During the early 1980s, Sandi Wall had a job with a Canadian photography studio, where she handled everything from wardrobes and props, to casting and billing. So, too, did she find herself frequently clearing cigarette butts and banana peels off her desk in the morning. An astute businessperson with an organized mind, Wall wasn’t exactly enthralled with all the creative disarray. But as the kind of work environment on which entrepreneurial dreams are built, it did sow the seeds for the future.
“I had this vision of a big, gleaming white studio,” she says. “It would be this dream situation, where I would manage a group of photographers, rather than just doing their locations or props. They could come, they could grow—and they could do their craft without having to worry about day-to-day operations.”
In order to make the idea work, Wall knew she’d need a photographer partner, someone who could be a creative liaison to the other photographers while she focused on the business. Enter George Simhoni, whom Wall met when her boss invited him to become his associate. Although Simhoni declined the offer, Wall had a hunch he might see value in her idea. She was right. In 1985, Wall and Simhoni, with a third partner who left shortly thereafter, founded Toronto’s Westside Studio.
Today, a force in Canadian advertising, Westside houses thirteen of Canada’s finest photographers. Operating their own individual companies under the Westside umbrella, they share six studios, two full-time agents and five producers in 14,000, gleaming-white square feet. In exchange for a percentage of the photographers’ fees, Westside manages the business matters artists tend to loathe—unsavory details like chasing payments and filling out government forms—freeing them up to focus on the work.
“When we started this studio, it was really important to me that it be a place where we learn from each other,” says Simhoni, who considers himself a photographer first, Westside’s founding partner second. “That’s a big thing here. When I was working in a studio on my own, not only did I have to answer the phones in the middle of a food shot, but being in a bubble worked against my creativity. At Westside, you’re always around people—and the doors of the studios are open, which is very good for our learning curve.”
The door to Matt Barnes’s office—curtain of beads though it may be—is certainly always open. The youngest Westside photographer at age 25, Barnes converted his small office into a well-stocked Tiki Bar (really) shortly after he became an associate. But the open-door policy extends beyond the party spaces. People and dogs (Gracie and C.J.) wander into the studios during shoots—to see how things are progressing and even, it’s true, make technical and creative suggestions. It’s a mistake to think that learning happens only when wizened elder photographers pass their wisdom down to the juniors. Influence here crosses generational lines. “I learn more from the younger photographers than I do shooters my own age,” says photographer Chris Gordaneer, who grew up professionally at the studio. “It’s their enthusiasm. The way they live and breathe and eat photography—it reminds me of when I was younger.”
In the early 1990s, Gordaneer visited Westside as a student on a week-long, college internship. He never left, working instead as an assistant for several years before joining as an associate. In late 2007, Wall and Simhoni named Gordaneer a partner. In addition to his global aspirations for the studio, Gordaneer is taking stock of an industry that’s growing younger by the day—a trend Wall and Simhoni are tracking, too. Recently, Wall created the position for the newest photographers’ rep Shelley Hayes—a twenty-something in a band who appeals to the ever-younger base of Torontonian art directors.
Yet for all the resources and talent, Westside simply would not work if it were filled with big egos. In part, that stems from the studio’s infectiously ego-free leadership. When asked to describe Simhoni, people tilt their heads and wonder out loud—sincerely—if the man has any ego at all. In the early days, Wall once overheard a telephone conversation between a client and Simhoni, who said he was so certain that a young photographer under consideration could do the job that he’d stake his career on it.
“I call him Papa Westside,” says Westside photographers’ agent Lisa Bonnici, who joined the company in 1999. “When a job comes in, a photographer can always go to George and say, ‘I’ve got this job. How would you approach this?’ And George will impart his knowledge so openly. That’s rare among photographers—but then, this environment is like that.”
In fact, Wall and Simhoni have deliberately assembled a group of photographers whose success has not rendered them incapable of playing nice. Case in point: Westside’s associate photographers, including Simhoni, frequently bid against each other on the same jobs, a procedure they accept with frank professionalism. “We almost laugh about it,” says Westside photographer Andric. “It helps everyone understand that in this business, 30 percent [of winning assignments] has to do with your portfolio, 30 percent your personality and the other 40 percent is very difficult or impossible to quantify.”
