Friday, February 24, 2017

Piper Laurie

Piper Laurie, Toronto, Sept. 1995

I USED TO WISH I'D BEEN BORN IN A DIFFERENT TIME. About twenty years earlier and I'd have been able to capture the social tumult and style revolution of the '60s; forty years earlier and I might have had a chance to shoot the movie stars and musicians I have watched and listened to since I was a boy - the stars of swing and jazz and the icons of the golden age of the studio system.

By the time I had a camera in my hand and subjects in front of me, most of the stars of my favorite movies and jazz were either inaccessible or dead. I can count the exceptions on one hand; Mickey Rooney was a great star at MGM during its heyday, though my encounter with him was truly odd. Gena Rowlands came to Hollywood when the studio system was waning, though she had the sort of glamour I associated with a real movie star.

Piper Laurie, Toronto, Sept. 1995

Piper Laurie's career began when she was signed by Universal Pictures in 1949, a milky-skinned ingenue who was born Rosetta Jacobs. She didn't get a lot of great roles, and moved to New York City to do stage and TV work, before finally landing a truly great part alongside Paul Newman in The Hustler. For some reason, and despite an Oscar nomination, her career stopped dead after that, and she didn't return to the screen until she was cast in Brian De Palma's Carrie.

I photographed Laurie almost twenty years later; she'd returned to work with a vengeance, doing at least a role every other year, with highlights like Children of a Lesser God and Other People's Money. She even made a film with Dario Argento. Laurie was at the film festival for The Grass Harp, as part of a star-studded cast in a film based on a Truman Capote novel. Ironically, her sister in the film was played by Sissy Spacek, who had been her daughter in Carrie.

Piper Laurie, Toronto, Sept. 1995

Piper Laurie was very matter-of-fact with me during our shoot, which was obviously destined for NOW's cover since I shot a roll of colour. She didn't worry about her best angle or the most flattering light. She did, however, insist on wearing her flowery hat. Once again I draped the hotel curtain and sheers over a floor lamp, but tried to inject some colour by putting a table lamp behind the sheer curtain; the incandescent bulb glowed orange once I corrected the for the cool window light, accentuating Laurie's once-famous pale complexion.

I actually would have loved to have given Piper Laurie the full Hurrell treatment. I was experimenting in my studio with hard spots and hair lights and fresnels, but that required time and patience and access, and I'd never have that with my hotel room shoots. There was no shortage of celebrity when I was shooting in earnest, but not a lot of glamour - that had quietly slipped away years before I took my first photo.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Alan Rudolph

Alan Rudolph, Toronto, Sept. 1994

ALAN RUDOLPH IS ANOTHER DIRECTOR WHOSE CAREER WAS ONLY POSSIBLE in the long second golden age of American movies that started in the early '70s and lasted as long as foreign films, art houses and independent film producers thrived together in an ecosystem that no longer exists. His career followed the usual trajectory - an apprenticeship in television (assistant director on The Brady Bunch) followed by a pair of low budget horror thrillers (one of which he would disown) and a period working under Robert Altman, with whom he's inevitably compared.

His career as a director began in earnest with Welcome To L.A. in 1976, the sort of film with which I'd always associate him - a simmering, off-kilter drama where the characters strive for some fervent, often picturesque sexual congress that's ultimately unsatisfying. They were very adult films, starring sexy older women like Leslie Anne Warren (the thinking man's Susan Sarandon) and regulars like Keith Carradine playing a character that it would be very easy to mistake for Rudolph's alter ego, though probably with little accuracy.

Alan Rudolph, Toronto, Sept. 1994

I shot Rudolph when he came to the film festival to promote Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as writer Dorothy Parker. It was clearly destined for the cover, as I ran colour slide as well as black and white through my Rolleis. I liked placing my subjects on a table top when I could - another rip off/homage to Irving Penn - and was clearly drawn to the single spot of interesting light by the hotel room window, which I staged into a corner (another Penn homage) by draping the heavy curtain over a floor lamp but leaving the sheer curtain drawn to soften the light.

I shot the colour rolls with a fill flash in an umbrella to just barely overpower the window light, but turned it off for the black and white shots, striving for a bit more mood. Rudolph seemed something of a sophisticate to me - his latest film was about the Algonquin Circle, and he'd made an earlier film, The Moderns, set in the Paris art world in the '20s - so I tried to encourage a world-weary look from him, with results that ranged from cool appraisal to bored regard.

