Friday, October 31, 2014

Boo


THE PHOTO ABOVE WAS AN ACCIDENT, made when I forgot to flip a switch on my medium format camera when changing from Polaroid to film backs. When I rediscovered this shoot the other day, I remembered how fond I was of this frame - and how I always wished I had somewhere to publish it. Well, almost a quarter century later, I have a place.

It's also a preview of next week's big post, featuring a famous Canadian director who got his start in horror films. In the meantime, have a safe and happy Halloween.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Who are they?

THE MOST PROFOUND THING I EVER HEARD ANOTHER PHOTOGRAPHER SAY was Duane Michals, in the introduction to his collection of portraits: "There is no such thing as a bad celebrity portrait." It was proved to me again and again when I showed my portfolio to photo editors and art directors, who slowed when leafing past the pages featuring someone currently high on the celebrity index; they were usually the only photos I was ever asked to talk about.

By that simple measure I had might as well throw away two-thirds of my negatives and contact sheets. As a working photographer in a provincial city, working for dailies and newsweeklies and music magazines, I shot countless subjects who were either utterly obscure - regular people briefly put in the spotlight of a news cycle - or who worked in a business that gave them a flash of celebrity in at least a local context.

And so I have thousands of photos of actors and activists, theatre directors, chefs, wait staff, restaurant owners, politicians, lawyers, businesspeople, dancers and musicians - more of the last, probably, than anyone else. You have probably never have heard of them; many have since moved on to other, more obscure work. Some are dead.

Some time in the mid-'90s I stopped writing down names or dates on the sheets I used to store negatives in their binders. It might have been laziness, or simply a realization that it didn't matter much, as I rarely returned to most of these rolls of film to print them again after the assignment was handed in and the cheque cashed. The result is that, thanks to my lack of effort then and my lack of memory now, I have no idea who I photographed in at least half of the work behind my analog wall.

At the end of each month I'm going to pull out a shoot and feature a scan of one of these obscurities, provided the photo looks halfway interesting on the contact sheet or squinted at through my desk light. If someone recognizes themselves or someone they know, by all means leave a comment below.



Probably shot either in the fall of 1994 or the spring of 1995. I recognize the sculpture in the background as High Park. It's a band, perhaps one plying the gothic genre this city has always enjoyed. I don't want to be sexist and presume that she's the singer, but it's a fair bet.

The rest of the band were photographed singly or in pairs, with this desolate tree in the background; I was fond of creating diptychs and triptychs around this time - Catholic religious art making its influence known - and thankfully my editor at NOW was always able to carve out space on the page to run them.

There are raindrops on her coat. One of the band members is carrying an umbrella. I have fond memories of High Park as a child; I always enjoy shooting there.

The steel pyramid sculptures in the background aren't there any more; they've been restored by the artist and moved to another part of the city. There's nothing special about this photo.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Holly

Holly Hunter, Toronto, Sept. 1993

HOLLY HUNTER WAS AT THE FILM FESTIVAL promoting The Piano, which arrived with Oscar potential all over it. Today this would mean a cordon of publicists, brief round table interviews, select access for a few journalists, and photography restricted to sessions at the WIREimage suite. But 1993 was a long time ago.

It was an obvious cover, so when NOW gave me the assignment I showed up with my gear, to be confronted by the usual hotel room, only smaller; it could have been any of the festival hotels, but for some reason my intuition and the hint of a close room layout says it was the venerable old one - the Park Plaza (now Park Hyatt.)

I'm pretty sure Hunter had a hair and makeup person on hand, but they didn't do much that didn't involve a lipstick, foundation to dull skin highlights and a hair brush. Her hair looked great. And in case you're wondering, I did retouch the colour shot above, to a standard I couldn't have hoped to achieve in the pre-computer days of 1993.

Holly Hunter, Toronto, Sept. 1993

With the customary 7-10 minutes to work in, I decided to drill down to two set-ups, one of which was the cover, then still shot into NOW's painfully restrictive 2/3 whitespace formula. Using a flash in an umbrella and the sheer drapes drawn over a window, I was able to get my high-key setup in place quickly. A roll of Fuji Provia took care of the skin tones, so all I had to worry about was the more creative of the two set-ups - the black and white shot that would probably run full page facing the interview.

Hunter has never had a glamorous image, and at no point in her career has she ever played the sexpot. It was her resolutely normal appeal - a plausible attainability - that made her role in Broadcast News, and the whole film by extension, work so well. She certainly wasn't trying to seduce anyone in her black turtleneck, jeans and socks, and the photo above was the closest any frame I took that day caught her attempting to seem coquettish.

Holly Hunter, Toronto, Sept. 1993

I was grateful for this, and decided to underline this forthright plainness by taking a hotel armchair and ottoman and shoving it into a corner, then placing my flash and umbrella almost directly behind me. The light was both flat and unflattering - anti-Hurrell lighting. Hunter is tiny, and she tucked herself defensively into the chair, pulling up her legs.

I was nearly thirty when I took this, and getting past the point of agonizing about style - either my own, or my influences. I was shooting in situations that didn't give me a lot of control, with subjects I no longer fooled myself I could get to interact with or reveal themselves to me in a handful of carefully monitored minutes.

