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Photographer Boris Spremo remembered for charm, skill, chutzpah

Last Updated Aug 22, 2017 at 4:40 pm EST

Toronto Star photographer Boris Spremo is seen on June 11, 2013. Award-winning photojournalist Spremo, a blue-eyed charmer who captured intimate and surprising moments from world leaders and average citizens alike, has died.The retired newsman died Monday in hospital after a short battle with cancer, says Diana Spremo, one of his four daughters. He was 81.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Toronto Star, Chris So

TORONTO – Award-winning photojournalist Boris Spremo, a blue-eyed charmer who captured intimate and surprising moments from world leaders and average citizens alike, has died.

The retired newsman died Monday in hospital after a short battle with cancer, said Diana Spremo, one of his four daughters. He was 81.

“He was the man of the house, he was our hero,” she said Tuesday while recounting stories about a loving father who would regale his children with tales from the road. “He really had a passion for life, he was always making jokes, he took life to the fullest.”

Spremo’s 34 years at the Toronto Star took him to war zones in Vietnam, Cyprus, Belfast, Grenada and the Falkland Islands, and he also covered the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Diana.

After each assignment, he would sit his girls down and tell them what he saw.

“He always made sure that we understood that we were privileged,” said Diana Spremo. “He loved Toronto, he loved this country, but he saw so much bad stuff out there and he wanted to make sure that we didn’t take what we had for granted.”

Fellow photographer and friend Peter Bregg was among a stream of colleagues to visit Spremo in hospital last week as his health spiralled.

“We all loved Boris and he made so many friends throughout the community,” said Bregg, recalling a man full of humour and charm.

He had a knack for getting subjects to reveal themselves to him, said Bregg, who met Spremo nearly 50 years ago in Ottawa. The 19-year-old Bregg, a new hire of The Canadian Press, couldn’t help but be impressed by Spremo’s expertise and instinct.

“They say, ‘He’s a lucky photographer,’ but some people know how to make their luck,” said Bregg, now retired after also working at The Associated Press, Maclean’s and as official photographer to prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1984.

“Beethoven was deaf when he was writing music in his later years, yet he knew the notes, he knew it in his head and he knew what to write down. People like Boris know when to point the camera and they know where to point the camera and they know what lens to use.”

Torstar chairman and former Star publisher John Honderich called Spremo “a true giant in his field” and “competitive as hell.”

“He always wanted to go on the big assignments and always wanted to go where the big stories were because that’s what drove him,” said Honderich.

“Everyone adored Boris. He had a huge ego but everyone did (adore him) because you were seeing genius in action.”

He also had “chutzpah” and an unrelenting drive to get something no one else had, Honderich added, recalling a famous shot Spremo coaxed from Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

It took place the day after Trudeau won the 1980 federal election, and featured the relaxed prime minister-elect pulling back an elastic band stretched over a thumb and finger, ready to fire.

“He says to Trudeau as prime minister, ‘Well, do something for me! I’ve got to have a good picture.’ Whereupon Trudeau picked up a paper clip and that elastic and that famous shot was done. That’s the way he operated,” said Honderich.

Bregg said it was hard for anyone to resist Spremo’s charm.

“He had that Yugoslavian accent and he had big blue eyes…. He was always smiling and the accent was very endearing,” said Bregg. “If Boris asked for something, (you’d say): ‘What do you want, Boris?'”

Spremo’s childhood in war-torn Yugoslavia was tough, said Diana Spremo.

He was six when his mother died. His sister had died less than a year before that. His father was a police officer and worked long hours, and by age 10 Spremo was used to spending much of his time alone, she said.

He came to Canada in 1957 after a stop in Paris, joining the Globe and Mail in 1962. He moved on to the Star in 1966 and retired in 2000.

His career brought hundreds of national and international accolades, including the Order of Canada in 1997 and first prize at the World Press Photo Competition in The Hague, the Netherlands in 1966.

Honderich’s favourite shot by Spremo was of prime minister John Diefenbaker in silhouette, reclining in a lounge chair in Barbados in 1976 while the sun shone through clouds behind him. It earned Spremo one of his many National Newspaper Awards.

“He would talk to me afterwards about how he would find the right place, how he could imagine the shot, where he could be,” Honderich recalled. “He would wait hours. He took great pride in saying he was the first one who would arrive at a spot.”

Bregg said that mix of skill and charm earned Spremo widespread respect and love from his colleagues.

“Some photographers are cutthroat and they push their way to the front. Boris never had to. People would make room for him to get to the front.”

Spremo is survived by his wife Ika, their four daughters and seven grandchildren.