Never one to miss the opportunity to take a photograph, Christopher Wahl accepted a last-minute assignment while on his honeymoon in Paris. He exhorted his new wife to go shopping, and went off to make a portrait of French-Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze (star of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). No surprise that. “I literally eat and sleep pictures,” he claims.
There is an edge to him, a vibrancy and candor that is refreshing. From the moment he picks me up late one fall evening at Pearson Toronto International Airport, and I hit the warm seats of his Volvo station wagon, I realize I’m on the verge of adventure. Wahl drives around downtown Toronto in search of a cup of tea, maneuvering the streets like a race-car driver. Alas, the teashops have all closed so we agree to meet the following morning. I am warned that he will be in a different car, with no heater, a surprise. It turns out to be a baby blue 1972 mint VW bug that will be retired shortly for the Toronto winter.
The affable Wahl lives near Toronto University in a purple two-story Victorian house that was once a gallery, with his wife, Ashley, daughter Charlie, seven, and son Keith, three. Wahl claims their children’s names are not an intended Rolling Stones reference. He jokes, “It is better to have a Keith and a Charlie than a Mick and a Ronnie!”
Ashley is an interior designer and her sensible yet whimsical modern style—sheepskin rugs, cool wooden chandeliers—is complemented by Wahl's photography as well as work by Larry Clark and Yousuf Karsh, among others. A huge Helmut Newton book, the rare SUMO—Taschen printed only 10,000 copies, each signed and numbered by Newton; it weighs in at 66 pounds, is 20 × 27½ inches and comes with its own Philippe Starck designed stand—takes pride of place in the master bedroom. Hanging on the wall next to it is a Chuck Close portrait of a naked Kate Moss. Wahl keeps a folder on his computer with contemporary images of photographs he aspires to purchase. He is a practitioner, a historian and, above all, a fan of the art form, applying his aesthetic to everything he photographs, whether it is 27 lawyers in four days or a long-term personal project documenting the Iraq war on the TV news with a Polaroid SX-70. He is fascinated with the world of news reporting. As a kid Wahl remembers taking Polaroid pictures of “Christmas trees, dinner tables, things around the house,” already honing his reportorial eye.
The 39-year-old photographer has captured indelible images of many cultural milestones including working with the Rolling Stones (“Getting the call the second time was better than the first.”) and last summer’s much-heralded North American visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Vanity Fair hired Wahl, its “favored royal-tour photographer” to follow the young royal couple throughout Canada on their first state trip together. The result is an 86-image slideshow that has garnered the greatest number of views on the VanityFair.com.
Erica Singleton, digital photography editor for Vanity Fair, who produced his Royal Tour web exclusive, comments, “There’s always something really unique from him.” The project was a massive undertaking over the course of eleven days and multiple locations throughout Canada. “Chris is funny and creative. It’s such a treat [working with him],” Singleton says. “He is so entertaining. He was traveling completely solo and making friends along the way. It’s like he’s never met a stranger.”
His clients include Johnson & Johnson, Symantec, FedEx, the Canadian Broadcast Corp., as well as many publications. Born and raised in Toronto, Wahl is a dual citizen of the US and Canada and travels a great deal. “My passport is almost full,” he says.
He describes his work as “awkward decisive moments of people doing nothing,” and while that might be true, as he cleverly catches the work behind the curtain of Oz, he also captures people doing what they do best. He is drawn to shots of notable people exiting planes. “I would rather photograph them walking off the plane than at the event. It takes a long time to accumulate images of world leaders walking off planes,” he says.
Reminiscent of the Beatles's Abby Road cover, Wahl, while straddling a bicycle, captured a cluster of paparazzi in the middle of a New York City street, shooting an out-of-frame Jennifer Lopez. Part of an ongoing series called News People Working, the photograph perfectly captures the cult of celebrity, with a witty split-second nod to documentary photos and a rigid eye to dynamic composition—no editing or cropping needed—it’s all there for you, served up in crisp resolution.
His energy is infectious and his work ethic admirable. He makes the best of every opportunity that comes his way. “It’s important to me to do more than I’m asked,” Wahl says. “We got on a plane for this. It’s two o'clock and we’re done? No. The sun is going to be up another six hours. Let’s shoot some video. You don’t need video? Well, you may. Let’s do it. Let’s make it!”
