Denise Grant: I have recorded the arts with photography for 40 years; from garage bands to Celine Dion, I’ve worked with artists of all stature and level of creativity. I’ve been fortunate enough to shoot the nominees for the Toronto Arts Foundation for the last few years and learned about other areas of the arts that I was unfamiliar with. I’ve also been lucky enough to be a Juno judge and be allowed to assess other artists’ album cover design—-all of it an education and an honour.
JS: What important beliefs do you express in or through your work?
DG: Important beliefs? That passion is beautiful. That creativity is admirable and should be documented. That photographing the essence of a person is so much more important than taking a picture of a beautiful face. That money means nothing. That having time to do what you want is power.
JS: Name two people, living or dead, whom you admire a great deal and tell us why for each one.
DG: I admire my father who died in 1998. He was a cinematographer who was a prisoner of war in the British army in WW11, captured in Tobruk; he spent 3 years in POW camps and after the war had to support a family which meant developing award winning photographs in my mum’s mixing bowls because there was no money for real equipment. He just got every job done at any cost.
I also admire Amy Dauphinee. She was my grade 5 teacher. I came from a very tough childhood with alcoholic parents; Mrs. Dauphinee seemed to intuit it and began taking me home to “work on a fudge recipe for the bake sale” or “to help with her workload” and she ‘accidentally’ brought two apples or two sandwiches a day to class so shared with me. I was the kid whose mum didn’t get around to making lunches. When I was 60 years old, I tried to find her son to thank him. Instead, I was put in touch with her. She answered the phone and I said “Hello, Mrs. Dauphinee, you might not remember me but my name is Denise”…I got no further. She replied “Denny? About time you called.” It had been about 50 years. I went through my whole story of how she’d affected my family life and given me hope and she replied “just today I asked God why he let me live so long and now I know. I had to wait for this call.”
This was a woman who didn’t only adopt hurt children, but also adopted two children in a 3rd world country and had her class do fund raising every single year so that those kids could go to school and have productive and happy lives.
JS: How have you changed since you began to do creative work?
DG: How have I changed? I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin (as happens to anyone who gets older) but also much less judgmental. I don’t have to like someone else’s art to value it; I don’t have to agree with another person’s opinion to give it credit. Taste and opinion are subjective. Some of what I feel are my strongest shots have gotten very little response from the public, but I recognize that taste is subjective. It’s a liberating epiphany.
JS: What are your biggest challenges as a creative person?
DG: Biggest challenges? A 70 hour work week. I have no idea how anybody else does it, but I work a 70 hour week. And before you tell me I’m a workaholic, ask yourself this: if someone said you could be paid to do your hobby for 70 hours a week, would you do it?
JS: Please describe at least one major turning point in your life.
DG: Major turning point. Having children. I had to decide whether I was going to give up photography or put my children into daycare and continue. I did neither. I started by shooting clients in my dining room while standing on a couch in my living room and having the baby on the floor. In time, I rented space and we cashed in pop bottles and took the subway to the studio every day; my kids played and grew up there while I worked. Aside from my daughter, Hayley, discovering the “your account is overdue, please remit payment” rubber stamp and then stamping all my papers, books and photos with it, the whole situation worked out beautifully.
JS: What are the hardest things for an outsider to understand about what you do?
DG: I don’t think outsiders see past pictures of beautiful people. If I had a nickel for everyone who looked at a gorgeous guy or girl in my shots and said “Boy, I wish I had your job,” I’d be driving a Ferrari. They simply don’t understand the work behind the scenes.
JS: How and why did you begin to do creative work in the first place?
DG: I began as a photographer when I failed at everything else. True story. I dropped out of school 3 months into grade 11, hitch-hiked across Canada and ended up living the hippie life in Vancouver in the 60s which was THE BEST. By the time I was 21, I’d held 23 jobs. I finally decided I’d have to teach myself a craft, so I bought a used set of the Time Life Photography books and taught myself photography. No looking back.
JS: What haven’t you attempted as yet that you would like to do and please tell us why?