That Westside’s well-oiled production machine backs every job, clearly has something to do with it, too, giving Westside photographers—particularly the young ones, who might otherwise be seen as risky hires—a competitive advantage. “The biggest thing about working with Westside is that you get peace of mind,” says Israel Diaz, SVP, managing partner and creative director, Leo Burnett, Toronto. “The production is seamless, which is invaluable. Because if you do decide to work with someone who doesn’t have that team to make sure nothing gets missed, you can get into situations where you know it could have been better. And that can be heartbreaking.”
It stands to reason that, when some of the most celebrated photographers in Canada coalesce under one well-appointed roof, a fair share of professional jealousy from outside the studio would crop up. One of the studio’s nicknames is the Westside Mafia. Overall, however, industry envy seems precluded by respectful awe.
“Westside has always been a significant presence in Canadian commercial photography,” remembers Westside photographer Derek Shapton. “It always seemed like a mysterious, legendary place, spoken about in the same way that you might speak about ufos or a lost civilization. Is it real? How do they do things over there?”
From a business standpoint, Westside is one of those brilliantly straightforward, seemingly replicable models you’d expect to see in every media hub. But the studio’s ideals are not so easy to duplicate. To be sure, there are other associateships out there. A photographer might bring on another shooter to share expenses or boost profitability, but in that scenario, the associate will likely always be number two.
“I think the reason Westside works,” says Simhoni, “is because Sandi and I understand that the photographers are our clients, not employees. As a result, we look after all their needs. That’s just good business sense. If the photographers are happy, and if they can concentrate on their craft, they’re better for it, and in the long-term, Westside is better for it, too.”
Born: Yugoslavia, resided in Italy.
Westside Associate Since: 2002.
Clients Include: AT&T, Pirelli, Palm, Corona, Panasonic.
Much of Andric’s work depicts a world he describes as possible but improbable—imagery that leaves it up to viewers to complete. “In advertising, we’re often led to oversimplify,” he says. “But if, while operating within straightforward messages, we introduce an element that takes people somewhere else, people will stop and explore that image. They’ll stay with it longer.”
Andric, one of Lürzer’s International Archive’s “200 Best Ad Photographers Worldwide,” 2006–2007, likens that quality of his work to a Japanese haiku. “In a haiku,” he explains, “the first few lines describe one element. But the final line often takes your attention in a totally different direction. That sudden shift in such a concise form of poetry really stops you in your tracks. And I think that visually, absolutely the same thing can be done.”
Born: Dorset, England, moved to Canada at age nine.
Westside Associate Since: 2006.
Clients Include: Playboy, Universal, URB, Skittles, mini.
One of Barnes’s primary disappointments in life is that he’ll never have the chance to photograph such personal heroes as Elvis, James Brown and Joe Strummer. “They would have been really cool to meet and work with,” says Barnes, who describes the whole matter as “a hard thing to deal with.” Still, at age 25, he has shot the likes of David Cronenberg, John Legend and Snoop Dogg.
“Stuff seems to be going on a cool path at the moment,” understates the self-described packrat—whose collections include hot rod magazines, toys, old nudie cards and Vargas pinups. Currently, Barnes is on a Helmut Newton kick. “He seems like such a classy cat with a bit of a dark side. I dig that. I’d like people to think the same of me.”
Born: Edmonton, Alberta, raised in London, Ontario.
Westside Associate Since: 1991.
Clients Include: Knorr, Stella Artois, Molson, Sony, Toyota, FedEx.
Campbell’s admiration for Irving Penn manifests itself in the sculptural, deceptively simple nature of his still-life photography. “Penn found a new way to look at both objects and people,” says Campbell, who searches for the same in his own work. In his campaign for Knorr, one image features a cluster of silver spoons at the base of a tree. The spoons appear to be mushrooms, growing in the forest moss.
Known for his meticulous attention to detail, Campbell can be found at all hours in a dark office, studying proofs under a color-corrected light-box, but at the shoot, things unfold organically. “I love to approach it with a zen-like attitude,” he says. “All the pre-production is in place, but I don’t lock myself into a preconceived notion of exactly how the final image will appear.”
