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.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Santa Monica, 2008

Lifeguard station, Santa Monica, Jan. 2008

I WENT BACK TO LOS ANGELES LAST WEEK for the first time in eight years. Back when I worked for the free national daily I used to go there a lot, on movie junkets. We'd be put up in a good hotel for a night or two, and between the screenings and the roundtable interviews I'd maybe have a few hours free to wander about, and it wasn't long before I came to the conclusion that Los Angeles was one of the most photogenic cities I'd ever visited.

My last trip to L.A. was for a film whose title I can't recall. I do remember that one of the stars was Ted Danson, who was so committed to campaigning for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary that he barely spoke about the film and spent most of his time telling a table full of international journalists - none of whom could vote in an American election - how great it was to have a beer with Hillary.

Santa Monica beach. Jan. 2008

At the end of the junket I checked out and had a few hours to kill before my ride to LAX. The hotel was on the beach in Santa Monica, so I decided to go for a stroll over to the pier. It was January and fog kept rolling in from the ocean, so my first closeup glimpse of the Pacific Ocean tapered into a misty wall about ten or fifteen feet from the water's edge.

I hadn't been taking a lot of photos outside of work. I was, to be honest, reluctant to describe myself as a photographer any more. A few years previous, when I was still the paper's photo editor, I'd had lunch with my friend Chris Buck when he was passing through town, and he'd practically pleaded with me to start shooting again. It had made me feel a bit guilty, and I suppose that's why I'd started packing a camera in my bag when I went on junkets.

My favorite camera at the time was a Sony Cybershot - a little compact digital snapshot camera that I'd basically gotten for free, and which distinguished itself from most of the other pocket cameras on the market with its Zeiss lens and a well-designed rangefinder, which I appreciated as I didn't like framing and focusing with the LCD screen on the back of the camera. (I still don't.)

It was light and easy to use and took really nice shots for something so small. It was the successor to the Olympus Stylus I'd bought in the last years of film photography, which I'd carried with me everywhere during a time when I wasn't doing much, if any, professional shooting. They were the sorts of simple cameras that suited my now-far-less-ambitious status.

Seagull, Santa Monica Pier, Jan. 2008

The fog began clearing a bit as I got closer to the pier, but it never let up enough to take away the lovely soft light that suffused everything that afternoon. I took a lot of tourist snapshots - the lifeguard stations (closed for the winter,) the palm trees and the pier, of course, which is an attraction on its own, with its aquarium and shops and amusement park.

It had been a long time since I'd shot anything just for fun. Slowly, as the afternoon went on and the sun began setting, I realized how much I was enjoying this. I wasn't fooling myself that I was getting anything groundbreaking, since what I was shooting was so essentially picturesque. I was getting snapshots and postcards, to be sure, though it was still satisfying to just frame and shoot.

Santa Monica pier, Jan. 2008

Santa Monica was my last movie junket, and a few weeks later I was laid off from the free national daily. The next few years were stressful - back to freelancing, buying a house, trying to figure out just what I wanted to do with the balance of my life. Looking back, I probably wouldn't have entertained returning to photography if it weren't for a) that lunch with Chris and b) that afternoon in Santa Monica.

It was just a couple of hours on my own with a little camera, but it felt good enough to be shooting again - and getting shots that, if not wildly original, at least looked like what I wanted to capture. I didn't know it at the time, but I was both at the end and the beginning of something, so in retrospect these photos have a pregnant, even ominous significance that only became clear in retrospect.

Monday, November 28, 2016


Route 110 outside Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, Nov. 2016

I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT FROM MEXICO. To be fair, San Miguel de Allende and its environs - one of the more pleasant, picturesque and prosperous parts of the country. Some people might say that I didn't see the "real Mexico." Fair enough - but what I saw was very pleasant, and very photogenic, and ultimately I'd challenge anyone to tell me what the real Mexico is, actually.

A colonial town, built mostly on a slope, painted in bright warm colours. Picturesque as hell, and while I've fretted about the lure of the picturesque before, once again you sometimes have to just allow yourself to relax into it and let your camera go where it wants to go.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Nov. 2016

Sometimes the colour is enough of an excuse. Sometimes it's the lushness of a bit of ruin. I had a job to do and a story to write, but there always seemed to be something catching my eye, so I started walking around with two cameras at the ready all the time.

Sancturario de Jesus Nazareno Atotonilco, Nov. 2016

It always helps to leave the city. For someone like me, the average farm is a strange enough place; a vineyard or an olive grove is something even stranger, and it always helps to have an animal or two around.

Cuna di Terra Vineyard, outside Dolores Hidalgo, Nov. 2016
Finca Luna Serena, outside San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016

Back in town there was a marketplace with its piles of merchandise and the ever-reliable oddness of Latin Catholicism in the churches, as well as improvised wiring solutions overhead. There was even time for a portrait.

