How a St. John's-based photographer and her unlikely muse captured international attention

Photographer Ting Ting Chen says Robert Tilley became a quick friend after moving to Newfoundland and Labrador five years ago. Tilley, who showed her around the province when she arrived, has also become her artistic muse.

Ting Ting Chen's photo of her friend Robert Tilley won international awards

A woman with glasses smiles beside a man with a white beard wearing a baseball cap.
Photographer Ting Ting Chen, left, says her good friend Robert Tilley, right, showed her around Newfoundland and Labrador when she moved to the province five years ago. (Submitted by Ting Ting Chen)

It's a photograph — of a man with a long, white beard wearing a fur coat — that almost resembles a 17th-century painting.

When photographing her subject in the award-winning portrait The Duke, photographer Ting Ting Chen said her goal was to achieve the feeling of a Rembrandt painting through photography.

The process was made easier, she said, because of her emotional bond with the man in front of the camera — her friend and artistic muse, Robert Tilley.

"I could take photos of many other subjects or many other people, but Robert inspired me a lot because I think he looks very special in front of a lens," said Chen, a photographer and student at Memorial University who's originally from China.

A photo of an old man, bald, with a long beard, and wearing a fur coat.
Chen's photograph of Tilley, called The Duke, won gold in the 2020 Budapest International Foto Awards and was the overall winner in the non-professional category (single image) of the Julia Margaret Cameron Awards. (Submitted by Ting Ting Chen)

Chen's photo of Tilley won gold in the 2020 Budapest International Foto Awards and was the overall winner in the non-professional category (single image) of the Julia Margaret Cameron Awards, an international photography award for women photographers. The award gave her the chance to exhibit her photos from Newfoundland and Labrador in Barcelona's FotoNostrum gallery.

Tilley, who's from Newfoundland, has now had his portrait seen by people around the world. Above all else, he says he's impressed by what his good friend can do with a camera.

"The pictures themselves, I think are really good pictures, whether they be me or anyone," said Tilley. "I would have to applaud her capability of doing the pictures."

An unlikely duo

Before moving to Newfoundland five years ago to pursue a PhD in folklore, Chen, 36, says she met Tilley on Facebook. She says she knew Tilley as a friend of Philip Hiscock, a professor in Memorial University's folklore department.

But what was originally a Facebook contact soon became a real-life friend and artistic inspiration, says Chen.

When she arrived in Newfoundland, she connected with Tilley in person and he gave her a tour of his home in Brigus South, as well his other place in Elliston. Eventually, Tilley and his wife invited Chen to spend the summer with them in Brigus in 2018.

A man wearing a red long sleeve shirt and a black cap poses in front of a landscape of mountains and ocean.
Tilley has been photographed many times by Chen, including at his home in Brigus. (Submitted by Ting Ting Chen)

"That is actually the beginning of my trip around Newfoundland," said Chen. "Not every Facebook friend turned out to be real good friends in real life, so I feel lucky, I feel fortunate that I can make a really good friend here."

Chen says she got into photography seriously only when she moved to Newfoundland so she's grateful to have won international awards so early in her photography career. But Tilley's charm in front of the camera, as well as his own life experiences, make it easier to capture photographs filled with stories, she said.

The story behind the photo

When Tilley, 74, showed Chen his homes in both Brigus South and Elliston, he says he wasn't just showing her where he lived, but also inviting her into places that have deep connections to his family's history.

The Duke is named after Tilley's grandfather, whose full name was William Marmaduke Tilley. She says the name also perfectly captures the historic mood of the photo.

In the portrait, Tilley is wearing a fur vest he made around 40 years ago when he worked in northern British Columbia.

A man with a long white beard poses shirtless, half-hidden by material with a floral pattern.
Chen photographed Tilley for her fine art portrait series, Skin to Skin, which she says explores the bonds between people and places. (Submitted by Ting Ting Chen)

"I bought a wolf skin, I guess from a fellow up north, and I got some leather and put it together as a bit of a joke for use as a vest when I headed south to San Francisco a very long time ago," said Tilley. "Everybody was supposed to look cool in those days."

But The Duke isn't the only photo Chen has taken of her friend. She's photographed Tilley in numerous fine art portrait series, including her series Skin to Skin, which she says explores the bonds between people and places.

"When the audience looks at the pictures, I want them to feel this is not only a good-looking picture, but I also want them to feel the emotional bond between the photographer and a subject," said Chen. "I think that's an essential part in my photography."

Next steps

After The Duke was selected as the winner in the non-professional category of the Julia Margaret Cameron awards, Chen was supposed to accept the prize in person in Spain.

Chen says she was unfortunately unable to travel to Spain due to issues with her visa, as she is not a Canadian citizen and is only able to live in the province due to a study permit.

Despite some setbacks, the photographer says her journey is far from over. She says she hopes she can visit Spain eventually, but that she also wants to continue exploring Newfoundland and Labrador with her muse Tilley by her side.

"I think this kind of a collaboration or friendship is a bit special," said Chen.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Weekend AM