Remarks by Al Gilbert, C .M., F.R.P.S.
Arts and Letters Club of Toronto
Members’ Dinner
September 16th, 2010


First, I want to thank the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto for the opportunity to continue sharing my images and their stories with you tonight. And to my brother Jack for the introduction goes my heartfelt thanks.

I want to tell you about the encounters I have had with some famous people over the years. Because in portrait photography everything depends on the relationship between the photographer and the subject.

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It may be a relationship that has evolved over many years. In 1950 this young man from Montreal got into my brother-in-law’s taxi at Union Station and came to my studio wanting his photograph for a job application, in a hurry! He waited patiently, as in those days it took about three hours to shoot, print, dry and crop a black and white picture. He asked, as a favour, if he could have a week to pay the $2 dollar bill, I agreed, and he paid later as promised.

Five years later he called. “You may remember me, you did my photo and you trusted me for the $2 dollars. Well now I am playing the piano for a living and I would like to make an appointment to come in for some pictures. My name Is Oscar Peterson.”

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For the next forty years I chronicled the famous jazz pianist’s life in portraits. Whenever I got a new camera, Oscar would always agree to be my model. This black and white image was acclaimed by Hasselblad and chosen for their international poster. More recently, I donated nine different black and white portraits to the Oscar Peterson Public School in Mississauga. Framed images of Oscar are displayed throughout this junior school where all the kids are taught to play a musical instrument, either keyboard, wind, or strings. He would have loved to see them all playing together.

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On the other hand, it may be a relationship that I have to establish instantly and maintain for the forty-five minutes or so it takes to light and pose my subject. When I photographed the 12th Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada in 2006 I had never met him before. Archbishop Andrew Hutchison was a religious leader of some importance, and with 30 Canadian Bishops reporting to him I expected him to be very grave and imposing.

We had chosen St James Cathedral for the location and arranged to meet his Grace at the appointed time in the nave of the church. I had asked him to wear his most magnificent vestments. He arrived instead in clerical dress, carrying his own garment bags and wearing an engaging smile. I explained what we had in mind for the shoot and while he donned the vestments, we fine-tuned the lighting. Then, the critical moment, as he came down the aisle to assume the pose, bearing all the authority of his office, I said, “Now remember, I’m the boss!” He reacted with a smile and a chuckle, and then we went to work together to make this great image!

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Michael Lee Chin, the investor and donor of the ROM Crystal, was another instant relationship I had to create, this time at his sprawling headquarters in Burlington. We had done the usual on-line research so I was prepared with the typical background information you can find out about people on the web. But Lee Chin surprised me when he launched into a conversation about cameras. It turned out he was an expert amateur and even knew about the new features on my digital camera. After that it was easy to develop a cooperative relationship for the sitting and you can see the results in the portrait. He is at ease.

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It wasn’t easy to get to see the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in 1979. Even though I was doing Bora Laskin’s portrait for the National Archives, the long hours he devoted to the law left little time for a portrait sitting. As luck would have it, he remembered me from our conversations about the photographs in my store-front window. He lived nearby and would pause to talk about the ever-changing display. One time he mentioned shopping for pickled smoke salmon at the nearby deli and how much he loved that salmon.

So, in this case I appealed to Justice Laskin’s Toronto roots, got an appointment, and presented him with a jar of the salmon when I arrived at his Ottawa chambers. He was delighted and showed his appreciation by giving me a full hour of his time. With no air conditioning in the Supreme Court, Justice Laskin patiently sweltered under his judicial robes and ermine collar without complaint allowing me to compose and capture several memorable images.

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When Tony and Elizabeth Comper were chosen for a cover story by Lifestyles Magazine, I was assigned the role of photographer. As Chief Executive Officer of the Bank of Montreal, Tony Comper had organized 20 non-Jewish business leaders to launch a new educational initiative called FAST, Fighting Anti-semitism together. I went to his office at King and Bay expecting a 45 minute sitting but got only 15 minutes because they were delayed.

Thanks to good planning on our part and this charming couple’s easy composure, I was able to complete the assignment with wonderful results.

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The Professional Photographers of America have always been leaders in professional development and as a Fellow of this organization I have led many workshops there. In 1997 I arranged to photograph Senator Joseph Biden in his Capitol Hill office. Politicians are among the most photographed people in the world so I expected Senator Biden would be comfortable posing for me. He was, and with an audience of ten eager photographers looking on, he gave me every pose and expression I asked for. Indeed, the Globe and Mail columnist R.M. Vaughan said recently, “Al Gilbert is the only photographer on EARTH to have captured Joe Biden with his mouth closed”.

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I enjoyed photographing the classical guitarist, Liona Boyd, in the early years of her remarkable career. In those days she was a brilliant new recording artist, seen frequently in the company of Pierre Trudeau.

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Just recently I did two studio sittings with Liona and the experience was wonderful, the results splendid. What struck me about the situation was how enduring some of these relationships can be. That after all the years, Liona sought me out again to capture the essence of her personality for the entire world to see. She even brought her own background music, the tracks from a new album she was working on, for atmosphere. As we worked together for several hours to create the elusive image, Liona patiently followed every cue, every gesture. You can see the result that flows from relationship in this striking image.

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The Right Honourable John Turner was another agreeable assignment for the National Gallery consisting of multiple sittings and an official portrait. I wanted to get him alone in the studio where I was in control. He came at the appointed time and for the next hour or so I worked steadily to find the kind of revealing facial expression I wanted. At last, near the end of the shoot, click and I had him. This was Canada’s 17th Prime Minister! Thousands of prints of this iconic image came to be distributed to people across the country and all over the world.

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Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was a different story. He had no sooner arrived in Toronto when Rabbi Stewart Rosenberg called me, “Get your camera and get down to the Royal York”!

I dropped everything, loaded the car with lighting equipment and cameras and rushed to the hotel. We gradually made our way through the layers of security to the room where he was meeting with prominent religious leaders. “I am here to take your photograph“, I said. “How many do you want”? asked Ben Gurion. “I would like to take four”. His wife, who was with him at the meeting intervened, “Leave the old man alone, he’s tired. With that he said “You wanted four, you can take five”.

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Author, playwright, and professor - Robertson Davies was a rather formal figure, sure of himself and careful about his appearance. The location was the Master’s Study at Massey College – it was clearly his domain. After going through what I felt were some rather stiff poses, I said we would take a break. While he was relaxing between poses, stretched out in his favorite chair, I was able to get the revealing portrait you see here. Notice his shiny shoes.

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I had fun with Group of Seven artist A.J Casson who was very at home and animated in his Toronto studio. I think he was just as curious about me as I was about him. You can see him sizing me up, arm thrust forward, brush in hand, as if I was the subject, not the other way around. I love the twinkle in his eyes.


Now to conclude, may I thank you all for your kind attention. As a parting gift I am pleased to donate a copy of the Davies and Casson portraits to the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, they being exemplary men of letters and the arts. These portraits are from the holdings of the Ontario Jewish Archives where, thanks to the Director Dr. Ellen Scheinberg, all my best work is being carefully preserved. You may refer to the OJA website (click here) and our website at Gilbert Studio for more information.