Friday, November 17, 2017

John Boorman

John Boorman, Toronto, Sept. 1998

AS I'VE SAID BEFORE, SHOOTING MOVIE DIRECTORS is often more interesting than shooting actors. Actors make a living being seen and photographed, which should make them more relaxed in front of a camera, but that usually isn't the case. I've found that most actors have an uneasy relationship with photographers and their cameras, especially when shoots only last a few minutes and preclude any possibility of collaborating or controlling the outcome.

Directors, on the other hand, are usually more than aware of how cameras work, and how much control you are actually giving up by consenting to be photographed. Perhaps it's because they're usually on the controlling end that they seem more relaxed in portrait sessions; I sometimes imagine that they're thinking that turnabout is fair play, after all, and that something unexpected might come out of it all.

John Boorman, Toronto, Sept. 1998

I couldn't tell you if any of these thoughts were in John Boorman's mind when I took his photo at the film festival, where he was promoting The General, a film about a real-life Dublin gangster who met a sticky end when he double-crossed the IRA. The most I remember about this shoot nearly twenty years later is that I used the back of a box spring as a backdrop in the hotel room where I shot.

Boorman was a bit of a legend, at least to me, when I did his portrait. His films were a puzzling and fascinating mixture of genres, and his career was the polar opposite of a journeyman director. From the bleak, sun-drenched noir of Point Blank to the nightmarish Deliverance to the utter batshit strangeness of Zardoz, he was a director who seemed intent on typecasting himself. He was obviously drawn to edgy and difficult stories, but his most autobiographical film - Hope and Glory - manages to be warm without excessive sentimentality, even though it's about his own childhood.

John Boorman, Toronto, Sept. 1998

I didn't do much to push him - I was frankly a little in awe - but two decades on my favorite shot is the one in the middle, which I probably wouldn't have printed for the paper in anticipation that they'd never have run it. It's one of those "between" moments that I'd come to cherish more with time, a brief glimpse of a subject less intent on the camera.

Sometimes these moments can be revealing, or present someone with an intriguing awkwardness (my friend Chris Buck has made a career out of trying to elicit these moments) but when you're looking for them, it's often difficult to stay on the right side of the line between interesting and banal.

Eight years later, I'd end up shooting Boorman's son Charley for the free national daily. His father had cast him as the lead in The Emerald Forest, but Charley had begun pursing a career as an adventure filmmaker, with documentaries about epic journeys and harrowing endurance races on motorcycles.

Charley Boorman, Toronto, Dec. 2006

I'm not sure, but I think Charley Boorman was in Toronto to promote his latest adventure with his bike pal Ewan McGregor, or a TV series documenting the Paris-Dakar race he'd done earlier that year. I like to think that I caught a bit of his daredevil image in my very brief hotel room shoot with him. I'm pretty sure I would have mentioned my shoot with his father several years earlier, but his reaction - likely polite, probably nothing he hadn't heard before - is lost to my memory.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Sally

Sally Lee, film test, Parkdale, April 1991. Kodak VPS rated at ISO 20, pushed 1 stop, 30R filter

MY RECENT POST OF OLD FASHION PHOTOS featured some shots of Sally Lee, my onetime roommate in the Parkdale loft and sometime model for my studio experiments. When I was scanning those shots, I remembered that one of the thankless favours I asked of Sally was being the model for my attempts to calibrate the results of cross processing colour negative film through E-6 chemistry.

While it's true that Sally was a convenient model, living as she did in the next room, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I knew that scrutinizing rolls of slide film for contrast and tonal shifts would be generally more pleasant with an attractive model. She was agreeable enough to stand in front of one of my strobe lights for two sessions in the spring of 1991, holding up my homemade colour chart while I changed filters and made notes on f-stops as I worked.

Sally Lee, film test, Parkdale, April 1991. Kodak VHC rated at ISO 20, pushed 1 stop, 40M filter
Sally Lee, film test, Parkdale, April 1991. Fujicolor 400 rated at ISO 50, pushed 1 stop, 40M filter open 1 stop

I'd first seen cross-processed photos in American music magazines, in work by people like Michael Lavine. Not long after my predecessor at NOW magazine, photographer Chris Nicholls, had done some early work with cross-processed slide film, and he was kind enough to sit down with Chris Buck and I in an east end diner and give us some basic tips on how it was done.