With shoots like this, I aimed for a style with no style - a record of people as they presented themselves to me. I was producing work that felt true to my situation, but it certainly wasn't winning me jobs from art directors looking for glamour or high concepts.

I still think Broadcast News is Hunter's best film, and even if its media setting is full of anxiety about lowering standards and disappearing jobs, it looks like a golden age over a quarter century later. But when I have to explain to my kids who the lady in these photos is, I just tell them it's Elastigirl.


     

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Rob

Rob Ford, Toronto, Oct. 27, 2014

I TRIED TO GET MY PORTRAIT LAST NIGHT, on assignment at the mayor's brother's election night party. It didn't happen. If you've ever covered an election night you'll understand the barely controlled chaos veneered with predictable ritual - the mannered striving to stop just short of gloating in a victory speech; the careful mixture of gratitude, dignity and defiance in a concession. Let's just say that this had it all.

Rob Ford did not look well. I'm not sure if a man battling cancer should have been out at all, but he arrived before his brother, but after he knew that he'd been reelected in his old council seat. He made a speech, broadly hinted that he'd be back, waited for Doug to give his concession, then slowly made his way through the crush of cameras to the door.

I followed him with the last trailing scraps of press and staff, out to the parking lot, where he climbed into his SUV and made his exit. I don't know what Ford's future - political or otherwise - will bring. Right now, this will probably sum up the man, as we all last saw him:

Rob Ford, Toronto, Oct. 27, 2014

Monday, October 27, 2014

Mayor

TORONTO IS GOING TO THE POLLS TODAY, and thanks to our former mayor, municipal politics in this city became global news. If you're from here you know all about Rob Ford and "Crazy Town," but if everything you know about Toronto you learned from Jimmy Kimmel, I'm here to offer a little history of Toronto's recent mayors via a dip through my archives.

David Crombie, Toronto, April 1988

There have been eleven mayors of the city of Toronto in my lifetime, but the earliest one I can recall is David Crombie, the "tiny perfect Mayor" as he's still remembered today. I have a memory of him being mayor forever, but he only held office for six years, from 1972 to 1978, and even people who weren't alive during Crombie's tenure are prone to wishing aloud that we had a mayor like him again.

I photographed Crombie long after he was mayor, in the final year of his decade as a member of parliament and cabinet minister. The client was the Metropolitan Toronto Business Journal, a glossy magazine published by the city's board of trade that boasted a bustling newsroom and a reputation that required all photographers to wear a tie when we did a shoot. A few years later, after the 1987 stock market crash decimated my client list, I went back there again to look for work; the newsroom was gone and the Business Journal was a newsletter put together by a retirement-age gentlemen working out of what looked like a storage room.

Crombie's tenure is remembered as a golden era of progressive city policy, when developers were held in check, the demolition of neighbourhoods was stopped, and Jane Jacobs' theories of urbanism had a voice at city hall. Oddly enough, Crombie did all this as a member of the Progressive Conservative party, albeit a member of the "Red Tory" wing - what most American conservatives would call a "goddamned city liberal."

Barbara Hall, Toronto 1997

Barbara Hall was the last mayor of the old City of Toronto, and I photographed her for NOW magazine in the last year of her only term in office. She was presiding over a ceremony at the construction site that would soon be the Air Canada Centre, a purpose-built arena meant to be home to Toronto's NBA team.

Cheerleading for a major league sports franchise was a poor fit for Hall, the ultimate progressive, and her rather dour term in office, coming as it did after June Rowlands' equally dour mayoralty, gave the city an oppressive sense that city hall was a disapproving schoolmarm, intent on improving the citizenry whether they liked it or not. In any case, that Toronto was about to swept away, and Hall would be swept away with it.

She'd end up as the head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, one of a network of provincial and federal kangaroo courts whose assault on liberty in the guise of a misconceived legal notion of fairness has been an embarrassment to my country. I'm rather taken with how stolid and Soviet she looks in this picture. I did not like Barbara Hall.

Mel Lastman, North York, 1997

Mel Lastman was a millionaire furniture salesman and the first mayor of the amalgamated municipality of Toronto created in 1998. I met Lastman when he was still the mayor of North York, a position he had held since 1972. He was leading the forces fighting the provincial government's planned amalgamation of six independent municipalities into one "megacity" - a battle he would lose, but which would make him that new city's first mayor.

I photographed him for NOW magazine in his offices in North York City Centre, where he was amiable but stiff, and faintly unenthusiastic - my left-leaning employer had not always been a big fan of his, but opposition to the amalgamation had made strange bedfellows. Like a majority of Torontonians, I was opposed to the megacity, and tried to make small talk with Lastman about the campaign.

I mused aloud that if the province wanted to create one big city, why hadn't they looked at other options apart from one big, central city hall - like, say, the borough system in New York City?

"Oh, how does that work in New York?" he asked me, sounding slightly bored.

It occurred to me, with a shock, that the man who'd been mayor of North York since man discovered fire was so incurious that he hadn't a clue how the biggest city in North America was run. We were in trouble.

A public referendum that solidly opposed the megacity was ignored by the province, and Lastman ended up neatly defeating Barbara Hall in the first megacity election later that year, serving two terms in a style that's best described as a fully-loaded clown car doing donuts in a minefield. He's remembered for a promotional stunt that populated the city with gaily-painted fibreglass moose, and for wondering aloud if he'd get eaten during a trip to Kenya to promote a city Olympic bid.

