Toronto
5 min

Full Frame

It's all about love

HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL? It's a question photographer Michael Chambers passes along as a gift from his mother to viewers of his work. Credit: Xtra files

Michael Chambers would prefer to have his photographs speak for him. He is far more comfortable behind the camera than under a spotlight.



The beauty and eloquence of his photographs have spoken volumes over the past decade. His images have been seen as angry and political. They have caused a media firestorm and inspired musicians like Salome Bey, Neil Braithwaite and David Williams. His most recent solo exhibit, Light Suspended, opens this week at the O’Connor Gallery.



“I am probably the most private person you will ever meet in your life,” he says. “That was the way I was raised.” Born and raised in Jamaica, Chambers’ age remains a public mystery. “Oh, I never answer that. I’ve been [reported as] everything from 25 to 65.”



Chambers explains: “Everything’s about race and everything’s about structure and about categories. People are like, ‘How old are you? Where you from?’ Or even, what you drive, or where you live, or are you gay, straight or bi?



“People ask these questions because it gives them a sense of control in deciding who you are and therefore how to treat you.”

For Chambers, not all definitions are troublesome. He is particularly proud to offer up some. “I’ve been a rebel since I was yeah high and I am very much my father’s son. We are very much alike.”



Chambers comes from a close-knit family. He is the fifth of six children. His parents, whose marriage lasted over 55 years, are one of the greatest sources from which he draws his strength. Loving, nurturing and strict, they instilled in the photographer a worldview that has served him well.



Chambers recalls as a boy watching clouds with his mother. “She never said, ‘What does it look like?’ She always said, ‘How does it make you feel?'”



In many earlier photographs by Chambers, black models are photographed outdoors, nude against rugged vistas. In his documentary, The Photographer: An Artist’s Journey, Anton Wagner notes that Chambers will hold up shooting until the perfect cloud drifts into frame.



Chambers’ parents also instilled a beauty aesthetic contrary to mainstream norms. “My mom was very, very dark – dark, dark chocolate, very full lips – absolutely fabulous.



“But I never saw that because I just saw my mother.



“On my 13th birthday my father drove me up into the hills on the most beautiful misty morning and he said, ‘I just want to let you know why I love your mother.’ I thought, ‘Oh God, not this! I’ve already talked to my mother about everything.'”



His father told Chambers about the day they met. “He said, ‘And she turned around, and she had the most beautiful lips I had ever seen in my life. And you have her lips.’ And I always thought my lips were really big growing up as a kid. I thought, ‘He’s being totally honest with me… and she is a total fox.’ That gave me another perspective on the black reality and on black beauty.” Models with strong African features have been the standard of beauty for most of Chambers’ work.



As he grew into adolescence Chambers’ rebellious side also grew. Eventually his parents responded, sending him to high school in Canada. “My dad was tough. My mom was tough as well. But we knew it was all about love.” Chambers says their approach worked and that he “learned to play his cards right.” By 17, he had his own apartment.



As a youngster living on his own in Canada, Chambers was adopted into a large extended family. “I grew up basically doing the Queen St thing. That was my engine. That is what fueled my creative process.” His group used each other as subjects in their artistic pursuits.



While finding acceptance and identity within the Queen St scene, Chambers also found love. “Being gay was never an issue for me. I told my parents I was gay; they did not find out. I told them with love and pride.



“And the only question my father asked was, ‘Are you happy?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’ not knowing how he would respond to that. And he said, ‘Your mother and I want all our children to be happy.’ Which blew me away. So at the age of 21, having said that and been embraced by Jamaican parents who are very religious, I thought, ‘You know, it’s all about love.'”



Continuing his education at York University, Chambers studied painting. He discovered photography during a trip to Europe. Images of black women in Europe and from North Africa inspired the young artist’s imagination. Returning to Toronto, Chambers pursued the medium. He came to prominence in 1991 with a photo exhibition at the Roschar Gallery in Toronto and as a contributing photographer to Now and Word magazines.



“One of the most interesting things I found was challenging the notion that an image of a black person had to be about his anger. Why not about his beauty, why not about her elegance, why not about her energy, why not about her love, her zest for life?



“What I chose to do is show the beautiful form, and the beautiful face and the beautiful spirit and the beautiful energy and on top of that add a statement.”



These statements can spark controversy. His iconography often features nude males seen from behind with bowed heads, creating the illusion of headlessness. Other poses include models with their hands positioned behind their backs or in restraint or with lips sewn shut.



Props also figure prominently, such as reedy twigs arranged into a crown of thorns in Alton 2 from 1998. But it was an untitled work in 1995, a watermelon balanced on the buttocks of a black woman, that generated the most controversy. The variety of reactions included outrage.



Chambers, however, does not seek to dictate the meaning of his work. If many messages can be perceived from a single photograph, Chambers views this as a positive. “The hardest thing for me to do is title a work because for me to title it, I am telling you how to see it.



“People in general don’t trust their own judgment. They rely on critics to tell them how to perceive something. I’m saying give yourselves more credit. Walk up to a piece of art and look at it for yourself. Take a little time and see how it makes you feel.”



However politically minded his photographs appear, Chambers does not see himself as a spokesperson. “One person cannot speak for an entire culture. I would never try to do that. As an artist I can only present work from where I stand, from my perspective.



“I chose black subjects because I wasn’t too happy with what I was seeing out there, so I use them as subjects, not black subjects, but as subjects to hopefully embrace a few people.”



For Light Suspended, Chambers is delving deeper into the personal. Losing both his mother and an older brother in recent years has given him pause. “Once I had come to terms with the fact that I would not see my mom again and that my dad was not going to give up – and I realized that I had not really lost her, that she was a gift – I thought I am going to create a show about love, whether it is love of self, or of family or of each other. I don’t think we give enough credit to the extended family.”



Once again using many of his friends as models, Chambers has taken his camera indoors and used a single light source to define his subjects. Set against a black backdrop the entire model is shown uncropped within the frame.



“I love love. It’s a great thing even if I’m not in a relationship, I love being surrounded by people who know how to love.”







Light Suspended.

Thu, Apr 25-May 18.

O’Connor Gallery.

97 Maitland St

(416) 921-7149