Nov 19, 2014

Phlearn Interviews Robin Macmillan

About Robin Macmillan


Robin Macmillan was born in Orillia, Ontario and studied fine art at the Ontario College of Art and Design for four years. This led to a career in production for commercials but after receiving a life changing diagnosis of breast cancer, six days after her daughter’s first birthday, she knew she had to make a change. “Life is short, use your time wisely by doing things that inspire and motivate you to be the best person you can be.”

Robin’s portrait painting abilities allowed for an easy transition into the same genre with photography as the medium. Now five years past treatment, her passion for life, family, friends and photography has become her main focus.

In a short period of time, Robin’s works have been seen internationally on the Vogue Italia web site, Fluster Magazine, Below Magazine, the International Photography Awards and several music CD’s. Her prints have been shown in New York City as part of the digital show “The Story of the Creative” and at a solo exhibition in Toronto, Ontario. Recently, Robin has been featured on the well known show “the Weekly Flickr” on the Flickr blog. Robin currently works and resides just North of Toronto, Canada.

Join us in this inspiringly creative journey with Robin Macmillan, as she opens up to us about her cancer diagnosis and how that in turn affected her life, her goals, and her career. Robin’s passion in photography flourishes, and her love for the medium, her life, and her surroundings beam through her spirit and her work. Enjoy !


Please tell us about your experience at OCAD and your passions that you held close while attending.

OCAD became my school of choice because I was good at painting and drawing people, period. That was about as much thought that was put into my future career. I wasn’t obsessed with the program, I just did it because I could. Ironically, looking back I had tried to minor in photography but because the program was so small I wasn’t accepted.
Little did I know though that the four years I spent there were grooming me for my career in photography almost 20 years later!


Tell us about your transition from working on mostly painting and drawing to working in the film industry.

As I mentioned before, I hadn’t given my career much thought when I did my post secondary education. I didn’t really have the drive or passion to make a career out of painting portraits so after floundering for a few years I landed in the film industry. First, I worked my way up to a junoir producer level for commercials but my need to be more creative made me jump ship over to the art department where I became a prop buyer and dressed the sets.

In 2009 you were diagnosed with stage II breast cancer and from that day onward, you decided that life is too short to not follow your passion. Please tell us more about this defining moment.

I should mention that the years leading up to my diagnosis were when my interest in photography started to show itself. I was doing fairly basic things but started to really love the medium. After the diagnosis came (which was 6 days after my daughter’s first birthday) I knew that I had to make a change in my life. I wanted to focus on things that were important to me. First and foremost of course was seeing my daughter grow up and being with my family and friends but something I just couldn’t get out of my head was this slow burn of passion brewing for creative photography.



Tell us about this mental transition in your life of going from videography to photography. How did you start working behind the lens?

When I first started taking photography more seriously I must admit I didn’t have a clearcut path. I dabbled with a few things but soon realized that my ability to paint a portrait on a canvas was translating into an ability to take a photgraphic portrait. Loving a painterly and creative style I wound up in the conceptual portrait world and have never looked back.

What inspires you?

Typically art and nature are what inspire me. Nature for the organic, painterly feel that already exists when you step into its setting and art for the work of the old masters. Right now I am obsessed with Turner’s skies and Vermeer’s lighting. My current series Footprints also has me inspired by environmental issues.


Would you consider yourself a self-taught photographer?

Yes and no. Yes, because the technical side of photography I had to teach myself but also no , because I spent four years at OCAD learning about variety, colour, balance and composition which is an important part of any photograph.

What is your favourite photo that you’ve ever taken? (why?)

It’s definitely hard to pinpoint just one. Presently, I’m very proud of my environmental series Footprints. Photos with my daughter as the model like “I Dreamed I Could Fly” or “Finding the Fairy Glen” obviously hold special meaning to me as well.
I also seem to cling to my very first conceptual portrait too which is “Tree Hugger.” Who knew I would come full circle several years later to the Footprints collection!


