Michael Tardioli, School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO)

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Broken Book No. 8, 1998                                                                                                         Michael Tardioli

I have been a faithful SPAO follower over the past decade and was really excited to chat with its Director, Michael Tardioli, about what makes him tick, how the school got started and where it’s headed. Michael is modest about his talents, genuine, and caring. His students come first. He brings a human touch to the education system. Oh, an he is funny. SPAO has it’s annual open house next Friday, November 4, 2016 from 3pm-10pm. There will be some exciting announcements!


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How did you get started with photography?
I don’t have a big arts background. My youth was consumed with playing soccer. I was on provincial all-star teams. I was on a professional reserve team. I had skills but I just didn’t have that athleticism that I needed to stand out a little more and there was not a lot of opportunities.

I was an only child. I had a great aunt who used to have these photo books that I didn’t realize how critical they were at the time. We would go over to their house and there was no kids around so I would look at these books. I would see these naked people in them and it was kind of scary because it was in black-and-white. It affected me. I always loved the act of drawing and I couldn’t draw as well as people around me. I had a cousin that could draw perfectly. And that type of drawing, not necessarily art drawing, but there is a car and he would draw it perfectly and I was like “Why can’t I do that?”

After soccer had ended, I had injured my ankles, I lost my identity. Then someone showed me a camera and for some reason, I had no interest in photography, I got caught with the mechanics of it for just about a year. Someone suggested I take a program at the college. At the time they trained as printers or lab techs not photographers. I excelled there. I met my mentor there, this German man, who really showed me how to work . I got a job right away in the industry and it sort of began like that. I developed print techniques later on which  got a bit of attention for me to go into teaching. And that’s when all the SPAO mess began…

SPAO “mess”?
Everyone thinks I started the school on a positive note but I kind of didn’t. I was teaching at Algonquin College. They gave me first-year students, about eighty of them, and said form your own curriculum. And I did. Well, my first year group started outperforming the graduating group that I didn’t have and the graduating group got really upset by this and said “Why don’t we have Michael in the classroom?” Which was very flattering, there’s no question about it, but I could understand the department heads at the time saying “Wait a minute, we don’t necessarily want a popular instructor, we don’t know if that is a good idea.” So, for union issues, I didn’t  return to Algonquin College. I had this exiting interview and as we were talking they were all obviously very happy with my work and they sort of hinted that I was a bit of a higher level than what they wanted. I said to them “You have three or four students that have a lot of talent here and I think you should take a look at them.” The instructor said “No, we treat everyone the same way.” At that time, it turned me a little bit. I got angry. I didn’t show my anger, I just said “Look at this, eh.” I want a culture where we secure our talent. All the other students are going to get what they are going to get and get it well but we gotta look at our talent here. So I went away angry and said “In another world, I should just start my own program.”

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Image by Abigail Gossage

What happened next?
get these emails during the summer “Michael, we are not going back to school.” Five of them. I said “Come on guys, you gotta go back and get your diploma.” Five became ten, ten became twenty and that’s when I talked to someone and they said “Michael, why don’t you look at opening something up”. I didn’t want to go through the work of it. I took a long walk and said “What the hell!”. I thought maybe we will last a year just to get those kids through everything. Well, it’s twelve years now .

So it wasn’t this entrepreneurial thing. I don’t make a lot of money. It’s really because I love talent and I am attracted to it. I don’t care what it is, I am fascinated by it. So, if I’m able to manage that,  help with developing it, than I love being a part of it. I will support talent at any level. When I go to soccer games I always watch the best players and ask myself “What are they doing that we are not doing?” So, when I say that I want my students’ work to be a world-class that’s not a joke. It sound silly , and I am sure that some people say that I am a fool, but I take it on that level all the time.

Where does SPAO fit in the photography scene? 
Higher learning sort of describes what art can be. Academic cultures provide conceptual ideas showing the potential of creative contemporary photo-based art. SPAO is a production house. I am embarrassed to always give sports analogies because it looks pedestrian in the art community but SPAO really is a training ground: a camp of these new artists, young artists, misdirected artis, students, a polishing, a place to repeat, a place to experiment. It’s production based and I am really proud of that.

