Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Buffalo

Seventh floor, Electric Tower, Buffalo, NY, May 2017

THERE WERE TIMES WHEN BUFFALO FELT LIKE THE EMPTY SET OF A FILM NOIR. I mean that in a good way - thanks to a period of economic distress that was common to a lot of American cities, Buffalo managed to preserve much of its pre-war character, right down to the empty seventh floor of the Electric Tower, which is waiting for a tenant willing to preserve the former offices of Niagara Mohawk Power.

I've lived a short drive from Buffalo my whole life, and grew up watching the city's TV channels, which have made Shea's, the "Aud," Kleinhan's Music Hall, AM&A's and the Statler part of my childhood memories, even though I only saw them most of them up close for the first time last week. I was on assignment again, writing a travel story about Buffalo's architecture, which gave me rare access to the seventh floor of the Electric Tower and the still-abandoned portions of the Richardson-Olmsted Complex, in addition to some Frank Lloyd Wright.

Buffalo, NY, May 2017

Parkside Candy, by the way, is still in operation, and the Main Street store is worth a visit. The photo studio on Genesee, alas, is not, but I'd have rented it in a second if it was. There was a lot of this sort of thing in Buffalo, from Silo City to the Deco ballroom at the Lafayette Hotel. I really need to spend more time there.

Martin House, Buffalo, NY, May 2017
Graycliff Estate, Derby, NY, May 2017

Except for a couple of visits to the Guggenheim in New York, I'd never been inside a Frank Lloyd Wright building, and Buffalo is a constant source of embarrassment for Toronto in that it has seven Wrights, including a boathouse, a filling station and a mausoleum. (It would have had eight, but they knocked one down; everyone makes a mistake now and then.)

Richardson-Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, NY, May 2017

The Richardson-Olmsted Complex was the whole reason I was in Buffalo - they've opened a new hotel in the centre of the once-abandoned state asylum, and I was one of its first guests. I'm sure some of my urbex friends have been in the place when it was empty, and they're still doing tours of the abandoned floors while they remain untenanted. Part of me hopes that as long as there's an abiding interest in this sort of thing, they'll keep at least a bit of it unoccupied for the experience.

Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY, May 2017

The Albright-Knox wasn't originally on my schedule, but I was so eager to get inside this world-renowned museum that an hour was carved out of my last morning in town. As is my habit, I used the school groups visiting that day as subjects in my ongoing series of art museum tableaux. I felt really privileged to have seen Buffalo during this pregnant moment in the city's reinvention; I hope they can avoid Toronto's mistakes and preserve some of the charm I saw there.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Apocalypse Club, Toronto, Nov. 1989

CHRIS CORNELL HAS DIED, AN APPARENT SUICIDE. I can only imagine the pain this has left his family and friends to suffer.

I was a big fan of Cornell, and especially his first band, Soundgarden, who I saw several times on either side of the turn of the '90s. He was a spectacular front man with a phenomenal voice that was clearly some sort of gift, which is just one reason why his death seems - at least from this fan's perspective - a terrible waste.

Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Apocalypse Club, Toronto, Nov. 1989

My earliest memory of the band is their first Sub Pop album. My editor at Guitar World magazine in New York, Jesse Marinoff Reyes, once sang "Beyond the Wheel" over a dinner of fried alligator to Chris Buck and I, trying to sell us on what he felt was the obvious genius of one of his favorite hometown bands.

I saw them not long after in a dingy basement club in Toronto, packed in the front row where I was basically shooting right through Cornell's hair, just a few feet away from where Derek von Essen stood with his camera. I'm not sure if we were using the "grunge" word yet; there were a lot of great, loud, hairy bands playing clubs like the Apocalypse at the time, but I remember thinking Soundgarden might have stood a chance of making it big, thanks mostly to Cornell's incredible voice.

Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Lollapalooza, Molson Park, Barrie, Aug. 1992

It would be almost three years until I saw them next, but I have no problem remembering it since it was the week of the Rodney King riots, and we left the Concert Hall after the show to find Yonge Street blocked off by the police after copycat riots broke out way up here in Toronto, far from Los Angeles. The next time I saw the band with a camera in my hand was at Lollapalooza, and the rise above dingy basement clubs was obviously well underway.

Having photographed the band from mere inches away, I wasn't particularly into shooting Cornell over the lip of the stage and past the stage monitors. I got maybe two or three half decent frames before I started turning around to shoot the vast mosh pit behind me, which was where I thought the real action was that hot August afternoon.

Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Exhibition Stadium, Toronto, Aug. 1993

Cornell had cut his hair by the time I saw them next, on a bill with Blues Traveler and Pearl Jam supporting Neil Young with Booker T's MGs at Exhibition Stadium, on assignment for SPIN magazine. I've written before about how little I enjoyed that particular assignment. The band were just a few months away from releasing Superunknown and the single "Spoonman." I slipped away from the band around that time, partly losing interest in their musical direction, partly feeling that I was getting a bit old for the rock thing.

Cornell's voice never seemed to fail him, and over a decade later he recorded the first Bond movie theme I've liked since "Live and Let Die." I remember thinking at the time that it shouldn't have been at all surprising that he turned out to be the Tom Jones of my generation.

After witnessing the tragic ends of Cornell, Scott Weiland and Kurt Cobain, just to name a few, it would seem that the rock stars of my generation are a troubled bunch. I wish I could explain this with something better than a half-hearted guess or an overused generalization, but I can't. Weiland and Cobain's deaths weren't, either in retrospect or at the time, terribly surprising, but Cornell's came as a shock. I don't really have much to offer except a prayer for his family.

Chris Cornell died in Detroit on May 17, 2017.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Gena Rowlands

Gena Rowlands, Toronto, Sept. 1996

SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE I WAS BORN TWENTY YEARS TOO LATE. The rest of the time it's more like forty years. I've probably felt like this since I was quite young, but by the time I took this portrait of Gena Rowlands at the film festival in the mid-'90s, this regret was a condition of my life.

I posted one of these photos before - a scan of one of the few finished prints I've retained in my files, discovered when I was making the first excavation of my long-ignored archives when I started this blog. As I wrote at the time, I didn't have much recollection of this shoot in particular, but scanning my old negatives now, it seems that the film festival of 1996 was an unusually productive one, where I shot Gena Rowlands alongside Kristin Scott Thomas, Mike Leigh, Katrin Cartlidge and Stanley Tucci. A pretty good week's work, and probably my best that year.

Gena Rowlands, Toronto, Sept. 1996

By the mid-'90s I had a standard working method outside the studio - a small, light Manfrotto tripod with a ball head and a little Pelikan case containing two Rolleiflex cameras, a Sekonic light meter, close up filters, a cable release, lens hoods and two boxes of film. As long as the sun was shining and there was a window to pose the subject by, I knew I could get something.

It was a kit that whose technology hadn't changed much in forty years, and while there were some immense changes about to overwhelm photography, both creatively and economically, this was the last moment of an era. Which is probably why I started dressing for shoots in a suit jacket and cuffed trousers; I even had a fedora and a pork pie hat. Since I was working no differently than someone doing the same job in 1952 or 1965, I figured I'd dress the part. It was also, as I noted in an earlier post, a kind of armour - a uniform for a professional, there to do his job.

Gena Rowlands, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I'm especially reminded of this with the Rowlands shoot - obviously done for a potential NOW cover, as I shot cross-processed colour as well as black and white. Rowlands, while associated mostly with her late husband John Cassavetes and his very improvised, emotionally fraught and low-budget films, actually began her career in the waning days of the studio system, and arrived in front of my camera redolent of the sort of glamour that was rare by then, and virtually extinct now.

Rowlands had a cool, even icy beauty, and didn't lose it as she aged. Even as a young woman she never seemed like an ingenue; alongside a contemporary like Joanne Woodward she was a woman, never a girl, and brought  a frightening intensity to her husband's films such as A Woman Under The Influence, easily holding her own in the frame alongside Cassavetes and his leading men - Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel - and often blowing them away.