What’s on your gear list?

My main camera is a Canon 5D Mark III but I shoot with a Canon 7D for my underwater work. I tend to use a 50mm lens for the most part but will use a 24-105mm on occasion. I use a 16-35mm lens almost always underwater. I use a Manfrotto tripod most of the time and sometimes a remote as well.

Tell us about your creative process. When conceptualizing a shot do you ever sketch it out beforehand? How long would you say it takes to create a photo from start to finish?

Even with my art background I don’t do any sketching! Is that bad?
I do however think about what I want to portray in the image and work out the logistics in my head. That’s the first part, then I shoot which is usually very quick.

I’d love to take my time but circumstances always seem to prevent me from being able to do that. For example, I just got back from a trip to Iceland. I drove to an iceberg lagoon to get some very specific photos which required my daughter to be in a bathing suit (in Iceland….in October). I told her she only had to count to 30 and then her Dad would throw her clothes back on her. I had 30 seconds to get the shot I’d flown thousands of miles for…. The last part of my process is the editing afterwards. I use Photoshop CS6 and an edit can take anywhere from an hour to 10 or more depending on the complexity of what I’m trying to achieve.


How important is Post-Processing to your works?

Post is a very important part of the final piece. I feel like I keep repeating this word but creating a painterly image is very important to me. It’s what I love to look at on a wall so that’s what I create. Photoshop is what helps get the image to that point through various methods of masking and textures among other things.


What is your proudest moment as a photographer (so far)?

I’ve had a few moments. The opening night of my solo exhibit in Toronto and having my daughter there. The first time I received a “Picture of the Day” with PhotoVogue. Yahoo/Flickr doing a feature on my life and work for Breast Cancer Awareness month and most recently receiving an Honourable Mention in the International Photography Awards for the series Footprints.

Can you tell us about your underwater series thus far? It’s so incredibly breathtaking. What is the process generally like? Do you shoot in lakes, oceans, swimming pools or a mixture of all of the above?

I am so happy I was introduced to underwater photography. I love how graceful and elegant everything looks in water. So far I have yet to tackle an underwater ocean shoot. To date, I’ve only shot in lakes or swimming pools and both give a completely different effect. I don’t have elaborate lighting or scuba gear so my shoots tend to be simple and safe.



Can you please tell us about your ongoing series Footprints? When did the project begin and how did the idea of it all come to fruition?

I’d be happy to talk about this series! How long do you have?
Footprints started with a photo that wasn’t meant to be part of any series at all. “Rising Up An Earthen Beauty” was a photo I had taken as a commissioned piece. The more I stared at it when I was finished the more I thought of it as Mother Nature rising up from the decaying earth. I had been struggling a little bit about wanting to say more with my work and this took on something that was very important to me, the environment. Footprints was born and now I tackle major ecological issues that we face in society like the vanishing honeybees, air and lake pollution, deforestation, urban sprawl, air travel, etc, etc. Sadly for the earth, this series is ongoing.


FOOTPRINTS Series | Left: “Rising Up An Earthen Beauty” | Right: “Honeybee, honeybee, where can you be?”


Do you have a favourite from the series Footprints?

Usually my latest release is my favourite one because it’s fresh in my mind and I’m passionate about the topic, so that would be “If you go out in the woods today…”


FOOTPRINTS series | “If you go out in the woods today…”

What’s the most challenging part about creating this series thus far?

Location, location, location. As I delve deeper and deeper into some issues, it becomes trickier and trickier to get to the locations I want to shoot at. This is one reason photos from the series aren’t released very frequently. I’ve stood in live bee hives, highway medians, off limits construction sites and I have a feeing it’s only going to get crazier!

Approximately how many more are left and what do you hope to do with this series in the near/far future?

I can’t say how many more are left because at this point I’m not sure. I still have lots of ideas and issues I’d like to delve into. My hope is to get this series out into the public as much as possible. I definitely don’t want to come across as preachy when I release a new photo and blog about a certain issue but I do hope I make people stop and think for a minute about their own carbon footprint. I’ve had to educate myself on this journey and I realized that I could be doing much more to lessen mine.


