By Mike Foster
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the photographs on the walls of the Carisse Studio Café & Photo Gallery in Ottawa speak encyclopedic volumes.
There’s that iconic black-and-white shot of the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau swimming in Harrington Lake, circa 1983. Another shows former prime minister Jean Chrétien playing the trombone next to actor and Blues Brother-in-chief Dan Aykroyd. And there’s current prime minister Stephen Harper sitting at a grand piano, jamming with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, in a 2009 shot.
The ongoing exhibit, entitled Heroes, Icons, Pop & Politics, featuring work since 1968, offers a mere snapshot, so to speak, of Jean-Marc Carisse’sodyssey. He has photographed every Canadian prime minister from John Diefenbaker to Harper and every U.S. president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama. His photographs include a veritable Who’s Who of actors, celebrities and musicians — Leonard Cohen, James Brown, Rudolf Nureyev, Tom Waits, Lady Gaga. In short, everyone from Alanis Morissette to ZZ Top.
However, Carisse is perhaps best known for the grainy, verité photographs he took as official photographer for three Canadian prime ministers, as documented in his book Privileged Access with Trudeau, Turner and Chrétien, published in 2000.
His exhibit, My Trudeau Years, which appeared at Library and Archives Canada from October 2002 to April 2003 after he donated 69,000 negatives to LAC, showcased his work, including some previously unpublished images. Another 400,000 negatives from his Chrétien collection are now kept at LAC’s preservation centre.
In an interview at his gallery on Elgin Street, Carisse explains how he scored a job with the Trudeau government in the mid-1970s, thanks to a portfolio of photographs he took with an Olympus 35mm camera as a visual arts student at the University of Ottawa.
“My first assignment I went right up to Trudeau’s office. I was told Mr. Trudeau would be meeting members of Parliament. They provided me with some cameras. A colleague told me that the flash was problematic and I just had to give it a little tap,” recalls Carisse. “At the time I felt I took my best photographs without a flash. That way the focus wouldn’t be on me. A flashbulb is distracting.”
His photographs of grassroots MPs with the PM ended up in riding offices all over the country. He also did portraits of Liberal caucus members, and was encouraged to continue with his fly-on-the-wall approach. Carisse says he preferred to wait until his subjects were in the right natural light before capturing their expressions and gestures.
“I just developed a system, playing with contrast and shadows and not distracting my subject. I didn’t want to interfere and ask them to stand in a certain place,” says Carisse. “I like to wait for the moment. There are so many factors — light, circumstances, composition — but you don’t want to jeopardize your own vantage point.”
Carisse says he partly developed that knack for being discreet snapping concert photographs during his pre-university years. After attending LaSalle Academy in Ottawa’s Lowertown and graduating from Eastview High School, he went to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. He saw bands like The Animals and The Lovin’ Spoonful and took photographs from the audience. He went everywhere with his camera, taking shots of the folk scene and street musicians. While watching musicians, he says he learned to listen with his eyes. He went to Memphis to try and take photos of Elvis Presley but only managed to photograph the musical gates of Graceland. He went to Vancouver and travelled down the west coast to Los Angeles. He went to San Francisco. He spent winters in Florida and did some travelling in Europe, too.
“I did a bit of the ‘Jack Kerouac,’ travelling around. One trip was in an old Volkswagen. The seat folded back and allowed me to sleep in the car,” says Carisse, adding that, in those days, photography was a hobby for him and a way to capture his experiences. He says he wasn’t one of the paparazzi trying to sell photos of famous people to magazines. He was always able to fund his travels by working as a cartographer and illustrator, he says.
“My motive wasn’t to sell. It was to witness the performance,” he says.
At the end of the 1960s Carisse says he decided it was time to “turn over a new leaf and get serious.” Encouraged by his cousin Raymond Leblanc (who recently became acting dean of uOttawa’s Faculty of Education), he enrolled at the University. Carisse says one professor, Alain Desvergnes, a celebrated photographer from France who had established uOttawa’s Department of Visual Arts in 1966, was a major influence on his photography. Another big influence was Yousuf Karsh, whom he would later also get to meet and photograph.
Some "tense moments"
Looking back over his time witnessing the inner workings in the corridors of power, Carisse says he did see some “tense moments” and overhear things that would have made great news scoops.
“It is fulfilling. You get a sneak peek,” says Carisse. He was there during some of Canada’s defining moments, such as the stormy 1980 constitutional conference and the repatriation of the Canadian constitution in 1982.
Things didn’t go exactly as planned, however, at the public signing ceremony in Ottawa marking the repatriation. Not one to follow the pack of photographers and media, Carisse had positioned himself by a curtain behind Trudeau.
“I may have overstepped my bounds but I thought it was a good vantage point,” recalls Carisse. “About a minute before the signing of the Charter I took a photo from behind Mr. Trudeau with the whole crowd in front of him and with Queen Elizabeth in attendance. Suddenly I felt an arm on me and a voice saying ‘You can’t stay here.’ I said, ‘I just need one more shot. I need less than a minute.’ I had my credentials. He wasn’t interested. He just wanted me to move at all costs. I had to make a decision about whether to follow him or raise a fuss. I knew if I raised a fuss I would cause a distraction and all the cameras would have been on what’s happening behind Mr. Trudeau next to the curtain.”
Carisse says he believes it was an RCMP officer who had moved him for security reasons or because other photographers had complained.
“It was embarrassing and my world fell apart. I believe I was the only photographer that didn’t capture the signing,” says Carisse.
However, he slowly made his way through the crowd, taking photos of veterans with their medals and other onlookers singing Oh Canada in the rain with the Peace Tower in the background. All was not lost. In 2002, his single image of Mr. Trudeau addressing the crowd became part of an exhibit marking the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To this day, the exhibit, entitled The Charter: It’s Ours. It’s Us is on view in St. Andrew’s Hallway, at the Department of Justice offices on Kent Street.
A fire in Winnipeg
Another moment that haunts Carisse is when he got caught in a fire on the ninth floor of a Holiday Inn in Winnipeg in 1980 during a national Liberal Party convention. He grabbed his camera bag and crawled through the smoke to get to the fire escape. Once out, he shot photographs of the scene.
“That haunted me. I would often wake up in a hotel room or at home years later, smelling smoke, and it was all in my mind,” says Carisse.
And in that camera bag were negatives, including the iconic shot of Trudeau boogying on the dance floor with an unknown woman.
Carisse has also shadowed Mother Teresa, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair. He has taken photos of Fidel Castro and had a photo exhibit in Havana.
And, in the summer of 2000, he took photographs of Trudeau at the Heenan Blaikie law office in Montreal, just weeks before he died. Clearly, Carisse is trusted as a safe set of eyes. In 2002, he was awarded a Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, recognizing his outstanding contribution to Canada.
You’d think that Carisse might be tempted to rest on his laurels after such a rich career. However, you can often find him at his studio on Elgin Street, when he’s not out on photo assignments adding yet more personalities to the Carisse collection. Each picture is an anecdote frozen in time.
Jean-Marc Carisse (BA ʼ74) poses at his gallery with just a few photographs from his incredibly prolific, 35-year career. Photo: Robert Lacombe.