An Interview with the Composer of Canada’s Reputation, Political Photojournalist Jean-Marc Carisse

I meet Jean-Marc Carisse in front of the Chapters on Rideau Street. We walk together to the corner of Slater and Elgin to wait for a bus to his home. His car, a 1990 Mercedes, is in the shop. On the way, Jean-Marc shares that he is a little sore from playing hockey the night before. He was regularly called upon to fill in on a longtime friend’s all-ages team. (At the time of publishing, Carisse has stopped weekly play to recover from compounding knee and lower back issues).

Carisse in his home watched over by some of his most famous portraits (2018)

One day in the spring I wandered into Carisse Studio Café & Photography Gallery with friend and Vulgaris editor James Lewicki. Lining the walls were portraits and action shots of every celebrity, politician, and public figure worth mentioning from the past 30 years, Canadian and foreign. Carisse happened to be in that day; while his work adorned the walls, Patricia Carisse, his wife, created and managed the business. We chatted about cameras while Jean-Marc toured us around a few of his favourite shots on display, regaling us with tales of their capture.

Carisse in his basement studio (2018)

You can’t visit Carisse Studio Café & Photography Gallery today. On May 25th, Patricia closed the doors. The couple held stressful memories from extensive street remodeling in front of a previous location on Sussex Drive. (For Ottawa natives, the trauma refers to street and sewer renovations in front of the United States embassy). That location, 495 Sussex Drive, passed to the Gordon Harrison Canadian Landscape Gallery, so it was not a total loss for public art spaces (though Gordon himself has since moved on). The Carisses rued having to weather the dust, noise, and drop in foot traffic that are sure to accompany the Elgin Street renewal project which started in the spring and will continue through to autumn 2020.

Now, at their home, grand shots of Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Leonard Cohen, Jean Chrétien, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Dalai Lama, and Pope John Paul II look down on the two of us at the Carisse dining room table. Over a cup of French-pressed coffee, the venerable photographer shares the stories that made himself, and made his name.

Jean-Marc Carisse has many stories of being in extraordinary places over the course of his long career. If one had to identify a single piece of advice, it would seem to be: Be there. Be there for the ceremonies. Be there for the concerts. Be there for the parades, the games, the beautiful mornings and the overcast afternoons. Politicians, royalty, musicians, religious figures, athletes, movie stars, foreign dignitaries, and intimate neighbours will grace your camera in response.

Carisse was there. He was there in his teens, when he hitchhiked from his family home in Ottawa to New York for a weekend concert at the Paramount theatre. Sometimes he and friends would sleep in his father’s 1957 Chevy in a mall parking lot. His mother advised him to always bring a camera when he left Ottawa, so he would lug a brownie-type with him. He was there in Los Angeles in 1967, when he crossed paths with Sal Mineo at a gas station before seeing Neil Diamond at the Hollywood Bowl. And he was there in New York, Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans in ‘68. He was even there in the Fort Lauderdale jail, for driving with an expired license during a winter spent in Miami.

Rio couple on beach (1986)

Initially, Carisse paid for these travels with contract work as a cartographic draftsman and supply teacher. He always had a talent for drawing. In 1968, he moved to Montreal to attend École des Beaux Arts. He picked up work as a spare customs checker at the harbor. It was seedy, and he quit when a fellow labourer was pushed down the hatch of a ship. The fall killed him. One place he was not were the race riots that thundered in the United States around that time. Carisse admits to being overly concerned with youthful entertainment, and still regrets not having captured that chapter of history.

To do the same thing today – to make a living bouncing between odd jobs while travelling and enjoying your youth and your hobby, often in a foreign country – seems like a pipe dream. Carisse had no plan at that time to make photography his career, so he did not justify his travels as building a portfolio. That was merely a fortunate side effect. Eventually, Carisse chose to settle down a little and move back home. He enrolled in the visual arts program at the University of Ottawa.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin reads a document in her office (2017)

Upon graduation in the early 1970s, Carisse applied for a research position in then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s National Liberal Caucus. Noting an interest in photography on his résumé, the hiring manager asked Carisse to bring in a portfolio. What he delivered were action shots of celebrities, street photography, and some campus theatre shots, each powerfully expressive of the subjects’ characters. He was soon hired as the official photographer for the National Liberal Caucus, which included the Prime Minister.

