Nova Scotia·CBC Creator Network

Why portraits matter: Reflections from 4 East Coast photographers

In celebration of World Photography Day, the CBC Creator Network asked four East Coast photographers about the power of a portrait.

In celebration of World Photography Day, we explore the power of a portrait

From left: images captured by DeeDee Morris, Eldred Allen and James Wilson. (Collage by CBC)

In celebration of World Photography Day on Aug. 19, CBC Creator Network on the East Coast wanted to explore the power of a portrait. Freelance journalist Jerry-Faye Flatt spoke with four photographers: James Wilson, Stewart MacLean, DeeDee Morris and Eldred Allen. Here are their stories. 

James Wilson, Saint John/Hampton, New Brunswick

James Wilson always knew he wanted to be an artist. This is a self-portrait. (James Wilson)

To veteran photographer James Wilson, a good portrait has a sense of mystery. 

"Sometimes it's right there to start with … other times it's something that happens in the process," he said. 

Wilson, born and raised in Saint John, N.B., grew up wanting to be an artist. From the age of 11 he was taking photos, and even remembers the first roll of film he shot on a Brownie camera. It was of the Percé Rock, a giant rock formation at the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec. 

Now, in his early 70s, Wilson still loves photography. Since 1993 he's been working on his own business, and living as an artist with photography as his medium. 

Wilson's most recent works are part of an exhibition at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery titled Social Studies. About 25 years ago, he started documenting New Brunswickers from all walks of life. The decades-long project has resulted in 48 large format black and white photographs, and a book. 

Yvon Durelle - Boxing Legend - 2003. The final photo Wilson took of the late Yvon Durelle was nothing like the others. But with the last sheet of film he had left, he took a chance. Wilson moved in close, captured it, and that was the photo that stuck. 'It spoke volumes about the man — his face was a roadmap.' (James Wilson)

The portraits themselves are each taken in front of a neutral background, and bathed in natural light. The effect this gives forces the viewer to really look at the human being, said Wilson. 

Wilson's advice for budding photographers is to keep in mind the camera is a time machine. Take time into making each portrait a good one, because in 50 years, it will become more valuable to the person's family. 

Captain Christy Montoya, RCAF Special Forces, 2012. Montoya left for her fourth tour in Afghanistan the day after this photo was taken. 'She’s holding her gun, she’s holding her helmet, but her eyes are looking right through me.... She’s a pro. With a tough job.' (James Wilson)
Irl Washburn - Gay Rights Activist - 2012. This is one of Wilson’s favourite photographs. Washburn’s peacock headdress, furs, pearls and beads are meant to make a statement, said Wilson. 'He’s a spectacle.' (James Wilson)

Stewart MacLean - Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

'Never get stuck trying to learn new things,' says Stewart MacLean, pictured in this self-portrait. (Stewart MacLean)

Stewart MacLean of Charlottetown, P.E.I., says while a good portrait is subjective, he believes it's a blend of how the light, composition, and subject blend together. 

When MacLean takes someone's photo, he goes through a checklist in his head. 

"Is it a nice composition? How does the lighting look? [Does] the subject, and how they're surrounded in their environment, look interesting?" 

MacLean likes to experiment with contrast in his images. He uses bright and dark colours, and plays with light and shadows. 

MacLean leaned into the dark tones for this portrait of P.E.I based musician Irish Mythen. He likes the way she looks: stoic, intense and determined. MacLean said Mythen's focus would stay serious for each shot. 'Then she would just break and be laughing hysterically.' (Stewart MacLean)

MacLean spent the majority of his youth travelling South America and volunteering at an animal rescue centre in Ecuador. He was drawn back to the Island in 2019 and decided to advance his self-taught skills by enrolling in Holland College's Photography & Videography program. The 2020 grad now has his own photography business, and works in the local film industry. 

MacLean's tips for taking a good portrait are practice, research, recreation, and experimentation. 

"Never get stuck trying to learn new things."

DeeDee Morris - East Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia

'The more that you are just yourself when you show up to a session, the easier it is on your client, because they’re going to relax and be more themselves,' says DeeDee, shown in this self-portrait. (DeeDee Morris)

When DeeDee Morris looks through her lens, she sees the joy and beauty of her subject's life. 

"I go as deep as I can with my subjects right off the bat … so that when I do photograph them, all I'm seeing is the beauty and the joy that is them, or their life, or their connections with the other people they're with," said Morris. 

The full-time professional photographer remembers picking up her first camera at 11 and becoming infatuated with photography, and film. 

Morris says for her, a good portrait contains an emotional element. 

For a personal project, Morris commissioned dancers Gillian Seaward-Boone and Sarah Murphy to spend a morning with her on the Halifax waterfront. She asked them to explore the idea of love and passion through dance, and shot the images with stone sculptures in mind. This image will be part of a future series. (DeeDee Morris )

"I need to personally feel connected to an image to find that it's a good image," she said. "It can be lit perfectly, it can be a technically good photograph, but if I don't connect to it, I don't really care." 

Morris hosts bi-annual weekend workshops for new and experienced photographers who want to push their boundaries called the Creative Soul Retreat. She said the best advice she has for new photographers is to be as vulnerable as possible, so your subject is able to be vulnerable as well. 

"The more that you are just yourself when you show up to a session, the easier it is on your client, because they're going to relax and be more themselves." 

Eldred Allen - Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Labrador

Eldred Allen, shown in this self-portrait, is photographing elders in in Rigolet. He says the photographs 'mean so much to the community.' (Eldred Allen)

Eldred Allen of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Labrador has had a highly successful career in a short period of time. The self-taught photographer purchased his first handheld digital camera in 2018. Since then, it's been a "whirlwind." Allen's been in close to a dozen shows across Canada, has had pieces purchased for permanent collections, and is represented by two galleries. 

Allen had his first solo exhibition last fall, titled Resemblance, which displayed portraits of elders from his community of Rigolet.

The name for the exhibition came from Allen looking at his subjects through the camera, and oftentimes seeing someone's brother or grandson. 

"People look so much like their family members. It was so interesting to see that," he said. 

Allen started the documentation process for Resemblance in 2019 with the goal of photographing as many elders in Rigolet as possible before they passed away. 

Allen said because his community is so isolated, he turned to Facebook to post the photos of the elders for relatives and friends to see from far and wide. 

Family members began pressuring their parents or grandparents to visit Allen and have their photo taken. "They mean so much to the community."

Allen summed up his advice for budding photographers in one word: access. He said photographers should think about the people they have access to, or the people they have a certain rapport with, and how that allows them to obtain a certain level of comfort with their subject — one that makes them let their guard down and show themselves as they actually are. 

Allen's access to people in his own community has allowed him to take 49 portraits so far. He plans to keep it going. 

"It's a project I won't see the end to."

About the CBC Creator Network

The Creator Network amplifies the voices of the next generation of Canadian storytellers and connects them with CBC platforms, where they tell compelling stories and share unique perspectives that reflect the country in all its diversity. Learn more.

Photo essays from the CBC Creator Network 


Jerry-Faye Flatt (she/her) is a musician, teacher and writer living in Fredericton, N.B.