Renaissance Man

Taken on a camera of his own design, Michael Awad's photographs turn everyday life into art.

Michael Awad has the air of a mad scientist about him. And indeed, the 39-year-old architectural photographer and educator, who originally studied physics, mathematics and computer science, spends what some might call an inordinate amount of time creating unique versions of everything from gliders to cameras. But when he's not busy tinkering away into the wee hours in his Toronto workshop, he also runs a flourishing architectural photography and design practice that has attracted such notable clients as The New York Times, Architectural Record and the National Ballet of Canada. In 2002, he was selected to represent Canada as co-curator and exhibitor at the prestigious Venice Architectural Biennale. Awad's urban landscape photographs, which feature entire city streets captured in one continuous image and displayed over several panels, have also been met with critical acclaim. His first solo exhibit, The Entire City Project, is on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario until Feb. 26, 2006.

Canadian Business: How on earth did you figure out how to take these pictures?

Michael Awad: The process is a hybrid. A still camera takes individual frames from one vantage point. A movie camera can move through a space and it takes a sequence of images, let's say 30 images per second. The camera that I use takes one frame, one image, but that image takes several minutes to capture.

Where can I get one? You can't, because I built it. The cameras don't exist commercially, but the techniques I use have been around for almost 100 years. There are many variables involved, and finding the sweet spot where the different variables line up properly to create an image is difficult. I've been told by people in the art world that nobody is using these techniques.

What does the camera look like? It looks like a camera, but it makes odd noises. It's got motors and wires and it's got a huge battery pack. I can't travel with it because it looks so suspicious. When I cross borders, I send most of the equipment beforehand.

Have you always been a photographer? I started taking photos when I was in Grade 6. In university I started photographing buildings; I became fascinated with the city. I have a fondness for things in motion.

What about moving to Paris or New York? I have no reason to move away from Toronto. I've built a house here, so that's an anchor. I still have to renovate my coach house and build a studio and garage. I have no kitchen.

So where do you eat? College Street. I don't like to cook. If I really needed a kitchen, I'd just build one, but it would add such complexity to my life right now. It's so easy not to have one. No shopping, cleaning, cooking, nothing.

What's next? I was always under the impression I would do this art thing for a while and then get back to my real career.

Your “real career?” I need to go back to teaching, to my urban design research. There's a whole list of things to be built. Furniture, airplanes.

What kind of airplane? It's a new class of aircraft, and there aren't any out there because [inventors] have been chasing the wrong technical aspirations. It's not a plane that anyone needs, it's a bit of an experiment.

What about the furniture? The furniture I work on, nobody needs and nobody will ever want. The three designs I'm working on now are either tables or desks. There's a scale issue: Two of them would require a minimum of a 12- to 15-foot ceiling. It all has a quality of ridiculousness to it. None of the pieces could go into someone's house. This is about me making things for myself.