David Miller, Toronto 1996

I have a long history with David Miller, the man who succeeded Lastman as mayor. I met him for the first time in 1996 when he was running in a provincial election as the NDP candidate in the riding where I grew up. I photographed him for NOW in front of a big canvas of sky across Eglinton Avenue by York Memorial Collegiate, the school where my stoner friends went to high school.

He'd end up losing that election, but won a seat as a councillor in the new megacity a year later, where he made his name as an opponent of Mayor Lastman and as a critic of corrupt lobbying practices. I'd left NOW magazine at the end of 1999, and pitched their competition, eye weekly, a story on the outspoken councillor who everyone was sure would make a run for mayor.

David Miller, Toronto 2001

I followed Miller around for a day, from his home in High Park to his office at city hall, in committee meetings and finally on the subway to community events in his riding that night. It was a good piece - the sort of old-fashioned journalism that I'd always wanted to write. And to no one's surprise Miller ran for mayor in 2003.

I ran a group blog about the mayoral election, which I regarded as a crucial one, considering the shambolic quality of the Lastman years and the city's burgeoning budget deficit. I ended up endorsing Miller, writing that "the one thing I want to see Miller do - the thing that, if he fails, I'll never forgive him for failing - is clean out City Hall." It sounds so naive now, eleven years later, but I can be like that sometimes.

Miller won handily, beating perpetual loser John Tory by a thin margin and Barbara Hall by a massive one. By the time he ran for a second term I had lost my enthusiasm for Miller, but whoever I voted for instead didn't stand a chance.

David Miller, Toronto 2006

I ended up covering Miller quite a bit for the national free daily, doing the sort of workmanlike journalism that I never imagined I'd be doing a decade earlier. If I sometimes lost enthusiasm for photography at the dawn of the digital era, I'm sure you can understand why.

Miller's second term was even more disappointing than the first, and culminated in a summer-long garbage strike that was close to broken when Miller caved in to union demands. Not long after, he announced that he would not run for re-election.

Back when I wrote my feature on Miller as an up-and-coming councillor, I told my editors that I'd like to do a second part, focusing on a rookie councillor from Etobicoke who I was sure would run for mayor after Miller. When I told them who it was, they laughed and said there was no way - the guy was a buffoon. A joke. It would never happen.

David Miller and Rob Ford, Toronto 2001

I have tried repeatedly to get a portrait session with Mayor Ford. When I started putting together this post I began calling and e-mailing his office again, pleading for a few minutes of his time. After being ignored for a week, I finally got an e-mail saying that the mayor unfortunately had no time in his schedule. A few days later he announced that he had cancer and was dropping out of the race.

God help me but I miss Rob Ford already.



    

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Jane

Jane Bunnett promo 8x10, 1988

I WORKED WITH JANE BUNNETT more than any other musician, actor, director, writer or chef, so I'm going to have to parse out my photos of Jane over the next year - it's a lot of work, and turned into quite an adventure. But let's start at the beginning.

Back when the Nerve was still a going concern, I was asked to go out to Parkdale and interview a young flute and sax player who was putting together some kind of all-star concert at the BamBoo involving a whole bunch of big deal musicians from New York - people like Don Pullen and Dewey Redman, who'd played with Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman. "You're into jazz, aren't you?" Dave, the editor, asked me, basically as a dare.

I showed up at the house Jane shared with her husband, trumpet player Larry Cramer, and did an interview based around me trying not to get caught out on my then-woefully rudimentary knowledge of the music. It was a task made more difficult by Larry's habit of popping his head in every now and then and peppering me with jazz trivia questions, like "Who's the sax player on this record? Is he playing tenor or alto? Is this a standard? Name it."

Jane Bunnett, Toronto 1987

They were working on the back of the house, and I had Jane sit by where they'd been stripping away at the brick by the door to their tiny yard - the same one where I'd later shoot John Tchicai. I took at least one roll and headed off to print it in the makeshift darkroom I'd carved out of half a room in my tiny Boystown apartment, between the living room and the bathroom, which required me to cover my desk with garbage bags to protect it when chemicals slopped over the edge of the developing trays.

I'm not sure which photo ran with my Nerve piece, but it must have gone over well enough, because a few months later, when I moved with my girlfriend and her sister into a massive loft space just around the corner from Jane and Larry, they were the first people I called to tell them we were neighbours. They were releasing In Dew Time, the record that came about from their all-star sessions, and needed a promo glossy, so I was asked to print up something.

The shot we picked - up at the top of this post - is a bit somber, and doesn't really do much to capture Jane's personality. I prefer the photo below, which I printed up at some point years later, even though Jane's rather outrageously crimped hair and shoulder pads date it fiercely. Mostly it's the contrast between the textures of her hair, the bricks and the tire tread pattern on her jacket that make it worth a second look.

I asked Jane recently what she remembered about this first shoot:
"I was pretty impressed by your real desire to talk music...your broad range of musical tastes and your sharp cynical wit!! An automatic friend for life at that moment..."
So when Jane and Larry started work on their next record, I had become part of the team, and shooting the cover would take me back to New York City again.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Penn

Irving Penn's peephole, NYC 1990

I'VE TALKED ABOUT ONE MAJOR INFLUENCE I shared with my friend Chris Buck here before. We were lucky enough to meet Anton Corbijn and perhaps that helped us digest his inspiration on our work and move on. This post is a record of our closest brush with our other great shared influence, over twenty-five years ago, in the hallway of an office building in midtown Manhattan in the middle of a windy weekday.

