Monday, January 9, 2017

Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot, Toronto, July 1992

ONE MORNING IN THE SPRING OF 1992 I WAS LYING IN BED in my Parkdale loft thinking about how lonely and broke I was. The phone rang. It was a man who said his name was Barry Harvey; he was Gordon Lightfoot's manager and he wondered if I was available to do some album cover shots. For almost a minute I treated the whole thing as a joke, and tried to figure out which one of my friends was pulling a prank on me.

It soon became obvious, however, that Mr. Harvey was serious, and that I had come recommended by a publicist at WEA Canada. We briefly discussed fees (still imagining the whole thing might be a joke I quoted my full day rate, which almost no one had ever paid up till that point) and availability (I was very available, at any time.) By the time the call ended, my head was swimming. Did this really happen?

I'm not sure how long it was until Barry called me back with a day and a time. I was to show up precisely at 10am at Gord's house in Rosedale with my cameras. There would be a contract giving Gord and Early Morning Productions exclusive rights to the photos, in exchange for my full day rate plus expenses. I arrived at the house early, walked up and down the block a few times to kill time, then rang the doorbell. Gordon Lightfoot answered, shook my hand, then told me to wait in the big sun room, which was filled with guitars and cases.

Gordon Lightfoot, Toronto, July 1992

I looked around for a good spot to shoot, but when Gord came back I asked if there was somewhere outside he found comfortable. He mentioned a spot down in the ravine behind the house, and after he made coffee, I found myself walking a path through the woods behind a guitar-carrying Gordon Lightfoot. It was the most utterly Canadian moment of my life thus far.

If you didn't grow up in Canada in the '70s it's hard to describe the importance of Gordon Lightfoot. His music was literally everywhere, a string of hits ("Early Morning Rain," "Bitter Green," "If You Could Read My Mind," "Summer Side of Life," "Sundown," "Carefree Highway," "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald") that were constantly on the radio, soundtracking the decade with a subtle but persistent melancholy and a peculiarly northern romanticism that was tentative but intense and fully anticipatory of regret and heartbreak.

Did I want to try and capture all of that with my photos in that ravine on a pleasant weekday morning? I'd like to hope that I was that ambitious, somewhere beneath my nervousness. Mostly I wanted to get a really flattering cover shot for a man who'd made seventeen records already and had sat for countless photo shoots. It all felt quite momentous - a few years earlier I was a punk kid shooting hardcore bands in dingy shithole clubs, and now I was doing album photos for a Canadian musical icon.

Gordon Lightfoot, Toronto, July 1992

I mostly shot with my Rolleiflex, trying to frame potential album covers with each shot in the square viewfinder as I worked. Gord seemed relaxed enough, and sang Ramblin' Jack Elliott songs while I snapped. After a while his wife Elizabeth and young son Miles came down and joined us, and Gord started playing and joking around for them.

I'd brought my Canon SLR with me, and took another quick roll near the end of the shoot for insurance. Typically, it was one of these frames that ended up on the cover of the record, Waiting For You, when it came out a year later, while one of the Rollei shots ended up on the back of the CD package.

When we were packing up, just before Gord gave me a ride to the subway station in one of his big '70s Cadillacs, he asked if I thought I had everything I needed. I told him that I might have, but if he was willing, I wanted to do another shoot in my studio to get something different, a bit more formal, for variety. To my surprise he agreed, and a week or two later he showed up with guitar and suit bag at my Parkdale loft, commenting on the colourful street life outside.

I'd stripped the furniture away from by the windows of my studio/bedroom and set up two lights, one bounced into the ceiling for ambient fill, another in a big softbox just to Gord's left. I wanted to bring the daylight outside down to a cool twilight blue, and shot with cross-processed slide film to increase the saturation. I don't know if I played anything on the stereo while I shot, but Gord happily sat and picked while I worked. One of the shots ended up inside the booklet of the record, so I felt like I'd given Gord value for his money.

Gordon Lightfoot, Parkdale, July 1992

A footnote: When Gord arrived, I asked him if he wanted to hear an interesting cover of one of his songs. I pulled out the first album by Clawhammer, a California group I quite liked, and cued up their version of "Sundown." He was visibly amused by the album cover, and listened to their raucous take on his song all the way through. When it was over, he handed the record back to me and said, grinning wryly, "Not bad, not bad. Some tough changes in there."