He said that you could cross-process both ways, but that you needed to do a lot of testing to see how pushing and filters and exposure would effect the results, especially when working with colour negative film. After some early success with slide film-turned-negative, I picked up a variety of negative films and tried to find something workable. I carefully recorded my results and offered them to anyone who wanted to try it out, figuring that it was better to share information than hoard it.

In the end, negative-through-slide cross-processing turned out to be too unpredictable to work with, though I'd keep going back to slide-through-negative cross-processing on and off for the next decade, looking for a way to get punchier colours and interesting historical effects. Nowadays almost all of this can be approximated roughly in Photoshop, though to my eye there's always something specific and unique to film chemistry - some peculiarity in the tonal shifts - that no one has ever been able to recreate digitally.

Sally Lee, film test, Parkdale, April 1991. Fuji Reala rated at ISO 12, 85 filter
Sally Lee, film test, Parkdale, April 1991. Kodak Ektar 25 rated at ISO 3, pushed 1 stop, no filter, closed 1 stop
Sally Lee, film test, Parkdale, April 1991. Agfa Portrait 160 rated at ISO 20, 85 filter closed 1 stop

How I ended up living with Sally is another story. She was, by the time I took these shots, my ex-girlfriend's sister, or very nearly. The three of us had moved into the Parkdale loft together, subletting the space against the wishes of a rogue landlord who tried to force all the tenants out with intimidation and threats. Sally's sister broke up with me after moving to New York City to study, leaving us in a somewhat awkward living situation.

We lasted a year after the breakup as roommates before it got all too much for Sally and she moved out. I was so desperate to have a shooting space that I was apparently willing to endure thug superintendents shoving toothpicks in my door lock, writing threats on our door and blaring country radio in the empty unit next door, along with the emotional awkwardness of living with the sister of my ex, as nice as she could be. I'd end up living in that loft for the rest of the decade, though the landlord and his thugs were gone not long after I took these photos.

Sally's essential likability has always made her popular in Toronto's overlapping worlds of art, music and film, where she's worked since we were roommates. I've always felt that I must have tested her amiability with my own basically grouchy temperament, not to mention my increasingly fragile emotional state during and after the break-up with her sister, but we've somehow managed to stay friendly in spite of it all. She took up the bass while we were living together, and she's till at it today, playing with our old upstairs neighbour Don Pyle in a new band. I'd like to post these old photos as a belated thank you, both for helping me out and for enduring.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Jason Patric

Jason Patric, Toronto, Sept. 1998

1998 WAS A VERY BIG YEAR FOR ME. I didn't have any major career breakthrough - quite the opposite - but it was the year when I met the woman who would become my wife. I had begun the year in London, England, and by the time the summer rolled around I had flown across the ocean again to visit my new girlfriend in Barcelona, where she had a teaching gig.

A year that began with what felt like a tipping point had definitely delivered on transformation. In hindsight, I'm tempted to scrutinize the work I did that year for signs of change. It's a lot of weight to put on shoots like this one of actor Jason Patric, shot at the film festival as a cover for NOW magazine.

Jason Patric, Toronto, Sept. 1998

Patric was becoming a leading man when I took these photos - an attractive actor in his early '30s who had gone from the vampire bro flick The Lost Boys to playing Lord Byron and a junkie narcotics detective. He'd been gossip fodder when Julia Roberts, at the peak of her "America's Sweetheart" fame, rebounded on to him after jilting his Lost Boys co-star Kiefer Sutherland at the altar.

As with my Ally Sheedy shoot, I'd returned to cross-processed slide film to try and extract as much saturation as possible from colour film. I could control the process just enough by now, and was looking to get the look of Kodachrome film, with its bright primaries and nearly plastic skin tones, as it often appeared in old magazines and the chromolithography that rendered colour photos almost like hand-coloured stills. An esoteric goal, to be sure.

