She Gave a Neighbourhood Her Photographic Gift

Displaying 2014Dec Photo Bittner 1.jpg

Shirley Bittner, 1965-2014.  Family-supplied photo

Eva Cooper will never forget her first encounter with Shirley Bittner.

Three years ago, Bittner “bounced” into Delilah, Cooper’s new fashion store for women in the Glebe, with her blonde curls and a camera around her neck.

“She said, ‘Hey, put this scarf on.  I need to take a picture of you,” Cooper recalled. Bittner proceeded to photograph items in the store, and two hours later, Cooper had the pictures in hand.  It was the beginning of a professional partnership and a special friendship.

“She was instrumental in creating a Delilah look,” said Cooper.

That ‘look’ was Bittner’s signature style.  She and Cooper used real people, not models, for the store’s punchy ads.  In fact, Bittner was known to grab customers trying on clothing and take them outside to be photographed.  She preferred natural settings to studios.  Her photos captured the play of light, with a strong focus on detail and a touch of whimsy.

“She would embody the quality and the beautifulness of the product,” said Cooper. “It’s a huge loss.”

Shirley Bittner, who lived on Mutchmor Road in Old Ottawa East, died Nov. 14 at the Hospice at May Court, after a nearly two-year battle with a rare form of cancer . She was 49.  After her diagnosis in January 2013, she wrote in her blog, called My Everyday Life, that it had become her full-time job to kick cancer’s butt.

“We’re having a battle, that’s for sure,” she wrote.

Vanessa Thomas was along for the fight.

“We’ve been savouring our time,“ said Thomas, who met Bittner in 2007, when she photographed her newborn son Dawson.  The pair, who lived less than a block apart, quickly became inseparable.

“We were opposites,” said Thomas of their friendship.  “I was the business-type, she was the artist.”

For the past year, Thomas said, they had been quietly crossing items off their bucket list.

Bittner, who loved to travel, had already visited Nepal, Australia, Costa Rica, Argentina, Chile and Mexico.  But there was one place still outstanding.

“Shirley wanted to go to Italy, so we watched Under the Tuscan Sky and Letters to Juliet,” said Thomas.

Other times, the pair would take day trips to Merrickville and “shop like girls do,” or go for walks in Gatineau Park.

Thomas, along with Bittner’s partner Dan and her two siblings, were by her side at the end.  Thomas even played Bittner’s favourite song on the ukulele.

Thomas said she will miss her friend’s spontaneity and her special talent for capturing life through her lens.

Her house is filled with Bittner’s artwork and she treasures the 9,000 images of her two boys that Bittner captured over the years.

“She was constantly sneaking up on moments,” Thomas said.  “She could see what was under your nose that you take for granted every day.”

Shirley Bittner was born in Elliot Lake, Ontario.  She moved to Ottawa in the late ’80s and moved into Old Ottawa East in 1999.  She worked as a graphic designer at Cognos, where she became known for her exceptional Power Point presentations.  Executives at Cognos even coined the term “Bittnerized” when referring to her work.

“Meaning it hadn’t gone through Shirley, it hadn’t been made beautiful yet,” said Jane Baird, the former Vice-President of Marketing at Cognos.

Bittner left Cognos in 2004 to start her own graphic artist business called Bittner Designs. About two years later, she started her photography business.

Bittner photographed many families in the neighbourhood, but was probably best known for her pictures of dogs.  Having two of her own, Tika and Sam, Bittner was a fixture at area dog parks. She almost always had her camera in hand, snapping candid moments of pooches jumping into the river, or frolicking in the grass.  She gave each dog its own post on her blog.  Chica. Joey.  Sampson.  Riley.  Moose.  Margo and Tucker, to name a few.

As Bittner’s cancer progressed, taking photos became more difficult.  She suffered from numbness in her legs and hands.

But she persevered. She even bought a camera with a lighter lens so she could continue her craft.

In late August, Cooper said Bittner came to Delilah for an impromptu photo shoot, her curls now replaced by a colourful head scarf. By chance, Bittner met a young girl and her mother outside the store and asked to photograph them.

Cooper said the single mother was overjoyed, as she had no professional photos of her daughter.

Days later, Bittner was back at Delilah with three of the photos, blown up to poster size and printed on canvas. She was hoping Cooper could help her track down the mom.

“She was always very giving,“ Cooper said.  “Her photography was a really big gift to everyone.”

To see more of Bittner’s photography, go to http://shirleybittner.blogspot.ca/

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