Alan Rudolph, Toronto, Sept. 1994

Rudolph actually had a more varied career than I remembered - I didn't know he'd directed Roadie, a vehicle for singer Meat Loaf, and had forgotten all about Return Engagement, his documentary about a lecture tour/debate featuring Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy. I always considered his films just a bit more adult than I was prepared for when they were released - an impression helped by the not-quite-softcore-but-almost trailer for Choose Me - so I tended to see them on a delay of a few years. Mrs. Parker was probably the first Rudolph film I felt ready to see when it was released.

Alan Rudolph's last film was released in 2002, and he hasn't found a refuge in cable television like so many other directors whose careers thrived from the '70s to the '90s. He seemed to have left the movies for painting, but last year he shot Ray Meets Helen, starring Carradine and Sondra Locke. A Variety article from a year ago describes it as a story whose characters are "stalled in mid-life, beset by profound material challenges and haunted by their failed potential in happier times. Each undergo a reversal of fortune, affording them unanticipated opportunities at self re-invention. So when their paths eventually cross, each is beguiled by the other’s altered persona..." Which sounds like an Alan Rudolph film.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Francesco Rosi

Francesco Rosi, Toronto, Sept. 1994

WHILE THE DECADE DIDN'T SEEM TO HAVE MUCH TO RECOMMEND IT AT THE TIME, I've come to miss the '90s. There were a lot of things that I took for granted that I would learn - too late - were on their way to disappearing. Things like quality literature on the bestseller lists, the last pretense of political objectivity in the news media, the news media itself for that matter, and art house cinema.

Francesco Rosi worked as a children's book illustrator and a reporter before he began his career in film working as an assistant to Luchino Visconti. He made his first film as a neorealist before moving away with a series of ever more stylized films about politics, organized crime and corruption - subjects that Italians sadly know more about than most other countries. By the time he made More Than A Miracle with Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif, he'd moved far from the neorealist camp.

Francesco Rosi, Toronto, Sept. 1994

Rosi was at the film festival in 1994 to publicize Carmen, his film version of the Bizet opera starring Julia Miguenes and Placido Domingo. There was a day when filmed operas were something seen regularly on movie screens, and not just as simulcasts from the Met in New York. One more thing to add to that list of things I didn't know were disappearing - opera as part of mainstream culture.

Rosi said his main inspiration for the film was Gustav Dore's illustrations of Spain, which he was sure were a major visual resource for Bizet, who had never been to the country. I had learned about Dore over a decade earlier in art class at school, and was obsessed with his engravings for Dante's Inferno and the Bible for years. I still have one on the wall of my office. And there's another thing that's gone - high schools teaching kids about 19th century French illustrators and Dante.

Francesco Rosi, Toronto, Sept. 1994

I'm guessing I photographed Rosi at one of the main film festival hotels - the Sutton Place or the Four Seasons, also both gone now. The wallpaper was an appropriate backdrop; a neutral texture until you started to notice it, and I took pains with these scans to bring it out a bit more than I would have in the original prints I handed in to NOW magazine.

I don't think Rosi could have looked more like an Italian film director, do you? He has a relaxed dignity, helped along nicely no doubt by his well-tailored blazer and boulevardier shades. His very wry smile does a lot to convey a man who's keeping a good joke to himself. He had more than enough self-possession that my instructions to him while we shot were probably minimal, though it was only the thousandth time in my life when I wished I spoke Italian.

Francesco Rosi died at home in Rome on January 10, 2015.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Auto Show

OVER A DECADE AGO I WAS ASSIGNED TO SHOOT MY FIRST AUTO SHOW, and it was a huge part of my reawakened passion for cars. Media Day at the Canadian International Auto Show was a much bigger affair then, spreading through the whole of the downtown convention centre and into the Skydome nearby. As a photographer, it gave you the only chance you'd have to shoot the cars in a relatively uncrowded setting, before thousands of hands had run over the the paint and smeared the windows and lights.

It's a smaller auto show now, for a lot of reasons not worth going into here, and even Media Day was scaled back this year, but I had my accreditation again and wasn't going to miss an opportunity to capture the details and art unique to auto design, or the peculiar spectacle of an auto show in general, and the Media Day in particular.

