Today our guest photographer is Lisa MacIntosh. She is a Toronto-based portrait photographer whom I was thrilled to meet in person in February when I was visiting family in Toronto. She has a number of splendid photo projects on the go, including her “Great Hall Series” – amazing portraits of musicians which she shoots in a historic music venue in Toronto. Lisa’s other projects include “Ask” – where she “asks and photographs women who are go-getters, lifter-uppers, superheroes”. Having long admired her work and having met her in person, I can confirm that those three adjectives perfectly describe Lisa herself.
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How did you get started as a photographer? Like so many of us, were you a hobbyist turned professional? Was it a slow evolution? What drew you to photography in the first place?
I was always drawn to photography. I remember loving my moms kodak film camera with the cube flashes. I loved how people posed, how their demeanor changed when a camera came out. I remember taking pictures of absolutely everything! My first polaroid came at 11 and a whole new and expensive love affair ensued.
My uncle was a professional photographer and crime reporter for The Toronto Sun while I was growing up. He gifted me his Canon AE1 when I was 17. I still have it and admit that I don’t use it as often as I wish I did.
I put down my camera for a very long time. After a life changing accident, my boyfriend (now husband) bought me my first digital camera for Christmas. I was like a kid in a candy store! I haven’t looked back. From a hobby I loved, to a career I love even more.
What inspires you?
People, music, giving hearts. I love listening to people’s stories and sharing mine. I want to know what makes people jump out of bed in the morning, what makes them smile, weep; what makes them want to be the best they can be.
Many of us worry over the occasional loss of photo mojo – how do you stay inspired and do you have a go to for kicking yourself out of the creative doldrums?
I have been there, more than once. I think the main thing for me is that I must have some type of project on the go, always. It’s part of what drives me. My brain is always thinking ‘what’s next?’. I can’t let myself wallow in that space for too long. My connection with people is what drives me. All I need to do is reach out to someone, throw around ideas, not beat myself up. Thanks goodness for the amazing community of friends I have. I have said it before, they are the best cheerleaders on the planet!
You have created some amazing photo projects. Can you talk about their importance for you? Was it a necessary part of building your business or just a way to continue your development as a photographer?
I really think that having a personal project grounds me. My life is busy and that’s been a constant. I know where I have to be every Tuesday! My first goal is to meet new people, expand the circle. I have been so fortunate to have met so many wonderful people while on this journey. And yes, it certainly has helped to build my business; I hadn’t planned on that happening, but I’m glad it has! Both of my current projects bring so much joy to my life.
How did your projects evolve?
ASK was my first project. I really wanted to focus on the women in my life and how important it was to share their power, strength and good heartedness. ASK began as a series called 12 Women. My goal was to photograph one woman per month over the course of a year. When I reached 15 women, I knew I had to change the name of the series. The name ASK came about when I was thinking about what my word to live by for the year was going to be. Previously, I had chosen Fearless. I really believe that ASK chose me. It was life changing. I hung on to that word for 4 years. This year I chose ‘pilot’. I’m driving this life right to where I want it!
The Great Hall Series is my pride and joy! I was in The Hall one Saturday for a photo shoot with a band. I stood in The Conversation Room and stared at a beautiful white space and the wheels started turning. Being that The Great Hall is a music venue, photographing musicians just made sense! I never imagined that it would grow into what it has today; almost 80 musicians later!
What is the Great Hall’s history and your connection to it?
I worked in The Great Hall a whole other lifetime ago. Fifteen years ago, I was a project manager. We ran a coffee shop on the ground floor of The Hall. Working with at-risk youth and doing evening street outreach – my life was very different than it is today. I fell in love with the space, the vibe, the people in Parkdale. My parents lived and met in Parkdale too. I love the connection.
The Great Hall has been undergoing some amazing renovations, restoring it to its original beauty. The Hall’s current focus on music was a relatively recent development, although it did host a concert by local musicians the very first night after it officially opened in 1890. Originally it was constructed to house Toronto’s West End YMCA. There are big plans for this beautiful space. How lucky am I that I get to be there every week, doing something that I love.
Can you talk a bit about how you approach your projects? Are they purely personal, or have they evolved into paying professional gigs? After you come up with the initial idea, what’s your first step?
To date, both of my projects have been purely personal. I’m not paid for ASK or The Great Hall Series. I do these for me. Someone once said ‘it’s too bad you aren’t paid for this’. My answer to this was: “There is no amount of money that could compensate me for the incredible experiences I’ve had in this room.” The friendships formed, the music heard, the stories shared. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Working on this series has definitely lead to other paid work. I have a great balance right now. Work that feeds my soul and work that pays the bills.
Once I have an idea, list making comes first. I’m staring at my desk as I write this and there are sheets of paper with names on them, little pieces of paper, gum wrappers with names written on the back. I’m always jotting things down. I’m also scouring social media to see who is heading into my hometown and when. If I’m not shooting, I’m searching!
I’ve been fortunate with The Great Hall, it all happens in one space and the owner and manager have been more than welcoming and encouraging. I decided with my ASK series that I really wanted the women I photograph to choose the space we shoot in, somewhere that speaks to them. I think it adds a personal element to the project.
How did you start asking people to take part in your project initially?
I started tweeting messages, sending FB requests and emails. People in general have been very receptive. The Great Hall Series now has legs of its own. Now people contact me and ask how they can take part! I’m really trying to stay true to how this has all unfolded though. I asked people that I really felt called to asking. Some I knew, some I didn’t. The reason I chose them always becomes clear at some point. We are all connected, that’s been proven through this over and over again.
When you started out, did you have your subjects/clients sign releases, or were the resulting photos for your own personal use?
I didn’t and now wish that I had. I really had no idea that The Great Hall Series especially would grow to the size it has. At the very beginning, I just wanted to take photos of some great musicians. Now I have big dreams for this series. I’m not ready to say them out loud yet, but that time will come! It’s all very exciting.
I think I’ve used the word fortunate a few times here. In closing, one other thing I would like to say is that I’m grateful. I never take who I know or what I do for granted. I’ve put a lot of hard work, a lot of leg work into getting to where I am today. Gratitude is high on my list.
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Our heartfelt thanks to Lisa joining us this week! Please check out her website and her inspiring projects.
All of Lisa’s photos used with her kind permission.
Pictured in the header photo is Sook-yin Lee.