Artists & Makers

Creative Conversations: Michael Clarke

by Gina Clark

Black and white portrait of photographer Michael Clarke

Creative Conversations are interviews with artists, makers, and creators that strive to investigate each artist’s creative journey and process. This interview was originally recorded on July 14, 2021. Content may be edited for brevity and clarity. To listen to the interview, click here.

As Founder and Creative Director at Topscura, Michael Clarke has earned the reputation of the ‘subtle reporter’. Intrigued by people and culture, the intersection between heritage and contemporary artistic expression are main features of his work. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada to Jamaican parents. His ancestral roots stretch from the shores of India to the peaks of Jebel Liban, traversing Norway, and the African continent.

Over the last decade, Michael has worked extensively with mixed media digital art documenting families, weddings & unions, human interest stories & mini-documentary features that capture the music, phenomenons, and narrative short films of our time.

Michael identifies as a black, male Canadian who represents the royalty his ethnic lineage affords. 

You can find his work at and on Instagram at @topscura.

Gina Clark:
Thank you to everyone who’s joined us. There have been a few people so far and that’s fantastic.

My name is Gina Clark from Gina Clark Creative, and I am joined today by Michael Clarke with an E, I am Clark with no E, photographer and filmmaker that’s based in Vancouver. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Michael Clarke:
Thank you so much for having me. This is a real treat.

I came across your work about a year ago, and I was so struck by the depth of the portraiture. We talked a little bit before we decided to do this [Instagram] live so, I’ve told you this before, but it just went beyond, you know, regular portrait photography that I’ve seen.

Then you started posting some of your street photography and I just loved it. So just tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into this business. We’d love to hear all of that.

That’s the biggest compliment I could receive. Time and attention are a commodity so I very much appreciate that. How I got started? Well, if me from 20 years ago would have been told I’d be making a career as a creative with the camera, it would seem crazy. This was very much not the path I had envisioned, or studied, for that matter. It kind of came out of a failure, really.

I was interested in photography, but not on a professional level or even as an enthusiast. I just really liked the technology. I really like to play with cameras and electronic things, and so I got my first camera. It was a system camera, I think it was like a Canon S3 or something like that.

That was really my first experience with photography. From there I was lucky that mirrorless cameras were just starting to kind of be a thing. I remember when a Sony, I think it was the NEX-5 or something, came out and I rushed to Best Buy to pick it up.

I just thought it was so incredible that this computer company purchased an optics manufacturer. It felt like something new and different. It felt very much like the introduction of the iPhone. I was very interested in creating and using it as a way to express myself.

Back then there was Flickr, 500px. Remember those? That’s where the love was. Not even just my own photography, but also enjoying photographs of others and seeing how diverse of a tool that could be.

I was actually a realtor for a number of years and wasn’t doing great, but what I was doing was I was doing my own marketing collateral.

I was doing my own feature sheets and a website using my own photography. Other realtors saw my work and asked can you do that for us? I started to offer those services to other realtors.

Real estate marketing was what really started my professional career and I quickly branched out to help other small and medium-sized businesses

I realized that you know, especially smaller businesses had a need, and there wasn’t a great market to fulfill those needs. I did my first event in 2011; this is my 10th year in business.

It was in August when it really exploded and the business grew. I guess my approach to doing weddings, was also indicative of my style and my approach to photography and personal photographs.

I love that. I want to go back to what you said about how you kind of fell into it accidentally and it certainly wasn’t a planned path. A lot of people that I work with are struggling to embrace their creativity.

They feel like they’re creative and there’s something in them that wants to be creative, but they don’t know how to let it out, so I think that that’s amazing that you were able to take that path that led you to this amazing career that you now have, and the art that you produce. It’s just so cool.

Thank you. Yeah, I would like to say though that art and business are uniquely different things and I’m lucky that I was able to do it the way that I’ve done it. So, I may have more of a corporate Canada background.

I’m very fortunate for the market that I’m in and what I do is wanted here, and there’s value. It’s not easy of course.