I must have found a very sweet spot of light when I shot Rowlands at the film fest, because it looks almost like a studio shot, right down to the patterned wall behind her. I would have given almost anything to have worked when someone like Rowlands ended up in front of my camera every week, instead of once a decade. But I missed that world by a scant decade or two.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

West

Train Station, Banff, Alberta

CROSSING THE CANADIAN ROCKIES FOR THE FIRST TIME was probably a bigger deal than it should have been. Nonetheless, I was over fifty when I finally managed it earlier this month, on a travel junket to take the Rocky Mountaineer luxury train from Vancouver to Banff. It's a trip that it seems most Canadian have wanted to take, and I was lucky to do it for work.

I love trains. They're the perfect balance between a car and a plane - you get to cover distances and see the sights while someone else does the driving and navigating. Taking a train with a gourmet kitchen and a glass-domed roof enhances this comparative advantage, of course, and it goes without saying that I took a lot of pictures.

Vancouver, BC

As a city, Vancouver is often described by Canadians as the anti-Toronto - coastal and laid-back instead of lakeside and work-obsessed. That might have been true at one point, but both cities have been experiencing real estate booms for so long that their differences have been minimized; making the money to afford to live there has become enough of a common endeavor that I imagine Vancouverites need to get a glimpse of the mountains every now and then to remember where they are.

I didn't get to see a lot of the town apart from a couple of walks down to the water from my hotel, but my travel media status did get me out onto the roof of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver to photograph the skyline from behind the magnificent carved gargoyles that have been brooding over the town for over seventy years.

Nancy Lanthier, Vancouver Art Gallery

If you've read this blog regularly, you'll know that I got my start as a photographer thanks to Nerve magazine, a ragged little music monthly published by the couple I usually referred to as the aggregate "Dave and Nancy." The end of Dave and Nancy also meant the end of Nerve, and Nancy eventually made her way to Vancouver. I hadn't seen her for years so when I knew I'd be passing through town I had to get together with her again.

While I feel older, grayer and fatter, Nancy didn't seem to have changed at all - still lovely, and full of the same enthusiasm and curiosity that have always made her so charming. We met in the hotel lobby and drank beer on the patio of the Vancouver Art Gallery next door, where I took a quick portrait of Nancy amidst the columns and umbrellas.

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward in his Kitsilano studio

An afternoon free also gave me a chance to meet someone whose work has been inspiring not only to my photography but to this blog in particular. When I started scanning my old photos and putting them online almost three years ago, Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's long-running website was the best model for this kind of thing I'd ever seen, so I had to ask if he had an hour or two free when I passed through his (adopted) hometown.

Alex began working as a professional over a decade before I did, and got to experience ten more years of what was probably editorial photography's last golden era. We talked about that, among other things, at his home in Kitsilano, where he and his wife Rosemary were kind enough to invite me for coffee and pastry. At the end of my visit he took me out to his studio, where I asked him if he'd sit for a quick portrait; I shot him looking back through the door of his shooting space to the filing cabinets where he keeps his work meticulously archived.

Rocky Mountains, British Columbia

Shooting from a moving train requires a steep learning curve; a steady hand isn't as important as timing - getting your camera out and ready when a new vista sweeps into view, and keeping one eye open for the break in the trees to get an unobstructed frame. There was a lot to shoot, and I had to suppress my street photographer's aversion to the scenic with the justification that I rarely get to photograph anything really spectacular, so it was time to relax into the picture postcard majesty of it all.

Railyard workshop, Kamloops, BC
Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta

I felt much more at home in the Kamloops railyard where the Rocky Mountaineer services their trains - a step off the beaten tourist path that I'd requested to see as part of my story on the effort and logistics that go into a luxury train. We also made a quick trip to Lake Louise after reaching Banff - one of the most iconic locations in Canada, and one that I perversely responded to with this photo of a stone wall buried in late winter snow.

