These Toronto couples send amazingly awkward holiday photos to all their friends every year
Every December for the past decade, Toronto couple Camilla Singh and Walter Willems have sent awkward holiday portraits of themselves to their friends. When one of those friends, curator Christina Zeidler, met another couple, Robyn and Mark Sprott, doing the same thing, she knew she had to arrange an exhibition. The result is This Is Us, on until December 30 at the Gladstone Hotel, which features more than two dozen satirical takes on the classic holiday greeting card, featuring outlandish costumes and zany homemade sets. We asked the couples to share the stories behind 11 of their tongue-in-cheek photos.
Robyn and Mark Sprott
Robyn and Mark sent out their first Christmas card to 50 friends in 2006, the year they got married. They had seen a ridiculous wedding portrait in a photo shop near their Roncesvalles apartment and figured, “If we’re going to put out a card, we might as well make it really funny.” They found a couple of ugly Christmas sweaters at Goodwill and took this shot. The card’s biggest fans: their grandparents, who told them they looked “glamorous, like movie stars.”
The Sprotts found Mark’s $20 black leather jacket at the now-closed Thrift Town on Queen West. “When I put it on, we both fell to the floor laughing,” he says. “The store clerk came over and said, ‘Someone’s having fun!’” The jacket set the tone for the rest of the scene. “We were going for that sexy, trashy Euro look from the 1989 film National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” Robyn says. The next year, the jacket took on a new life at a beer-tasting party that the couple hosted, where each of the dozen guests posed for a photo wearing the quirky number.
Robyn’s cats, Ted and Rudy, originally hated Mark. Inspired by all the clawing and growling, they bought white turtlenecks and leggings in Chinatown, then ironed on images of cats. “We literally typed ‘stupid photos of cats’ on Google,” Mark says. To complete the photo, they purchased filler cotton to mimic fake snow and covered the walls in gift wrapping paper.
This card—the first to feature both Sprott children, June and Oscar—was inspired by a 1970s photo of Chevy Chase in the midst of a food fight. They enlisted two neighbours to throw stuff at the family. “It took a while to capture the right amount of things flying in the air,” Robyn says. “And yes, we got hit in the face.”
The Sprotts’ 2013 card opens up like an accordion to show their children performing some kind of task in four different vignettes. “Mark created these incredibly rich mini-sets around the house that were like something out of The Royal Tenenbaums,” Robyn says. “The kids, particularly our then-two-year-old son, Oscar, naturally immersed in the scene. He sat down at his tiny old-fashioned office desk, picked up the phone and started making calls. He also loved shaving while reading the newspaper.”
The Sprotts now send out about 175 cards. They took this year’s at the Gladstone Hotel. Mark made each of the papier mâché heads using NOW magazines, and the kids painted the faces. “This is the first year that my son’s art vaguely resembles a face. A year ago, it was a circle maybe—or, a smudgy area,” he says. “These holiday photos have become a chronological time capsule of our family. You see how our kids have grown up and worked their way into the pieces more. And they are constantly yelling at mommy to get off the phone.”
Camilla Singh and Walter Willems
“In 1999, we shot our first holiday photo at the Dutch Art Institute in the Netherlands, where we met and were studying at the time,” Singh says. “It was a reaction to a Christmas card from a friend and her new family—they were sitting on a couch in really ugly Christmas sweaters without irony. We bought a fake baby from a toy store. We set out this rule to not tell people it wasn’t real unless they asked. For two years, a colleague asked how my baby was doing. We call our images Untitled Staged Photographs. Sometimes they reflect current events or experiences we’ve had through the year; other times they are fictional. We sent our first photo to about 100 people. Now, more than 1,000 people are on our mailing list.”
“When we visited costume designer Juul Haalmeyer’s Forest Hill home, we told him we had to take a photo there,” Willems says. “It’s like a museum, a cabinet of wonder and rarities. That issue of Playboy was a Christmas special from the 1970s. Our outfits are also from that period. We created a scene that ended up commenting on Christmas behaviour: people eating in excess, getting drunk and spending well beyond their means. The shoot took all day—we finished around midnight. The next year, this photo ran in an ad for MOCCA in Vice magazine.”
“We were visiting my parents in my hometown in the Netherlands for the holidays,” says Willems. “We shot this photo on a farm nearby—my family knew the owners and it’s been around for generations. They have all kinds of animals. We opted for a little pig. When friends and family saw our card, a lot of them didn’t believe that the pig and farm were real. I’m wearing a 1970s custom-made floral suit from Homemade Tarts, and Camilla is wearing a real priest’s uniform. I asked my father to get one from a retired local priest. When my father handed his uniform to me, he told me that I could never mention to the priest what it was used for.”
“In 2009, we took a vacation to a holiday mansion in Costa Rica with six or seven bedrooms,” Willems says. “We brought a whole suitcase of costumes. People thought the backdrop wasn’t real—there’s a surreal David Lynch quality to it. I was playing the role of an enlightened pool cleaner, hence the pole from Juul’s shop. Camilla, who was waiting for the pool to be cleaned, was a stuck-up Miami socialite in a disco jumpsuit.”
“In May 2014, we were invited to Dubai to hold a two-week university workshop based on our Untitled Staged Photographs,” Singh explains. “On a day off, someone took us on a safari to the desert. On the way there, we passed a payphone. It was significant for us because we got married at a payphone in High Park in 2002. We took the photo in 1920s British colonial outfits because we were thinking about new forms of colonialism in the present day. They were not breathable. It was about 40 degrees and Walter was sweating profusely. We finished the shoot in under half an hour. The photo was the perfect way to announce to friends and family that we were moving to Abu Dhabi in 2016. The desert is where we live now.”