Influences are a funny thing for a photographer. As a painter, you can talk about your influences all you want, but your hand will never let you create something that looks like a copy of your inspiration unless you're making a forgery. (Which requires a whole extra level of talent that is never really given its due, probably for good reasons.)

As a photographer, you can create a remarkable facsimile of another photographer's work with just a little technical know-how, a deft hand at Photoshop and some smart choices in equipment rental. You'll get a few golf claps for your display of skill, but no one will tell you that being a photographic impressionist is a great career move.

Style is acquired with bitter effort, and while a young photographer can be excused for aping their influences overtly early on, you have to press ahead with the business of digesting your inspirations or else become swamped by them. For Chris and I, Irving Penn was the one photographer whose influence was hardest to digest - mostly because it was so monolithic, and the photographer himself such a paragon.

Irving Penn

I don't think I ever saw this photo while Irving Penn was alive. If I did, I think my admiration for him might have been even even greater. I mean - look at the man. Even now I'm staring at it and wondering where I could get a jacket like that, and if pleats will ever be back in style.

Before the internet, photographs of Penn were rare; you might find one or two in the introduction to one of his monographs, but he never did interviews. One day, many years ago, Chris sent me a clipping in the mail (the mail, children!) of Penn and his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives, arriving at some black tie event, a paparazzi shot cut from the gossip page of a magazine. Apart from work that continued to appear in Vogue every now and then, it was our only evidence that the master walks among us still!

Rainn Wilson, New York magazine cover by Chris Buck, 2007
Truman Capote by Irving Penn

A couple of weeks ago I asked Chris what he thought was his most obvious dip into the well of his Penn influence and he sent me the New York magazine cover shoot above, with Rainn Wilson hunched into a slightly scaled-down version of the corner Penn once made Truman Capote, among others, back themselves into in his studio. "I actually wrote a letter to his studio with an apology," Chris said in the e-mail.

I wouldn't call it a Penn rip-off as much as an homage, a Masonic handshake that probably only other photographers, photo editors and art directors would get. The set-up is Penn, but the lighting and subject's expression are clearly Chris, and I'd recognize it as his work a mile away. Still, the anxiety of influence lingers, and in a later e-mail Chris wrote:
I've been thinking about the Penn influence on us a little since we've been emailing about it and I want to be careful how it's framed in terms of my work and work development. Clearly the Rainn Wilson shot (from 2007) shows he is still lodged in my brain somewhere but for the most part I moved on from his, and other early influences (like Avedon and Corbijn) after the mid-nineties. 
I went through a difficult time when I was turning 30 (in 1994), just coming to terms with whatever successes I'd had (or lack of success) and the Penn influence really shows most prominently, and to the best effect, during this period (Elvis Costello, Julia Child), but I think that it allowed me to truly digest it and move past it to define my own style, which really came together in those years.

Seth, Chester Brown & Joe Matt, Toronto 1992
George Jean Nathan & H.L. Mencken by Irving Penn

I had a hard time choosing my own Penn rip-off for Chris - there were a few - and settled on a group portrait I did in 1992 of three comic book artists who were (and still are) identified with each other, back when they all lived in Toronto. At the time they were all friends of mine (Seth still is, today; I'd end up shooting his wedding) and I had given a lot of thought about the portrait I wanted to make with them even before I got this assignment. I had Penn's portrait of George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken in the front of my mind.

At the start of his career, Penn said that he'd realized he was never going to be a painter, so he scraped the paint off of his old canvases and used them as backdrops in his studio. I think the cloth draped over the small table in his portrait of Nathan and Mencken looks more like broadloom carpet flipped over, but I loved the dirty, well-used textures surrounding the two men.

Aping that would have been a step too far, so I simply tried to copy Penn's beautifully modeled lighting; the result looks more like his later work with strobe than his early, skylight portraiture. (For obvious reasons - I didn't have a magnificent north light skylight.) I covered the table with butcher paper and asked Seth, Chester and Joe to either draw on it (for their individual portraits) or sign their names (for the group shot.)

I placed the ashtray on the table for Seth (a chain smoker at the time) and, as a final Penn touch, reached in and tipped some of the contents out onto the table. It was final clue for anyone wondering "is he doing a Penn?" - a nod to Penn's incredible still-lifes of street trash and his "After Dinner Games."

I did it all consciously; early in my career (and just before when Chris admits he began to grapple with moving past his influences) I was happy to wear my Penn on my sleeve, figuring that if I could evoke just a bit of the artfulness and authority of his photos, I'd be doing pretty well.

Outside Irving Penn's Fifth Avenue studio, 1990 by Chris Buck

Two years before I did this portrait, and just after Chris had left Toronto, we decided to make a pilgrimage to Temple Penn - the midtown studio that Conde Nast apparently rented for him on Fifth Avenue, which Chris had discovered after a tip-off from an industry acquaintance. I was regularly in town staying with my girlfriend in the Village and trying to scare up U.S. work, in the hopes of joining Chris soon.

