Bob Oré likes to recount a fight he lost with the photographer Monianne in the 1980s, when she was preparing one of Mr. Oré's catalogues of fashion imports in Montreal. She would shoot the Jean-Claude raincoats from Paris, she announced, in Mount Royal Cemetery.
“I said: ‘Are you crazy? Absolutely not; it’s sacrilegious,’” Mr. Oré recalled from his home in Los Angeles. But Monianne stood her ground. The result – a complicated shot involving numerous models with umbrellas – was “like a Manet painting,” he said. “It was perfect! I still love that picture, because it has such a joy of humanity. We have such a short life, and this is the proof that you can be happy even in a graveyard; even in rain; that life is bigger than all that.”
That story captures much of what made Monianne a revered figure in Canada’s fashion world and beyond: her painterly approach to photography – the French impressionists, with their soft edges, were a particular inspiration; her uncompromising fidelity to her vision; her storyteller’s imagination; and her insistence on photographing outdoors, trading the control and convenience of a studio for the thrill of “chasing the wandering light,” as a 1989 cover story on her in Applied Arts Quarterly phrased it.
The ability to find beauty, creativity and joy in dark places that Mr. Oré perceived in the cemetery photo is also emblematic of Monianne herself – not only a brilliant artist, but also a woman who struggled with depression for most of her life, and from her mid-30s, a single mother with a disability.
“She was like a heroine out of a Dickens novel, with a gift for surmounting the odds, and a genuine flair for the dramatic,” said director Jon Michaelson, who was romantically involved with Monianne in the late 1970s. “An aristocrat of the spirit who attracted other free spirits to her.”
Monianne died at her home in Toronto on June 25, at age 79. She chose a medically assisted death.
“She was a phenomenal artist,” said Montreal make-up artist Jacques-Lee Pelletier, who worked with Monianne in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “She had a gift to be able to compose incredible pictures in circumstances that for everybody else were a constraint. For most people, shooting outside was hell, because you don’t control the light, the clouds, the rain. But she would be like a fish in water. She did magic. She had a gift for translating the feelings of the soul.”
Monianne told the Applied Arts Quarterly in 1989, “I like a photograph to be like a still from a movie that tells a story, to which the background gives intelligence.” In unpublished memoirs, excerpts of which her son, Jonathan Monianne Barratt, shared over the phone, she wrote, “Just as I have always loved working with the subtlety of light, I searched for subjects that have subtlety of character, models with more than one dimension. […] If, as they say, a photograph is worth 1,000 words, you’d better have something to say.”
For this reason, she would seek out dancers and actors for her models; one of her favourites, ballerina Linda Dagenais, went on to become a top European fashion model and a favourite of Paris photographer Sarah Moon, with whose work Monianne’s is often compared. Monianne was also known to approach interesting-looking women on the street and invite them to do test shots; some of them, she wrote, would go on to have major modelling careers.
Women also appreciated the female gaze that Monianne brought to a patriarchal industry. In a conversation last month, she told this writer that she did not give her models verbal cues that would steer them into clichés of male desire and sexual objectification. Likewise, in her memoirs she wrote that as a woman, she was incensed by the way “so many magazines and fashion shows use women to pose like plastic mannequins in a store window. They are just clotheshorses.”
The actor Anthony Forrest became another of Monianne’s modelling discoveries around 1970, and the two became lifelong friends. “She was all about the light,” Mr. Forrest said over the phone from Berlin. “This was her classic old-school training in photography: learning how to light and how light affects photography. Today’s [digital] photographers can shoot and shoot and shoot. She was using a Hasselblad in those days. She had her own darkroom, and did all her own black and white processing. Her work was really meticulous, painstaking. ... She would bring out the best in people.”
Monianne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Sept. 22, 1941, but Manchester, England, was the setting for most of what she later described as “a very gloomy childhood”– gloomy enough that she declined to use a family name for the rest of her life, Mr. Barratt said.
At 17, after graduating from high school, she became a reporter with the Salford City Reporter. But she soon realized she lacked the requisite toughness. She had, however, been inspired by the photographer who accompanied her on assignments, and moved to the steel town of Sheffield in hopes of learning that trade. Seeing a shop sign for “J.A. Coulthard, photographer” one day, she walked in and asked the proprietor to take her on as an apprentice. He said yes.
James Coulthard turned out to be “one of the best industrial photographers, and the greatest teacher you could ever have,” Monianne wrote in her memoirs. Her three-year apprenticeship opened up “a whole new world. […] I have never been bored since.”
In Sheffield, Monianne honed her craft largely through industrial photography. When she returned to Manchester in 1964, her work expanded to include photographing the Beatles and other bands, Mr. Barratt said.