Jason Patric, Toronto, Sept. 1998

I barely said a word to my subjects; having found the sweet spot of light - or, as in the case of this shoot, having created it with a high strobe light bounced into an umbrella - I gave only the barest of instructions (lean into the wall, look right, don't smile) and peered into the viewfinder until something registered in their eyes. I'd spent a decade desperately searching for a style; by this point, I decided to stop trying and pare away almost everything from around my subject. No complicated lighting, no backdrops, no pre-visualization.

Maybe I was inspired. Maybe I was just tired. Perhaps being in a relationship again after many years as a lonely single man had restored some confidence, or perhaps it had given me a healthy distraction from constant, anxious fretting over my creative direction. Nearly twenty years on, I look at these photos and can only imagine myself saying "Here are some photos of what Jason Patric, actor, looked like in this hotel room at this moment in time. Take from this what you will." I was either very secure about my work or simply beyond caring about making something photo editors might have wanted to see.

I'm not sure what happened to Patric's career after this. In the film he was promoting - Neil LaBute's Your Friends and Neighbours - he'd played a very convincing heavy, a sociopath who plays a major part in destroying the marriages of two couples. Perhaps he'd done his job too well, or perhaps he was simply too handsome, but he never became the leading man it was assumed he was going to be. Perhaps that was never his goal, as he's built a career since then playing anti-heroes, sadists, cops and untrustworthy authority figures. I won't lie and say that I don't wish he'd become a matinee idol, but I still like these very minimal portraits of a cypher-like subject.


Friday, November 10, 2017

Ally Sheedy

Ally Sheedy, Toronto, May 1998

MOVIE STARS WERE MY MAJOR SUBJECT AT THE ZENITH OF MY CAREER. The thing is, I would never voluntarily call them that. I spent much of the '90s shooting celebrities, as far as I could tell, since "movie stars" were, in my mind, something that existed mostly before I was born, some of them surviving well into my life, but usually far out of my reach as a photographer.

When I had my very strange but memorable portrait session with Mickey Rooney, I actually felt like I was in the presence of a movie star. The rest of the time - as with this shoot with Ally Sheedy, late in my time at NOW magazine - I was shooting celebrities, or famous actors. Movie stars were never close to my age (Sheedy is only two years older than me) and if their fame began at any point in my adult life they were merely "famous."

Ally Sheedy, Toronto, May 1998

Ally Sheedy's fame was white hot over ten years before I met her, with films like The Breakfast Club. She was at the start of a second act in her career when she came to Toronto to do press for High Art, a small film where she played a reclusive lesbian artist. It was the sort of role you took when you wanted to persuade the public that they should stop imagining you as a sullen teenager who shook dandruff onto her notebook during detention.

Ally Sheedy, Toronto, May 1998

That would be a harder job than she might have imagined; when I was printing photos from this shoot for NOW's cover story at the rental darkroom, other photographers - men, mostly my age - would stop and look at the test prints I'd stuck to the white board.

"I loved her in The Breakfast Club," they all told me. "Way more than Molly Ringwald."

Ally Sheedy, Toronto, May 1998

My old standby setup with the back of a hotel curtain draped over a floor lamp to make a gauzy backdrop was getting tired by now. It was was clever and suitable for my Bjork portrait, but by now it felt stale, and this was probably the last time I used it.

I was briefly enamoured with cross-processed slide film again, having finally mastered how to use it without getting blown-out highlights (Fuji 400 ISO film shot as rated) and decided to return to it in search of more vivid colours than I was getting from slide film or (especially) colour negative.

The best shots were taken on one of the big balconies outside the corner suites at the old Four Seasons in Yorkville, in front of a big wall of pebble-finished brutalist concrete. She was very thin, and when she cocked her hip with her hands on her butt I told her to hold that pose; she looked angular and lean and a long way from the sweetly awkward teenager she'd played in her early twenties.


Friday, November 3, 2017

Fashion

Unknown model, Parkdale, 1994

MY CAREER AS A FASHION PHOTOGRAPHER WAS BRIEF AND SPORADIC. Which is to say that I didn't really have a career as a fashion photographer at all, though I have always loved really great fashion work, and had no shortage of ambition to make some of my own.