Artisanal Market, San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016
Templo San Francisco, San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016
Wires, San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016
Artist Mario Oliva, San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016
Laurel trees, Jardin Allende, San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016
Mariachis, Jardin Allende, San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016

I could have spent a day in the main square, just shooting the art students sketching in the morning, the schoolkids practicing with their marching band, and the mariachis who started playing as the sun went down, taking requests and doing songs with verses that made sport of the convenient gringo standing there with his camera. I don't care what they said about me - this is my favorite shot from the trip.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Bicycle couriers, 1990

Jeff, Parkdale, March 1990

I STILL FIND IT HARD TO COMPREHEND THAT SOME OF MY OLD PHOTOS ARE HISTORY. But it's true - I've been at this long enough that the people and events I've photographed are relics, snapshots of times and circumstances that have gone away. I might still remember the moment I took a photo as vividly as if it were yesterday (or I might not) but that doesn't change the fact that, for many people looking at my work, it's a product of a time they can't possible remember, either because they were too young, or not even born yet.

After posting my latest portrait series from Talladega last week, I went back and dug out the first one I ever did, on assignment for NOW magazine back at the turn of the '90s. Being a right-on, progressive urban publication, NOW regularly published a special cycling supplement, and I was assigned to provide the cover art. I was feeling ambitious, and asked my editor if I could do a group of studio portraits of bicycle couriers. They were a group known for their swaggering, almost piratical public image, and had been the subject of news stories, complaining about their reckless riding while on the job. Irene agreed, and I got to work.

Irving Penn, Hell's Angels, San Francisco, 1968

My inspiration was obvious. I was, as I so often did back then (and probably even now) ripping off Irving Penn, who had been doing August Sander-esque studio portraits of people in their working uniforms since the '50s. Specifically, though, I had in mind a series of portraits he did on assignment for LOOK magazine in the late '60s, of members of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang.

With this in mind I got out a nice big softbox for my strobes, bought a pile of film and rented a painted muslin backdrop. Getting subjects was easy enough; Toronto's business district was full of bike couriers, and helpfully they all used to hang out at a sandwich shop on Temperance Street called Breadspreads. I went by and talked to a few of them, then drew up a flier and put it on the bulletin board by the front door, giving directions to my studio and a time at the end of the business day. I bought a case of beer and waited.

From the top: Timothy, Justin, Peter and Scotty, Parkdale, March 1990

The first ones came before office hours were done, their shifts over for the day. They began arriving thick and fast after that, and it was obvious after a half hour that my two-four of beer wouldn't be enough. Cheerfully a few of them offered to do a beer run, and by the time they came back my living room outside the bedroom/studio where I'd set up was full of couriers, their bikes piled up in drifts in the hallway outside my loft.

I called them in one at a time, insisting that they have on their full gear, walkie-talkies, bags and everything. Some insisted on being shot in groups, others with their buddies. There was even a couple who everyone told me I had to shoot together. I barely left the studio, and when I did I tried not to think about what kind of mess they might have been making of our living room. At some point I think my roommate Sally came home to quite a shock.

From the top: Sovereign Crew, Pat, Mike and Gary, Parkdale, March 1990

With Penn still in the forefront of my mind, I tried to avoid mugging and gurning, and encouraged the couriers who walked into the studio (there were others just there for the party who never got their portrait taken) to find some kind of dignified or iconic pose. I was very new to this sort of intense churn of subjects passing in front of my camera, and I remember that I felt both anxious and elated while I worked.

At some point, as the sun was going down outside my window, I'd shot everyone who wanted to be photographed, and within what seemed like a few minutes, they were all gone, leaving behind a huge pile of empties in a tower of cases in our kitchen, which became a welcome cash windfall when I got a buddy to drive me to the beer store to turn them in for the deposit.

From the top: Laurens, Craig & Jane, Nick and Roy, Parkdale, March 1990

You don't see a lot of bike couriers anymore; the job has been a casualty of e-mail, like a lot of other ones. Breadspreads is long gone, and whenever I'm downtown I'm surprised when I see even a single bike courier racing between the cars on their way from one office tower to another, carrying something that obviously resists digitization, whatever that might be.

This recent British news feature about the few remaining couriers riding the streets of London evoked that now-vanished time when a corporate lawyer or millionaire trader would have his receptionist call for the delivery of a vital document, something upon which fortunes or careers might depend, and hand it to a hungover, possibly stoned 28-year-old guy with a lip ring and a Carcass t-shirt, riding a mud-covered bike put together from spare parts, nursing a fractured knee he got after colliding with a distracted bond trader's BMW.

One particular passage stood out for me:
Back in the golden days of the early 1990s, or so I’m told, couriers were urban superheroes, riding for 12 hours a day because the work never stopped piling up, taking home £500 a week, or more. Adrian Knight took up couriering in Sydney in 1992, earning up to A$1,500 a week. When he returned to the circuit at the turn of the century, after a few years travelling, he was unpleasantly surprised to find that his paycheque had shrunk to an average of AU$600. It’s a story that’s repeated in cities across the world, by old men with dodgy backs and dicky knees, still riding because after 20 years, no other job will have them, struggling to earn half of what they did before, warning newcomers like me to get out while the going’s good.
Frankly, his situation is wholly familiar to me, as I returned to freelancing eight years ago to discover that rates were a fraction of what they used to be for work that was far more scarce. I might not have ruined my knees delivering contracts or divorce settlements, but I'm definitely the old guy with a bad back doing what I do because I can't really do much else, warning young people to keep their day job. The photos in this post are a bit of history; then again, so am I.