This year was the first one I was under no obligation to shoot anything to illustrate an article on upcoming auto trends, so I decided to enter the show without a safety net. I put a fisheye lens on one of my DSLRs and a LensBaby on the other, and didn't bother packing a standard zoom lens for backup. I was hoping to get something that represented how I remember the highlights of an auto show - a record of the best bits of the cars I'd seen, recalled in a feverish reverie.

It's probably no surprise that there were no shots of Civics or Fiestas or Elantras on my camera's memory cards when I got home. Race cars and concepts and classic cars buffed and shined lovingly by proud owners; this is what got me really excited at that first auto show media day back in 2006, and it's what will probably keep pulling me back to convention centres and parking lots, museums and golf courses and public parks over and over again, with or without my camera.

This was probably also my last year with press accreditation, since the source of my credentials for the last six years decided that auto show coverage is no longer justified by the readership numbers. Maybe someone else might ask me to cover the Canadian International Auto Show again, but right now it looks like the wide open spaces of Media Day are over for me, and I'll be back to ogling the cars in the midst of the crowds again.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Peter Medak

Peter Medak, Toronto, Feb. 1994

LEARNING TO IMPROVISE WAS ALWAYS THE HARDEST PART OF SHOOTING PORTRAITS. I would show up for so many shoots with some sort of idea in my head - either something I wanted to try or a concept inspired by my subject's reputation - but I'd know in less than a minute whether I'd be able to give it a shot. Most of the time the answer would be "no."

I arrived to shoot Peter Medak without any idea in my head. I knew his work mostly because of The Ruling Class, his 1972 black comedy starring Peter O'Toole, which had been re-struck and re-released into the art house circuit several years earlier, and which I'd seen mostly because I was such a huge fan of the star. I knew he was born in Hungary, but I didn't know whether I'd be dealing with a mitteleuropean artist or an English director (it turned out to be more the latter.)

Peter Medak, Toronto, Feb. 1994

I decided to make the hotel room setting a feature, and even shoot a few frames of him eating his room service lunch as I set up. (He wasn't nearly as put out by my camera as he looks in this shot; he was, in fact, quite cooperative.) I don't think I would have done anything with this shot at the time - too afraid of presenting my editors with something a bit too offbeat. Today I'd have gone for this shot straight away, but then I no longer suffer from the illusion that I have anything to lose.

Medak was in town promoting Romeo Is Bleeding, a "neo-noir crime thriller" (as described by Wikipedia) starring Lena Olin and Gary Oldman. He'd had a very busy career since The Ruling Class, directing films as different as The Changeling and Zorro The Gay Blade before returning to a thriving British film industry to make The Krays and Let Him Have It. Like a lot of art house and indie directors from this period, he's worked more on TV lately, directing episodes of The Wire, House, Breaking Bad and Hannibal.

Peter Medak, Toronto, Feb. 1994

He was interested in what I was doing as I set up, and noticed my little case of Rolleiflex cameras. He mentioned that he had a photographer mate back in London who used them quite a bit.

"He owns a whole bunch of Rolleis. Maybe you've heard of him. David Bailey?"

Of course I'd heard of David Bailey. Frankly, I was thrilled to hear that a big deal photographer was still using the Rollei; in Toronto at the time it was something of an eccentricity, so thoroughly did Nikon and Hasselblad dominate the business. In retrospect I had a lot of Bailey photos rattling around in my head without knowing it; only now do I recognize how often I was referencing (or just stealing) something he did in my work. I've always regarded this shoot as a little brush with photo greatness - my two degrees of separation.

Friday, February 3, 2017

John Sayles

John Sayles, Toronto, Sept. 1994

MOVIE DIRECTORS, AS I'VE SAID BEFORE, WERE TO MY '90s what rock musicians were to my '80s. Back when independent film was viable and people could still pronounce "auteur" I shot a lot of movie directors for NOW magazine, mostly because movie studios and distributors had the budgets to fly them to town for a day of interviews.

John Sayles was probably the epitome of American independent cinema, having taken the classic career path, starting with a brief stint in Roger Corman's exploitation stable before making his first art house hit, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, a film that would later be known as the Baby Boomer pre-midlife crisis weekend story that wasn't The Big Chill. He was at the film festival with his latest film, The Secret of Roan Inish, a story about selkies set in rural Ireland, made between his women's picture (Passion Fish) and his western murder mystery (Lone Star.)