It would be another four years before I heard from Gord or Barry Harvey again. Once again the phone rang, and Barry asked if I was available to shoot some live photos at Gord's annual concerts at Massey Hall. They were thinking of doing a songbook and needed some fresh live shots.

Of course I agreed, but made one request: I could skulk around at the lip of the stage and get the same sorts of pictures any newspaper photographer on assignment might get, but if they'd let me wander the wings and edge of the stage, I might get some shots with a different perspective. I'd dress in black and try to be as inconspicuous as possible, of course. To my surprise, Barry agreed.

Gordon Lightfoot, Massey Hall, Toronto, Nov. 1996

I began by showing up for the soundcheck, where I tried to get candid shots of Gord and his longtime band - Terry Clements, Rick Haynes, Barry Keane and Mike Heffernan. I was given free access to the stage and the backstage area, and shot roll after roll of mostly black and white before the show, my mind focused on getting something like the work of Columbia Records staff photographer Don Hunstein back in the '60s.

I switched to colour negative film for the show, and did most of my shooting around and behind the band, occasionally darting forward to get shots of Gord as he knelt and shuffled through the fan gifts and song requests that had been left by his mike stand during the show.

Gordon Lightfoot, Massey Hall, Toronto, Nov. 1996

I was quite pleased with what I got, and handed in the contact sheets to Barry, but I don't know if the songbook ever happened and ultimately I was never asked to print up any of the shots. That would have been the last I ever heard from Barry or Gord, in any case. Barry Harvey died suddenly before Christmas almost ten years ago, just after Gord had a couple of serious health scares.

Since recovering, Gord has spent long months of every year on the road with his band, playing what amounts to the sort of endless tour that his friend and peer, Bob Dylan, has been doing for over a decade. I would love to get another chance to photograph Gord again, but while asking for permission from his management to post these photos, my request for a quick shoot was turned down. No matter - I had my chance to contribute to the image of a musical icon, and had an altogether happy experience doing it, making for a highlight in the heyday of my professional career.

(Photos reproduced by permission of Early Morning Productions.)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas

Christmas lights, Los Angeles, Nov. 2016

I'D LIKE TO THANK EVERYONE WHO'S FOLLOWED THIS BLOG and wish them a very Happy Christmas or Chag Sameach or whatever seasonal greeting fits your bill. The year has turned out very differently than I imagined it would around Christmas last year, when I was haunting my hometown's hydro corridors with my camera. I've been to a lot of places with my cameras that I didn't imagine I'd ever visit, and even managed a tentative return to portrait photography. I've also met a lot of great people on my travels. It's been fun.

Christmas lights, Los Angeles, Nov. 2016

Here are a couple of shots taken in the Riviera neighbourhood of Los Angeles, just after sunset and just north of Sunset Boulevard, a month before Christmas. I was going to say that Christmas in L.A. feels very odd for someone from Canada, but on reflection it's really no stranger than anything else in L.A. I'm looking forward to more travel and more portraits, but before that I have a post devoted to a Canadian legend, and a little bit of looking back to start the new year. In the meantime, all the best to all of you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

James Chance

James Chance. Toronto, Dec. 2016

SINCE STARTING THIS BLOG I'VE BEEN REMINDED ABOUT HOW TIME HAS PASSED, and how quickly time is passing. With this in mind, I've become preoccupied with unfinished business, and trying to get portraits of people I've always hoped would end up in front of my camera. Last week I had just such an opportunity.

James Chance has a new record out, and was booked by local music promoting legend Gary Topp to play a show here - once in the early fall, then later in December after that show was postponed. I was a fan of Chance and his bands - the Contortions, James White & the Blacks, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks - long before I ever owned a camera, though he never seemed to pass through town when I was shooting seriously.

