Matt Mays  Photo: Lisa Mcintosh
Matt Mays Photo: Lisa Mcintosh

A Conversation With ..Lisa MacIntosh

The beauty of photography as it relates to music is the many notes that are sounded in an image. Background visuals play much the same as a small unit, an ensemble or symphony in support of the principal soloist. At times it’s the splashes of color, geometrical lines that cut through the horizon; at others, the understated motion of people moving about unaware they are caught going about private business that set-up the individual who is the subject matter and makes the image of greater interest.

All motion ceases with the click of the shutter, and that specific moment in time is frozen. Not all photos are equal.

Lisa MacIntosh has a way of keeping the subject of her interests alive and breathing in her images. They seem to speak to us on many levels. The slant of an arm, the focus in the eyes, the resting position of the body, the charisma of that person all shine through in her portraits.

I’d pursued this interview over time, knowing there’s more to learn when you ask a person to address their passion. Some will pass it off as nothing more than a means to a basic living while others speak openly and genuinely about the world, they’ve cultivated for themselves. MacIntosh resides in the latter.

Bill King:  What was the first photo you ever took and on what camera?

 Lisa MacIntosh: The first photo I took was of a grade school crush; he was standing in the schoolyard. I still have that photo, taken on a Polaroid 7X-70, a gift from my parents for the 12th birthday.

BK : Most photographers come to this through a photo or series of photos that reside deep in memory. Did that move you?

Thinking back, I feel that I fell in love with the Depression-era work of Dorothea Lange; it moved me then and still does today.

B.K: Was photography of interest in high school or even earlier to you?

L.M: Growing up with an uncle who was a photographer and crime reporter for a Toronto newspaper, photography was something we shared; it's always been a passion.  Sadly, I wasn't interested in pursuing anything throughout my high school years.

B.K: What was your first camera?

L.M: Polaroid 7X-70, followed by a Canon AE1, which I still have!

B.K: Like all young people who work off passion, was there a photographer you most wanted to emulate?

L.M: There's a long list.  The first name that comes to mind is Annie Leibovitz.  I think it was her subject matter that first caught my attention; musicians. 

B.K: There are many areas of photography – from the event to war to portrait, landscape, and beyond. Why did you focus on portraits?

L.M: Portraits found me. There's something about sitting with a person, getting to know them, talking through a shoot, it's personal on so many levels, and that's the biggest draw for me. I want to more, and I want to know why and how.

B.K: What was your first paid assignment?

L.M: That's a tough one. I believe it was a session with the students at the Regent Park School of Music.

B.K: Building an image that speaks to truth demands that the eye, brain, and soul see and feel simultaneously. When do you know a photo is one that tells a story?

L.M: It's just one of those things. I can see it while I'm looking through my viewfinder.  When I get home from a session, I always edit right away; that's my ritual. I want to look at the 25th image and remember why my subject was laughing; at image 40, when my subject had tears.  There's always a story, I just know when I get to that exact photo, that it's the one.

B.K: What separates the smartphone/selfie shooters from the professionals?

L.M: As the saying goes, everyone is a photographer these days!  I like the convenience of my phone to capture things on the fly.  I haven't ever done a portrait session with my phone and doubt I ever will...that is unless Apple asked me to do something with a new phone ;)  I think that there's a level of commitment if you are a professional photographer that perhaps someone armed with a phone doesn't have.

B.K:  What artist did you set your sights on and never got close enough to click?

L.M: Gord Downie - hands down.  I hoped to include him in my book, but it wasn't meant to be.

B.K: Are you a collector of photo books? If so, what would be on the shelves and why?

L.M: Yes, I am!  I have every book by Annie Leibovitz, a couple of Vivian Maier, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Richard Avedon. I love to look through books for inspiration and see how people's work evolved.

B.K: How have you been able to sustain and compete in an industry that is undergoing the same symptoms and weaknesses musicians face with streaming?

L.M: I was fortunate enough to start my photography career at the right time, with the right people and the best genre. My current work is on a volunteer basis; good for my heart, not my bank account...and that's okay!

B.K: What camera did you save long and hard for that you were certain would be the tool you most needed to express yourself?

L.M: My current Canon.  Though, cameras are much like cell phones in the way that there is always something new and better just around the corner.  I also really believe that my artistic vision is the best thing I can arm myself with for any shoot.

B.K: What do you pack in your bag these days? For a shoot?

L.M: My Canon and my 35 mm lens.

B.K:  Are you a gearhead?

L.M: Not at all.

B.K: Do you still get a rush shooting bands on stage?

L.M: I did when I first started out but quickly realized that shooting bands wasn't my thing.  I still do but only on a volunteer basis for initiatives and people that I love.

B.K: Your recent book – Music Makers: At the Great Hall – is a gorgeous collection of portraits of Canadian musicians. How did you raise the money to do this and connect with artists?

L.M: What a time that was. I photographed that series over almost four years; through a major renovation at the Great Hall and caring for my father. The interest in the book and I guess in me, resulted in friends pretty much footing the bill to have that book printed. It was the most gracious thing that happened. I'm still absolutely grateful for all of those people.  As for connecting...I just ask!  I think there may have been two or three people that I had to go though reps to reach; the rest was on me.  If you don't ask, you don't get.

B.K: The book has sold out. Will you reprint?

L.M: I would love that, but it's very expensive.  I also feel that there is so much history, not only in the sense of the location, but all of those musicians; they won't be here forever.  

B.K: What is celebrating inspirational women?

L.M: That is, ASK!  I began my inspirational women series at the same time as my musician series.  It is essential for me to celebrate the brilliant women in my circle and outside of it too.  I want to lift each other and to see who these other women are and what they do.  It's a powerful series, and I'm looking forward to returning to it in the new year.

B.K: There’s beauty in every frame of your work even when the subject may not be aware of it. You seem to empathize with everyone. How much of this reflects on your conflicts and personal battles?

L.M: I have certainly had my struggles throughout my life, and it has given me the tools to help others.  I can't tell you how many times I have been in the middle of a shoot, and there are tears or questions or just the love that there is someone there to listen.  I love to share my story, especially if it can help someone through theirs.

B.K: You’ve been dealing with major health issues and facing head-on and sharing with your FB followers. Does having a community to share with help the healing process?

L.M: I am an open book!  My Facebook account is private, as is my Instagram, and I share it with friends.  Having such a best cheering squad is the greatest gift ever!  My friends have certainly cheered me on through rough times and celebrated the happy ones. It's funny because I fought joining FB for years. I wanted to reach out to Amy Helm, and that was the only way I could reach her. So, I joined FB, became friends with Amy, and photographed her first solo album cover at Levon's Barn in Woodstock!

B.K: What’s ahead for you, and what’s playing in the background?

L.M: Right now, I'm concentrating on my health and settling into a new life outside of the city.  My Women series is at the top of my list for the new year...I'm dreaming of a book. 

Listening to: By the Way, I Forgive You - Brandi Carlile. I can't get enough of this beautiful album.

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