FOOTPRINTS Series | Left: “Life on the Raft” | Right: “Leaving the Grid Behind”

Who are some of your favourite photographers and/or artists?

Wow, where do I start? There is so much talent out there! Ok, well I guess lately I’ve been into Edward Steichen for portraiture, hands down Barbara Cole for underwater work, Mallory Morrison too! In the conceptual world I am inspired by the work of Kylii Sparre (known as Sparrek) and Oleg Oprisco. I also get great energy from nearby photographer, Patty Maher who I have the privilige to shoot with from time to time.

Tell us about the craziest thing you’ve ever done to get “the shot”?

Well, I can tell you the craziest thing I’ve ever done and still didn’t get the shot. Recently in Iceland, again I was at a specific location for my Footprints series and I had to use myself as the model. I had brought everything I needed for this shot in my suitcase so off I went never predicting the gale force winds that were waiting for me. We could barely stand let alone put my camera on a tripod so my husband jumped in as photographer and I stripped down to a tiny black sundress and posed like crazy for 20 secoinds. Then I just ran for it back to the car covered in molasses and black sand not knowing if my feet were bleeding or just so cold they felt like they were bleeding. In that moment I felt definite payback from my models for every uncomfortable, frightening, cold, wet and terrible position I’d ever put them in!


In the flickr spotlight interview you say “my fear of becoming a photographer completely vanished for me after treatment”
Can you tell us about how the fear vanished? I believe all of us have this initial fear when beginning anything for the first time. I’d love to hear about this moment.

I suppose what I meant by fear was really my lack of confidence in my technical skills. I knew what I wanted to create but I was afraid of how it would be judged without the formal training. After a journey with breast cancer your perspective on things can change dramatically and for me I just wanted to focus on what made me happy and besides family and friends it was photography. It all of a sudden didn’t matter what other people thought as long as I was doing something meaningful and fulfilling for myself. If other people enjoyed it too then that was an added bonus.

Amazingly enough, here you are 5 years later — 5 years cancer free. Is photography what you want to be doing for the rest of your life? What do you hope to say to people with the work you create?

Yes, here I am five years later and grateful for every minute. Photography is my present and my future. I can’t see my life without it.
In my earlier work I’m not sure I was intentionally trying to say anything to people. I was just shooting moods and emotions not thinking much past that but as my work reaches more and more people I am hearing things like “peace, strength, hope, courage” when they describe my work to me. It’s an amazing feeling to hear those things.


What is the best advice you have ever received?

In my first year at OCAD I had a teacher named Howard Gerry. Funny, I can remember his name but have no idea what the name of the course was! Anyway, he sat us down on the first day and said, you’re not students, you’re artists. Something more prolific came out of him I’m sure but the point is he didn’t want us to spend the next four years thinking we weren’t artists, that we were only just learning. Be the artist you are now, just start doing it.
It took a cancer diagnosis to finally heed his advice.

Do you have any advice to offer us fellow artists and photographers about art, photography and/or life?

Be confident in whatever you choose to do. I regret that I let a lack of it in photography hold me back for so long. Better late than never though!


Interviewed By Angela Butler

To keep up with Robin Macmillan and her work you can do so on her Website, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook Page. Thanks for reading! 🙂


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  • user image

    Creating surreal, other-worldly art such as this has always been my ultimate goal. I’m not there yet, still have a ways to go, but, seeing beautiful creations such as these inspires me to continue learning. Thank you for this article, and for the inspiration!

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    Carolyn Whitman

    Robin – your photography is beautiful!!! I found myself lingering on each picture, and appreciating more and more the time you take in the post processing. You’ve certainly achieved your goal of creating a painterly image in each one – and the results are mesmerizing. Best wishes to you as you continue your journey in the world of photography.