Born: Welland, Ontario.Westside Associate
Since: 1997. Went on his own in 1999, and returned in 2003.
Clients Include: Sony, Microsoft, Chrysler, Hewlett-Packard, Home Depot.
Film has long been Feiler’s motivator and inspiration. “I’ve always been driven by the desire to tell stories,” he says. “Stories that I saw on the screen—Bergman, Hitchcock and Antonioni—were my primary inspirations, but there are so many more.”
Most recently, in fact, he’s begun directing—a move that stems from his efforts to continually evolve. Beginning his career with still-life photography, Feiler moved into technique-driven experiments and later, a snapshot aesthetic, which he recently left behind for a more narrative approach. “The best advice I ever got was from designer Carmen Dunjko, who told me to just shoot,” says Feiler. “Stop thinking about how and just do.”
Born: Mississauga, Ontario.
Westside Associate Since: 1995.
Clients Include: Subaru, Pendleton Woolen Mills, Nike, Guinness, GMC.
“I’m better off thinking on my feet than trying to plan an entire shoot,” says Gordaneer, Westside photographer and partner. “I don’t believe you can totally plan a shoot—especially in the work I do, where there’s a lot of emotion and action.” It’s a somewhat minimizing statement because there’s “emotion and action,” and then there are stampeding animals, such as the eleven bulls he recently photographed as they charged past him for a Ford ad. (Other stampedes include rhinos for Guinness and horses for Pendleton.)
Gordaneer, whose numerous awards include One Show Gold, admires photojournalists like Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke-White for their capacity to capture an ultimate moment, but he gets most of his energy from his family. “I’ll show my kids images that I’m really proud of, and they’ll sort of shrug and say mm-hmm, and then walk away. It keeps me grounded—and teaches me about innocence and honesty.”
Born: Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, raised in Kitchener, Ontario.
Westside Associate Since: 1997.
Clients Include: Toyota, American Express, Mattel Hot Wheels, Carling Beer.
“I love what I do and I want that to show in my work,” says Hoedl, who started at Westside as an assistant and producer before joining as an associate. He’s drawn to the work of Elliot Erwitt and Irving Penn, but the most direct influence comes from two photographers he’s worked with closely: Philip Gallard, whose process Hoedl describes as precise; and George Simhoni, whose work ethic, he says, is beyond reproach.
“Philip taught me to think big,” says Hoedl, “and George showed me how much work it takes to get there.” A perfectionist himself, who approaches every job with a producer’s devotion to detail, Hoedl’s rich imagery has garnered One Show Gold and several Cannes Silver, among other honors.
Born: London, England.
Westside Associate Since: 1998.
Clients Include: TAXI Advertising and Design, Nesnadny Schwartz, VSA Partners, National Geographic.
London-born Monk was lured into photography, at least in part, by the work of the swinging London photographers. Those icons of 1960s cool—led by the King of 1960s cool David Bailey—were just slightly before Monk’s time. “They presented the world of photography as such a glamorous field,” he says. “I was seduced.”
There was something else, too: Photography, Monk says, seemed to be a way to see the world beyond his immediate existence. “Not just in the sense of traveling but by producing an image that had some lasting quality,” he explains. “I also felt the need to have the experience myself, in person and in the flesh.” For Monk—who admires the work of photojournalists like Sebastião Salgado and Don McCullin—that’s as important as the end image.
Born: Ajax, Ontario.
Westside Associate Since: 2007.
Clients Include: Nike, Showcase, UNICEF, Special Olympics, MINI Cooper.
Occasionally, when Sandy Pereira is stressing over a shoot, she’ll think of the documentary, War Photographer, in which James Nachtwey calmly navigates through war zones. “He believes in what he’s shooting,” she says, “and he wants to educate and inform his audience.” She applied that line of reasoning during a documentary assignment for client Right To Play, shot in Tanzanian refugee camps. “I overcame the desire to physically help when I realized that documenting the situation was my way of helping.”
