Emily Cooper has been working the Vancouver art scene since she was a baby. She would trail behind her father – noted photographer David Cooper – as he went from gig to gig. One of his regular subjects was the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and, after awhile, David and Prima Ballerina Evelyn Hart became close friends.
“We would always attend her performances,” says Emily, “and I would watch in awe as she danced her heart out. Afterwards, we always went backstage and I remember being a young girl and hugging her ever so gently, in fear of crushing her delicate and beautiful body. There is a stunning photograph my Dad took of her holding me up as a 5 week old baby with the tiny ballerina shoes that she had given me.”
Wee Emily got more arts-seeping from her mother, Wendy Gorling – an actress with a star on Granville Street and a storied career teaching at Langara’s Studio 58 program. “My daycare days were spent being passed around backstage while my Mom performed. Sometimes, I was even written into the script and was once cast as Marie Antoinette’s daughter.”
With two parents who have been inducted into the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame, Emily might have fled to an altogether new career plot. “I have big shoes to fill.”
Instead, Emily decided to dive in. “I would always tag along when my Dad took photos for the dress rehearsal of a play, and I would mimic him and pretend to take photos as well. When I turned 15, he gave me a camera and a roll of film and I carefully composed and shot a handful of photos. To my delight, one of my images was chosen and published in the paper.”
Emily continued to shadow her Dad until she was certain she wanted to pursue photography as a profession. She applied to Sheridan College in Ontario, was accepted and went on to graduate at the top of her class, with an Award of Excellence. “School for me was where I could explore different styles and find my own voice. To this day, I am still in touch with my favourite professor.”
Emily also learned a great deal through assisting other photographers. “There is no textbook out there that can explain how to talk with your model and make them feel comfortable. Each photographer has a different approach to lighting, and every set-up I would learn something new. Those light-bulb moments were key.”
These days, Emily is in much demand as a photo illustrator and photographer. “I bounce between illustrating articles for the Boston Globe, shooting for the Georgia Straight and creating wild collages for theatre companies across Canada. Every day is something different.”
Emily immerses herself in relevant worlds before creating her photo illustrations. “If I am illustrating a book, the ideas come from reading the words and diving into the story. If I am illustrating a CD cover, I listen to the music over and over again and let the lyrics and rhythm wash over me.”
Her research for theatre posters is often historical. “I start researching the time period and digging up old photos for reference. A few years ago, I went to Portland to scan a collection of glass plate negatives from the early 1900’s. I came back with hundreds of gorgeous portraits that I often collage into my imagery.”
“Sometimes the idea starts with the photo, where I imagine the surroundings and bring it to life. Other times, the idea sparks from a line in the play.”
Emily’s Trouble in Tahiti illustration, our header photo, was created for the Shaw Festival Theatre. “The production is a window into a seemingly perfect life of an American couple living in the suburbs. Behind the façade, their world is crumbling. The inspiration for the illustration was to show the picture-perfect American couple paired with the chaos and danger of the jungle creeping into their lives. The jungle imagery is a collage of Henri Rousseau’s paintings.”
One of Emily’s most beloved illustrations was for John Mann, leader singer for Spirit of the West. “It was inspired by his battle with cancer, and we spent some time together talking about his experiences. Every day he was in the hospital, he would look forward to seeing the crows fly by his window. It gave him a sense of calm within the storm. This story stayed with me and it paved the road for the illustration.”
Emily also enjoyed creating The Charity That Began At Home, another illustration for the Shaw Festival Theatre. “The play centers around a woman who believes that true charity is bringing the outcasts from society into your home. It is a mashup of odd and obnoxious people at a tea party from hell. The challenge became how to show extreme personality types together in an image. For me, the perfect answer was to translate them into animals.”
Another fun shoot was a Georgia Straight cover featuring Colleen Wheeler from the Bard on the Beach production of Elizabeth Rex. “Our shoot was intense. Colleen was getting her big, curly locks shaved off for the role. Needles to say, it was an emotional shoot and she came through feeling strong and free. I was honoured to be part of her journey and couldn’t believe how stunning she looked in the end.”
Not surprisingly, Emily has great projects on the horizon. She is particularly excited about one that is still in the semi-secret phase. “I’m working on a project with the NFB that explores legacy and inheritance in the context of Canada’s 150th anniversary.”
What advice would Emily offer to photographers looking to build their own businesses?
“1. Say Yes
To everything! ‘Want to shoot my wedding?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Want to do stills on a film?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Want to take my headshot?’ ‘Yes!’
2. Build Your Brand
Building up a portfolio that showcases a certain style is important. Clients need to know what they’re getting.
3. Make sure you Love the work
Running your own business is hard work, and you have to love every day. I love walking up and knowing I’m tackling something totally different from yesterday. It keeps me feeling alive and inspired.
4. Be active on Social Media
This is another key aspect to marketing your work. Make sure that friends or clients are tagging you when they post photos.
5. Word of Mouth is key
I have been lucky enough to build my business through Word of Mouth and I can’t stress how important that has been.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton