Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rudolf

Rudolf Nureyev, New York City, January 1991

IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME SINCE BALLET DANCERS WERE CELEBRITIES. I took these photos of Rudolf Nureyev at probably the last moment that was true, at a time when there was still a highbrow culture that wasn't obscure, and when newspapers had salaried dance critics on staff. It's not that long ago, at least in my mind.

I was on assignment for NOW magazine, back when the paper regularly flew photographers out to shoot cover subjects, and I'd asked the paper to fly me in a day or two early so I could stay with my very nearly erstwhile girlfriend, who was living in Alphabet City while studying film at NYU. I arranged to meet Daryl, the paper's dance writer, outside Nureyev's home at the Dakota apartments on the Upper West Side just next to Central Park.

The Dakota was - I suppose still is - as famous as any apartment building in Manhattan, the setting for Rosemary's Baby and the last home of John Lennon, outside whose entrance he'd been shot to death just a decade previous. Nureyev lived upstairs from Lauren Bacall, in a vast apartment furnished with antiques and hung with tapestries and oil paintings, one of several similarly lush, decadent homes he kept around the world.

Architectural Digest, Sept. 1985

I was very fond of Daryl, a lovely man but a big hippie, and particularly in thrall to the legend of Beatle John, so when I met him just by the Dakota gatehouse he was visibly in awe of being near "the spot," as it were. Much as I loved the Beatles, I had never been a huge Lennon fan, and the only thing that surprised me about his murder was that, at the end of the '70s, nobody had done this sort of thing before.

I was particularly appalled by the cult of Lennon that had sprung up since his death, and its Ka'aba was here, by the driveway leading into the courtyard of the Dakota, and just across Central Park West in the park at Strawberry Fields, where on almost any day you'd find someone strumming "Give Peace A Chance" on their guitar right next to the "Imagine" mosaic. This sort of thing has never sat well with me, and so I have to confess that - I know it was immature, and I probably wouldn't do it today, but I have to ask for your understanding - as we were escorted from the street past the Dakota gatehouse, I slowed as I walked behind Daryl and then, for just a couple of seconds, did a little jig on "the spot."

I'm pretty sure nobody saw me.

I wish I remembered more about our trip through the halls of the Dakota, but the only thing I can recall is that it didn't look anything like Rosemary's Baby, and that all of a sudden we were in Nureyev's apartment, trying to take in everything around us.

Rudolf Nureyev, New York City, January 1991

At this time, just a few years into my tenure at NOW, we were working under an edict from above, specifying that our covers fit into a set format, with the subject taking up a vertical third of the photo, with the other two-thirds of the frame taken up with a light, neutral backbround on which the art department could drop type. I don't know whether this restriction lasted a year or several years, but it was an onerous format to work with, week after week, and so I scouted the magnificent room for the dullest spot I could find to take my cover shot.

I settled on a space by the window, where I could use the spidery black and white background of Central Park in winter as my background, and set up my single light, waiting for Nureyev. He showed up shortly, a small man dressed in tweeds and fully as elegant as I'd imagined him. He was happy to take my minimal direction, and even though I'd budgeted more than the usual number of rolls for the shoot - he seemed worth the expense, if only in the hope of a portfolio piece - I found myself burning through film quickly.

Rudolf Nureyev, New York City, January 1991

I moved him inside the room for the black and white shot that would run in the spread, facing the cover feature, where the biggest problem was that there was no shortage of backgrounds. The whole place looked like the most luxurious opium den I'd ever seen, and I panned my camera around wildly, moving from painting to tapestry to painting trying to do the setting justice. For some reason I rejected the shot above twenty-three years ago in favour of something more anodyne - a slight failure of nerve.

I probably worked in something of a controlled frenzy, as I did back then, and it was all over so fast that my memories of my half hour - twenty minutes, fifteen? - with Nureyev are scattered. Not long after I started, I'd packed my bags and was rushing downtown to get the slides developed (U.S. Color Labs, (212) 254-7200 according to the back of the slide mounts - they still seem to be in business) and back to Toronto.

Ellis Island, January 1991

Just next to the sheet of Nureyev black and white negatives in my files (35mm binder #4, October 1990 to October 1991: a busy year) is a sheet titled "Ellis Island trip," which records a ferry ride I took with my very-nearly-almost-quite-ex-girlfriend the day before the Nureyev shoot, across the mouth of the Hudson River to visit the Ellis Island Museum, which had just opened the previous autumn. It's a melancholy little record of a mostly miserable day, where her dwindling patience with me was becoming hard to ignore, though the end - a tearful, hysterical thing - wouldn't actually come until the following summer.

That same summer Nureyev, who'd had AIDS for years, began visibly suffering from the symptoms of the disease, and he died almost exactly two years after I took these pictures.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chris

Chris Buck, Toronto 1988

MY GOOD FRIEND CHRIS BUCK TURNS 50 TODAY, which is a good time to write something about the person I photographed more than anyone else in the first years of my career. The photo above, painstakingly scanned from the original very thin and dusty negative, was shot in my old apartment on Maitland Street, just after I got my first medium format camera - a Mamiya C330 - and I was likely showing it off.

