Lois Siegel: Because She Can
For the past few years I’ve wondered why Lois Siegel shows her magazine-quality photographs of famous people on the walls of the Ottawa Bagel Shop. This isn’t a knock against the bagel joint; owner Vince Piazza is one of the private-sector’s biggest supporters of Ottawa art. But Siegel’s celebrity shots are a little out of the ordinary.
So I asked her why. This is a woman whose career in Montreal and, since 1992, in Ottawa has included most of the checkmarks that bring membership in Canadian entertainment’s A team: in film, directing, producing, casting and marketing; in photography, arts, culture, corporate, news and sports; a professorship in video production at the University of Ottawa; and an armload of Canadian and American awards.
So why, with this resume and now into her 60s, is she displaying work in local venues and contributing stories and photographs to community newspapers like the Centretown Buzz, Glebe Report and Kitchissippi Times? Her short answer is “because I can.” The longer explanation is because she’s never planned any of her career, simply following where her passion leads, and the joy she gets from this extemporaneousness has created her success.
It’s an addiction, and as with any addiction, the first taste is usually free. Siegel got that growing up in the United States with parents who didn’t like to stay in one place for very long: seven cities in six states by the time she was 12 and the family settled in Ohio. She took journalism at Ohio University but still couldn’t resist checking out the next field just across the fence. She took summer French courses at the Université de Paris (better known as The Sorbonne) and at McGill University in Montreal.
Montreal won her peripatetic heart, even if the only job she could get was as a teacher of English as Second Language for the federal government, not the secure position in the 1960s that it is today. Her real love was the film camera; it got her teaching at Concordia and then a place in a National Film Board workshop that eventually led to her Genie-Award winning Stunt People documentary.
For the following three decades she danced with high-profile work, most of it in still photography. She built a network that didn’t guarantee jobs, just put her near the front of the line. But it was fiercely competitive; the only rule was that you had to follow someone else’s rules; the bigger the celebrity, the stricter the rules. It had two noticeable effects: she developed a style of conversation that still includes free-association and references well-known names, and she grew tired of the protocol that the industry demanded of its players.
“I don’t like what’s happening. It’s become a fad. The complexities, the rules and legalities, are sucking the life out of it. What are you going to do, sue me and then I become famous because you sued me? No thanks,” she says.
So she started doing small because “it’s fun and I get to choose what I want to do, like a story I’m interested in or a whole page of photos. Celebrities made a career for me; now I’m trying to make celebrities out of local artists.”
As I write this she’s also playing the fiddle with the Lyon Street Celtic Band at Almonte’s Celtfest. She knows that Google now uses cross links rather than keywords to determine rankings on its search page, and at about 1,500 visitors a day, her constantly mutating Website is probably the most-popular private site in Ottawa. She’s also just finished writing a magazine article about learning to play the fiddle when you turn 50.
“None of it is planned. It just happens every day when I get an idea, and I’ve never worried where it’s going to take me.” Maybe this is the answer to that original question about why she does what she does. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t need words, just action; she just chooses something she finds passion in and then figures out how it works as she goes along.