I would still be photographing things and enjoying photography and the process even without the business. The results. Even without sharing it.

Tell us a bit more about that, that they’re very separate things, the business and the art.

I think that we are all creative, we all have the ability to be creative, every single one of us. Artistic execution and a high level of artistic execution that also is something else, but creativity, is something we’re all afforded.

To me, it’s the only real true freedom that we have in essence because of the way that my mind approaches something, and how I choose to behave, and how I choose to execute it or not or attempt and fail. What I learned and all that, that’s up to me and us to do, right?

The same thing would be for you or anybody else. I just think that it’s another form of expression. It’s a form of just documenting the time that we’re in.

I mean, what informs my photography a lot is obviously photography of the past. I’m intrigued by street photography, particularly from the 40s and 50s. And, then of course into the 70s and 80s when it was at its peak.

Now with the business, the business is a business whether you’re selling your time, a product, or your information, knowledge, training, or doing YouTube, whatever it may be. At its core, it’s still business 101.

I get asked a lot from parents who have children aspiring to be photojournalists or travel photographers or wedding photographers and cinematographers, where they should go to film school or art school.

From my experience – and I always say pretty much the same thing or a variation of this is – develop a unique set of skills that will employ them for life.

Training or getting a practical degree, do something because you can always practice photography in your own time. You can work for free.

You can offer your services, work with nonprofits, family events, or graduations. You can do anything while practicing photography and making films.

Even getting together with a friend taking pictures or going on a photo walk. I think that business is business and art is art. Both can be done independent of each other.

I love that so much because I think a lot of people, they’re stopped by the thought of being creative because they think if they can’t be a professional artist or reach some level of success that they have in their mind that they just shouldn’t do it at all.

What I’m hearing from you is very similar to my philosophy. I mean, I think creativity is just a basic life force. It’s something that’s in all of us, it’s as natural as breathing.

And, you don’t have to worry about creating a masterpiece or the next great novel. Just go out there and do your thing.

If it turns into something else [professional], like it might and it might not, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be good for you and it’s not going to be good for the people around you. So yeah, I love that advice too.

I want to go back to something else you said too when you said that you were influenced by photographers from the 40s.

When we had our conversation earlier, I had mentioned that what struck me about your pictures is they really reminded me of Dorothea Lange’s pictures. She was a Depression-era photographer.

And also, Robert Frank, who, documented just regular American people, and published a book that was unique for its time. I see that influence in your work.

I see that you do a lot of black and white photography. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

My philosophy with black and white is: It’s black and white unless colour is the story. That’s my school photography. So the photographs that I fell in love with early on are black and white.

My early years were before high definition and retina screens. I always found the details in monochromatic images and black and white images. 

Maybe it was just the way that my eyes were seeing colour? And I still don’t think that I’m great with colour. I think that drawing someone’s eye and holding their gaze and making them think or feel something, even if it’s something nostalgic or foreign, is important without consciously knowing why they’ve stopped.

For me, that was in black and white images. Colours can sometimes be distracting, particularly in harsh or high contrast situations like daylight with the high sun and things like that. In these situations, it just looks better when it’s black and white.

In those cases, you know you get those dark inky blacks, and there’s more gradation in tones and that’s what I really like. A lot of my clients are asking for black and white, while some ask for colour files. I would love to be able to do just black and white exclusively. There’s a timelessness there.

creative conversations

Do you have a different approach, or what’s your approach, when you’re looking at portraiture versus street photography?

Yes. Street photography for me is reporting. Ultimately, I practice a style of street photography that is very unobtrusive. I don’t want to be seen, I want to rely on my intuition and anticipation of action and things happening.

With portraiture, it is much more deliberate.

There’s more structure to it, and particularly for me because the portraits that I do most often are paid projects, so they would be for a specific purpose. Profile photos, an author’s biography, LinkedIn, or branding, or whatever the case may be.

I think both can be very honest because if we are looking at street photography, many don’t know that they are being photographed in essence, although it is implied when in public.

When out existing in this world, you’re just showing up. And, that really motivates why I photograph.