(Note: Chris tells me that this stretch of Fifth Avenue, between 17th & 18th, is actually downtown, not midtown. I had always presumed that midtown started north of Union Square. There you go - typical fucking tourist. Additionally, Chris has re-blogged this post on his Tumblr.)

"I can tell you that it was Wednesday August 22nd, 1990, just over a month after I'd moved to New York," Chris recalled in an e-mail. We brought along our cameras and took photos of the door outside, of us standing in the door outside, of Penn's name on the lobby directory, of us looking at Penn's name on the lobby directory, etc., etc. It was all very thrilling.

Chris pays homage, 1990

We took the elevator up to find tarpaulins on the floor where workmen were plastering and painting the hallway outside Penn's studio. The door bore the legend "Conde Nast Corporation" while Penn's name was printed discreetly on a card mounted under the peephole.

Worried that the workmen might come back from lunch we got shooting, taking pictures of the door, of ourselves in front of the door, and finally of each other prostrating ourselves in the direction of Penn. I suppose we were also worried that the door would open, that some assistant or subject would emerge and find us on the floor.

I'm guessing that we were also both hoping that Penn himself would open the door and find us there. "What can I do for you, gentlemen?" he'd ask. We'd explain, he'd invite us in, dubiously but still perhaps a bit flattered. We'd get a glimpse of the studio - the seamless rolls, the lighting stands, the famous skylight, maybe. He'd answer a few questions, maybe even let us take a photo or two, then send us on our way.

Of course that never happened. The door never opened. We finished our rolls, then headed back outside to Fifth Avenue. I think we went for lunch.

I was inspired to revisit this day when Chris forwarded me an e-mail he'd received; Penn's old studio has been renovated and is available to rent for shoots. "WE ARE WELL AWARE OF HOW SPECIAL THIS PLACE IS," the current owners say on their webpage, "AND HOW FORTUNATE WE ARE TO HAVE IT IN OUR POSSESSION."

I bet you are. I hope Chris rents some time there. He'd better take lots of photos.

Irving Penn died in 2009.


 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Trimmings

LET'S TAKE ANOTHER DIP INTO THE MARBLE BOX and see what we come up with. For anyone confused about this feature of the blog, read this.


They aren't mugging enough to the camera to be actors, so they have to be a band. But who? That's probably the front man in the middle, and his hair rings a bell. I was going to say it's a Vancouver band called the Grapes of Wrath, but a cursory Googling tells me that this was the three-piece edition that performed as Ginger when a founding member left and the band's name was stuck in legal limbo.

A glance through the big ledger book tells me that I shot Ginger in August of 1994, when they released a record called Far Out. As I write this, there are three used copies of Far Out available on amazon.ca for less than a buck.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dario

Dario Argento, Toronto, Sept. 1990

I HAD HEARD OF DARIO ARGENTO when I was assigned to shoot him for NOW magazine during the 1990 Toronto International Film Festival - then still called the Festival of Festivals - where he was in town promoting Two Evil Eyes, half of which was directed by Argento, the other by George Romero. A friend had seen Opera a couple of festivals previous, and while no huge horror movie fan, he raved about the camera work and Argento's visual audacity.

It would be a few years, however, before I realized that he'd worked on the screenplay for Once Upon A Time In The West - probably my favorite film - with Sergio Leone, so these portraits are something of a trophy.

When you're assigned to shoot a portrait of a horror movie director, there are a couple of pretty obvious cliches you can fall back on:
  1. Light him from below.
  2. Shoot him standing in a bathtub.
I chose to do both. I vaguely regret the low angle I set my light at now, but not the background; hotel rooms are usually featureless spaces, and the marble walls in the bath/shower stall in the room at either the Four Seasons or the Sutton Place were an irresistible temptation. In retrospect, lighting Argento from below prevented the light from reflecting on the polished stone behind him, so kudos to me.

Dario Argento, Toronto, Sept. 1990

The photo above is the one that I immediately printed for the client; the hands gripping the face reminded me of some tentacled, Lovecraftian creature; once again, a bit obvious, but I felt I had to visually underline "horror movie director" for the benefit of disinterested readers. There was, however, a bright white seam of tile grout running through the top left corner of the frame in the original negative that always bothered me, and was simply too large to burn down or retouch away. Thanks to Photoshop, however, I have finally been able to eradicate this irritant after a quarter of a century.

Looking over the contacts now, I prefer the frame at the top of this post, mostly because it says "haunted" more than "scary," and with age I like to default to the more subtle option. Argento was a more than cooperative subject, eager to help me get the shot I wanted - his mother was a photographer - but don't let these shots give you the impression that he was glum or intense; most of the frames in my shoot capture smiles and grins. If I can say he reminded me of anyone, it was probably his fellow Italian, Roberto Begnini.

Dario Argento, Toronto, Sept. 1990

I can't tell you if I was using my Mamiya C330 or a Rolleiflex at this point in my career - I might have to get out my lightbox and a magnifying glass and compare the notches in the frame to solve that puzzle. My light was a Metz "potato masher" mounted into a brand new mini soft box I'd just purchased. I shot two rolls of black and white and a roll of Fuji Provia 400 which I cross-processed to get as much colour as I could from a subject and a setting that was a bit monochrome.

