I’ve been such a big fan of local photographer Stephanie Montani since we connected. The first time we met, Stephanie playfully captured the 6th anniversary episode of I Heart Hamilton on 93.3 CFMU, which meant so much! Stephanie specializes in music and portrait photography, and you’ve likely seen her work if you’re paying attention to the local music scene.
Recently, Stephanie embarked on a photography project for the City of Hamilton / Hamilton City of Music to spotlight the local music scene. I was honoured to be captured by her brilliant lens as she highlighted folks behind the scenes from our local music community. The photo exhibit is on now through April at the Ann Foster Window at Lister Block, facing James Street. (Remember to safely keep distanced and masked up when you swing by to have a look!)
I caught up with Stephanie to learn more about the exhibit along with her creative process!
I Heart Hamilton: When did you first get started in photography, and what drew you to it?
Stephanie Montani: I really sparked an interest when I was 11 years old. I was outside one day with my dad’s digital point and shoot camera and I started taking photos of flowers and landscapes around my house. I instantly enjoyed the images I was creating, and I really loved how I felt while shooting. It kind of took me out of reality, and allowed me create a moment which really helped with my anxiety.
Did you know early on that you wanted to work within the music industry specifically? How did you get started?
I started working with musicians when I was 16 years old, I would go to the local venues every weekend in my hometown and shoot my friends shows. I strayed from that path when I started college because one of my professors told me I’d never make a career out of it and to experiment with a variety of different specialties. I tried to make it as a fashion photographer, then a wedding photographer, and then a fashion photographer again, but about two years ago I started to feel like something was really missing from my life. While I was at a music festival in 2019 I realized how badly I wanted to be photographing the acts instead of just watching them from the crowd. The day I got home I started reaching out to artists, labels, and music publications sending them my work. I started photographing shows at Mills Hardware to build an updated live show portfolio, and the ball started rolling from there. Since then I have felt more fulfilled with my art and my career, and I feel I have found an industry that allows me to be fully myself. I’m incredibly thankful for that.
Is there a certain type of subject that you find the most fun or rewarding to shoot, whether that’s live shows, behind the scenes, or portrait photography?
It’s tough to prefer one over the other when they require such a different skill set.
Live shows are a lot of fun yet challenging since they’re somewhat out of my control. The moments worth capturing are spontaneous and once they happen you need to be ready before they’re gone. I’m also a sucker for great stage lighting, it gives me a lot of unique scenes to be creative with.
Artist portraits on the other hand are a much more drawn out process, which gives me the time and space to really bring my creative ideas to life. I love the process bringing a visual element to a musician’s composition whether it be through press photos, artwork or in some cases creating a fully conceptualized aesthetic to support an album cycle.
You have developed amazing concepts for musicians’ portraits and album art! What is your process like for this type of photography? Is it important for you to dive in and be familiar with the artist’s music? Do you collaborate with the artist on visual inspirations?
Thank you! That means a lot. Every artist is different depending on the amount of creative control I am given. In most cases I start with diving into their Instagram, past photo shoots/visual releases, and obviously their music. I start putting together a rough inspiration board with a variety of different directions that can be taken. At this point I’ll meet with the artist to go through my moodboard and hear any ideas they may have for me. During the meeting I find it’s important to write down keywords, phrases, anything that will spark inspiration later on. After a meeting and some time sitting with the music that I’m creating for, I’ll create a final moodboard and get ready for the session.
Once we are on the session it’s all about making the artist comfortable. I make sure it is a good environment by having the artist choose the music that’s playing, I often chat for the first 15 minutes or while we set up to ensure they feel like they can be themselves with me, and then we get to shooting! The most important part is that I build a bond with my clients, and that’s why I love working with repeat clients because it’s really evident in the photos when there’s a connection between the subject and the photographer, in the posing and overall feel of the work.
Your photo exhibit at Lister Block does such a beautiful job of reflecting Hamilton’s music scene, from showcasing live performances to folks behind the scenes (myself included – thank you!). Why was it important for you to shine a spotlight on those behind the scenes as well?
Thank you so much! It was such a fun project, and I am happy you could be involved. I’ve felt an incredible amount of support in the Hamilton industry, and a lot of that support is felt in the meetings, the e-mails, in the pre-show set ups and behind the scenes of the big shows/events. So when I was told the purpose was to celebrate the music industry I thought of all the amazing people who have supported me in all of those settings. It’s important to showcase the whole industry because really the bands/musicians are only a part of a bigger community that’s filled with hard working, creative and loving people.
How have you found working within Hamilton’s music scene? I always say we have such a strong, supportive community here!
It’s incredibly supportive, and I’ve enjoyed connecting with so many different creative folks. Hamilton is a space to be myself and the support from the scene has allowed to take chances that I might not take otherwise.
It must be such a tricky time working within the current restrictions, whether you need to stay outdoors or keep distanced with your subjects. Has this sparked any creative ideas when you have to think outside the box?
The restrictions have really just forced me to work smarter, whereas before the pandemic I think I was maybe trying to work as much and as hard as I could. Now I find that I’m spending more time creating concepts, or learning new techniques instead of dedicating 100% of my focus on taking photos. Not to say one mindset is better than the other but it has been nice to take stock of my skills and chart a path forward through the inevitable craziness that will happen post-lockdown.
What are you working on next? Anything we can keep and eye out for?
I am working on my videography and creative direction for album releases to broaden my skill set. I have a couple releases I am working on that I’m proud to be apart of and they will involve more than just photography, so I’m really pushing myself to learn and grow! I’m also working on something with Start Famous, I can’t say much but it’s a new program called Shop Talk and it’s something that I think the Hamilton industry has needed for a long time, so please keep your eye and ears open for that.