I just want to actually go back to something that you had said which was very high praise. When you mentioned the photographers who my work reminded you of, it’s very hard for me in real-time to see that in anyone’s work.

Because I think there is a reverence that we give to these things that came from the past. I think also that’s why we’re seeing a resurgence of film in photography. Even in its scarcity, it’s sought after. It’s tangible it’s real. I think people want to put their hands on things again. So that’s what I wanted to say about that.

There needs to be a lot more space and time, especially in this microwave society that we live in. We’re bombarded with so many images and so, so much good work.

Yeah, that’s interesting. You do some branding photography sometimes and that type of thing, but for me at least, what makes you stand out is that your photographs stir emotions, even if it’s branding photographs.

And that’s what I really picked up on when I looked at your work, and you don’t see that all the time.

There are all kinds of branding photographs out there and every single profile picture doesn’t make me go, oh wow, I think I can really feel what that person’s about, and you’re able to capture that and it’s just amazing.

I want to go back to something that you had said to me before and this is on your website as well, you describe yourself as a subtle reporter.

In terms of street photography and how you described your process, I can certainly see that, but do you consider yourself a subtle reporter too when you’re doing these portraits?

Yes, absolutely. Yeah, I do. I mean, maybe it’d be helpful for me to take you through what a portrait session even looks like with me. I will give you a scenario that I walk a lot of people through.

I’ll ask to see a photograph that you really like and one you didn’t so much. When I look at both photographs technically there’s nothing wrong with them. They both may look great.

Oftentimes, the reason why one is preferred is due to the things surrounding the photograph. How one felt on the day. Was it cold in the studio? Did they get a run in the stocking? A parking ticket? How did the photographer make them feel?

I think it’s my responsibility, in order to capture something different, as you say, something more real, to make people comfortable. When people are comfortable the opportunity is there for that to come out on camera. A lot of my sessions are filled with talking.

And I’m picking up on little subtle cues and noticing things that hint at one’s personality. I demonstrate and I’m not afraid to be a little bit self-deprecating.

That definitely lightens things up. I’m genuinely interested in people, that doesn’t hurt. I think it’s such a privilege to do what I do and gain access to people in this way.

This is what I mean when I say that 20 years ago I would have never imagined or envisioned doing this. So, I’ve had some really cool experiences along the way meeting really interesting people as a subtle reporter.

So, something else you said to me was the through-line for you in your photography is people and their individual passions and accomplishments.

And, you talked a little bit about intuition and the connection that guides creativity. Can you talk about that a bit?

Yeah, sure. I think if we’re all truly honest about ourselves, we can recognize and empathize with others who may be going through something themselves.

So, I always try to approach things with positive intent and that’s very useful. Recognizing, I don’t know what this person’s walking in with. I don’t know what they have on their plate.

I think that definitely helps it, it allows me to kind of get this rapport with people. And, you know, it doesn’t always work, but as I get older, I think some of the conventions that I thought were polite, or we should do, really were just performative and not conducive with authentic connection.

That’s interesting. I love how you put that. I mean a lot of what we do is performative, I think, in society.

When I work with people, this is something I was curious about with you, I really focus on the creative process, not the product.

If somebody wanted to work with me and said, “You know I have a goal to have a book written in six weeks,” I wouldn’t be the person to work with them, because I really want people to focus on the process.

I feel like the product will come with the process. Can you talk a little bit about your process, or process versus product for you, and do you have a philosophy or explain how they merge?

Yeah, definitely. I think that if you develop good habits, and you have structure, or you have a process that works and you can replicate it over and over, and then produce results, you’ve nailed it.

Then it’s just doing the work. The hardest part of course is finding the right process and being consistent because also I think that process is not always sexy.

It’s very important to celebrate your successes and possibly more important to delay gratification. So part of my process is segmentation.

Instead of having very specific tasks, I’ll have areas that I could complete a type of task in the allotted time. For example, in the mornings, the first thing is “me” time actually. In that time I could eat, sleep in, exercise, read, go for a walk, run an errand, or meet an appointment.

