Meet an Artist: Sean Dennie

Meet an Artist: Sean Dennie

Sean Dennie, Celestial Object

cSPACE welcomes the photographic exhibition Retrospect; the art of Sean Dennie and his 20-year retrospective of some of Calgary’s great performance artists to our hallways.

  • Retrospect runs through March 26th at cSPACE
  • Featuring portraits of artists from the past 20 years of the Festival of Animated Objects
  • Select shows from The Festival of Animated Objects are running at cSPACE in the Studio Theatre until March 19

We sat down with photographer Sean Dennie to talk about Retrospect, his look back on 20 years of photographing artists as part of the Festival of Animated Objects. 

Sean Dennie is a self-described father, husband, son and brother, photographer and a hustler.

In that order. He is deeply motivated by what he calls, “low volume/high impact encounters.” That means that in conversation, he doesn’t go broad, he goes deep. He is in it for the fellowship, connection, honesty, trust, and narrative. It follows that photography provides a perfect outlet and opportunity for these kinds of connections.

Fellowship, connection, honesty, trust, and narrative

Having your photo taken is an intimate act. A photo is a gateway to a conversation. The result of his more than twenty years as a commercial photographer (in the fields of advertising, editorial, and stock and performing arts), is “a massive collection of stories, experiences, and connections. And it’s very fleeting. It’s temporal. You’re there for five minutes, an hour, five hours, and then you’re gone…You come together, make something, walk away. Very little debt…There’s a great freedom in that. At the best of times.” (he laughs).

Celestial Object

“This is going to sound kind of ridiculous, but it’s kind of celestial in a way. Where there’s… groups of planets, solar systems, and I’m just a comet that passes through now and then, like, “Whoa! There he is! And then he’s gone!”

A photographer takes, a subject gives

Sean Dennie is a little rueful about the digital age. Photography was a rarer experience before everyone had a massive camera in their pocket (on their phones). When the resource was finite and you had to be selective and careful with your shots. Regardless, he still feels like it’s very much a two way street. A photographer takes, but a subject gives. The quality of the portrait is very much dependent on how much the subject is willing to show you.

“Everybody has to commit to doing the thing. I can’t do a great shot of someone who doesn’t want a great shot, unless of course, that becomes a great shot in the resistance. Because that is also a relationship.”

“My goal is to make everyone iconic”

If Sean is the comet-like object of a photography session, then his subjects are his primary concern. As a portrait photographer, Sean is curious and stealthy. He is out to capture the best portrait of you that you’ve ever had. So to get that, he has to get under your skin a little. He’s a big man physically, so he compensates by talking softly, by moving slowly, by communicating more with his eyes and small gestures than with words. Sean lulls his subjects into a state of comfort and vulnerability, and then when you let your guard down, Boom! He snaps the shutter. The results are magnetic portraits of people sharing their true selves. 

“You can see a person’s child when they are forced to have their photo taken. You can almost tell if a smile is just pulling their lips back to expose their teeth or whether they’re genuinely interacting with you, which is actually cool.”

How did you discover your style of shooting portraits?

“I was on assignment in Japan for three weeks, and I don’t speak Japanese. And so I would communicate with people by just cueing them with my body and my hands, and I was able to get crazy stuff. And after about the third day of shooting the art director is like, “How do you do that?” You just look in their eyes and you show them what you want them to do… (M)aking everything smaller was easier and less energy and created a super connection.”

About the Festival of Animated Objects

Sean’s partner in life is Xtine Cook, founder of the International Festival of Animated Objects. The festival started while Xtine was a member of the Green Fools Theatre Society. So when she left, the festival went with her and she created CAOS — Calgary Animated Objects Society as its own organization. Sean says, “She birthed it in the Fools, raised it inside CAOS, and then kicked it out of the house like a teenager.” Sean has been photographing the artists of the festival ever since it began in 2001. Retrospect is at cSPACE until March 26th. It is a collection of some of Sean’s favourite photos to come out of the last twenty years of shooting people and puppets. 

Why these photographs?

“I think I picked all these photos because there was really good fellowship in the shoot. The connection was very strong. Probably over 150 groups, individual artists, this is about 25. Like anything, you can’t always nail it. These are ones that I feel were nailed, and good stories. I remember each shoot that’s up. I remember a lot of the conversations we had during the shoot, and the stories that were shared. They’re honest.”

Here are a few of Sean’s stories from shoots with iconic figures in international puppetry.

Ronnie Burkett

Ronnie Burkett

Oh my god! It’s Ronnie Burkett! So I put this little chair on the cyc(lorama), and he walks in and he’s like, “Is that chair for me?” and I said, “Do you want it to be for you?” and he just ran over to it and whipped off his socks and started doing all this weird ass (stuff), and I could barely keep up, cause it’s analog, changing rolls and stuff, and it just felt like the BEST shots. And he still posts them twenty years later.

Xtine Cook

Xtine Cook

We had to do a curator shot, and we didn’t want to do just some stupid photo. And I ran into a friend who ran a [furniture store] and I was like “Oh! Can we use your shop for a shoot?” So we went out, got a mattress, cut a hole in it, found a suitcase, cut a hole in the covers and kinda came up with that concept in a couple of hours and shot it. I have no idea what it means but I think it’s kinda funny.

Anita Miotti

Anita Miotti

Anita had to do 6 hours of makeup. They body painted her and made hinges in her hips and knees… the shoot was like ten minutes because Anita’s awesome. “Do this.” “You mean this?” Yeah, you nailed it. 

Quique Rivera

Quique Rivera

Quique was from Puerto Rico and it was cold when he got here, and he had never been in winter before. That photo was just a comment on somebody from a super warm climate, exposed to the Canadian winter for the first time. And he was damaged by it. So that’s the essence of that photo; it  has very little to do with anything other than that conversation, “Is it like this all the time?”

Jamie Tognazzini

Jamie Tognazzini

That’s a set that we just kinda scooped from somewhere. (I) basically do 3-4 days of shooting during the festival. You pick a location and you shoot all of them in the same space. So part of the challenge is trying to make a unique photo and letting them inhabit the photo with themselves. We give them a set and they get to inhabit it. And how much they inhabit it has to do with how well we get on. How willing they are.

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman was married to a Playboy bunny and he told me in great detail about living in Los Angeles and dealing with the badness of that era.  He’s an American puppeteer, famous, busy… This shot of him? That’s him being a ham. He just released and it’s cool. I would never do that.

Retrospect runs until March 26th in the Level 1 Hallway Gallery.

cSPACE is open to the public 8am-8pm, Monday-Saturday.