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Deborah Samuel

Deborah Samuel

Faculty of Animation, Arts & Design

Degree: Applied Photography

Year of graduation: 1977

Heart of Glass: How photography grad Deborah Samuel translates the spark of a subject through a camera lens

Photographer Deborah Samuel has shone a spotlight on the spirit of a stunningly wide array of subjects, from Canadian celebrities such as Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood and Rush to international royalty, including Queen Noor of Jordan. Her heart, however, belongs to the furry and feathered portrait subjects behind her exhibitions and books – a passion that began in childhood. “Animals tend to use physical gestures more, and you have to understand how they’re talking to you,” she says. “They will show you who they are, if you’re conscientious.”

Samuel’s father managed a horse barn in Vancouver, BC and one day, he ran an ad in an equestrian magazine to find a new rider, which resulted in him meeting Samuel’s mother. The family moved to Toronto, and then to Ireland when Samuel was 14 to fulfill her father’s dream of retiring to own and train steeplechasers. In capturing the motion of the horses through her trusty Kodak Instamatic, Samuel discovered a new joy. “I was always looking for a different perspective, shooting things upside down or hanging off the back of horses,” she remembers. After a year of art school in Limerick, it was a photography class that cemented Samuel’s love of the lens. “It was seeing the prints come up in the tray in the darkroom,” she says. “But I couldn’t figure out how to be a photographer — I didn’t know anyone who was a photographer, and didn’t know how to translate it into a career.”

Wanting to go back to Toronto, Samuel applied to Sheridan’s creative art course, but was quickly drawn to the photography program. “I ended up at Sheridan because I really didn’t understand what I was going to be doing, but it was the best thing that happened to me, because I got the technical grounding I needed,” she says. “As a photographer, it’s great to get ideas, but you have to be able to execute them.”

At Sheridan, Samuel was influenced by Doug Bolt. “What he taught me about portraiture was what really grabbed me about photography,” she says. She also remembers Robin King’s course on problem solving, noting that “he taught me to think, and that’s so important, especially when I went into commercial work.”

Throughout her career, Samuel has worked in Los Angeles, New York and London, but settled in Galisteo, New Mexico with her photography studio, as well as a dog and horse. Her recent work has focused on the relationship between animals and nature, with an exhibit of animal bone photographs at The Royal Ontario Museum called Elegy, which opened in spring 2017, and three books: two collections of canine portraits called Dog and Pup; and The Extraordinary Beauty of Birds: Designs, Patterns and Details. “It was the smallest things about the dogs — the way their hair curled or the ears flopped — or for horses, the expression in their eyes,” she says. “With birds, I remember a period where I was going through a lot of stuff in my life, and I sat up and looked into the sky and felt I had lost my wings.”

Today, Samuel is soaring high in her field, and can’t imagine being anything other than a photographer. “Being an artist is not an easy life — there’s nothing guaranteed about anything. I never stop working, seven days a week,” she says. “But photography opened up a world to me that I never would have seen or experienced — that’s what it gave me, and is still capable of giving people.”
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