The reason was simple enough; my favorite photographers shot fashion in addition to portraits and whatever else was their specialty, and some of their most iconic images came from their fashion work. Avedon with Dovima and the elephants. Penn's photos of his wife Lisa in pretty much anything. I wanted to take a lot of great photos, so I wanted to work in as many places that would let me take them.

My first problem, however, was that I was not working in New York City in the mid-50s. It would take me a while to actually grasp that inescapable fact.

My first proper fashion shoot was for NOW magazine, early in my time there. We were doing a special section and the idea was to have the city's fashion luminaries wear the clothes instead of some model. Dierdre Hanna, the paper's fashion editor, made the arrangements and on a day I distinctly remember as cold, wet and miserable Dierdre, the clothes and a hair and makeup artist arrived at my Parkdale loft.

Catherine Franklin, Parkdale, Feb. 1990
Jeanne Beker, Parkdale, Feb. 1990
Ray Civello, Parkdale, Feb. 1990

Jeanne Beker had moved from hosting The New Music - a program I'd watched avidly as a teenager sniffing out the last smokey vapours of punk rock - and had helped start Fashion Television, which became a big deal in the industry. Ray Civello was the owner of some high end salons and had launched his own line of product, and Catherine Franklin was the fashion director for Toronto Life Fashion, one of the two big fashion magazines in the country.

We shot on a day when the thugs hired by our landlord to harass the tenants out of the building went on the offensive, knocking on my door while I was shooting to issue vague threats that I should "get out." Explaining the situation to Dierdre and everyone else in the studio meant that I was more than usually tense while I worked.

I wanted desperately to make a good impression on these people, as they seemed to hold the keys to work I longed to do. I felt like a nervous kid, working at the edge of my technical competence and besieged in his apartment by guys with names like Dwayne and Harry. In hindsight, it's a colourful anecdote. At the time it felt humiliating. Does all of this show in the photos? You be the judge.

Sally, Parkdale, 1991

The results of my first real fashion shoot - which never translated into work with any of these people, by the way - convinced me that as a fashion photographer, I took okay portraits. I needed practice, and the nearest person I could practice on happened to be my very pretty roommate Sally. I'd never lived with a woman who wasn't my mother up till then, so Sally's makeup ritual was something I couldn't help but notice. I was looking at a lot of old fashion magazines, and one day I had an idea.

Left: Erwin Blumenfeld, 1950. Right: Irving Penn, 1959.

I'd finally bought a proper medium format studio camera - a Bronica SQ-A - and after picking up a close-up filter to give the standard 80mm lens some vaguely macro function, I asked her to sit under my little set of strobe lights and set about with her lipstick and mascara. I had come to the conclusion that sharp focus was an arbitrary thing, and likely overrated, so I dialed back the lights and shot with cross-processed slide film rated two stops below the ISO on the box.

I ended up getting something more than vaguely like what I had in mind, which felt like success. (Though it was only while scanning these shots over 25 years later that I decided the bottom shot actually looks better in black and white.) I put one of these shots in my portfolio, hoping someone would respond to what I was trying to do. No one did.

My next kick at fashion shooting came when my old Nerve boss, Dave Macintosh, phoned and said that his new girlfriend was a model whose agent told her she needed more work in her portfolio. He asked if I was interested. Sally had moved out by that point, and I was desperate for a new model, so I eagerly said yes.

Teri Walker, Parkdale, 1992

I rented my favorite sky and clouds backdrop for good luck and explained to Teri my idea for something slightly evocative of surrealism and Magritte. We shot for a while with one simple black dress and then Teri went out to the living room to get the hair and makeup person to give her a new look. I came out and saw the candy-coloured curlers, thought "Eureka!" and said she had to get back into the studio for another setup. I shot negative film cross-processed into slide; it was a trick that didn't often work, but this time it turned out exactly as I'd hoped.

Teri Walker, Parkdale, 1992

We shot for the rest of the afternoon, finally heading outside to get something a bit more "street," which led us to the less salubrious of Parkdale's two diners. I ordered a Labatt's 50, set dressed the table with my own Zippo and Lucky Strikes (Teri didn't actually smoke) and took a couple of rolls. At the end of the day I had a lot of film. I'm not sure if the results were what Teri had in mind, but I'd had a glimpse of what it was like to work with a real model.