In retrospect, I was fortunate to meet Chris when I did; he was studying photography in school, and making the first steps in a career that would take him to the success I think both of us dreamed of at the time - a home in Manhattan, a portfolio full of famous faces and a client list that included dozens of major magazines and nearly as many major corporations. At the time, though, we were "just kids," as they say - Chris in the basement of his parent's house in the west end, me in a dingy little apartment between the city's main drag and the gay ghetto.

Me and Anton Corbijn, Toronto 1987, photo by Chris Buck

There were a lot of reasons the friendship shouldn't have lasted. We dated the same girl - Chris for a couple of months, me just after that, and for several years. We were in the same business, in the same provincial city, hoping to work for the same clients, and with a wish list of subjects that overlapped massively. We even shared the same influences (Dutch rock photographer Anton Corbijn; Conde Nast legend Irving Penn); From the outside, we were living in each other's pockets, personally, professionally and aesthetically, and that should have ended in grief.

Chris Buck, Toronto 1988(?)

There was, of course, some jousting going on; the contact sheet above was shot a couple of years after the photo at the top, when I'd moved into a big studio space in Parkdale, and Chris had come to show me the Hasselblad he'd just bought. I unpacked the Bronica SQa that I'd bought to replace the C330 and we set them up on tripods to compare them, then asked my girlfriend (yes, the same girl) to come in and tell us which one looked better.

"You know how this sounds, don't you, guys? No, I won't."

Chris Buck, date unknown

We'd help each other on shoots when we couldn't afford assistants and use each other as subjects in lighting and film tests. The shot above was probably done in my Parkdale studio, when I was trying to figure out Robert Mapplethorpe's lighting scheme and Chris was, near as I can tell, doing his best Morrissey. (What can I say - it was the '80s.)

As much as we were inspired by Penn and Corbijn, Richard Avedon and Joel Peter Witkin and whoever else we aspired to be back then, we were just as inspired by each other, and happily shared every bit of information we acquired about cameras and film stock, photo labs, publicists and photo editors. For a while he was even my boss, working as photo editor first at Nerve, the sloppy but energetic indie-rock magazine where we met, and then at Graffiti, the music slick where most of the Nerve staff ended working.

Chris shoots my roommate Sally Lee, Sunnyside Beach

As a result, we ended up documenting each other rather intensely over a five-year period until Chris moved to New York while I stayed behind in Toronto, with vague plans to follow him when I had the money. It would be a few years before I realized that would never happen, and for at least some of that time Chris actually kept a spare steel  sink he'd picked up somewhere, intending to pass it on to me for my darkroom when I'd made my move.

If you know anything about American photography today you probably know about Chris. If you follow U.S. politics, you only need to say that he's the guy who shot the "crazy eyes Michelle Bachmann" portrait for Newsweek. He has - and I think he'd take this as a compliment - overcome our rather crippling weight of shared influences to develop his own, very recognizable style, which will (I think) one day become part of the visual shorthand we'll use to remember the political, social and cultural moment we're struggling through now.

Chris and Olive Buck, Toronto 2012

I am immensely proud of my friend Chris. We both came late to marriage and fatherhood, but they've been a gift to us, and from just over the far side of our midlife peaks, I'm grateful that all the things that should have derailed our friendship so many years ago have just ended up as shared history. Here's to you, Mr. Buck, on your birthday, and for the record I don't care whose camera is bigger.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Mickey

Mickey Rooney, Toronto 1995
I WASN'T PREPARED FOR JUST HOW SHORT HE WAS. I knew that Mickey Rooney was not a tall man; in heels, Judy Garland almost towered over him, and she didn't top five feet. He was, to be sure, a little fella, and for as long as I was in his hotel room at the Royal York, I was trying to wrap my head around the undeniable fact that this tiny, anxious old man was the biggest movie star in the world several years running.

Here's the thing: Dana Carvey used to do an incredible impersonation of Rooney, based on the time he spent working with him on a failed sitcom in the early '80s, and the whole gag would hang on Rooney's constant assertion that he was once "the biggest star ... in the world." I can attest that, for the two hours I spent with Rooney in that hotel suite in the fall of 1995, he actually said that, exactly that way, several times.


Rooney was in town performing in a revival of Crazy For You at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, and the producers had put him up in the Royal York Hotel, another icon of old-school Toronto glamour. (To the extent that Toronto has, in the sense that we understand it, any glamour.) I was assigned to shoot him for the "What I Wear" fashion spread that was a regular feature at NOW magazine, a semi-regular gig that I did with Dierdre, the paper's fashion and art editor.

I wouldn't call Rooney a fashion plate, but it didn't matter. And since the whole point of the feature was having Mickey Rooney  - Andy Hardy himself! - in the paper, I'd probably decided ahead of time to turn in a collage instead of a single full-length portrait. Languishing in the last flushed pink of print's economic health, NOW was still pretty loose in their layouts at the time, and the photo editor, Irene, actually encouraged us to experiment. Aching to do something more like a photo essay, I'd regularly turn in triptychs, or mosaics of small prints of varying sizes, focusing on details rather than a single portrait of the subject.
Mickey Rooney, Toronto 1995
It was an outtake from this collage that sat in my 5x7 box for almost twenty years, the only proof I had of my afternoon with Mickey Rooney apart from the contact sheets and negatives that I only just excavated from behind the analog wall last week. I had wanted to kick off this blog with the Rooney pictures when he died earlier this year, but couldn't muster the energy to start digging behind the wall until just recently. At least I remembered that I'd done the shoot.

It was, to be frank, a weirdly memorable shoot. As an honoured guest, Rooney had requested a big-screen TV for his room - back in the day when anything bigger than a 35" screen was a monstrous rear-projection unit the size of a small garden shed. The TV was on the whole two hours Dierdre and I were in the room, blaring out daytime soap operas, while Dierdre gently probed Mickey to talk about his wardrobe, which prompted him to launch into anecdotes from his time as the biggest star - hiss, pop - in the world. 

Mickey Rooney, Toronto 1995
I wish I could say that I remembered those anecdotes - I'm sure there must have been something about Ava Gardner in there - but getting a decent shot of Rooney was like catching a hailstone in a pan of mercury, and I ended up taking two rolls that afternoon, many of the frames tight headshots as he parried Dierdre's questions with scraps of Hollywood lore that I'm sure he'd been sharing for years at that point.

Mickey would answer a few questions, move to a different part of the room, put on and take off a hat or a blazer, and I'd squeeze off a few frames as he moved. As the afternoon wore on, the huge glowing TV in the other room providing a soundtrack of soaps, it occurred to me that Mickey really didn't want us to leave. 

He was once the biggest star in the world, and a man who'd blown through nearly $80 million dollars by the time his career cratered after the war. He'd been married eight times, made over 160 feature films and almost as many shorts, in a career that began in the silent era and saw him at his peak the prized player at the biggest studio in Hollywood. And he seemed to me terribly, terribly lonely.

Friday, July 25, 2014

David

SOMETIMES A MAN'S GOT TO KNOW HIS LIMITATIONS. For most of my career as an editorial portrait photographer, that limitation was five minutes, usually less, in a hotel suite with available light. This is the kind of work that resulted from that rather severe lack of options:

David Byrne, Toronto 1995
Unless somebody recognizes the pattern on the upholstery of the chair, the best guess I could give you is that it was either the Intercontinental, the Four Seasons, the Park Hyatt or the Sutton Place - four hotels that are (or were) within a few minutes of each other clustered around Yorkville, Toronto's upscale shopping district. I'm saying Four Seasons until someone can correct me. (PS: Found the contact sheets - I actually shot two rolls of Byrne! - and yes, it was the old Four Seasons on Avenue.)

Judging by the date, Byrne didn't have an album to promote but was in town plugging Strange Ritual, his book of photo collages. I know the date and the client (NOW magazine) thanks to the entry I made into a huge ledger book I used to keep track of jobs and outgoing prints. More on that later.

Page 35 of The Book
The two prints that NOW used are probably still in their archives somewhere, since gifted to a local university, but I obviously kept the darkroom "seconds" for some reason, and they managed to survive the print purge a few years later. As with anything that's survived until now, I can't help but wonder why.

The prints are 5x7s, stored in an orange Agfa paper box along with at least a couple of hundred other prints and a few Polaroids. Since I lived and died by my overhead, I saved money for years by only making larger prints (8x10, 11x14 and larger) when clients requested them, while NOW, who only needed to make quick scans for layouts where the photos rarely exceeded 5 inches by 7 inches, were happy with the smaller prints. I only have one of these boxes, and I've been excavating through it this week.

the 5x7 box
I was largely indifferent to David Byrne's work by the time I took these pictures, but the first five Talking Heads albums had once meant a lot to me. The band was over by 1995, after an acrimonious split that hasn't healed to this day. I didn't expect to get much from Byrne, who had always cultivated a studiously "blank" public image, so all I expected was a subject who would sit where the light was and look where I asked.

David Byrne, Toronto 1995
For the first few years of my hotel room shooting, I did my best to make the portraits I made in them look like they were done in a studio, or in some faintly exotic place, which required dragging subjects in front of tapestries or trying to find bits of furniture that suggested antiquity or luxury instead of standardized rooms or hospitality chains. By the time I shot Byrne, however, I'd given up, and started stressing the hotel settings - in this case as much as possible, by posing him next to the entrance foyer, with its fire exit map screwed into the door, just above the peephole.

On the same page of the ledger book that records the Byrne shoot, I've recorded roughly two months of shoots for NOW - a few restaurants, some local theatre types, a band (Blue Rodeo,) a couple of directors (Abel Ferrara and Agnieszka Holland) and a whole bunch of actors, including Kristin Scott Thomas, Lili Taylor, Piper Laurie and, entered in the line just above Byrne, none other than Mickey Rooney. More on that next week.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

John

John Waters, Toronto 1987
MY FIRST REAL "HIT" AS A PHOTOGRAPHER. Taken about two years after I picked up a camera, and shot on spec with my first medium format camera - a Mamiya C330 that I'd only bought a couple of months before. The seventh shoot I'd done with the camera, according to my negative binder, and lit with a Vivitar 285 flash held in my left hand while I cradled the camera and triggered the shutter with my right. (Believe it or not, they still make the Vivitar.)

Waters was in town promoting his book Crackpot, and was doing a signing at the late, lamented This Ain't The Rosedale Library, which had recently moved into its third location just down the street from my apartment in Toronto's gay ghetto. John Waters was a big deal for pop culture freaks, but the "Pope of Trash" was still a cult figure at the time, his reputation made solely by rep house screenings of Pink Flamingos and Polyester.

Hairspray wouldn't come out for a year, and so the crowd at TATRL was small but eager - die-hard fans who'd seen Divine eat the dog turd more times than they could count, even before they'd been able to afford a VCR. I showed up just after a shift at the toy shop where I was working, with a bag full of these little rubber gargoyle faces I'd "borrowed" from the store. I wasn't sure if Waters would go for the props, but he didn't say no, and picked out the one with the moustache.

I shot the whole roll - just twelve frames, the last three with the little rubber face. As a back up, I'd done a few more conventional portraits, my earliest attempt to shoot in the Hollywood glamour style that I'd come to love since buying a book of George Hurrell's photos. At some point in the subsequent twenty years of darkroom work, I printed one of these shots and actually kept it.

John Waters, Toronto 1987
It's a bit soft - I'd reject it out of hand today - but it's nice to have some evidence that I was working towards something even if I lacked the technical means. The C330 I bought came with a 105mm lens - a mild, portrait-length telephoto that explains the tight depth of field. I don't know who I eventually sold the photo to, but I'd re-sell it a few times in subsequent years. Maybe five minutes worth of shooting, but it gave me more confidence that I was on my way than anything else I did at the time.

Waters, of course, would go on to have a career well outside his cult following, one that finally landed squarely in the mainstream when they made a Broadway musical out of Hairspray, and then a Hollywood movie version of that. I'd cross paths with Waters again, years later, when a touring version of Hairspray hit Toronto.

John Waters, Toronto, April 2004
I was working for the national free daily at the time; I might have still been the photo editor, and was sent to shoot Waters for a feature while he did press at the Princess of Wales Theatre on King Street. This was shot in some sort of private room off the lobby, using available light, and it's really nothing more than a snapshot, though it was good enough for the paper. I'm pretty sure posing in front of the Lady Di pic was his idea.

John Waters, Toronto, November 2004
I'd shoot Waters again a few months later, in some unremembered hotel suite, probably on a publicity tour for A Dirty Shame. Window light, a Canon digital SLR, and a perfectly serviceable but nothing special portrait that I could knock out without much effort back then. In retrospect, the first time was the best, though part of me would love to re-create the original portrait today. I actually kept that bag of little rubber faces for years, until the rubber started to decay and the contents of the bag turned sticky.

Waters hasn't directed a thing since that last shoot, and he seems OK with that. He says he won't go on Kickstarter to get funding: "I'm not public begging." I think he should have directed HBO's Grey Gardens docudrama, but nobody listens to me. He's turned into a tasteful, even dignified elderly gentleman with at least three homes full of modern art, books, the occasional macabre memento, and an audience that seems willing to stick with him. "Thank God I still have many ways to tell stories: my books, spoken word shows."

It's amazing to think that there was once a time when cultural slumming was something hipsters did, and that one man could singlehandedly corner the market on movies about misfits, weirdos, deviants, freaks and fuck-ups. While Waters' vision of a world more tolerant of oddballs turned into musical comedy, the inspiration for his characters have gone on display every night thanks to reality TV like Honey Boo-Boo and Hoarders.

Ultimately, my affection for Waters' films was tainted by the people who said they loved them, like falling out with a band because you can't stand their fans. Waters actually seemed to have an honest affection for the lunatic fringe of white, working-class culture that I didn't see his audiences sharing, and the laughter edged too close to mockery for me.

And if you've actually lived up close with that kind of flamboyant desperation, acted out in cramped rooms without a safety net, it's hard not to notice the sadness and weird pride. It makes the laugh stick in your throat, and soon enough it's hard to resist the urge to avert your eyes and turn away.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Indy

THIS BLOG IS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT MY OLD WORK, but I am still, defying the odds, a working photographer, and this weekend provided an example of the sort of work I do, sporadically.

The Honda Indy has been running here in Toronto for almost thirty years, but I only started shooting it three years ago, after I "came out" as a motorsports fan after years of pretending I was a timid urbanite who broke out in a rash at the smell of gasoline. Thanks to blogTO I was able to get accreditation and thanks to my wife I've been able to take three days to cover the event, slathered in sun screen and walking the track until my feet blister.

At work, this weekend
Over the course of the three days, with two cameras around my neck, I came home and downloaded 1,850 frames onto my computer. This isn't everything I shot over the course of the weekend; I edit as I shoot, deleting images from the cameras as I work, trashing the obviously blurred, poorly-composed or dull shots as I go. Ultimately I probably shot well over 2,000 frames.

If I'd admitted to my love of auto racing earlier in my career, I probably wouldn't have been able to do this. At 36 shots per roll, I would have gone through over 50 rolls of film in three days just to bring around 1,850 frames home. Ten or fifteen years ago I would probably have put black and white in one camera and colour in the other, but assuming I shot colour the whole weekend, just filling my bag with enough film at the current cost of Fujicolor Pro 400H at $12 a roll would have set me back at least Can$612.00 before taxes.

Audi v Ferrari: Pirelli World Challenge
At $8/roll to develop colour negative film at Toronto Image Works, it would cost me a further $408.00 before taxes, and that doesn't include scanning or making prints, never mind the time spent bent over a lightbox scrutinizing negatives for something printable. This would have been a thousand dollar weekend if I had been shooting the same way I do now, and well beyond my budget, then or now.

Wandering the photographers annex to the media centre at Indy, I buttonholed some of the veterans shooting the race and asked them how many rolls of film they'd have shot in a similar weekend. One guy said between 50 and a hundred, but added that he was starting an agency at the time and needed as much choice as possible.

Yellow flag at Turn 10.
Another said around twenty, tops, while two other photographers said they'd make due with between five and seven rolls, mixed black and white and colour, but that by the third day photographers could be seen scrounging and begging for rolls, and the enterprising ones would run a lucrative sideline selling film at a mark-up.

Everyone said that they shot very differently back then, squeezing out shots after carefully focusing and framing where today they'll keep their finger on the shutter and bang off long strings of frames in a row. Nobody could edit on the fly, and you didn't know what you had until you got it back from the lab.

Mike Conway wins race two.
Going by simple numbers, it's hard to deny that it's easier - and cheaper - to shoot something like a auto race weekend today, but as with all technological revolutions, there's been a trade-off. The seasoned veteran with the motorsport photo agency told me that the press room has grown in the last few years, as the cost of gear has dropped and overhead has virtually disappeared.

The result is that near-amateurs with decent digital gear have been able to talk their way into gigs that well-equipped pros once relied on, mostly by offering to do the work for a fraction of the price - or for nothing at all. Since it's a given that most people can't tell mediocre work from the really good stuff, "good enough" rules the day and nobody makes a living any more. The agency pro scanned the room, packed with photographers, and said that maybe six or seven of them actually make a living doing this.

Tony Kanaan, Mike Conway and Will Power on Victory Lane.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Gena

Gena Rowlands, September 1996, Rolleiflex TLR

ANOTHER PHOTO I DON'T REMEMBER TAKING. According to my files it was shot in September 1996, which means another Film Festival portrait binge, though by this point the three regular festival hotels had been joined by a fourth - the Intercontinental on Bloor, which is where I suspect this was shot. When the festival wasn't happening, I'd end a fair number of evenings in their piano bar.

Her IMDb filmography has only one entry for that year - Unhook The Stars, directed by her son Nick Cassavetes and co-starring Marisa Tomei and Gerard Depardieu. What an unusual cast.

I was never able to get into the films she made with her husband, the late John Cassavetes - too many angry drunks losing control; you see too much of that in real life and for some reason you don't search it out in movies. But I knew why they were important, and I'd always loved Rowlands' image - the blonde who'd lived some life, and much smarter than her hair colour. Real old school Hollywood stars were getting pretty thin on the ground, even in 1996, so I was grateful to get what I could.

Like I said, I don't remember shooting this, but I can take a guess as to how it happened. I was probably working with either Ingrid or John from NOW magazine, and by that time I'd pared down my shooting kit to a single Manfrotto mini tripod and a Pelikan case with two Rolleiflex twin lens reflex cameras that looked like this:

the Rollei shooting case

I'd find my sweet spot of light - as I've said before, memorized from years of shooting in the same hotel rooms - and take a reading with my Sekonic light meter. I'd load both cameras with Ilford 400 black and white film, set a chair or bench in the spot, slip the Rollei into its tripod shoe and set up a rough frame - all while either waiting for the publicist to usher the subject in or while the writer was doing their interview. I might use a bit of window curtain to flag the light or turn a movie poster mounted on foamcore around on its stand to act as a bit of bounce, but I'd be ready to shoot in a few minutes.

The Rollei has a pretty long minimum focusing distance so I'd attach the close-up filters in the lower left of the case to the cameras to get closer to the subject if it seemed worth doing. I think the Rowlands shot was taken without them, though. A shutter release cable was essential, since I was almost always working at exposures of 1/30 of a second or less.

Once the subject was sitting in the light, I tried to keep the room quiet and establish - if only for a minute or two - some sort of intimacy. Moving my eyes from the waist-level viewfinder on the camera to the subject in front of me was a very retro way of working that felt nothing like shooting with an SLR. I had just 12 exposures on each roll, a roll in each camera, so I couldn't waste a frame and took each shot with intent.

For a few festivals I actually wore a suit when I worked - it made everything that much more formal, and made me feel less like a glorified paparazzi and more like a consultant making a house call. Someone you could trust. Someone who knew what they were doing. Someone who didn't let their emotions get in the way of a job.

When I traveled to a shoot I felt like a hired assassin, especially when I'd check into my hotel room and deposit my little black case and the tripod in its padded sheath on the bed. Since my encounters with my subjects were so brief and perfunctory and almost wordless, it felt like I was in the business of collecting images; collating a record of people chosen according to some secret logic that not even I could be allowed to know.

It wasn't a bad way to make a living, for as long as it lasted. I'd love to do it again.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Steve

Steve Buscemi, Toronto, Fall 1992

I HAVE NO MEMORY OF TAKING THIS PICTURE, EITHER. I had to dig through my files to find a date, and since it was early fall, I'm guessing I shot this at the Toronto International Film Festival - once my big deal annual celebrity portrait blowout. It was probably taken at one of three hotels - two now closed - but don't ask me to tell you which one.

The routine back then was simple - I'd be assigned to meet a writer in one of the hotels, we'd be given fifteen minutes with some actor or director, and hopefully they'd be kind enough to give me five minutes at the end to get a roll of photos. Sometimes it would just be two or three minutes. After a while the publicists would start carving the time finer and finer, and well before your fifteen minutes were up you'd catch them out of the corner of your eye making chopping motions to let you know it was time to wrap it up.

There was no point bringing lighting, so you got good at boosting your ISO, finding the sweet spot of light in the room, and holding your camera steady at low exposures. After a few years - I shot at the film festival for 25 of them - you had the layout of each hotel and its rooms memorized, and simply walked to the sweet spot and cleared a bit of furniture. The limitations were brutal but sometimes - sometimes - you'd get something brilliant.

This isn't one of those times.

He looks so young here. Going by his IMDb filmography, Buscemi was here promoting either In the Soup or Reservoir Dogs or both. I probably knew who he was from his work with Jim Jarmusch and the Coen Brothers, but it would be a few years before I'd perk up when I saw his name in the credits, when he'd become one of those actors - like Christopher Walken or Bill Murray - who can redeem a bad film, even if just for a few minutes. He's my favorite thing in Fargo - the "funny-looking little guy."

For my daughters, he's the voice of Randall in Monsters, Inc., and probably always will be.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Neil

IT WAS EASIER BEING A NEIL YOUNG FAN when it was my little secret. Back in the early '80s, when post-punk was giving way to new romantic, I asked for a copy of Decade for my birthday, having fallen for Neil's weird, grizzled hippy contrarian thing through songs like "Campaigner" and "Cortez the Killer." It became a secret handshake later when I fell in with a group of musicians in my favorite local bands - a way of letting each other know that we weren't just into the shiny new sound or whatever passed for angsty noise at the time.

By 1993, however, everybody was into Neil, but that wasn't why I was in such a bad mood when I arrived at the CNE Grandstand on assignment from SPIN magazine. I hated stadium shows, hated being corralled in and out, hated getting just three songs or less. Limitations can be a creative amplifier, but this just felt punitive.

It didn't help that the lead media handler for the promoter was in such a surly mood, though she brightened when I told her I was shooting for a big deal New York rock magazine, and suddenly she was offering me a seat to watch the show when I was done. I politely declined; I couldn't wait to get out of there. The only thing that interested me was Neil's backing band: Stax/Volt studio band Booker T & the MGs. I remember being starstruck watching Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn walk across the vast backstage area from their trailer to the stage while waiting for our brief spell in the pit to take our shots.

I was experimenting with colour at the time - cross-processing wildly in both directions, and one day, with most of an hour left in the colour darkroom time I'd booked, I decided to print a black and white negative onto colour paper and experiment with changing the CMY settings while burning and dodging. The result looked like this:
Neil Young, Aug. 18, 1993, CNE Grandstand, Toronto

It wasn't all that revolutionary, but no one else was doing it, and since careers were being made on technical gimmicks at the time, I doubled down on the look. Today it would be a half hour's worth of Photoshop, but back then it meant hours in the darkroom and countless scrapped prints as you cycled through all the potential colour variations and burning schemes.

The pics apparently went down a corker when I sent them off to SPIN a couple of days later. The photo editor - name long forgotten, sorry whoever you were, but thanks for the gig - called me to say that Bob Guccione Jr., SPIN's publisher, had gone crazy for the shots, and told her that I should be given as much work as possible.

That never happened. I have no record of ever getting another job from SPIN. Maybe the photo editor left, or maybe it was just that I was in distant Toronto and not New York or L.A. or Chicago. Someone later told me that they'd seen the Neil shot used in a TV commercial for SPIN. In any case, Guccione sold the magazine a few years later, and the next time I'd have anything to do with SPIN would be just last year, when I was asked to write a newspaper feature about their last print edition before they slipped into a digital half-life.

I was hoping to include a photo of the layout where this shot appeared, but my copy of SPIN, carefully preserved in my clippings file from move to move over the years, is nowhere to be found now. Maybe I finally tossed it, a lingering memory of disappointment having attached itself to the dog-eared magazine until it finally turned toxic. The last few years have been like that, I'm sorry to say.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eddie

I'M STILL SKIMMING THE TOP OF MY ARCHIVES at the moment, which means the handful of finished prints and decent second prints I kept after purging myself of boxes of 8x10s before a big move. And I'm finding things like this:

Pearl Jam, Aug. 18, 1993, Canadian National Exhibition Grandstand

Unlike my previous post on David Bowie, I actually do remember shooting this concert, mostly because it was an utter fucking pain in the colon. It was a big package tour, with Neil Young backed up by Booker T & The MGs, supported by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Blues Traveler. I was on assignment for SPIN magazine. I have no memory at all of how I got the gig.

I hate shooting stadium shows. Always have, always will and God willing I'll never have to do it again. This one was particularly awful because of the sheer scale - the CNE Grandstand was the biggest venue in the city - and the incredible popularity of Young and his support acts at the time. As a result, the media handlers treated photographers with more than the usual disdain, and we found ourselves being penned and shoved all over the backstage area during our long waits to shoot the band for our allotted photo slot.

If you've never shot a major concert before, it's a treat. There was a time when a security "gutter" ranging from two or three to ten or twelve feet deep in front of the stage was where we shot - up over the lip of the stage anywhere from six to ten feet off the ground, past the sound monitors and up the nostrils of the lead singer. Once upon a time photographers had the liberty of this "pit" for the whole show, but that era was over by the time I started shooting arena and stadium shows, and the three song rule was in full effect - whittling down to two and even just one song over the years.

Since then, I think the pit has become off limits, and photographers are now assigned spots by the sound board or along the mezzanine level of the venues, where they get their scant three-or-less songs to shoot with long telephotos and monopods. Back in '93, however, we were still allowed into the pit. Except for Pearl Jam.

I gave Blues Traveler a miss - something about them sucking like a chest wound - and shot Soundgarden for three songs from the pit. I didn't feel cheated since I'd seen them before in clubs and was losing interest in the band in any case. For Pearl Jam, however, we were informed that we were only allowed to shoot from the far corners of the pit, on either end of the stage, which meant long lenses and, inevitably, poorer angles.

Tucked elbow-to-elbow into our spots, we waited for Pearl Jam to hit the stage when we noticed that three or four young women - the band's girlfriends, as it turned out, in their standard issue thrift store dresses, torn jeans and combat boots - had walked into the pit area directly in front of the band carrying an SLR or two and at least one old super 8 camera. We had been cleared from the spot where we'd best be able to do our jobs to make space for some proto-hipster tour document where the band would probably just get mocked.

"Oh my gawd - look at Stone. He's going all cock rock!"

"That's what you get for owning too many KISS records, right?"

"Like, totally!"

It felt like a final humiliation, and obviously I'm still smarting from it today. I didn't much like the band, and now I knew why; not merely spoiled rock stars, they were shameless beta male rock stars, happy to make some camera stiff's job harder to keep peace in the ad hoc domestic space of the tour bus. Shooting arena shows was bad enough, but being collateral damage in some assless wonder's attempt at making his girlfriend feel "included" on his "big rock star tour ego trip" made it feel worse.

But that's all so long ago now. In any case, Eddie Vedder is still a complete tool.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bowie

WE'RE BIG DAVID BOWIE FANS around this house. My own love of Bowie goes back to Paul Thurston, the hippest guy I knew in grade 9, telling me to buy a copy of his new album, Heroes. I'd liked his singles back from the Spaceman, Ziggy Stardust, Soulboy and Thin White Duke periods when I heard them on the radio in grade school, but this was something different - harsh and difficult and, frankly, very much how I felt as the '70s were coming to their pinched end and adolescence was roaring in my ears.

My wife, growing up in Nova Scotia, conceived of a fandom even more fervent than mine, and when the Victoria & Albert Museum's David Bowie Is... show came to town, we turned it into a family event. Child #1 was already a fan (fave Bowie song: "Jean Genie,") and Child #2 became one in short order (fave Bowie song: "Starman.") We have a lot of time for Mr. Bowie around here.

