Snap Happy: Caitlin Cronenberg breaks from the family film business

Snap Happy: Caitlin Cronenberg breaks from the family film business

Caitlin Cronenberg breaks from the family film business with her first book of photography, due out in July

Artist as subject: photographer Caitlin Cronenberg (Image: Cait) 

If there were a reality show about the Cronenberg clan, you would likely change the channel out of boredom. This is not an insult. It’s a well-documented fact that, despite making films full of exploding heads and twisted gynecologists, David Cronenberg leads a nice, normal family life. The same can be said for his daughter, Caitlin, a photographer who releases Poser, her first book, this month. Despite her multiple piercings and tattoos (10 of them, including a quote from A Clockwork Orange across the back of her neck: “Love’s young nightmare like”), and the fact that Poser is a collection of nudes, she too is disarmingly, even defiantly, conventional. She’s extremely polite. She doesn’t drink. She takes baking classes at George Brown. She loves musicals and video games (her cat is named Link, after a character in The Legend of Zelda). She hasn’t even seen all of her father’s films because she’s heard that some of them are “really gross.” And she’s dating a lawyer—William Burroughs would roll over in his grave.

Cronenberg tells me all this in the bright east-end studio she shares with three other photographers. She shot most of Poser here. Today, she’s wrapped in a cardigan and green Raconteurs T-shirt, the tips of her long, dark hair dyed a deep red. She’s 25 but looks and occasionally acts younger. Languid, wry and understated, she’s self-possessed one moment and as bashful as a goth at a beach the next.

She was raised in Forest Hill, where she attended Bishop Strachan, an experience she recalls as decidedly Mean Girls: “Girls don’t like me right off the bat,” she says. Her parents gave her as normal a life as possible (when she asked for her father’s old camera, he insisted she buy it off him). Professional photography came to her almost by accident. While she was studying fashion at Ryerson, Post City magazine bought one of her portraits of Canadian Idol Ryan Malcolm, her boyfriend at the time.

After graduation, she started shooting parties for Hello! Canada and working as a stills photographer on movie and TV sets (her first stills job was on Ed the Sock). She idolizes celebrity portraitists like Steven Klein—“I want to consume his blood and become him,” she says—and hopes to cast her own Annie Leibovitz–style shoots. Cronenberg has her sights set on Lady Gaga, though the closest she’s come so far is the Toronto singer Lights, whom she recently shot as a 1950s-style cheesecake model.

Cronenberg inherited her father’s let’s-put-on-a-show chutzpah. After publishers rejected Poser, she bankrolled and published the book entirely by herself

If you’re a budding artist and the child of Canada’s most renowned filmmaker, you have to be prepared for two obvious questions: one, did you inherit your father’s talent; and two, did his famous name open doors for you? The answers in Cronenberg’s case are yes, although it’s too early to tell how much, and yes. It’s a lot easier to get people like Jennifer Jason Leigh to sit for a portrait (she was Cronenberg’s first celebrity photo) when they also happen to be regulars at your parents’ dinner parties.

Although the family (“aunts, cousins, everybody”) is involved in the film industry, Cronenberg has zero interest in making movies. She has, however, inherited the same let’s-put-on-a-show chutzpah that transformed her dad from the B movie horror director once known as the Baron of Blood into the King of Cannes. After a couple of publishers rejected Poser (too risqué, Cronenberg guesses), she bankrolled and published the book by herself. It took four years to complete. Her mom, documentary maker Carolyn Zeifman, and dad edited the captions; actor Jeff Goldblum provided a zany foreword (in which he calls Cronenberg “Snowflake”).

Poser’s 134 black-and-white photographs all have the same featureless backgrounds, each full-frontal nude (mostly average 20-somethings) photographed in a medium shot, standing in the same uninflected pose, lit in the same undramatic way. The aesthetic homogeneity is broken up by a few extraordinary figures: a young man with Marfan syndrome, for example, and Genesis P-Orridge, the British musician best known for transforming his body, through plastic surgery, to resemble his late wife. Neither pornographic nor clinical, there is something tentative about the work—perhaps attributable to Cronenberg’s own reserve. “It’s not a study of genitals,” she says, “but of vulnerability.” Her subjects’, of course, but also her own. For her, the book was an exercise in overcoming challenges: her shyness, lack of experience, publishers’ rejections and the burden and blessing of her family name. “I’m sure it encourages people to give me a chance,” she says, “but I hope people see me as an artist rather than just as a member of my family. I’ll always be both.”