I had copies of Chance's records Buy and Off White when I was a lonely misfit high school punk. When most of my schoolmates were into Rush or Springsteen, I was in the basement listening to Chance's punk rock take on funk and free jazz, which sounded like boiled essence of late '70s New York City soundtracking Chance's alternately needy and spiteful vocals. I even went so far as to buy a white dinner jacket and acquire a broken alto saxophone, which I never learned how to play. I didn't make a lot of friends in high school, but I did wear the jacket to the prom.

I can thank Chance for not only giving me an appropriate soundtrack for my slightly retro-oriented teenage angst, but for being my gateway drug to the "challenging" jazz I'd end up listening to a decade later - people like Defunkt, Ornette Coleman, James Blood Ulmer, Last Exit and David Murray, who was briefly Chance's sax teacher. Chance also provided a teasing primer for the American Songbook tunes that would obsess me in the '90s when I (pseudonymously) wrote a column on old jazz for a local weekly.

James Chance live, Rivoli Club, Toronto, Dec. 2016

I arrived early at the club, hoping to get Chance to sit for a quick portrait after soundcheck. It turned out that he didn't do the soundcheck, but Gary talked me up to his guitarist, Tomás Doncker, and I was assured that he'd probably be willing to sit for a portrait after the show. I broke down my studio in a bag again, stuffed it under the soundboard and met some friends for the show.

It was a great gig. Chance has always led a tight band, and I shot a bit from the front of the stage while they did a couple of old Contortions songs, material from his new record, a Gil Scott Heron tune, and encored with James Brown's "I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)." With the show over, I collected my gear and waited for a green light from Chance to do a shoot. With some reluctance, he agreed.

James Chance. Toronto, Dec. 2016

I set up on the stage after the gear had been cleared away - my little white folding backdrop and two LED lights bounced into umbrellas. I waited for James to sign CDs and do some business with Gary before he made his way back to the stage and my little studio. He was obviously suffering from some serious back pain, so I got it over as quickly as possible.

For almost half of the frames, Chance has his eyes closed; he seemed to be marshalling what energy he could after a strenuous night. Luckily I really like taking pictures of people with their eyes closed. But when he opened them and fixed his gaze on my lens I was startled at how huge his eyes are, and how fiercely they seemed to look through the camera at me. The shot above is very far from the most intense of the photos I took at the Rivoli that night.

Not wanting to tax Chance further or take up more of his time, I shook his hand and thanked him for the opportunity to take his portrait.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Los Angeles

Downtown L.A. from the Loew's Hollywood helipad, Nov. 2016

THERE'S NO OTHER CITY LIKE LOS ANGELES. I can't think of a more unique set of circumstances where a city like this could exist. Hugging the sides of mountains on an earthquake fault; home to a world-straddling entertainment industry; lacking a single discernible downtown and, in fact, having several of them; containing not only infamous traffic-clogged freeways but several massive parks.

I used to hate Los Angeles, like most people from the other coast. That was partly L.A.'s own fault - the movie industry has been telling nasty stories about itself and its hometown since the silent era. I fell for the bad press and the sinister myths - until I actually started going there. That's when I learned that the myths were almost all true, but that there was so much more to the place. Mostly, though, I learned that you can't take a bad picture of L.A.

Hollywood hills, Los Angeles, Nov. 2016
House in the hills above Malibu, Los Angeles, Dec. 2016

My return to L.A. after an eight year break began at the top - the helipad of my hotel, to be specific, and its view to the old "downtown" under a cloudless sky. My room looked out at the mansions running down the side of the Hollywood hills, where you couldn't help but wonder if the people living there, looking out of their windows, knew that other eyes were looking back. Looking seems to be a major activity in L.A., where a view is a status symbol, and half the population seems to be doing its best to be seen.

My previous trips to the city had been fleeting, involving buses and taxis and hotel rooms and movie theatres, and I was lucky if I got a chance to get more than a couple hours' time on foot. This trip was different; being on foot in Los Angeles was the whole point, and after the helipad, it began the next morning at that most iconic of locations: The Hollywood Sign.

Beneath the Hollywood sign, Los Angeles, Nov. 2016

After making my way to just under the sign, I wandered down the streets below the big letters and the radio tower, fascinated by the homes on the slopes of Mount Lee. I'd imagine there's an enormous metaphorical weight to living beneath the Hollywood sign, and if I were susceptible to that sort of symbolic baggage it might be a huge burden to live with, depending on your circumstances.