It would be two more years before I'd have that experience again. I'd met a young fashion designer at a party somewhere who knew my work from NOW; he asked if I'd be willing to shoot some promo work featuring his clothes. He'd take care of the expenses of models and makeup and I could do what I wanted. It seemed like a good deal, and I knew that I'd never get a chance shooting fashion if I couldn't show off something that featured models and actual clothes.

Unknown model, Parkdale, 1994

We shot with two models and three or four outfits. A set of shots with a model in a bathing suit never did much for me, but the photos I did with the other girl turned out much better. She was young but Eastern European so she looked much older than her age; I recall that she was married, and that she couldn't stop playing with Nato, my very friendly kitten. I honestly wish I remembered her name, because the setup we did at the end of the shoot was probably the closest I ever got to work that looked like the fashion photos I wanted to make.

These shots have Penn all over them, there's no hiding that. But I was able to use props that I liked - a scarred and stained tabletop, an old fan from the attic of my mom's house, and a pair of lemons from my kitchen to set off the model's blue jacket. I shot on slide film, which is unforgiving with exposure, but I was at the top of my game in the studio by then, and everything came out just as I'd imagined. I was eager to work with the designer again, but somewhere along the line he'd gotten some good press and, imagining he could get a better deal, blew me off rather callously. It's why I always remember my favorite fashion shot with some bitterness.

A footnote: The shot just above is not the best one from the shoot. My neighbour across the hall in the Parkdale loft was a set designer/opera singer, and he loved that shot when I showed it to him. He asked if he could borrow it to have it turned into a painting for a show he was doing. It was sent off to an artist to be copied, who then sent it back to his studio, the original slide taped in an envelope to the paper wrapping. An assistant signed for the delivery, quickly unwrapped the painting - and then threw away the paper, with my original slide still attached.

This is why I love digital so much, and why I'll never shoot another roll of slide film again.

Lost slides, ungrateful designers, a generally sour feeling. My attempts to shoot fashion pretty much ended here. I could never find the energy or the resources to throw myself into the cycle of testing and promos and mailers that were required to get a shot at doing paid fashion work. And it would be years before I learned the dirty secret of fashion shooting - that no one really makes money at magazine work, which is just a ritual for gaining favour with the editors who assign the really lucrative jobs in advertising campaigns. Models and stylists and makeup people and photographers work together in a web of mutually exploitative relationships pro bono, hoping that one person's break will buoy a few of them upward. Perhaps I never would have been a decent fashion photographer, but I would have loved to have had a shot.


Friday, October 27, 2017

Cuba

Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba, October 2017

IT TOOK ANOTHER YEAR AND TWO HURRICANES, BUT I FINALLY GOT BACK TO CUBA. Twenty-two years after the last time I was on the island, I found myself on a private jet flying into the part of Cuba hit hardest by Hurricane Irma last month, on assignment with a group of travel writers.

Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean early in September, hitting the resort areas of Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria hardest. Which was exactly where our plane was headed, on a trip meant to showcase the rebuilding efforts in those areas for Canadian tourists who might be planning on vacationing there once the high season starts next month.

Cayo Coco, Cuba, Oct. 2017

Just over a month since Irma, the destruction was still obvious in all the resorts we visited, though the clean-up work had mostly finished and most of the serious damage had been repaired, including the customs hall in the Jardines del Rey airport, which had been completely gutted. Working non-stop after the causeway to the mainland was repaired, workers, engineers and hotel employees had replaced roofs and windows blown out by the storm; by the time we arrived work had begun replacing the beach huts and cabanas that had been blown inland into hotel rooms, pools, bars and lobbies.

Cayo Coco, Cuba, Oct. 2017

On Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria, we were often the only people staying in the hotels, where repairs had been rushed to host our little group. Sun lounges and chairs had been set up again around the repaired and refilled pools, which felt a bit eerie empty of guests. In some places, the only visible evidence of Irma was the occasional tree still listing precariously, or the branches missing from the windward wide of the palms, which you'd find in a sun-bleached pile behind a guest bungalow. In other places it was a ruined pier, or the white columns that once housed the resort spa, now looking like a temple ruin in a jungle clearing.

Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba, Oct. 2017

When we flew into Varadero on the third day, we were met with hotels very much back to business as usual, as Irma had lost a lot of her power by the time she'd torn through Havana and reached the western beaches of the island. Guests in danger of being stranded in Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria had been sent here if they couldn't be evacuated home, and after a brief period of clean-up and repairs, it was hard to tell if Varadero had been hit at all.

Varadero, Cuba, Oct. 2017

I am not a beach person, though I can stare out to sea for hours. This is a Cuba I had never seen before, since the whole of my experience of the country had been Havana during the peculiar circumstances of the "Special Period" over two decades ago. I'm tempted to qualify this little travelogue by saying that this isn't the "real Cuba," though I'm still at a loss to tell you precisely what that real Cuba might actually be. It was nice to be back, regardless of the circumstances, and something of a gift - as both a photographer and a misanthrope - to experience beach resorts in such a unique way.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Sunnyside

Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, spring 1997

THESE PHOTOS WERE TAKEN DURING ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT SHOOTS I EVER DID. I have never printed them, and this is the first time I have published them anywhere. As these things usually go, it's a long story, and I suppose you kind of had to be there.

For over twenty years, I lived near Sunnyside, Toronto's western beach and once home to an iconic amusement park - Toronto's Coney Island, though long gone before I was born, never mind by the time I lived there. It's a place I still return to time and time again for inspiration or as a location for shoots. Sunnyside, more probably than Yonge Street or either of its city halls, is Toronto for me.

Sunnyside pedestrian bridge, Toronto, spring 1997

On some blustery day in the spring of 1997, I left my Parkdale loft with my Rolleiflex cameras and walked west along Queen Street to the pedestrian bridge where Queen, King and Roncesvalles meet. I don't know just what moved me to head out that day, but my obvious intent, based on the single roll of film I shot that day, was to document the lake and the sky and crashing waves that, on a rare day like this, makes usually placid Lake Ontario seem more like an ocean.

Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, spring 1997

For most of my career up till that point, I rarely set out to take pictures just for fun. All of my energies were focused on trying to earn a living, and while film and processing cost money, shooting without a paycheque in mind cut needlessly into my paper-thin overhead. Which means that it must have been something strong - some hard to deny urge - that forced me out of the warmth of my loft into threatening weather to take photos.

Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, spring 1997

While the clouds were heavy and threatening, it wasn't raining, so I made it to the deserted boardwalk and down to the beach to find the waves cresting over the breakwater and rolling heavily onto the shore. I took a couple of photos of the bridge and one of the lake and sky through the branches of a bare tree, just budding. But most of the frames on the single contact sheet I have are of the shore, the waves, the water and the sky. There was something there I was obviously intent on finding.

Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, spring 1997

I remember being pleased when I saw the results on the contact sheet. I definitely looked them over carefully, but I never marked any of them for future reference, and I never printed a single frame. They might have stayed on my desk for a year or two, but by the time I moved out of my loft they had been filed away. Leafing through my archives, I always stopped and looked them over again, but they remained unseen by anyone but me. Until today.

I have had an intuition for years that most serious photographers have an image in their head - perhaps a few, but at least one - that they're always trying to create or find. When I was given my first camera - a Kodak Instamatic - as a boy, I headed out into the snow after Christmas and tried to take a photo I had in my head. It was very nearly abstract, more full of texture than colour, composed with at least one horizon, and roughly based on what I would only learn many years later was the "rule of thirds."

I had an instinct that I hadn't really got the shot, and in any case no one thought my early experiments were worth sending out for developing or printing, since they weren't a record of a person or an event we'd experienced as a family. But that image remained in my mind for at least another decade, until the day I went into that Church Street pawn shop and bought my first real camera. Lack of money - as an adult, just as when I was a child - meant I didn't experiment much if there was no commercial potential, but that image remained in my mind.

It's only now, when digital has made shooting so cheap and commercial downturns have made my time so much less valuable, that I find myself with a camera in my hand so often, on assignment or not, trying to take that photo I still have in my head. This shoot was really the beginning of something, though I didn't know it at the time, as I was increasingly being overwhelmed by what I would soon learn was actually the end of something else.