Fenland Trail, Banff, Alberta

After two days on a crowded train I had an urge to escape crowds, so with an afternoon free I took a short hike on the Fenland Trail just outside Banff. Our host in the town helpfully told me that the recent grizzly warning for the trail had been taken down, so I got to enjoy the crisp, pine-scented air with only the slightest terror of predatory wildlife. We ended the evening of our final day in the mountains overlooking the town; I shot some scenic vistas, to be sure, but inevitably my eye was drawn to something a bit more man-made.

Sulfur Mountain, Banff, Alberta

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Kristin Scott Thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

THE AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER DUANE MICHALS HAD A LINE that my friend Chris and I used to quote at each other all the time: "There is no such thing as a bad celebrity portrait." In the same introduction for the book of portraits where he wrote this, he explained further:
When someone says, "What a beautiful photograph!" upon viewing a portrait of a handsome man, what they are really saying is "What a handsome man!" Most often, it is an ordinary photograph of a beautiful person. If the same photograph were of an ugly person, would it then be an ugly photograph?
This came to mind when I started scanning these portraits of British actress Kristin Scott Thomas, shot at the film festival when she was promoting The English Patient, and the role that would be her breakthrough. Perhaps they're good portraits; I like to think they are, but to be honest their quality as portraits is hard to judge when the subject is so obviously beautiful.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I remember wearing a suit when I did this portrait; it was when I had my own tailor and shirtmaker, and took to dressing formally as a kind of personal armour, and as a way of making portrait shoots a bit more formal, with myself as a kind of consultant, providing expert professional services. I still think it was a sensible way of going about this sort of work; I'd do it today if I could afford to again.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Kristin Scott Thomas was lovely and elegant and took my minimal direction with only the slightest hint of discomfort. I remember her complaining mildly to her publicist about the limousine the festival was sending around to drive her from her hotel to the theatre, which was only a block or two away. "I live in Paris - I'm used to walking everywhere!" she said. I said that I was sure that the festival was only being solicitous, and in any case it was part of the whole ritual of a film premiere.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I shot this without extra lighting - just my Rolleis on a tripod, the way I worked at what I know now was the pinnacle of my career. I could judge a hotel room for the sweet spot of light, I could print around any problems, and I had just enough time for a couple of set-ups back when fifteen minutes really meant fifteen minutes. I have always been pleased with the results but, once again, I can't take as much credit as I'd like since my subject clearly did so much of the work for me.

I suppose this was also the pinnacle of Kristin Scott Thomas' career as well; after an unpromising start as the love interest in Prince's worst film, she became a star with The English Patient, then discovered she didn't like working in the Hollywood system. She began splitting her time between theatre and film, turning up for what she described as small parts in big English films and bigger parts in smaller French films. Three years ago she told the Guardian:
"So they give me a little role in something where they know I'm going to be able to turn up, know what to do, cry in the right place. I shouldn't bite the hand that feeds, but I keep doing these things for other people, and last year I just decided life's too short. I don't want to do it any more."
The interview was for The Invisible Woman, where she played the mother of the love interest to Ralph Fiennes - her love interest nearly twenty years earlier in The English Patient. Such is the career trajectory of even a great beauty in the movie business. It's no wonder she's said she's "a recovering actress." (Though she has made four films since then.) Still, I remain eternally grateful for her gracious assistance in making my portraits so much better simply by being her very lovely self.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan, Toronto, Feb. 1996

WAS I EXCITED TO SHOOT JACKIE CHAN? You bet I was. I don't believe in guilty pleasures, but Hong Kong action films - a movie subgenre in which Chan is the undisputed superstar - were once my favorite way to spend a mentally undemanding hour or two, letting the truck-sized plot holes and sheer physical improbabilities bounce off my mind like Jackie Chan deflecting a hundred blows.