We weren't considering Argento for a cover shot, and NOW definitely wouldn't have run a shot with as much deep shadow as this, so I took this extra roll looking for a portfolio possibility. But the "tentacle hands" shot was such an obvious choice that I never even considered printing one of these, which I actually like a lot more today.

The saturated colour from the cross-processing makes it look like a still from a '70s giallo, and I love the hand thrown back over his forehead, with its cool, greenish skin tone, veined like marble. As a portrait, though, it's only almost there; I'd probably have pulled it off with a few years' more experience.


     

Friday, October 10, 2014

Mount Dennis

'57 Lincoln Premiere, Brownville Ave., Mt. Dennis 2001

IN 2001 I WROTE AND ILLUSTRATED A FEATURE on Mount Dennis, the neighbourhood where I grew up, for Toronto Life magazine. This is the photo that ran on the double page spread that began the article. I spent a week or two walking around the area with my Rollei and a rented Widelux, looking to find a shot that summed up the piece. When it ran, the editors decided to give it the title "Happy Days," which explains why they went with the shot with the Lincoln and its declarative tailfins.

My income as a photographer was dropping steeply by this point, which explains the return to writing under my own name after over a decade. I had hoped that presenting myself as a complete editorial package - writer and photographer - would be a big selling point in my favour. I ended up having to work hard selling both editors and art departments on the concept that it was possible to do both - even for clients who'd hired me to do both in the past.

Nowadays, of course, it's a lot easier since the value of both words and pictures is a fraction of what it was fifteen years ago, now that digital cameras (and phones!) are almost foolproof and copy editing and proofreading are notional at best. You can provide the whole package for almost any client - in fact, they might insist on it. But you won't get paid nearly what it's worth.

Not to sound bitter or anything.

'64 Ford Falcon, Mt. Dennis 2001

Digging out these contacts again, I'm struck by how many cars I shot, and how lovingly I featured them in each frame. This Falcon, made the year I was born, is the star of the shot, and obviously the pride and joy of whoever lives in the shotgun-style house in the back.

In 2001, it would be a decade before I finally allowed my lifelong fascination with cars to have free reign again, sending me out to auto shows and car races with my camera whenever I had a chance. Back then, though, I was obviously having a hard time hiding it.

Honda CRX, Gray Avenue, Mt. Dennis 2001

Both sides of my family moved to Mount Dennis around World War One, and I finally left in the mid-'80s, when my mother was in a nursing home and we sold the family house - a wall of which is caught on the right hand side of the photo above with the hard-used CRX. When you live in a place for a long time, the past lingers in your mind, regardless of the changes. I spend a of time in the old neighbourhood these days, and even now I always feel like the past can be glimpsed out of the corner of my eye, abiding behind the present like a faint layer.

These three photos are like those layers - one from the neighbourhood's past, one from the Mount Dennis of my childhood, and one from the slightly less lovely place that I left, in search of life and adventure.

Mercury Cougar, Gray Ave., Mt. Dennis 2013
Corvette Stingray, Dennis Ave., Mt. Dennis 2014

In the last few years I've rediscovered a fondness for the old neighbourhood, and try to swing through at least a couple times a month, often on assignment. Since I wrote the Toronto Life piece, I've become the area's unofficial biographer, writing about it for whoever will let me as it stands on the verge of some major changes that might make it even more unrecognizable.

Right now, though, it's still the house-proud working class neighbourhood where I grew up, nowhere more so than when I see someone's project car sitting out front, in the elements, rusting and blistering while it waits for the TLC it desperately needs. I try to get a snap of every one, a job made much easier thanks to the increasingly superb cameras in my phones. Damn their black hearts.

But I haven't liked anything I've shot there in the last few years near as much as the work with the Rollei. They were shot just months before 9/11, which is probably why they seem to come from a place not only behind my analog wall but from some historical watershed that divides the contemporary from the historical - at least for me.

Perhaps it's time to go back to Mount Dennis with the Rolleis and see what happens.

 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

NYC, 1985

NYC, MOMA, October 1985

WHAT HAPPENED WAS THERE WAS A GIRL. That's probably the only thing that could have made me get on a plane for the first time and fly across a border to a strange city at 21, so excited and afraid that I thought I'd be sick. As the jet banked long and low over Manhattan - it used to do that in those days - I'm sure I was shivering; I was having an adventure.

We had met the previous Christmas, working together at Simpsons Toytown; there was a thrilling date just before she went home for the holidays and a promise to see each other again when she got back. Months passed, then one day my boss at Toytown remembered a letter in her desk, sent to me care of the store: There had been a family tragedy and the girl had to stay in Fredericton but she was moving to New York to take acting classes. There was an address and a phone number.

She was living with roommates way out in some place called Throg's Neck in the Bronx but they were cool if I slept on the couch. I packed the Spotmatic I'd bought a few months before and a tape recorder: I'd arranged to interview a band, The Minutemen, before their gig at Irving Plaza. I was a rock journalist now, I told her. She'd never heard of them.

NYC, MOMA, October 1985

I took the subway into Manhattan with her every morning to her job as a receptionist in the same building as MTV. I had time to kill all day so I saw the sights: the Village, Times Square, the Frick and the Met; MOMA and Rockefeller Center. I brought my camera and a couple of rolls of Plus-X and pretended I was Robert Frank.

