Paul Labonté is a Montreal-based author, photographer, director, publisher and curator. I had the chance to sit down with Paul for my new series called #DinnerwithMT which is a Tastemaker Series in partnership with The Marriott. We decided to have dinner at The Ritz Carlton’s Maison Boulud in Montreal to discuss his life as a creative.
I have always wanted to conduct these one-on-one conversations with people who inspire me or with people who have the ability to inspire others. I first met Paul in the same setting several years ago where we battled on the subject of Jay-Z, culture and rap music. Fast-forward a couple of years later we are meeting again but this time the subject of our conversation would be about him.
Paul has always had a knack at capturing stories and images simultaneously, bridging the gap between the two worlds and translating it for all audiences to enjoy. He is best known for his first book All City: The Book About Taking Space. The book documents the world of graffiti and it includes interviews with celebrated yet anonymous graffiti writers. He also operates an independent publishing and book packaging company called Second Hand Projects.
Moreover, through his branding agency, The Mill House, he serves as a consultant and curator to many major lifestyle, street, sport, and cultural brands. Paul is also famously known as the ghost director of Azealia Banks breakout “212” video that eventually led her to being signed to a major record label.
These are some of the thoughts and sentiments that came about over our dinner together. Hopefully this gives you a glimpse into how he sees the world.
A Purist is an individual who believes that things must stay true to its natural essence and free from diluting influences. Paul believes this ideology has disappeared…
Paul believes that nowadays with the Internet and how things are progressing, anyone is capable of doing anything. But as a creative and a purist, Paul has spent much of his time in the darkroom perfecting his craft. He went to school for photography and he knows about all the technicalities that go into the art. Nowadays, all of these things seem to be a lost art but he takes pride in knowing how to work traditional techniques in the absence of digital tools.
However, if you take a creative kid with a great point of view and a good eye, a kid that understands aesthetics and the uses these new digital tools, he can with trial and error find his way into producing the same results that Paul would get. Paul is totally fine with this reality and he has adapted to this new way of the wild.
The catalyst that drove Paul into the creative world started with his affinity for sports, music and Nike advertising. He cites professional sports like Basketball and Football; along with the sneaker designs of the mid 80s have always been the main source of his inspiration.
Paul’s advice to others is to do the commercial work to pay for your indulgences. He too has taken his own advice by traveling the world to take pictures for companies. This in turn gave him the funding he needed to travel for the research he needed to do for his various books. He states that the goal is always to leverage your skills in order to live the life you want to live by doing the work that you love.
His plus sixteen years in the industry has taken Paul from being just the photographer, to directing the aesthetic of ad campaigns, to buying the advertising to support the campaigns. He has realized that for the past sixteen years he has been operating as an ad agency and he had no idea. It took him time to realize that he was working the branding, product development, and packaging for all of these brands under the role of a consultant, when he should have been operating as an agency. Nonetheless, he has always found pleasure in taking those roles with brands and companies so he could eventually fulfill his own personal projects.
Although he has always been pegged as a creative director, his true passion has always been the strategy, even though those are usually two separate entities within the advertising world. He’s always found it challenging to marry the strategy and the creative, which is always his goal.
These days Paul is working on directing videos and helping other brands be great. When I ask Paul what he ultimately hopes to accomplish his response was that he just wants to tell stories and present things through unbiased lens.
A few tips he lives by as a creative:
1. Being open minded enough to listen to other people’s ideas.
2. Listen to the bad ideas; they sometimes bring you somewhere else.
3. Be only interested in learning.
4. Don’t speak just to be heard.
5. Always look at things from a helicopter view.
6. Say Yes to everything if it interests you.
As director, Labonté is able to go beyond his signature lens and take on ones that are as varied as the music of the artists he collaborates with.
It’s all over, The Slew (Kid Koala & Dynamite D), Music Video, 2009
212, Azelia Banks, Music Video, 2011
Paralyzed, Ango, Music Video, 2012
Paris, Black Atlas, Music Video, 2013 (in production)
Ryan Hemsworth – Against A wall 2013