In 1969, she immigrated to Canada, hoping to establish herself in Montreal as a fashion photographer. By 1973 she was the one being cold-called, as when Mr. Oré showed up unannounced one evening at her studio, asking to see her work and hiring her on the spot.
Her clients would eventually include Eaton’s, Air Canada and Israel’s tourism board, as well as such magazines as Votre Beauté, Nous, Clin d’Oeil, and Élan.
She was always larger than the commission – basing an assignment for Eaton’s on paintings by Degas; turning a catalogue shoot in Sardinia into a ravishing carnet de voyage, on one occasion hauling Ms. Dagenais out of bed at sunrise to catch a fleeting shadow effect that matched a black and white dress that Monianne had previously deemed unpromising. When Montreal’s Nous magazine commissioned a male nude photograph, she produced a stunning winged Icarus figure. Her work for Votre Beauté included a series of portraits of well-known Quebec women, each photo inspired by and paired with a painting by Quebec artist Christiane Frenay.
Monianne was unstoppable once she had an idea, routinely paying out of pocket for whatever she felt was needed – props, locations, drivers, Mr. Barratt said in an e-mail exchange. “When she had to get the shot she was a dictator issuing martial law, recognizing no limits in the pursuit of her artistic vision.”
Monianne’s live-in studio on Sherbrooke Street West, above a Holt Renfrew fashion store, was close to the Ritz-Carlton, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and “the city’s best bars, clubs and restaurants,” Mr. Forrest said. “So if you were in Montreal, whether you were working with her or not, she was a port of call.”
She was in her mid-30s when signs of neurological problems appeared. At first Mr. Forrest attributed her walking problems to her stiletto-heeled Charles Jourdan shoes. But by 1977 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That same year she gave birth to her son, whom she would raise as a single mother after her romance with his father, Mr. Michaelson, ended.
A long, relentless progression of adaptations began as the disease took its course. When her right hand became paralyzed, she tried using a tripod with cable and release. But when people suggested that she abandon the outdoors for studio portraiture, she replied, “That’s not what I do.” When her beloved Hasselblads became too heavy for her to use, she switched to 35 mm. When she could no longer nimbly manoeuvre into position for shots, she replaced her fixed lens with a zoom.
In 1980, using the proceeds of the sale of her cameras, she took her young son to Scotland for what would be a five-year stay in the picturesque towns of Dunbar, then Gifford.
“Even though she was already bound to a scooter, she used to lead me on wonderful walks through the countryside by following abandoned railroad tracks,” Mr. Barratt recalled. “She never let her disability disable her, because she always found another way to go.”
Monianne credited experimental DNA treatments in Paris, paid for by Mr. Oré, with remissions that enabled her to work, albeit on a reduced scale. In 1985 she returned to Montreal, and thanks to financial support from friends and clients was able to enroll her gifted son in Lower Canada College.
In 1994 she moved to Toronto, initially sharing a house with Mr. Forrest and his young family. In her motorized scooter she explored the city’s waterfront, pouring her creative energies into nature photography.
When she could no longer hold a 35 mm camera, she reluctantly switched to digital; eventually she had to hold that upside down, using the weight of the camera on her thumb to operate the shutter. By the mid-2000s, she required physical assistance from her caregivers to take photos. When even the digital camera became too much for her to hold, she made a final switch to an iPhone. Despite her initial resistance, she avidly embraced digital editing technology.
In 2007 she was featured on the CBC television series Moving On. At the time, Monianne was trying to establish a greeting card business for her nature photography, but she confronted what she called the “disability ghetto,” where “you’re not treated as a serious businessperson.”
For the past five years or so of her life, Mr. Barratt said, she had been unable to operate even an iPhone, but would issue precise instructions to her assistant for each shot on their outdoor explorations.
The final scene of the Moving On episode shows Monianne at the launch of a self-published book of her nature photography, at a lakeshore café in Toronto. Butterflies, she tells the gathering of friends, are her “metaphor for life. This one,” she says, pointing to a stunning photograph, “was taken in the little garbage heap outside the back of the café.” The wind was ferocious that day, she says, and she had spotted some monarchs “clinging for dear life,” and took “three or four hundred pictures” of one of them.
“So you can be standing in an ant-infested garbage heap but you can look at beautiful butterflies. Or you can stand in a garbage heap and complain about how ugly and horrible everything and everybody is around you. And I think it’s up to all of us to just look for beauty.”
Monianne leaves her son, Mr. Barratt; brothers, Roman Solecki and Alec Hamilton; and many friends.