New Yorkers were more extroverted than people in Toronto. They looked at art with casual intensity and moved with more purpose than anyone I'd ever seen. Rich women wore furs and hats and wandered the galleries during the day. The city had a sound and a smell I'd never imagined - a din that cut through a dozen empty city blocks and an odor like charcoal and old clothes.

NYC, Rockefeller Center, October 1985

It was a cold autumn. She got cross at me one day as we were walking. "Stop looking up all the time," she said. "You look like a tourist." Hard as I tried we could never find that brief spark from months ago that had brought me all the way out there.

I wasn't the brash, confident college journalist that she'd met at Christmas any more, but a lonely and anxious young man who'd just dropped out of school and didn't know what was next. I suppose I might have been a bit disappointed with her as well. After all, she'd cut her hair.

NYC, midtown, October 1985

This was Koch-era New York, the Manhattan of Bright Lights, Big City and Bonfire of the Vanities. This was the New York that got up after Gerald Ford told it to drop dead and said "Fuck You," then marshaled its wealthy and its talented and reminded them that they lived in a palace with a thousand towers and suddenly everyone wanted to be there again to paint and write and act and play music. I'd just read Winter's Tale and New York felt like magic was hidden there, not in plain sight but just at the edge of my eye.

Looking at these for the first time in almost thirty years, that probably explains why I didn't shoot the skyscrapers or the subway trains still covered in graffiti. I might have been - annoyingly - goggling at the endless canyon-like streets but I photographed the people, and while these shots won't win any awards, they succeed for me as stills captured from my memories, still vivid three decades later, mostly because, even in spite of a little heartbreak, I was giddy with the sensation that life was finally underway.

Amazingly, I'd go back to see the girl a few months later. There was a February blizzard where I saw boys surf the snow-packed Bronx streets hanging on to the rear bumpers of MTA buses, and another show - Husker Du at Columbia University. A long year had nonetheless doused the spark and the girl told me that she'd sort of met someone back home over the holidays. But I'd be back in New York sooner than I imagined, following another girl.



   

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bjork

Bjork, Toronto, Jan. 1997

MY TEN MINUTES IN A HOTEL SUITE WITH BJORK were fascinating and frustrating, but the results of this shoot only became rewarding last week, over fifteen years after I took these photos. I don't want to sound over-dramatic, but I was sort of hoping something like this would happen when I embarked on this project three months ago.

I know I was on assignment for NOW and that they were planning a cover story, but I have no idea why Bjork was in town. It had been two years since Post was released and it would be months before Homogenic hit the stores; she'd played Toronto a year and a half previous and would only return again for a concert over a year later; Dancer In The Dark wouldn't hit the movie theatres for three years.

I wasn't a huge fan. I'd liked the Sugarcubes record well enough until my roommate Sally put it on heavy rotation in her room and I started wishing for a workplace accident involving steel filings and my aural canal. The word "quirky" had attached itself to her like a carpet of burrs, and I knew why when she entered the hotel room almost wordlessly, settled herself in front of my improvised backdrop by a window and began what I can only call a performance.

She used the hotel chair I'd dragged next to the window as a perch and a limb, clambering all over it like some kind of small forest animal, moving after every click of the shutter of my Rolleiflex into some new position, either addressing the camera like she'd just noticed it or burrowing into the chair like she was trying to hide. I gave her almost no direction at all, but simply kept shooting and re-loading as I tried to keep up with her.

Bjork, Toronto, Jan. 1997

I went home knowing I had something interesting, then spent the next few days trying to get what I imagined onto paper. I'd shot one roll of black and white and two of cross-processed Kodak Ektachrome EPD professional, which produced a much more "normal" colour negative than Fuji or Agfa film processed the same way.

I made prints for NOW, but I never loved the results, and after only a little more darkroom work with filters and tissue, I gave up on the shots even though I was sure that they'd have made a nice portfolio page. None of my experiments remain in the two or three boxes of prints I've saved.

Two weeks ago I dug the negs out again, scanned them in VueScan and started work in Photoshop. My biggest problem with the original negatives was that I didn't have enough room between Bjork and the background, and all my attempts to create a view camera-like "focus tilt" effect in the darkroom never came out looking right.

But everyone knows that pulling and manipulating focus in Photoshop is easier than spotting out dust and scratches, and after an hour or so I ended up with the photos above, salvaging a shoot I thought I'd lost. Of course, then as now I had an undigested influence rattling around my head:

Norma Shearer by Cecil Beaton
Nancy Beaton by Cecil Beaton

Back in the '20s and '30s Cecil Beaton was working with small studio spaces and improvised backdrops, and while he was never able to separate his backgrounds the way I wanted to with Bjork, the fanciful, fantastic mood of his pre-war work had been irresistible to me when - even before Anton or Irving Penn or Sudek or even owning a camera - I fell in love with his photos. And while the anxiety of influence can be a beast to struggle with, it always helps to have a model or an ideal in your mind when you're presented with a less-than-perfect shooting space - or a challenging subject.

One of the advantages of obscurity is that you've passed the point of expectations - even your own. There's a lot of work in my archives that I abandoned because I either lacked the skills or the tools to realize it as it was in my mind, but thanks to last week's breakthrough I think that might not be such a problem any more.