The newest addition to Westside, Pereira is looking forward to busting through gender stereotypes: “I want to be a female photographer who doesn’t get treated like a ‘female’ photographer. I just don’t want to be typecast as a photographer who shoots kids and kittens.”
Born: Seoul, South Korea, moved to Toronto at age eighteen.
Westside Associate Since: 2005.
Clients Include: FedEx, Labatt, Saturn, Molson, BIC.
One of the youngest associate photographers at Westside, Shanghoon—who earned a degree in creative writing as well as photography—has a reputation for diving headlong into new challenges. He holds photographers Kenji Toma and Kenji Aoki in high esteem for their tendency to “explore new ways of seeing,” he says. “They’ve taught me to do the same in my own way.” In fact, based on a piece of advice from Aoki himself, Shanghoon has come to view his camera as a tool analogous to a pencil and light as his eraser. “I get rid of things that I don’t need,” says Shanghoon, whose signature style is characterized by dark backgrounds and dramatic highlights, as well as “a focus on what I like.”
Born: Toronto, Ontario.
Westside Associate Since: 2003.
Clients Include: Yellow Pages, Sierra Wireless, Blue Cross/Excellus, Vonage, Tylenol.
In his previous life, Shapton tried his hand at illustration. “But everything took too long and paid very poorly,” he says. “I decided pretty quickly to concentrate on photography—and I’m really glad I did.” So are his clients and crew. His sets are unlike the vast majority of workplaces in the world: They’re calm, as is Shapton. He stays that way in the eye of the on-set storm, a habit he learned early on, while assisting photographer Chris Nicholls.
He says that Nicholls also taught him the importance of developing skills that translate from one genre to another. As a result, Shapton’s true-to-life imagery and intimate portraiture can be seen in magazines like Fast Company and Vogue, in addition to his award-winning advertising.
Born: Israel, moved to Toronto at age ten.
Clients Include: Sony, Visa, Lexus, Motorola.
When reflecting on his career, Simhoni notes that his smartest decision as a photographer has been to stick to his sensibilities. “My intention has always been true to my path,” says the founding partner of Westside, who has never shifted in style according to photographic trends, even as he’s moved fluently from between genres. His enduring commitment to authenticity hasn’t gone unnoticed: In 2005, The Advertising & Design Club of Canada granted Simhoni its Les Usherwood Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the craft and community. “As a person,” Simhoni adds, “my biggest sense of achievement—and what I am most proud of—is the number of photographers that I’ve influenced, mentored and helped set on track.”
Born: Calgary, Alberta.
Westside Associate Since: 2007.
Clients Include: Coke, Virgin Mobile, XM Radio, Hewlett-Packard, TBS, Sony.
“I’m always teetering on the edge of fine art and commercial photography,” says Stang. In his work, the laws of physics—of light and shadow—don’t apply so strictly as they do in bland reality. “When I’m given an assignment, it swims around in my head for a while, and the thing that pops out is part of a puzzle. Then I pull pieces from everyone and everywhere.”
Stang’s compositions are moodier than his upbeat disposition. In his pre-Westside days, Stang assisted photographer Dan Winters, who “made me realize that you don’t have to be an arrogant jerk to be a good photographer,” he says. “Early in my career, I was extremely fortunate to be surrounded by positive people. I’ve learned that if you’re nice to people, they’ll respond with enthusiasm.”
Born: Toronto, Ontario.
Westside Associate Since: 2003.
Clients Include: Infiniti, Bell, Coca-Cola, Panasonic, Labatt.
Weeks’s still-life and humor-based, situational photography has been called everything from funny to elegant. “I like to think of my style as whatever’s needed for the job,” says Weeks, whose approach—and preference—is highly collaborative. Once he understands his clients’ needs, Weeks considers his own vision, “and then I find a way to marry the two, incorporating the best of both worlds.”
He wouldn’t have it any other way. “Figuring out a way to meet everyone’s needs—given all the various circumstances involved in advertising—is what keeps it interesting.” According to Weeks, so do imperfections: “I’m hugely not a fan of perfection,” he says. “It’s the happy accidents and quirks that give a photo life.” ca