Arts

For over 15 years, the director and photographer Norman Wong has shown us what Toronto music looks like

After an extended hiatus from directing music videos, the celebrated photographer returned to working in “motion” with Charlotte Cardin, netting him a Juno nomination.

‘There’s no single thread to my career. It’s always just been reacting to my environment.’

For Norman Wong, making music videos is sort of him coming full circle. When he started his creative career back in the mid-'00s, Wong — now an award-winning photographer who's done portraits of celebrities ranging from Drake to Cindy Crawford and worked with big, global brands like Zara and Nike — didn't want to be a photographer at all. He wanted to work in film. To hear him tell it, photography was just something he kind of backed into, thanks in part to, of all things, being an early fan of Broken Social Scene. 

"I was kind of like that kid in Almost Famous," he says. "They kind of took me under their wing." 

Wong wound up documenting the band as they went from a popular local outfit in a city he says was "very sleepy and very desolate" at the time, to global stardom. That, in turn, gave him cred with what he refers to as the next generation of Toronto bands, acts like Death from Above 1979 and F---ked Up. From there, he started moving across genres, working with electronic musicians and metal bands, before doing the cover shot for Drake's album Scorpion. He says that the range of artists he's worked with is a reflection of Toronto's musical evolution.

"There's no single thread to my career," he says. "It's always been just reacting to my environment. The diversity and range of the soundscape this city has produced over the last decade is extraordinary."

Now, more than 15 years after the start of his career, Wong is back to working with moving images. His video for Charlotte Cardin's song "Meaningless" is nominated for the Juno for best music video. Wong says he's selective in the video projects he takes on, because he finds it more labour-intensive than photography.

"Filmmaking is not just 'show up with your camera and feel the vibe,'" he says. "It's meticulous, painful. It's a whole process that involves a lot more chess play."

In fact, even though he calls cinema his "first love," he says he was turning down requests to do video projects in recent years in order to really "master" photography. The last video he directed prior to "Meaningless," was the video for "Crater" by Gord Downie and the Sadies, way back in 2014.

"I didn't want to be too diluted or spread too thin," he says. 

He says working with Cardin was something he "couldn't say no" to — in part, because when he heard the song, he realized it was an opportunity to fulfil a longtime creative ambition of his to do, what he calls, "a big pop dance video."

"They originally had an idea that someone had pitched, but they weren't totally sold on it," he says. "I got a glimpse of the mood board of what they were going for, and I didn't really understand how it would apply to the song. When I listened to the song, I responded to it sonically, this kind of closure and explosion and what that felt like."

After a decade and a half of documenting musicians, Wong says he's at a stage where he's spending a lot of time reflecting on his career. He says that more than anything, he feels lucky to have watched Toronto grow into a place that produces globally recognized talent. He says that, from his perspective, what makes Toronto special is the fact that it's constantly evolving.

"It's a young city compared to New York or London or Paris," he says." Those are cities with a lot of embedded history. Toronto is almost like a blank canvas. There's always room for things that are diverse and interesting."

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