 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Egberto

Egberto Gismonti, Toronto, 1990

I HAD HEARD OF EGBERTO GISMONTI: His records came out on ECM, a label that specialized in the more intellectual sort of post-free jazz, and were drenched in a long, resonant reverb that critics jokingly referred to as the "Sound of the Fjords." Based on those records, I didn't know what he was doing on the same bill with Hermeto Pascoal, whose very busy records, full of melodies chasing each other in a frenzy, couldn't have sounded more different from something like Sol Do Meio Dia, the Gismonti ECM record I bought to familiarize myself with him before the show.

Gismonti (pronounced "Zhis-monsch" in Brazilian Portuguese, apparently: You sound like an ass when you say it like this but that's apparently the correct way) kept mostly to the background in the dressing rooms at Berlin, the uptown nightclub where they were playing. Certainly Pascoal and his band were such a boisterous crowd that it would have been the correct response. He agreed to sit for a roll of portraits, however, and so I found a dim but evenly-lit spot - the "Anton corner" - and started shooting with my Nikon F3 and a roll of T-Max 3200.

Egberto Gismonti, Toronto, 1990

Gismonti was a child prodigy with musical parents who learned to play the flute, clarinet, piano and, eventually, his own custom-made guitars. He recorded his first record when he was 21 and began making records for ECM when EMI/Odeon, his Brazilian label, told him his recording career was over after Brazil's economy collapsed. It's hard to pin down what he does; I'm very fond of Agua & Vinho, a now-rare record he made for EMI/Odeon that sounds like art songs. A lot of people love the live record he made with Charlie Haden in Montreal just a year before I photographed him, but which wasn't released on ECM for another decade.

I've always relied on a single working method when I don't have the luxury of a striking background or beautiful light: Put on a short lens and get up close. In a crowded dressing room lit by a handful of lightbulbs, this was the best option for shooting Gismonti. You end up being a little bit confrontational with your subject, having invaded their personal space, but most of the time you get something more than a practiced smile or a wary look.

I took a variation of the top photo of Gismonti in and out of my book for years, but its simplicity never seemed to get much out of art directors and photo editors. I really wanted to put the bottom shot in, but caution always got the better of me. In retrospect I regret it - it's not like I had that much to lose.


 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Hermeto

Hermeto Pascoal, Toronto, 1990

MUSIC WAS THE FIRST SUBJECT I WROTE ABOUT with anything like authority, so it's no surprise that the bulk of my photos, till at least the mid-'90s, are of musicians. I had, I suppose, an ambition to become William Claxton - that is, when I didn't want to become Irving Penn (more on him later) - so I tried to bring my camera along to rehearsals, recording sessions, sound checks and backstage to try and get something good.

I wouldn't have known anything about Hermeto Pascoal if it wasn't for my friend Nebojsa, who I met working at my last ever "job" job - selling CDs in the classical music department of A&A's on Yonge Street. While pricing and filing discs into their alphabetized slots, we'd try to share musical discoveries; Sha, being older and quite a bit less provincial than myself, had more to share, and so one day he told me that Hermeto Pascoal was coming to Berlin, a slightly skeezy Latin dance club and concert venue (now long gone) uptown on Yonge, doing a show with fellow Brazilian Egberto Gismonti.

"You have to go, man. Pascoal is amazing."

Hermeto Pascoal and Jane Bunnett, Toronto, 1990

My friend (and neighbour) Jane Bunnett (more on her later) also mentioned that she'd be at the show, and the photo above is of Jane with Pascoal, receiving a song he'd written for her - one that she'd end up recording as "For You" on an album she made five years later.

The dressing rooms backstage were crowded with people - not just Jane and Sha and myself but what seemed like half of the Brazilian and Latin music communities of Toronto. I'd say that Pascoal was energized by it all, but I think "energized" was his default; hyper and more than a little gnome-like, he talked in cigarette-strained, rapid-fire Brazilian Portuguese with his band and frequently moved to the piano in the room to make a musical point to someone or just to capture something as it passed through his mind.

Hermeto Pascoal, Toronto, 1990

He didn't speak a word of English so we didn't really talk, but he was happy to let me wander the room with my camera as he lit one 100 after another and a group of drummers began banging and tapping on a half dozen long tubes. I shot a roll of unfiltered slides that turned out profoundly ochre under the handful of incandescent lights in the room, and at least a roll of black and white.

Drummers, Toronto, 1990

Pascoal is a musical polymath who can apparently turn anything - including a tea cup and a river - into a musical instrument. To say that there's a lot going on in his records would be an understatement; I fear that, for the average young listener raised on the auto-tuned and melodically thin sounds of current pop music, the average Pascoal track would sound like the presto movements of four Mozart string quartets being played at once.

I'd bought a Pascoal record with my employee discount in the basement jazz section of the store to prepare for the show, and confess that even I found it a bit overwhelming. I still need to be in a particular mood to listen to Pascoal; his records sound like someone telling you a complicated story at a loud dinner party.

I'm very fond of a record he made in the late '60s with Quarteto Novo, a group that included percussionist Airto Moreira; it's relatively restrained (but hardly sedate) and gives some idea of all the other great Brazilian music that was bubbling up under the bossa nova that made it up here. Pascoal is still alive and performing.