On a flawless autumn Sunday, in a simply-adorned espresso bar flooded with midday light, photographer Miguel Jacob recognizes and nods to a chicly outfitted woman and thanks a stranger quietly when she exclaims that she likes his shirt: a geometric button-down in pastel hues. It’s obvious that Jacob frequents the place; in fact, an unsuspecting customer became the subject of an impromptu portrait recently.

“There was a guy sitting here waiting for someone, and this plant made him look almost like he had a mohawk,” Jacob recollects. “He was bald and the curve of it looked like a question mark. It was just really interesting, I really liked that moment.”

The world of professional photography is full of similar question marks — and Jacob has been navigating it for as long as he can remember. On the eve of his first solo exhibit, a series of dark portraits that are a dramatic departure from his commercial successes at Chatelaine and Fashion, Jacob recalls his years at U of T studying French literature and cinema before completing a stint at OISE and spending a few years in the Toronto District School Board. “I was good at teaching, I got a lot of great feedback from educators and parents alike. But my heart wasn’t in it. At the time, I almost felt like I was living a double life. I remember going to OISE in these crazy outfits. I’ve collected magazines and books and followed what was going on in the world of photography for as long as I can remember.”
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Jacob’s fervour for capturing moments is infectious, and as you talk to him you find yourself itching to pick up a camera and have a go at it yourself. “You have that short and intense connection. It’s strong and powerful,” he explains, “It’s almost like having an affair. It’s intimate and on a separate plane from everything else. And I think that’s something that a lot of photographers are attracted to.”

After several years in the industry gathering experience and receiving accolades, Jacob continues to be driven and fixated on perfection. But his first experience with editorial fashion wasn’t as glamourous as the P&G Beauty Award-winning covers he shoots these days. There was no Coco Rocha, 21st-century supermodel, or Canadian crooner Michael Bublé — larger-than-life personalities that Jacob has worked with on several occasions. “There was an opportunity to shoot a quarter-page to accompany an article on adult female acne at Fashion Magazine. I took total advantage of the opportunity and put my heart into that image. I used red coloured gel to connote stress and had to buy frosted glass and a lot of other equipment. The assistant made more than I did on that one. But I wanted my work to speak for itself. Doors can be opened for you, and they can close in your face very quickly if you don’t deliver or if the timing is wrong.”

Jacob emphasizes the importance of surrounding yourself with the best, whether it’s stylists, assistants, or even caterers. “You have to align yourself with people who are doing great work in order for your work to be great. And that’s just how I’ve defined my career.”

As a professional photographer, a significant portion of Jacob’s work is commercial, including advertisements for The Bay and covers for any number of prominent Canadian magazines. His latest endeavor, however, is a labour of love.

“This portrait series that I started last December, I was doing on the weekends. I was shooting a lot of fashion models, the majority of whom are white and female, but I’ve always loved portraits and was always intrigued by the idea of putting people in a certain context and seeing what they can do. People who may not be used to being in front of a camera.”
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He counts British photographer Nick Knight as one of his premier influences, and cites a series of 100 portraits he shot in the 80s in particular. “The play of shadow and light really influenced and spoke to me. By keeping the light very simple and mobile I could have an incredible amount of options. I wanted to do something in that style but put my own spin on it.”

On paper, Jacob is your typical Toronto fashion photographer: he’s got swagger, presence, and can name-drop his connections to budding local designers and internationally-renowned photographers at a moment’s notice. He’s dabbled in designing and spent time assisting at the Toronto Fashion Incubator. He’s seen Breathless more times than he can count. He sports a pair of really snazzy Ray Bans. But Jacob’s relationship with the camera and with the process of transforming those raw memories into something concrete is authentic and beyond the negative assumptions that so often suffocate the art of fashion photography.

“A camera is a black box that allows light to come in a render images on film,” he tells me, with a hint of incredulity at the simplicity of his craft. “But it’s magical, that chemical process. One of the things that drew me to photography is that it’s one of the simplest art forms and yet it can be so complicated. There are so many possibilities. If I didn’t have this job and I had a camera, I’d be taking pictures. I still can’t believe I’m really doing this.”

Miguel Jacob’s first solo show, ALWAYS ON CAMERA, runs from Nov.10 to Dec. 12 at the Alison Milne Gallery, 49 Ossington Ave., second floor. Gallery hours are Saturdays & Sundays 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., or weekdays by appointment, and the opening reception is Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Find out more at migueljacob.com.

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