An award-winning fashion photographer and photojournalist who has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands, Sacha Dean Biyan began his professional life as an aeronautical engineer before changing careers when in his early 30s. Montreal born and raised but now New York based after living in several of the world’s major cities, here he gives us an insider’s guide to his fascinating home city ahead of this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix.
Hi, Sacha. We are talking to you just ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles-Villenueve in Montreal. Are you an F1 fan, and will you have a chance to watch the race?
I got initiated into F1 several years ago in Sao Paulo after being introduced to an engineer from Ruben Barichello’s team. Having had the opportunity to spend some quality time with the team and witness first-hand what it takes physically, mentally and technically to prepare for these races made me truly appreciate the sport. My own engineering background allowed me to understand the obsession with precision and technical excellence. I have the utmost respect not only for the drivers but the crew as well because racing really is a team sport.
Before that I was only a casual F1 follower. I’ve witnessed the races a few times in Montreal and once in Monaco, but these were primarily social outings and had very little to do with a true interest in the sport. I try to make it up to Montreal every year during Grand Prix weekend as it’s certainly the best time to be there, and though I won’t be able to attend the race this year, I’ll be watching it on TV.
You began experimenting with photography from an early age. Did your surroundings in Montreal inspire your formative style while you were growing up, as well as your subsequent career as a professional photographer?
I credit my initial interest in photography to Montreal but it wasn’t cemented as an actual profession until I lived in New York City. Montreal introduced me to the craft while New York made me fall in love with the art. I never took a single photography class or worked as an assistant. My schooling came from running around in the streets early in the morning or in the middle of the night and shooting just about anything and anyone, and learning from my mistakes.
In the early 80s, like New York, Montreal was hardcore and gritty, with a seedy underbelly - a far cry from the clean, safe city is today. There was an abundance of moody, atmospheric locations that inspired me; lots of neon and smoke reflecting on wet concrete. You could find me in cemeteries, churches, dilapidated factories, or in the seediest parts of town. Anywhere that had any character, I’d be there with a Leica in hand waiting for an elusive moment. Those experiences were invaluable and taught me more about photography than any school ever could.
The city is known for being an epicentre of culture, recently being named a UNESCO City of Design as well as ‘Canada’s Cultural Capital’ by Monocle magazine – what landmarks/sights would you advise any keen photographers to head to in search of some iconic and creative shots?
The most unique location in Montreal, whether it’s to shoot or to visit, has to be the underground city. Though I’ve never personally shot there, it’s been on my wish list to either film a video or shoot a futuristic editorial down there. Walking through the section of the underground city that starts at La Place de La Cite Internationale (across from Victoria Square) all the way to Place Bonaventure, you feel as though you are in a futuristic world drenched in pure minimalism. The whole space is glossed over in steel and glass, all hyper stylised by cold linear design. I’d recommend visiting the underground city late at night when it’s completely deserted and quiet. Very eerie and trippy.
When you return to Montreal, what are your favourite places to go out and eat?
I’ve been fortunate to live in great food cities from New York to Paris to Sao Paulo to Montreal. There is an abundance of great food in Montreal from low to high end. Any gastronomic tour has to begin at the legendary Au Pied de Cochon on Avenue Duluth, the rustic home of all things foie gras and porky. Its namesake dish is a roasting pan filled with fried pig’s foot, stuffed and topped with a heap of foie gras, of course.
For something more cardiac-friendly, Le Local in Old Montreal is also a sure thing for a great dinner. Those seeking the “scene” will want to head over to Buona Notte or Globe. Both have been holdouts for decades on the Main (St. Laurent Blvd.) for a reason. An honourable mention goes to Café Via Dante in Little Italy for their exquisite pasta dishes.
Are there any signature local dishes that are a ‘must try’ for people visiting the city?
The most famous Quebecois “dish” (if you can call it that) is poutine, an odd melange of french fries, cheese curds and gravy. Not my favourite but certainly highly effective for nursing a hangover after partying over the F1 weekend. A definite “must try” for any visitor to the city is Schwartz’s famous smoked meat sandwiches. You must be prepared to stand in a long line, but it’s definitely worth the wait.
What’s your favourite bar?
For atmosphere, it’s the bar at Hotel Le Crystal downtown. And for drinks, after all these years, I still like Suite 701 in Old Montreal - they make one of the best lychee martinis in the city.
What’s your favourite nightlife hotspot?
I have fond memories of Montreal nightlife. My first job was as a deejay in the 80s during the birth of electro and house music. It was an amazing time. Back then legendary clubs like Business and DiSalvio’s ruled the Main. People still talk about those places. Over the past few years, Old Montreal has become the destination for some of the best nightspots in the city from mainstream to underground. Personally, I dig the sound and vibe at Club Velvet and more recently, at Club UN, on Sunday nights.
If you were advising someone visiting Montreal for the first time, what is the one thing you would say they must see or do?
I’d suggest something completely atypical: first learn some colourful Quebecois swear words making sure you have a good handle on the accent. Then go to a dive bar on the Plateau and watch a Montreal Canadians hockey game. Get into it, yell, scream and cuss along with the locals. It’s an unforgettable experience, almost poetic!
What’s your favourite memory from the time you’ve spent in Montreal?
Montreal is where I spent the most formative years of my life. My family and friends are still there, and I have countless great memories of growing up so it’s hard to pick just one. I do miss a lot of things though. I miss the sidewalk cafes on St. Denis St. in the summer, the spontaneity of the Main at night, the quaintness of Old Montreal, F1 weekend, the Jazz Festival, snowball fights in Mount-Royal Park, and the smell of fresh bagels on a cold winter morning at Le Faubourg. Montreal has a lot of character. Let's face it - where else would you see a guy with a turban speaking in perfect French and working in a lesbian bookstore? Vive Montreal!