Travel

Christopher Wahl on Christopher Wahl: We Made Canada’s Best Portrait Photographer Brag About His Photos

We got Wahl to spill the behind-the-scenes stories on Neil Young, Roger Federer, just to name a few.

by Aidan Johnston
Jul 13 2015, 2:34pm

Christopher Wahl. Photo by Aaron Wynia. All other photos by Christopher Wahl

Christopher Wahl's last job was delivering pizza in Whistler. His current job involves being one of the most sought-after and respected Canadian portrait photographers whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Macleans, and The AGO's permanent collection. Ask him about how he got there and he'll modestly give you one of those dismissive "right place, right time" answers, but the truth is that Chris is always in control, just like he is before he captures each of his images.

He didn't just happen upon Queen Elizabeth II before snapping the iconic photo of her looking like she's stumbling through a pub crawl, and he doesn't always hang out on the same tarmac as the Pope or Obama. Chris knows the photo he wants, and each shot is a reflection of how he decides the time with his subjects will be recorded. There's an underlying selfishness with photography wherein every image ultimately exists to validate its creator, and the real masters convince both the viewer and subject that they've been made for us.

Chris artfully manages this through a body of work in which his personable style reveals the stories that his subjects weren't trying to tell. From grandiose world figures to small town punk kids, Chris's portraits are full frames loaded with character, honesty, conviction, and that intangible beauty which forces you to do what a great picture should; just pause and stare.

"I don't know why I comprised these pictures for you," Chris says as he skims through a desktop folder at his home in Toronto. I'd asked him to make a selection of personal and published work to share with VICE. Why he chose these particular photos, I don't know either, but after talking through each of his selections Chris's approach to photography, and the way he archives life as he see's it, started to come together. We got Chris to tell us what these photos mean to him.

Joel Cutler
Joel's a venture capitalist. Snapchat, AirBnB—he was the first seed money in all of this. This guy's worth 400 million bucks or something stupid. So they wanted a pic of this guy looking all happy and I was like, "That's not him." There's no way he's going to go for it. He's heard pitches from all over the planet, he's bought into some, missed out on some, told people to fuck off when he shouldn't have. But regardless, this guy is judgement, and he thinks his first judgement is gold. You gotta admire that, he's a rock star in the venture capitalist world. This is him kind of eyeballing me, making a judgement right now. These were supposed to look like found images of people in offices, not staged portraits, it wasn't my creative I was just executing it. So these guys were aware and would go to their desk, but completely start posing. Then it was like they didn't trust you, like, "Relax and be myself? I'm not relaxed, how can I be myself?" So it was like an unspoken word at the beginning, handshake to handshake, we're going to have this done in seven minutes. You say that and they're like, "I like that." They don't give a shit, they just want to get the fuck out of there. This guy's not used to saying, "What do you want me to do?" He tells people what he wants them to do for a living; he doesn't succumb to anything, so why would he succumb to me? It was pretty interesting just to watch it.

Smoking Kid
I was driving up to Collingwood and saw these kids jumping on the way, and thought, Fuck, that looks like fun. On the way back, they were still there and the light was beautiful so I stopped and was like, "Hey guys." They were scraping down these rocks and this guy pulls out this bent dart. He's hoofing on it like it's not his first. The background feels non-photographic. These willows and colours feel a bit painterly. But I love his shoelace belt, holding his jams up. We all wanted to be punk kids, but this guy is actually a punk kid. Like, he probably stole my bike at some point. He's a bastard! He's so pretty though; he's a good-looking fella. His eyes are all red from swimming in that stew water. Or he's huffing glue.

Neil Young
Portraits are supposed to be reflective of time spent. I don't think sitting for portraits is Neil's favourite thing. Legitimately. In my career, he was probably one of the people who didn't want to have his picture taken the most. I asked his manager Elliot if Neil would take off his hat and coat. He was like, "I don't give a shit. It's your time, you ask him." I had 45 seconds with him. Meanwhile, I'd been waiting around two and a half hours to shoot this portrait. So I ask him to lose the hat and coat, and as he's taking off the hat he goes, "My girlfriend likes it when it's messy," to which I go, "Girlfriend?" That's ridiculous—Harvest Moon was about Peggy, his wife of forever, so I'm thinking, What do you mean girlfriend? Needless to say, the next day the news broke that he's dating Daryl Hannah. I should've called TMZ. I'd probably only shot seven frames and Elliot goes, "You're good?" And I'm like, "I'm not!" I am not good! You gotta give me a second." So I say, "Neil, you gotta sit down, I need you to put your hand on your chin, address me, have a big old breath, I need a countenance of something that is just me and you." He looks up to Elliot and just does this pose. Then he goes, "You good?" And after a gig, whatever I'm shooting, I usually turn to someone in the room—and in this case it was Stephanie Noritz, a delightful young photographer—I look to her and she's normally remarkably optimistic, but this time I look to her and she gives me this shrugging look like, "I don't know."