Then I have my working segment of the day; tasks necessary for the business, including shoots, special projects, meetings, computer and paperwork, editing, and so on.

Then I’ll have another “me” time session, which is lunch. Again, I’ll exercise or do whatever I need to do for myself. That way it doesn’t feel like I’m always working, because as an independent contractor, you can really get into this habit of feeling like you have to be working all the time; either because you should and hustle culture says you must, or you convince yourself your competitors are doing it.

This is insane because we’re not machines, you know, we’re not machines.

I think good habits themselves help to be able to be more creative. There’s also finding creative things within your regimen each day. For example, something very simple can be extremely creative and motivating and inspiring, which is just making a new recipe for lunch.

We’re all working at home right now so having this really great recipe to look forward to and then you making it during your lunch hour is great. You know, that’s upped your afternoon because you got that little dose of creativity. That’s what I mean when I say everyone has the ability to be creative. There’s the artistic execution again. My sandwich might not look prettier though. 

You’re so speaking my language. I love how you have that focus on the time. I think a lot of people don’t realize this, and this isn’t just creativity, I mean it’s just life in general but, rest and reflection, need to be built into your day.

It needs to be built into your times and your routines. It’s going to make everything that you do better. It’s going to make you more creative.

And, I loved how you talk about these little bursts of micro creativity because I agree, making some kind of different sandwich or recipe for lunch, is creative.

It’s getting your brain moving in a different way than the patterns that we get set in, and it can be so helpful for your big “C” creativity.

So, this really works for me. I often get very tired in the afternoon, especially after lunch. So, I brush my teeth. And, I read this some years ago that brushing your teeth, particularly in the middle of the day for whatever reason, has some sort of association with the morning and that feeling of starting your day and being refreshed. It’s like a reset and it really does work. It tricks me into having more energy.

I like that. So, that I’m going to springboard off of that a little bit. I’d like to get into, if you want to talk about it, what sort of creative hurdles have you come up against. I think again, a lot of people struggle in silence, and they think that they’re the only ones that feel the overwhelm, or the procrastination, or the perfectionism.

They don’t realize that all creatives feel this way, professional artists feel this way. And, part of being a professional is dealing with these things. So is there something that, that you’ve come up against and how do you handle it?

Procrastination. I can deal with that, although you know I tried to have this loose structure and take those things that stay on the to-do list for weeks and weeks, and then I hide it or delete it, or recreate it, and almost like reset the clock. It’s just unavoidable. I think the only constant really is us. I mean, things are going to happen.

And, you know, we don’t live in a vacuum. We also have all these other outside forces and, internal voices and all sorts of things that can really turn us around. That’s why if we think about, for example, physical fitness, athletes who perform on a very high level, they’re not in season, all year. They always have an offseason where they can reset the body, reset the mind, and I still think that that’s also important for the brain.

I think that knowing that and being cognizant of that is the best that we can do. Writing things down is very helpful so I try to write and put things on paper. I find that they get done maybe a little bit sooner. But yeah, we all have struggles.

Also, I think that with the pandemic that we just exited there is this renewed energy I’m feeling and I feel like people want to push through and get out.

But still, there are those who aren’t progressing and maybe feeling a lot of anxiety. I feel anxious, often going out. So that’s something that I’ve been dealing with.

I love your analogy with the athlete because we have to realize we can’t run at 100% all the time, nobody does.

So just before we wrap up, I want to ask you one more question. I would love to hear you tell us what creativity brings to your life.

Creativity brings the seasoning and the flavour. It’s not lost on me how blessed I am to be living in Canada. Growing up in Ontario, and being around so many different people, cultures and having those invitations [to creativity]. Often there’s an invitation, and we don’t even realize it.

We won’t recognize it and then as we get into adulthood and later and later in life, we ignore the signs and indicators even more. I think that creativity is the seasoning and life would be pretty bland without it.

I loved talking to you and about your process.

Thank you so much for the time and I would love to do this again.

All photographs courtesy of Michael Clarke.

For an example of Michael’s stunning filmography, check out his documentary short Black Hair

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