This employment marks the beginning of the most important period of Carisse’s life. He served as official photographer to three successive Liberal prime ministers – P. E. Trudeau, John Turner, and Jean Chrétien. He gained privileged access to the personal lives and official conflicts of three distinct eras of Canadian leadership at a time when our influence on foreign affairs was, arguably, at its height. Carisse had other responsibilities. His camera was turned to ministers, conventions, fundraisers, and the like, but it is according to these men’s governments, and their tenures as Leaders of the Opposition, that Carisse categorizes his career.

Former PM Jean Chrétien examines sculpture by Joe Fafard (2008)

There is perhaps a correlation between Carisse’s hiring and Canada’s rising influence on the world stage at that time, not to mention Trudeaumania. On his first day, he was asked to photograph a meeting between Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet. He was provided with a camera the office had laying around. Something about it was broken; he cannot quite remember whether it was the flash or shutter timer. Before this, the PMO simply used photographs taken by the press, specifically the Capital Press’s Duncan Cameron. Photojournalists were naturally given special privileges and opportunities to attend formal events, but their eyes were trained toward documentation. As an employee of the Liberal caucus, and not the civil service or the fourth estate, Carisse shed a warm light upon the characters of the country’s leaders. Carisse’s own photographic mark, that ability to project the action forward and capture the perfect moment for expression, is evident in some of his most famous photos from this time, like this one from the Prime Minister’s residence on Lake Harrington in Gatineau Park.

PM Trudeau / Lake Harrington, QUEBEC (1983)

Few who struck up a conversation with the resident photographer of Carisse Studio Café & Photography Gallery could have gotten away without hearing one of many instances of friendly competition between Prime Minister Chrétien and President Bill Clinton. On a scheduled break between deliberations at the 1998 G8 summit in Birmingham, England, the two world leaders went for a walk around the grounds. As their security details looked for them (themselves unable to find the steps back up onto the property), they chose to simply climb the wall.

US President Bill Clinton and PM Jean Chrétien climb wall during G8 escape (1998)

During this time, Carisse continued to shoot outside of his official responsibilities, and sometimes leveraged his position to get access to something he might have attended anyway – but this time with the connections born from being in the retinue of the Prime Minister of Canada. As a born and raised Catholic, Carisse treasures his five opportunities to photograph Pope John Paul II: 1984, 1994, 1996, 1998, and 2002. He also sat next to Mother Teresa in 1988 and photographed her visit to Ottawa over a two day period.

Mother Teresa and patient Father Fortin (1988)

Another famous shot that required a great photojournalist’s tenacity is this photo of David Bowie from 1987. Arriving late to the concert, on break from shooting a wedding, Carisse slipped through the entrance of an emergency tent. He found himself backstage with Peter Frampton who was tuning his guitar. Carisse circled the stage to the front of the crowd. Bowie pointed directly at his Leica, and so he was frozen in time, commanding and visionary.

David Bowie (1987)

In the summer of 2000, having learned of P. E. Trudeau’s ailing health, Carisse asked the former prime minister’s assistant if he could visit him in the new location of the Heenan Blaikie law offices in Montreal where Trudeau spent the final years of his career. The reply was a warm welcome and approval of Carisse’s request to bring a camera. While in office, Trudeau and Carisse both favoured ostensibly-candid shots, even if they required something of a casually-affected pose should the PM catch his photographer out of the corner of his eye. In this case, like a monarch commissioning a final portrait, Trudeau chose his own poses. The results were statuesque.

Upon Trudeau’s death just eight weeks later, Carisse sensed the end of an era. He stepped away from his official duties. It was a poetic and practical choice. Carisse took a wonderful shot of Trudeau’s state funeral, which took place at the Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal. It depicts close friends and family, and visiting dignitaries (President Castro, President Carter, the Aga Khan) with whom the former head of government had a close relationship.

Justin Trudeau bids farewell to his father as mother Margaret Trudeau, the Aga Khan, and Fidel Castro look on (2000)

That is not to say Carisse retired his shutter finger forever. He still works as a photographer, mostly covering special events and weddings. You can commission a portrait from him, which could very well be taken in the basement studio where we snacked on chocolate truffles. Carisse still has the occasional pleasure of photographing Pierre Elliott’s familial and state successor, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Then there are the persistent requests for photo exhibits, books, and keynote speeches to keep him busy.