DG: I’d like to write a humorous book about my life; I’ve been fortunate enough to have many adventures before and after having children—and have been able to see the humour in all of them.
JS: What are your most meaningful achievements?
DG: Most meaningful achievements? Hmmm…I’m going to assume you mean other than motherhood, which has been the highest peak I’ve ever reached. I think having my dad read Kim Campbell’s biography when she became Prime Minister, and him reading the part where she mentioned me by name…my dad faxed me a letter that I treasure to this day. He said I was his proudest accomplishment – and this was a man who’d never said “I love you.” (mind you, he might have sent the same fax to my brothers…)
JS: What advice would you give a young person who would like to do what you do?
DG: Advice to a young person: if you’re not willing to put your personal life second, don’t even attempt this leap. Working as an artist means sacrificing your personal life and compromising on familial commitments—- the idea of having a social life is alien to me.
JS: Of what value are critics?
DG: Critics are invaluable. Aside from making you aware of your weak points, they also serve as a way to reinforce your own feelings about your work. If I love something I’ve done and someone criticizes it, I simply assume they have different taste and I don’t take it personally. I was unable to detach ego when I was young, but as you get older, you recognize that critics can be a force that help you find your own line in the sand.
JS: What do you ask of your audience?
DG: I ask people to keep an open mind.
JS: What specifically would you change about what goes on in the world and the arts?
DG: There are a lot of things I’d change about what goes on in the world and the arts, but primarily..? I think we should stop judging people who make a living commercially as not being artists. It makes be crazy when people assume that you’re not an artist if you’re making a decent living. I would have thought that artists, of all people, would be less likely to judge—but that’s not necessarily true.
JS: If you could relive one experience from your creative life, what would it be and why would you do so?
DG: Relive one experience from my creative life? The first time I spoke to 400 high school students when I was lecturing for Kodak, I was so nervous that I didn’t focus. I’d like to redo that and really look at their faces and read their responses. I was told afterwards not to say that I’d dropped out in grade 11 because it was sending the wrong message, so in further lectures, I dropped that. I regret that decision. It’s important for kids to know that not everyone functions well in a structured educational system and you’re not a loser if you drop out. Some people dance to a different drummer.
JS: Tell us what it feels like to be a figure who is presented somehow in the media. What effect does this presence have on you?
DG: I’ve been on various panels and had my work featured in the press, and people assume I must be sociable and they want me to embrace that world. But I’m a total recluse.
JS: Name two places you would like to visit, one you haven’t been to and one to experience again and briefly tell us why.
DG: I would like to visit Scotland again because my people came from there centuries ago and it resonates with me. I would love to visit the Arctic, not only to photograph it but to talk to people who live there. I send food packages to a family in the Arctic and their priorities are so wonderfully simple and admirable to me.
JS: Please tell us about one or more projects that you have been working on, are preparing, or have recently completed. Why do they matter to you and why should they matter to us?
DG: I was working on a “nightmare series” which wasn’t embraced the way I’d hoped—people are repelled by scary images, but I love them. Something else I want to work on is a series based on literature. My first shoot will be Miss Havisham, from Great Expectations, by Dickens.
JS: Let’s talk about the state of the arts in today’s society, including the forms in which you work. What specifically gives you hope and what specifically do you find depressing?
DG: I think things are in a good place in Canada; several agencies funding grants, social media being a place to promote art at no cost. So, what do I find depressing? Nothing. I’m a Pollyanna. There’s always a glad thought if you look hard enough.
20. Finally, what do you yourself find to be the most intriguing and/or surprising thing about you?
20.) Most interesting or surprising thing about me? I think the fact that I lived in a dysfunctional household, led a (very) wild youth and then settled down to raise 3 children and maintain a happy 37 year marriage is surprising. I have implemented all the traditions that my family never had. I’ve raised children in a gender unbiased household and have nurtured all of them. I’ve taught them all to be readers, have wonderful table manners and respect people from any and all walks of life. Who would’ve thought it? Not me.