

I shoot on film, I like the process, analog, tangible items. I never shoot too much film in a sitting. I usually spend time chatting with them. I’m about faces. I’m not a discovery photographer of shooting, I don’t wait for someone to perform. I like to think about what kind of picture I want to make before I make it. 

Patty Smith

Patty Smith, 2015 | © Christopher Wahl

You seem to have a conceptual bent to your work, considering you shot the back of Patty Smith’s head?

She seemed uncomfortable with having her picture taken. When I walked into the room, I noticed the back of her hair, which is rather remarkable. She’s wearing a men’s blazer, artfully oversized, hanging off one shoulder. She still had the dry-cleaning tag in one of the buttonholes. I have shot other people before from the back of their heads, its interesting how they can be recognized from behind, without seeing their face. I shot two frames and felt her relief that she didn’t have to stare down a lens.

Prince Charles

Prince Charles, Winnipeg, 2007 | © Christopher Wahl

You also photographed Prince Charles from behind, too. Was it because of the band-aid?

It was a result of covering a news event. The majority of my work is documenting the Canadian identity. If royals come to town, I like to photograph them within the confines of Canada. I’d be less interested to photograph them outside of Canada. Prince Charles was in 2007, oh no, this dates me. I stood in a spot where I was maybe in the way of every other news photographer’s photograph because I wasn’t near them. Those fingers and the band-aid, it’s a sharp picture of a gentlemen oblivious that I was behind him, on my knees, making the picture. Again, I don’t think you could do that now.

Has security gotten tighter in Canada, everywhere?

Things have changed, not to quote Bob Dylan. I have photos of Prince Charles drinking tea with indigenous elders, too. But I like the band-aid photo because it tells us a story we don’t typically know. He seems to be so comfortable with himself. 

Beluga and Ulus

Beluga and Ulus, 2010 | © Christopher Wahl 

What do you think defines your work?

I’m a newsman so even with my portraits, I consider them somewhat newsworthy. I’d like to think I’m contributing to an archive beyond my years that leaves people with an impression or a thought of how things were. I think that’s the initial purpose of photography. The historical aspect is something I’m excited to contribute to. if I was capable of revealing something that no longer exists, I’d be thrilled.

Jennifer Lopez

Jennifer Lopez, NYC, 2010 | © Christopher Wahl

 Do you have any really good anecdotes in working with celebrities?

Tom Waits, I’m waiting at the soundcheck and I said, excuse me Mr. Waits, can I take your photograph? He says no. we sat there and smoked a couple of cigarettes and he still wouldn’t let me take his picture. Then, that night, I went to the concert and he told the story of some guy who wanted to take his picture at the stage door. That was pretty exciting. But I didn’t get the picture, which is fine.

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones, 2007 | © Christopher Wahl / Collection of the artist

 Which is fine? I would have been so mad.

I was sad. But I’ve worked with the Rolling Stones for three tours and made those expensive books. It all started off with me knocking on a door when they would rehearse in Toronto in the 1990s. They let me in the first year but I photographed everyone except Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie. But then I was invited back and got to shoot the band. The third year, Lisa Fisher the backup singer looked at me and said, “Oh you’re back,” as if to say ‘oh, you didn’t fuck it up, good boy.’ I learned to always leave before you’re asked.  

Who have you always wanted to shoot?

I’m basically just waiting for the opportunity to shoot Bob Dylan. That’s it.

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Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City who has written 5 books, including Biennale Bitch and The Celebrity Interview Book. Follow her on Twitter: @nadjasayej