Russian guard on Red Square, MOSCOW (1990s)

Nor has Carisse entirely retired from photojournalism. Jean-Marc was not about to reproduce his regret of not viewing first-hand the summer of ’67. This may be what led him to decide at the last minute to travel to Washington, D.C. in January 2009 for President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Stationed on the rooftop of the Canadian embassy across from the National Mall, Carisse used a telephoto lens to capture the ceremony at the Capitol building for himself.

Nursing the dregs of our coffee, Jean-Marc began to reveal some of his philosophy about photography. A commercial artist by trade, his technical expertise shines through every bit of his work. Even as I took his portrait to use in conjunction with this piece, Carisse couldn’t help but direct my use of lighting and composition, and delighted in posing in various configurations. But his commercial photography commands respect for his ability to capture a person’s essence in movement.

Justin Trudeau and son Xavier, following MP swearing-in ceremony (2008)

In this particular photo, Carisse tells me about a woman just out of frame to the bottom right, admiring a shot of the Justin Trudeau holding his son aloft through the screen of her DSLR. Just behind her, Carisse watched the action unfold, and captures the perfect moment on film, untethered by the draw to reflect.

Jean-Marc Carisse was raised on film. He understands the importance of being selective, of waiting for that slight shift of light or angle of background to effect the perfectly descriptive moment. Rarely does he shoot more than a couple frames of a given scene. Instead, he relies on a gut instinct that leveraged connections and social engineering will produce an image worthy of his portfolio. It usually does.

The Beauty and the Beast, RIO DE JANEIRO (1986)

As for etiquette, Carisse is of two minds. His street photography side maintains that if a person is in public, they may be photographed. However, his career groomed him to be cautious of relying too heavily on this justification. It may be wise to ask permission. First, you may save the subject embarrassment if they happen to be in a compromising position. (Nevertheless, Carisse admits that it is a public figure’s responsibility to always be on his or her toes.) Also, though you may forfeit the shot, you might convince your subject to pose, either for the sake of recreating a missed composition or more finely expressing your vision.

Carisse offered to give me a ride back downtown, though we had to wait for Patricia to return with the car (remember, his Mercedes was in for repairs). As Pat pulled into the driveway, she apologized for not being available during the interview: “I’ve heard these stories a million times.” Though she is now a real-estate agent, we can only hope that Patricia can bear with her husband and his appreciative following a little longer by reopening Carisse’s venerable portfolio to the public. In the meantime, Carisse’s brush with politics can be explored in his coffee table book, Privileged Access: Trudeau, Turner and Chrétien (2000), a twenty-five year retrospective shadowing three prime ministers. He is also responsible for the vast majority of photographs accompanying Jean Chrétien’s new autobiography, My Stories, My Times, which released October 25, 2018, as well as the previously-published My Years as Prime Minister (2008).Many of his shots are available for perusal at carissephoto.com, and hundreds of thousands of negatives are in the care of Library and Archives Canada for posterity.

Leaders Helmut Kohl, Jean Chrétien, and Bill Clinton grab lunch at a summit in Spain (1997)

As Carisse jumped on the highway to take me back into the city proper, he left me with one more anecdote, this one from a later portion of his career. At a summit in Spain, official photographers were prohibited from entering a luncheon that included Chrétien, Clinton, and Helmut Kohl. Carisse overstepped his access by substituting for Chrétien’s assistant at what was meant to be an informal lunch. With his small Leica rangefinder shrouded by the sleeve of his jacket, Carisse coughed to mask the sound of the shutter that captured the trio of world leaders devouring tapas and beer. He needed just one frame.

Carisse telling a story (2018)
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Kira is an avid enthusiast of photography, poetry and the arts in general. She holds a degree in Communications and English Literature at the University of Ottawa.

3 thoughts on “An Interview with the Composer of Canada’s Reputation, Political Photojournalist Jean-Marc Carisse

  1. If he did nothing else, this is worth all the effort, is a statement applicable to virtually any of JMC’s shots!

  2. Jean-Marc Carisse and Yousuf Karsh – two of Canada’s master photographers have privileged me with their friendship and for that I am eternally grateful. Both will forever be treasures to Canada and its history. That being said, I truly appreciated this read. Rhys Mason’s article warmly celebrates Jean-Marc’s wondrous candor, his signature gentleness and. . . the incredible results of his super “trigger finger”. Congrats to both of you!

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