Michelle Valberg will never forget the day she photographed Princess Diana. It was the summer of 1983 and the woman still known as "Shy Di" was accompanying her husband on their first royal tour together of Canada.
"Princess Di was truly a highlight," recalls the Ottawa native. "It was very quick, terribly nerve racking and I was surrounded by international photojournalists - it was the craziest shoot I have ever done. But I got a great shot or two - despite the paparazzi knocking me over, lenses flying over my head."
A versatile and award-winning photographer, Michelle has since gone on to capture a large number of celebrities, royalty and world leaders on film, including the Dalai Llama.
But the energetic redhead has also developed a diverse career and excellent reputation by combining her entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to community with a unique artistic vision. "Michelle sees things that the normal person doesn't," explains friend Leslie Coates. "We were walking down the street in Guadeloupe and she started photographing a crumbling wall. We had no idea what she was looking at, but when she showed us the images, they were of patterns and colours that certainly weren't evident to the rest of us." >
But as a young girl, Michelle was focused on the sporting world and began to follow a passion for the links. "I thought about going on a golf scholarship to the States," says the 41 year old. "Then my father gave me his camera one weekend when I was going to Lake Placid. I came home and I knew I had found my true passion - I wanted to be a professional photographer."
At the tender age of 19, while fellow students waitressed in bars over the summer, Michelle set up her own videography business. "I started in video production for weddings, film transfers, slides to video, bar mitzvahs, events, commercials," says the go-getter. "In the first year I did 10 weddings, next year 45 weddings and the third year I did 60."
By the time Michelle was 26, her staff had grown to 13 and her firm was shooting 115 weddings a year, as well as portrait photography. "My dad taught me to be an entrepreneur, he gave me a lot of guidance and encouragement," she says. "Maybe without his support, I would have gone to work for somebody instead. But he helped give me the vision that I could make my own mark with my own business."
Nowadays, Michelle's business, Valberg Imaging, has three components to it - portrait photography, in-house printing and framing - at her Westboro studio and through creative exhibitions. She has also published two books.
As a photographer, Michelle is known for her soulful portraits and stunning landscapes. Friend Kathie Donovan, co-host of CTV's Regional Contact, describes Michelle's photos as magical. "She just got back from photographing whales off of Brier Island in Nova Scotia. I saw footage the other day which pretty much left me speechless."
Michelle's photographic explorations have taken her all around Canada, as well as to a number of far-flung locations, including Japan, New Zealand, Hawaii, Europe and the Caribbean. "If you look back, I think my mother and father taught me that there's nothing you can't do and the world's yours to have. They always encouraged me to try and be involved with different things . . . and they taught me how to love travel," Michelle says. "Creating exhibitions and shooting for myself is the greatest gift."
Her latest project - a joint venture with talented Ottawa jewelry designer Karen McClintock - is entitled "Our Lasting Legacy - An Environmental Message". The 200-page pictorial will display Michelle's breathtaking nature scenes from around Canada. "I want to focus on the beauty we have - insects, birds, mountains, wildlife - everything at risk if we don't take better care of the planet," she explains about the book's theme.
The nature photos will be accompanied by pictures of Karen's intricate necklaces, which feature chunky semi-precious stones, sterling silver and Swarovski crystals. Each piece will be inspired by Michelle's colourful photographs and modeled by leading Canadian women who will introduce each chapter with a discourse on actions they take to reduce environmental damage.
To date, singer/songwriter Jann Arden, ballerina Veronica Tennant and fashion designer Linda Lundström have confirmed their participation. Michelle says she is waiting to hear back from Governor General Micha¨elle Jean and Heather Reisman, owner of Chapters/Indigo bookstores.
In addition, students will contribute paragraphs about what they have done or think needs to be done to take care of the planet. Scheduled for a 2008 Earth Day release, all profits from book and jewelry sales will go to scholarships and bursaries for environmental post-secondary studies. "Karen and I aren't environmentalists by any means, but we are conscious of changes being made and care about the future for our children and grandchildren," says Michelle. "We wanted to do something together to make a difference."
The idea of paying it forward is a part of Michelle's generous nature. Her friend Leslie describes the busy photographer as the most selfless person she's ever met - a lady who rarely turns friends or projects down. "The loves of Michelle's life are her husband, Scott (an Ottawa firefighter), her gorgeous two-year-old son, Ben, and her parents and sisters. Despite her busy schedule, she still makes time for her cottage, golf and skiing . . . and her friends who are many."
Leslie says every project Michelle takes on has a giving element to it. "Both previous books and the new one offer proceeds to charities or foundations. She gives so much of her time to local hospitals and serves on several foundation boards. "And since she is really just a small business person, trying to make a living and raise a young child, people never realize the true cost of all this," adds Leslie.
Michelle is currently a board member of CHEO Foundation, SCO Health Services Foundation, Algonquin Foundation Board and TELUS Community Foundation Board. "I love my community and like to give back," Michelle says simply. "The greatest thing about photography is you don't have to have much money to give. You can give time."
Photo frame guide:
Look for photos with bold features large enough to be seen from across the room. If the photo will be exposed to much sunlight, use UV glass to prevent colours fading. Have the photo printed using archival inks on high quality printing paper for longevity. To add prestige to favourite photos, include a border mat in the frame. (The colour of the border will make corresponding colours leap out from the photo, so make sure these encompass the features you want people to most notice.) Buy frames in different colours and styles if you want to distinguish your photos and give each their own personality. Dollar stores carry plastic, frameless picture holders for a cheap, standalone display option, ideal for an office desk. Photos aren't the only items that deserve to be immortalized on your wall: make decorative vignettes of your child's preschool handprint in shadow boxes or frame your child's first dress outfit.
Where To Buy Photo Frames:
Almost all photo-printing stores carry a collection of frames. While stores such as Wal-Mart, Ikea and Loblaws carry cheaper frames, they do not have photo framing experts to advise on your selection. At framing specialty stores, specialists will recommend frame colours, photo sizing and cropping, and frame photos for you if desired. -- By Tina Barton -- Photography by Darren Brown