Where the school is really different from the bigger educational institutions is that we kind of secure lives a little bit by creating a place for people. Someone who can’t go to university or college, someone like a couple of our students who are going through a lot of trouble. Maybe it’s a place for these individuals for a couple of years. There is a human element of caring about you as a person and I don’t want to lose that.

How’s SPAO run?
We don’t get funding. Zero. We are a charity now so we get some donations. I am getting thanked in another way. We had to produce talent, careers, establish careers, establish a presence in the community. We have been criticized for having a SPAO look, well that’s earning it on merit to create an identity through the work coming out of the students. If the school shuts down tomorrow, I would go to bed alright because we did it.

I am not interested in fame, I am interested in the stability of the school. That there is going to be a place for people to come. I had a chance not coming from an arts background to do something artistic and I want other people to have a chance to do the same. I want anyone who wants to express themselves with their hands or wants to think about things to come on down. I don’t care what you look like or who you know.

What does it mean for SPAO to be in Ottawa?
The people running the city arts program have an interest in photographic arts. They want Ottawa to be the hub for photographic arts based on the Karsh legacy. There is a feeling that this could be the place. We don’t have the commercial culture that Toronto or Montreal has, but Ottawa has this chance to be a hub and the school could be a really big part of that.

One of my petpeves is that we don’t have a representation culture in Ottawa. Art reps, galleries, we have very few photographic galleries. Is it going to come to SPAO to run a critical gallery now? We don’t have a photography festival in Ottawa.  Is it going to be up to SPAO to do that again? It’s tough because we are an aging culture. Is that going to be problematic in the future? What is the youth going to do?

What’s your vision for SPAO moving forward?
Personally I will be an old senile man in the corner and I will always have a job at the school. That’s one thing. Two, as much as I love the school becoming more civilized, bigger space, wheelchair access bathroom, all the right stuff, I want a culture of uncivilization. I need it to be hard and awkward and frustrating and a think-tank that really promotes the emerging artist. I want to have a camera building lab in the background so we can build our own cameras. I want a place for historical processes. When I named the school I included “the” because I want us to be a think-tank.  I want SPAO to be  a place where we can try all kind of stuff, to have conversations about work, to hang out at the school with a collective of artists. It’s hard to be alone in the arts and SPAO allows you to drop by and hang out, do stuff. There are so many alumni who are envious of the new group because they know its the place to hang out. I have seven groups of collectives that have stayed with me for years because they are a group and it’s part of the artist team; the studio exists within all of them.

What’s preoccupying you when it comes to photography?
The photograph as an object as opposed to photograph as an image. SPAO wants the photograph to remain an object. The viability of an artist career. I am obsessed with that. Is it going to be up to the school to form it’s own representation agency? How can I help my students after they graduate? I worry about those teaching because then you don’t do their own work. Commercial practice I don’t worry about – you need a different type of energy and you can make a lot of money doing it. But the viability of the artist. I want them to live well. Not just live but live well.

What’s the importance of the photograph as an object for you?
I love films. I could watch movies every day. Film allows me to look into the content. I am not looking at the movie. I am not looking at the seats and the projection, I am totally consumed by what’s going on in the film. What the still photograph allows me to do is to look at it as an object. I get to look at it not just in it. This doesn’t necessarily follow suit with what’s going on in contemporary photography. There is a lot of interpretive documentary now that is very much about story telling and narrative -something we don’t do enough of at the school that I want to bring in. It’s tough to develop narratives in a school environment because you have a shorter amount of time. Nothing much can happen. It’s hard to manufacture narratives just like that. Something has to come at you. I want to make sure that my students can visually organize themselves before they start a narrative. I have taken the position to start with composition and craft right away and get to narrative later.

How do you stay inspired?
All students. When I go home I don’t do any photographic work and I don’t look at art. I am into model making so I do that. I am building a soccer stadium from the 1970s. A friend of mine willed me his model kits and I am not sure what I am going to do with them  – I just stare at them. I put it all in here [SPAO]. I wish I could describe the feeling better than I am…there is nothing better then when a student finds it. It’s a motivator for me. It is selfish in it’s own way. I get celebrated for it too. When one of my students does well and the byline says “studied at SPAO” that’s a handshake for me. I know what I have.


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