WINTER DIARIES | NORMAN
Text by:Quartz Co.
In conversation with Elise Legault
Toronto native Norman Wong is a photographer who has seen his work grace the covers of Flare, Adweek and Drake’s most recent album, Scorpion. Son to a garment manufacturer, Wong grew up in the periphery of fashion, following his father as he met the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and ''crazy New York designers'' such as Heatherette. Whilst his penchant for fashion might have been genetically engineered, his affinity to photography, however, came about serendipitously - or rather incidentally – he nuanced. He was introduced to indie rock band Broken Social Scene just as they were achieving mainstream success. Like the young William Miller in Almost Famous, Wong witnessed their rise to fame and documented their backstage lives, capturing portraits of the band members. Today, Norman is carving his own space in fashion photography by immortalizing noteworthy figures spanning from Tavi Gevinson, Manolo Blahnik and Cindy Crawford.
Self-dubbed cinephile and culture junky, we caught up with Norman as the first snowfall blanketed his beloved city of Toronto. We discussed how he keeps up with the times through his studies and extensive movie and book collection, which he stores in his childhood room and cherishes as his personal treasure trove.
When exactly did you start collecting books and movies?
As a kid, I was a comic book and movie nerd. I bought every single DVD and I'm still adding to my collection. I’m a big collector of movies - it’s what I really truly love because they’re all human stories. For me, it’s a way to study people and their expressions. I apply that to my work. Photography, in a way, is a big collection.
Who are a few of your main inspirations and favorite directors?
Right now, Abbas Kiarostami’s work really resonates with me. I’m obsessed with the way he executes and how he expresses himself. He was also an amazing photographer. Him and Wim Wenders are both great practicing photographers. I actually like Wim Wenders’ photography more than a lot of his movies. Everyone loves Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire… but personally, I always go back to his photography books. I love seeing filmmakers make art outside of filmmaking. Andrei Tarkovsky also has a beautiful book of Polaroids which I really cherish…
How important is it for you to have these physical objects to go back to and reference? Do they contribute to your creative process?
Yes, especially when winter comes around. Winter is a really good time to consume, watch and learn. It’s a time to revisit. In the summer, I am never home! I start collecting all this stuff and winter is when I delve in and go for it.
What’s the perfect day to indulge in books and movies?
A big snowstorm when nothing is going on and you are pretty much locked in at home. That’s the perfect context… And believe it or not, I watch a lot of movies in the tub.
Yea, it’s kind of a weird thing… I know I get all wrinkly afterwards (laughs) but I can spend hours in the tub… I’ll watch a movie before going to sleep or when the house is completely quiet… I don’t have to worry about the sound, it’s a really good enclosed space - very private.
Is winter something you look forward to then?
I like winter! I always look forward to it and I know this is sacrilegious, but I get sad when spring arrives… Winter is a change of rhythm in the best way - it’s totally dramatic. Mentally, I never get any creative work done in the summer - there’s too much distraction. In big condensed cities, it’s nice to have winter to separate yourself from everything. People are in their own cloud, where they can create. I love the time of study and internal work. Recently, I saw a post from the Weeknd on Instagram about how much he misses winter, I thought it was funny. People really do miss it… It creates a darker mood, which can be good. You can’t always be outputting. You need a time to reserve yourself, intake and explore.
You’ve met some of the greatest ; Drake, Cindy Crawford, how do you mentally prepare for these moments?
I do a lot of research, that’s key for me. And that’s why we have winters. You explore more in these times and you learn. I’m a culture junky - my interest in culture is very aggressive and vast. I always try to immerse myself in their world. On set, you need to have some sort of relation with them and most of the time you don’t have common ground, so I rely on my research knowledge. With Drake for example, I work closely with his label, OVO, it was all within the family which made it much easier. For someone like Cindy, because she worked with every single giant you can ever imagine, I asked her about how Helmut Newton was to work with, stuff like that.
You mentioned earlier in our conversation that you admire others ability to tell human stories, is that one of your personal missions?
Absolutely, it’s always about the people. That’s why I do portraits and work in the realm of fashion. Portraiture is the study of a subject, of a human person, in that one moment in time. And however people want to interpret that, it’s up to them. Once an image is out there, it’s out there. Like the Drake cover… People have interpreted it in a million ways! It’s out of my control and I find it fascinating - it’s one of the reasons I love creating.
How would you describe Toronto’s photography scene right now?
I think it’s at the best place it’s ever been. There’s a lot of exciting photographers that are coming out of Toronto. I’ve been seeing a bunch of people blow up - it’s amazing. Toronto has come from far, far away. When I started photography, it was the indie era of Toronto. Now, it has completely transformed into this mega hip hop city. Back then, it wasn’t about the image. Especially working with Broken Social Scene, they were really about the music, the craftsmanship, the integrity of it all. Now it’s completely reversed, it’s about image, it’s about embracing our times. The city evolved with Drake, The Weeknd, Majid Jordan… The presence of the OVO record label really mystified Toronto in the same way Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and others did it for New York in the 70s. They are championing the city and transforming Toronto into a mythic place.
Toronto seems to be a big part of your identity.
It really is. It has become that, for better and for worse. A lot of artists I admire make work about where they come from. Kiarostami, for example, made work about Iran. I feel like Toronto is such a small city, no one ever sticks around to speak about it. Many artists leave to go somewhere else - New York, Europe - and they break out there. I want to find ways to make Toronto interesting because I want to leave a body of work that explores the city in an artistic manner.
You want to leave a legacy?
Ultimately yea… That’s why I work with bands like Broken Social Scene. I feel really lucky to be a part of that, as well as with Drake and that whole world. I’m trying to make work about what’s happening right now in the city. It’s always related to Toronto - I love this city. There are pros and cons to every city and place… But artists like Avedon and David Bailey… Those guys, back then, they made work within their country, in their environment. In the same way, I’m just reacting to my environment.