Annual reports are his bread and butter. He loves shooting them. Why? “Because I’m really good at it,” he says with self-assurance, not ego. His work for FedEx in Bali, and the young people on the streets of Bangkok for Johnson & Johnson, demonstrate his ability to formalize a situation through his focus on composition while still maintaining a gritty urban feel. “I sleep well at night with either content or commerce,” he says.
At home in Toronto, he works out of a neat space behind a sliding door with two iMacs and a rug large enough so Charlie can turn cartwheels. Down a staircase the basement boasts his archive, an area of metal file cabinets bursting with folders of negatives and proof sheets. Wahl is unapologetically old school when it comes to the fundamentals of photography. He prefers the permanence and tangibility of film over digital, or “digi” as he refers to it. The ritual of processing, selecting, waiting, appeals to him. It has an elegance that suits his approach. Despite his serious nature, he is a funny person, and one who is acutely aware of his surroundings, his eye cutting to the well-composed scene.
“I’ve worked a career to make images look like mine,” Wahl states. The tools he employs help in that consistent approach and look. “My favorite thing in the world to do is sit and edit contact sheets with a loupe and a grease pencil. Just magic!” he says with enthusiasm. “It feels like there’s something actually there. Not to say I haven’t fallen in love with megapixels, I probably shoot more digi than film now, but if I made a photograph of the president falling down the stairs, I surely would hope I shot it on film!” He has captured some controversial poses, including a duchess up-skirt moment, when William and Catherine toured Calgary, he’s partied with Peter Beard and made the queen smile.
On assignment for the Sunday Telegraph magazine to shoot Beard in Montauk, Wahl was supposed to be there for a day but was invited to stay. “When Peter Beard asks you to spend the night, you spend the night,” he relates. Then “the storm of the century” closed both JFK and Newark and one night turned into three. His stories about that shoot are off the record, but quite amusing.
“I don’t take pictures in the sense of [I] see something, bring the camera to my face and shoot it. I very much make pictures whether it’s event coverage or portraits. I have a strict idea of how I want to make a picture before I shoot it, and then I just execute,” he explains. “I would consider my pictures intimate in the sense there’s a strong camera to subject relationship that is very important to me.” Wahl doesn’t think his portraits are always flattering, although he feels they are revealing. “It may take time for people to like the picture I made of them, but I hope they will,” he says.
He is not the distant figure behind the lens or the shutter cable. “I’m an overly sensitive dude; I really like people,” he says. He tells of encountering inspiring subjects and having “to hug it out.” Of somewhat slight stature, Wahl is given to quick movements and speech. He laughs a lot and calls his colleagues his friends. He aims to make work an enjoyable experience for everyone and brings infectious enthusiasm to each job.
“You are making it or breaking it in the first 30 seconds of a portrait session,” he states. It’s inevitable that there are occasional misses. “Sometimes it may turn out for the better that you pooched it,” Wahl admits.
Each editorial job he asks: What would I do if this were the New York Times Magazine? What would I do differently? Wahl has yet to garner an assignment from the prestigious publication—he also hasn’t sent them his book yet—though it seems only a matter of time given the gimlet eye he has turned on news, politics and celebrity. At present Wahl considers the Art Gallery of Ontario’s recent acquisition of several photographs for their permanent collection the biggest thing of his career though that is bound to change, too. “I like having my pictures in museums,” he says.
“I do like thinking about the future and innovation and how pictures will be used in years to come,” Wahl says. “The still image is never going to go away.”
Stephen Doyle, of New York City-based Doyle Partners, sums up Wahl’s appeal: “Christopher Wahl not only brings his own dapper signature sense of style to every job we work on together, but importantly, a curiosity that fuels his photographs, and humanity and compassion that tempers them. Because our collaborations are mostly for our work with Johnson & Johnson, it’s always gratifying for me to see Chris exercise his ‘bedside manner,’ sometimes in languages unfamiliar to both of us. His demeanor is as courteous as his photographs are powerful. Never one to let an image get away, Chris is relentless in pursuing his art and pushing his boundaries. Honestly, I think that his hair is always standing up just from the sheer energy he gives off. It couldn’t relax even if it wanted to!” ca