Roger Federer
I'm a massive tennis fan. So I go to shoot Federer, my fucking hero. He's the best tennis player who ever played the game. The King. Fed's practically one of the most famous men on the planet, but you're like, I barely know who he is? But you do know who he is, and so does an Indian kid and a Chinese kid—this guy is all over the planet. Look at his right tennis arm, too. Popeye compared to his other arm. So we were allowed whatever time with him to shoot a formal portrait, to which he's like, "Can I come back to this, I'm super busy." So I roll my eyes but am like, "Yeah, no sweat." So I shot a portrait and was like, I'm just going to follow you around the court and shoot some pics of you playing tennis. So here, he's walking at me, but where he actually has to go is over to my left, but he sees me sitting here and I'm just snapping pictures rapidly. I take the camera away from my face and he says, "Was that good?" And I'm like, "That was GOOD." So he says, "Nice meeting you, Chris," and walks back over to where he's gotta go. But what a fucking dude—it's the difference where subjects are giving pictures to me that can make my life very simple.

Will & Kate LA Tour
I travelled two summers ago with Prince William and Kate and just made sure to photograph all of their arrivals. In a period of ten days, I wanted as many pictures of them walking off of planes as I could make because I think in sequence they look like a fun body of work. Different outfits every time, same fucking plane. I've always considered myself a bit of an archivist—it's news today, a picture tomorrow, then, at best, if my work ends up in encyclopaedias or something academic, then I'd be very happy. This was out the window of the bus as we were driving into LA to go cover some Will and Kate event. So we were in downtown LA, in skidville. Look at these guys in the background. They're stealing a sofa or something! These kids are there to see Will and Kate, but they look out of place. The Drake hotel, I'm guessing, is not a popular spot to stay. I'm a sucker for perpendicular images. With this picture I got lucky that this motherfucker's on the left, it's moving your eye, then there's these guys on the far right who you think are ruining the frame, but that's the proper closure. It's this perpendicular aspect of nothing.

My Clothes
I've always photographed people wearing my clothes. I've done it four times over the past eight or nine years. I like the aspect of recording: [finding someone to wear them who's] better looking than me, but I still feel like it's a self-portrait. Like taking a prettier photo of myself. If I had my way, I'd buy things in bulk—I'd want like five of the same shirts, jeans whatever. It's hard to find shit. Patagonia are my favourite clothes, they don't fuck around. Every once in a while I'll photograph all the clothes I have presently in every situation that I would wear the clothes. So I'll photograph my three pairs of jeans with the same belt. Then suddenly I realize what I can get rid of. It's a bit of a social record of my history. Again, going back to the archival nature of my work. Whether they're portraits of people, places, or things, they're all the same shit.

Drowning
I quite love this picture. It looks it could be from a Hollister store. All these kids are gorgeous. The guy on the right saved the day—he's not even the lifeguard but he saved the day. There was some drowning at Cherry Beach. Look at her! The rip on his shirt: it's gorgeous! The horizon's nice and square, without even knowing, I made it look like one of my pictures.

The Racetrack
The last couple of summers, I've been going to racetracks and photographing race cars. But not photographing the people, even though there's plenty of people around them. I'm just as entertained by these cars and the detail of them because these are weekend warriors—these guys don't get paid to drive these things. All the stickers and stuff they put on their cars are representative of them working all week long and then just doing something they love. Who doesn't love to drive real fast? What a hoot! I think these are still portraits of these folks, just not showing the faces.

Jeremy Down
This is my friend Jeremy Down. He was painting up in the Rankin Inlet. It's like a Giacometti sculpture. Influence is a brilliant thing in photography; we're all influenced by someone or something.