I can't be sure today if Chan was in town promoting Rumble in the Bronx (shot in Vancouver, with its very un-Bronxlike mountains in the background) or Police Story 4: First Strike. I'm as certain as my dismal memory allows that I shot him at the Park Plaza (now Park Hyatt) Hotel. One thing I do know is that, as excited as I might have been to take Jackie Chan's portrait, he was very nearly as excited to have his picture taken, or at least that's how it seemed that day.

Jackie Chan, Toronto, Feb. 1996

I let the interviewer go first while I found my spot and my light - an intriguingly formal tableaux with a love seat just beneath some 18th century gentleman's portrait, framed with wood paneling and drapery. I wanted to place Chan in the space, imagining him playing against his persona, draped languidly across the cushions and over the arm of the love seat.

I was halfway through describing what I wanted when Chan launched himself into the space, standing on the cushions, then planking himself between the upholstered arms, changing position every time I snapped the shutter. My idea, I realized, would have to wait for a more supine subject, and I did my best to keep up with him, cocking the shutter and re-composing in an effort to keep up with this explosion of utter fucking Jackie Chan-ness that was happening in front of me.

Jackie Chan, Toronto, Feb. 1996

He ended the shoot with a flourish, standing astride the cushions and pumping his fists. It was all over in perhaps two minutes, and even his publicists looked amazed at his energy. This was, after all, a man who had famously damaged himself countless times doing his own stunts, so much so that wince-making blooper reels of outtakes ritually ran during the credit sequence at the end of his films.

Some part of me would still love to get another shot at Chan and take that languid portrait of him, as boneless and lazy as a sleeping cat, but I'm still grateful that I once barely shoehorned him into my camera frame, back when I was starting to take it for granted that I'd be shooting celebrities like Jackie Chan for a living.



Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh, Toronto, Sept. 1996

AS I'VE WRITTEN BEFORE, THE NINETIES WERE A TIME WHEN MOVIES became a lot more exciting than music, at least for me. Part of the excitement was discovering new directors who, though they might have had careers going back at least a decade or more, were reaching their stride - directors like Mike Leigh, who made his first film in 1971, but who really made his breakthrough with High Hopes in 1988 and especially Life Is Sweet in 1990.

I adored Life Is Sweet when I saw it; it had the downbeat characters and grim charm I had loved in the films Paul Cox had made earlier in the '80s, with an added intensity that came from the actors and the long process of improvisation that Leigh led them through to create the script. By the time I was assigned to photograph Leigh at the film festival by NOW I was a huge fan, thanks to Naked, with its performances by David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge, stock players in the "company" Leigh was building around him.

Mike Leigh, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Leigh was at the festival with Secrets & Lies, and would release Career Girls a year later - my all-time favorite Mike Leigh movie. I was desperate to get a good shot of him, and with no pressure to produce a colour cover shot, I could focus entirely on working with my Rolleiflex cameras, tripod and the available light in the hotel room to get the sort of simple portraits I loved the most.

I'm pretty sure the shot at the bottom was the one the paper ended up running - a picture that sums up the hangdog tone of Leigh's films and his sometimes desperate, often melancholy characters. The middle shot was more formal and minimalist - my fallback composition - but going through the contacts today, it's the shot at the top that I like the most, a portrait not much different in feel from the one below, but which has just a hint of a performance in it.

Mike Leigh, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Leigh was actually very cooperative with me, taking my admittedly basic direction happily and wryly indulging in the morose image his films had acquired. It probably helped that the writer on this story was Ingrid Randoja, whose enthusiasm and obvious familiarity with his work had made for a very good interview just before I took my allotted five minutes for shooting. I clearly recall that, after she'd turned off her tape recorder and thanked Leigh before leaving the hotel room, he turned to his publicist and said, "She was very good, wasn't she?"

I always looked forward to working with Ingrid at NOW; her enthusiasm and professionalism put my subjects in a decent mood and she always left me ample time at the end of each interview slot. (Slots that seemed to get shorter with every passing year.) I liked to think of us as a team, doing our best to help each other produce our best work with the chance, unpredictable factors of subject, handler, film and venue. Ingrid was not only a great colleague, but one of my favorite people.