It's impossible, of course, to be in L.A. and not have movie scenes flit in and out of your mind. L.A. is not only a backdrop but a character in so much of Hollywood's self-perception, so it's not surprising that so much of the city - an artificial creation, as they've reminded us so many times in films like Chinatown - looks like a set, with its painted stucco walls and careful plantings of desert fauna chosen to withstand drought. And then there's film noir - the darkest corner of the city's myth, which makes you wonder what could be going on in every prosperous home off Sunset Boulevard.

Hollywood hills, Topanga Canyon, Riviera and Malibu, Los Angeles, Nov.-Dec. 2016

After starting in the hills, I ended up, appropriately, by the sea. Malibu, to be precise, right by the pier, on the Pacific Coast Highway. Another place that I'd imagined in my mind thanks to countless movies and songs before I even saw it. Which is the strangest thing about L.A. - you think you'll know what it looks like, only to arrive and discover that it's either a lot bigger or a lot smaller, but definitely a lot stranger than what you expected.

My little bit of spare time in Los Angeles was given over to meeting with two friends I'd never met - men I knew through friends or long online acquaintance. As I get older it seems more imperative to make these virtual friendships actual, and it was a great pleasure to spend time with Tom and Robert, talking about photography and music and movies and culture - and the city where they both chose to live, having been born and raised far to the east and north.

Tom Rogers, photographer, Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, Nov. 2016
Robert Avrech, screenwriter, Los Angeles, Dec. 2016

It occurred to me later that both Tom and Robert are men with discerning visual taste, and that making their way independently to this very peculiar city probably wasn't an accident. I'm looking forward to talking with them again, the next time chance sends me to their adopted hometown, with its unprecedented circumstances and endless opportunities to take photos and look.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Los Angeles: Cars

Lightning McQueen, Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, Nov. 2016

THE PETERSEN AUTOMOTIVE MUSEUM WAS CLOSED the last time I was in Los Angeles, so I made it a priority to get there when I finally made it back. There are a lot of great car museums in the world, but the Petersen is somehow special, located as it is in a city where cars and roads are essential to its municipal and mythic identity.

I'm not hard to please when it comes to car museums. Put a few dozen really nice autos under decent lighting and I'll lapse into my customary fugue state, eyes locked on details and trim, intently taking in the lines running back from the headlights and grille to the trunk lid and rear bumper. The automobile is probably the most iconic bit of design of the previous century. Which is probably why this century is producing so few really beautiful cars; the time of the auto as peak technology and fetish item might be passing. Which makes my appreciation of places like the Petersen so fervent.

Also, they have the BatCycle.

Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, Nov. 2016

The most stunning room in the museum was devoted to the Bugattis - almost a couple dozen of them, from the earliest roadsters to the Chiron, with pride of place given to the Atlantic, an art deco masterpiece of a car and one of the two originals known to survive, which managed to be even more stunning in person than any of the hundreds of pictures I'd seen over the years.

Bugattis, Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, Nov. 2016

I couldn't imagine living in L.A. without a car, though I know it's possible (if highly inconvenient.) Unlike my hometown, though, it's a place where the lack of rain and snow and road salt keeps cars on the road much longer than I'm used to, and car culture of every type, from hot rods to supercars to low riders and exotics, can be glimpsed everywhere.

I could spend a year or more in Los Angeles just documenting the car culture if what I saw from the back window of my Uber or while walking the eerily people-less streets meant anything. On my first morning in town, wandering down the streets beneath the Hollywood sign, I took snapshots of the real rides people use in L.A., parked under the high, specular California sunshine.

Cars, Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, Nov. 2016

Years ago, watching the original Gone In Sixty Seconds, it struck me that L.A. was the real-life version of the Pixar movie Cars, where there was a whole infrastructure and support system devoted to servicing cars, meshed carefully with the one that kept human life viable under the desert sun. These cars looked more at home here than the people; after all, so much had been done to tame the landscape to their needs, and even with a bumper askew or under a tarp, they looked like they took pride of place in the landscape, masters of their domain.