John Sayles, Toronto, Sept. 1994

Sayles' reputation was based on his talent with scripts, bolstered by his involvement on an early version of what would become E.T. and uncredited work on movies like Apollo 13. I was personally a big fan of Baby It's You, his 1983 film starring Vincent Spano (remember him?) and a young Rosanna Arquette, about young love doomed by class differences in the '60s. Americans tend not to be able to deal with the complex machinery of class very well, mostly for lack of a vocabulary to discuss it with candor, so Sayles' film felt exceptional, at least when I saw it in college.

Sayles is what the British refer to as a Man of the Left, but his take on class in Baby It's You was refreshingly free of Marxist tropes. The best thing about the film, though, wasn't how it dealt with class as much as its very moving portrayal of that frightening moment, just after high school, when life suddenly isn't so full of promise and opportunity as much as disappointment and the bracing realization that your capabilities might be more limited than you imagined.

He'd explored something similar in The Return of the Secaucus Seven, albeit with adults breaking into their thirties harrowed by a reprise of this brute reality. It endeared me to him quite a bit, though I remember being more than a bit disappointed by his follow-up film, The Brother From Another Planet, which I can't help but recall as a film that Spike Lee might have had more success with.

John Sayles, Toronto, Sept. 1994

I don't know why I put Sayles in the deep shadows of the hotel room where we did this shoot. Perhaps I was trying to say something about his reputation as a screenwriter and script doctor - one of the movie industry's more obscure jobs. Or perhaps I just liked this stark piece of light by a bit of bare wall.

I know that I was trying to capture something heroic with the shot at the top, not just because of Sayles' politics (Men of the Left tend to regard their political stances as implicitly heroic) but more particularly reflecting his role in the independent film scene, in which he was once a trailblazer and where he's now something of a survivor, and an endangered one at that.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Abel Ferrara

Abel Ferrara, Toronto, Sept. 1995

REPUTATION IS A USEFUL THING IN A PORTRAIT SHOOT. When a subject arrives for a sitting with a measure of fame and an established persona, a photographer can choose to either work with that or try to push against it, not quite subverting their subject's reputation as much as underscoring it with a theatrical contradiction.

Abel Ferrara's reputation definitely proceeded him when I took his photo during the 1995 film festival, where he was doing interviews to promote The Addiction, his latest film, alongside Lili Taylor, the films' star. Ferrara had started his career with low budget grindhouse films like Driller Killer, Fear City and Ms. 45. He was a New York City director, setting most of his films there in whta looked like a endless loop of the sleazy, '70s "Ford To City: Drop Dead" era, but there was always some simmering philosophical edge to his characters that finally took over with King of New York and, especially, Bad Lieutenant.

Abel Ferrara, Toronto, Sept. 1995

Ferrara didn't take off his shades for the whole shoot. He was dressed in the head-to-toe black uniform of the New York artist, punk rock brigade. None of that was surprising. If I'd had more time or an inkling that he had any inclination to shed the sunglasses at least I might have pushed for him to take them off, but my focus was on Taylor, so I decided to just document Ferrara and his persona with a full length portrait.

I have friends who have infinite patience for gritty, nasty films like Ms. 45, but I've never acquired the taste, so my interest in Ferrara began with Bad Lieutenant (which I saw after hearing a lot of good things about King of New York.) Bad Lieutenant was an angry, even ugly film, but it might be one of the most Catholic films I've ever seen, and my interest in its director isn't surprising since I have a lot of time for conflicted Catholics. (Ferrara later converted to Buddhism, but admits that he's a lapsed Buddhist as much as he's a lapsed Catholic.)

Lili Taylor & Abel Ferrara, Toronto, Sept. 1995

Ferrara is a poster boy for American independent cinema, going so far as to move from New York to Rome to be closer to funding for his films. He has also shed the black uniform for open neck shirts and summerweight suits, so much more appropriate to late middle-aged men living in Mediterranean countries.

I'll probably always be interested in whatever Ferrara does, though for my own mental health I tend to think hard before sitting down with his latest film. Along with directors like Paul Schrader, he's a survivor of a brief era when movies didn't plead for us to like them, and puts interesting actors in front of his camera. Needless to say, I'm itching for him to make another film with Christopher Walken, though some perverse part of me hopes that it will finally be the musical that I think Walken needs to make while he's still limber. That Fatboy Slim video simply wasn't enough.