My wife saw Bowie live, and it had been one of the lingering regrets of my life that I didn't jump at the chance to see him playing piano for Iggy Pop at Seneca College Field House during the Idiot tour. I maintained that I'd never seen Bowie in concert whenever the subject came up, so imagine my surprise when I was sorting through a box of old prints yesterday and found this:

Shot during the Sound + Vision tour stop at the Skydome (now the Rogers Centre,) probably on assignment for NOW magazine. I had no memory at all of shooting this or being there - in all likelihood for just the three songs allotted to the media - and even now I can't recall a single detail of the shoot or the concert.

The rubber stamping on the print suggests that this was made after the fact for another client and returned when they were through with it, since NOW kept all of my shots for their archive. (Before donating that archive for a tax break to a university library. They got the tax break - the photographers, nominal owners of the prints, didn't. Yes, I was angry at the time. Bloody commies.)

It survived a massive purge of my prints I did over a decade ago (two garbage bags filled with photos) so I've obviously glanced at it at some point in the last 25 years, to no lasting impression on my memory. Three songs in a photographers' pen at a stadium show didn't count as "seeing Bowie" for me. Still doesn't, obviously.

I likely shot it with my troublesome Nikon F3, and since it doesn't look like I was in the gutter in front of the stage shooting past the monitors up Bowie's nostrils, I probably rented a 300mm telephoto from Vistek and shot from some point by the sound board. Maybe. Like I said - I can't remember a thing.

It's not a great photo; anyone could probably have taken this shot, in the same spot with the same lens. It's really just a record of a moment that I couldn't be bothered to retain. I'm imagining there might be a few more surprises like this behind the analog wall as I start digging - or at least I'm hoping there are.

So I didn't remember shooting one of my musical idols. I did, however, remember that I've photographed Mrs. Bowie:

Iman, 2007, shot with Canon EOS Rebel
She was nice, but she gave a lot of "model face" during the shoot. (Not surprisingly, I guess.) And she talked. A lot. I don't think David gets a word in edgewise when he's at home.

The analog wall

SOME TIME AROUND 2003, while working as the photo editor at a daily paper, I took my last photo on film. Digital photography was on the horizon and I knew the switch was coming but I guessed that the transition from film was a few years off in the future.

I was wrong.

My heavily used Canon EOS SLR was on its last legs, so I bought what I assumed would be my last-ever 35mm SLR camera - a Canon EOS Elan 7e with a battery grip that I packed up and took with me on an assignment to cover a trade fair in Peru. It was a fantastic trip that took me from Lima to Cuzco in less than 12 hours and to Macchu Picchu in less than 24 hours.

It was a great way of getting to know my new camera and, along with a Holga I also slipped into my bag, I ended up doing some very happy shooting, coming home with an x-ray-proof lead envelope full of film.

Macchu Picchu, 2003
It was the next-to-last time I ever really used the 7e, which now sits in a bag on a shelf in my basement, next to my Bronica SQa, a pair of Rollei TLRs, a lovely wooden 4x5 view camera and the last of the trio of Pentax Spotmatics with which I launched my career as a photographer. I don't think I've run a single frame or sheet of film through them in a decade.

I began my career as a photographer just after I dropped out of college, when I suddenly found myself with a little bit of money and a lot of time on my hands. I grew up a few blocks from the (now-demolished) Kodak factory in Toronto, where my family had worked since the '20s, and was inspired to start taking pictures when binge-reading Evelyn Waugh led me to pick up a book of Cecil Beaton's photos from a remainder table.

Waugh by Beaton
But that's another story, which I'll get around to telling, piecemeal, over however long I update this blog. Almost thirty years later I'm sitting in my office where everything I ever shot on film - 18 thick black binders - sits filed in numbered plastic sheets in a bookcase behind my right shoulder. The rest of the shelves are taken up with boxes of contact sheets and prints and envelopes full of photo shop enlargements and assorted detritus from my years of shooting.

the analog wall
This is the analog wall. Behind it is nearly twenty years of my career as an editorial photographer who occasionally shot the odd album cover, catalog, publicity still or wedding to make ends meet. I had work published in the New York Times, Vogue, the Village Voice and countless long-gone mags and newspapers. It's all in there, and I haven't seen almost any of it since before my kids were born.

The analog wall not only divides my career where a technological change transformed my industry, it also demarcates the place where I changed from a photographer who occasionally wrote to a writer who's handy with a camera. Somewhere in that borderland is a moment when making a living as a photographer became an awful lot harder than it was before, and over a decade later I'm still reeling from the changes that moment unleashed.

Mostly, though, it's time to climb that analog wall and see what's behind it. I turned 50 this month, and it seems time to look at what I accomplished in the full flush of youth and energy and ambition and see if any of it is worth a damn.