Friday, June 5, 2015

Business

Michael Nairne, Toronto, March 1990

IF I WAS GOING TO SURVIVE AS A FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER, I needed to find as many places as possible to sell my pictures. At the turn of the '90s I knew that shooting musicians and movie people for weird little magazines wasn't going to be enough, which left two other major markets that hired photographers: Fashion and business.

I'll leave my halting attempts at fashion photography for another time. The corporate market - business magazines, trade papers, annual reports and the like - seemed like an easier fit for a photographer who specialized in portraiture (since that was how I imagined myself.) I talked about it with my friend Chris Buck, who had already made a bit of headway shooting for business magazines, and he told me to take my portfolio to the Financial Times of Canada.

The Times was founded in Montreal before World War One, and even though it had nothing to do with the British paper of the same name (printed on distinctive peach-pink stock and the only real rival to the Wall Street Journal) it had a similar venerable reputation here in Canada. Thanks to Chris an introduction was made, and I was given an assignment to shoot Michael Nairne, a young investment banker and columnist.

Chris and I had long talks about style and clients, and had agreed that the template for business photography - or at least that work which wasn't just drab head shots - had probably been set by Arnold Newman and his "environmental portraiture." Which is why I avoided close-ups as much as possible when shooting for the Financial Times.

I don't mind my portrait of Nairne; in his crisp suit, cocky expression and suspenders he evokes the "masters of the universe" era of the '80s, which would linger for a while into the next decade. It was simple and clean and it made enough of an impression on Melissa Abramowitz, the photo editor at the Times, to net me a half dozen more jobs in the next year - small jobs, shot to fill a single column in the front section of the paper.

Don Green and Michael Budman, Toronto, June 1991

A year later, with a new photo editor, I was assigned to do a portrait of Don Green and Michael Budman, the co-founders of the Roots clothing chain, for a big feature. I was meant to understand that the pressure was on, and that I had to deliver something good to justify the real estate it would take up on the page.

I shot Budman and Green in what was then the company's flagship store just north of Yorkville. With a wall of windows behind me and my Rolleiflex on a tripod, I put them in middle of the sales floor and shot three rolls, trying to get something that hinted at the amicable tension that might exist between two old friends who've bound themselves together in a business partnership. Or at least that was the narrative I wrote in my mind as I prepared for the shot.

One detail sticks in my mind. The men had dressed themselves for the shoot with stock from the shelves of the store. After it was over, Budman took off his t-shirt, looked at it for a second, then turned to me and said "Do you want it?"

I was speechless for a moment - I didn't, really, but it occurred to me that if I seemed ungrateful it would sour the shoot and get back to my editor, ending what I hoped would be a creative (and lucrative) relationship. "Gee, thanks," I managed to say, and he tossed the t-shirt to me. I used it for painting.

Dr. Donald Chant, Toronto, July 1991

My next feature assignment for the Times came a month later. The subject was a bit more daunting - Dr. Donald Chant, a businessman and entomologist who had founded Pollution Probe, a non-profit charity that lobbied for laws and regulations on waste and air and water quality, back when environmentalism devoted itself to concrete goals and not world-altering fantasies.

I was deep in my sky and clouds phase, and decided that my subject warranted an epic backdrop, which was conveniently available through the window of the office where we did the shoot, far up in a high-rise tower near Yonge and Bloor. A light placed just beneath the subject made the shot more ominous and - conveniently - prevented reflections on the window behind him.

I was very proud of the result, but it would be my last big feature shoot for the Times. I would get a few smaller assignments over the next couple of years, with more frequent intervals between them.

Dr. Donald Chant died just before Christmas, in 2007.

Yuri Rubinsky, Toronto, March 1993

My last shoot for the Times was early in 1993. I'm not exactly sure what the focus of the story on Yuri Rubinsky was, though it probably had to do with SoftQuad, the tech company he had helped found, with a mention of SGML, the markup language he promoted, better known today as XML and probably running in the code of this website.

I wish I had known more about my subject at the time; Rubinsky was also an accessibility activist and a playwright and novelist. He died suddenly of a heart attack three years after I took this photo. Among the people who eulogized him on a tribute website was Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web.

It's not a particularly inspired shot; the room we were in must have been dire, or I must have known that it wouldn't be running very big, since this is the closest I have to a conventional head shot in all of my work for the Times. The reflection of my flash and umbrella in Rubinsky's glasses was probably something that bothered me.

The increasingly infrequent assignments might be explained by the circulation war The Financial Times of Canada was losing with the Financial Post and the Globe & Mail's Report on Business during the time I worked for them, and it went out of business two years after I took Yuri Rubinsky's portrait.

Sir Terry Matthews, Kanata, May 1997

It would be three more years until I had another business photography client. VAR Business was a glossy and well-financed trade magazine based in New Jersey; the name stood for "value added reseller," which I couldn't have explained to you at the time - or now, for that matter. I can't be sure, but I think it was Chris Buck, again, who steered me to their art department.

I'd done one job for them when I got a call asking me how hard it would be to drive up to Ottawa - to Kanata, specifically, a suburb and industrial park outside the capital which had become something of a tech hub as telecommunications and the budding internet grew in the '90s. I told them it was a bit of a drive, and that I'd need to hire an assistant to drive me there, and expense his mileage along with his fee and the usual film and processing. To my amazement, they said yes.

Terry Matthews had founded a company called Mitel with his friend Michael Cowpland in the early '70s, which was supposed to import and sell lawnmowers. At some point it turned into an electronics business and was bought out by British Telecom. Cowpland went on to found Corel while Matthews started Newbridge Networks, which he turned into a data networking giant at precisely the time when making ATMs and routers was a thing worth doing.

He was a rich man and a very big deal when I arrived at Newbridge's offices after a five hour drive with my friend and assistant Rod at the wheel. Matthews made it very clear we'd better work fast, and informed me that he'd been on the phone with his contact at the magazine, who'd told him not to let us waste any of his time.

I was amazed by this at the time, and remain so today. I had always assumed that a magazine would always work to make sure its writers and photographers were able to get the best possible work done for them, but it took me years to understand that in the world of business publications the relationship with the subject is tinged with an abject attitude. It probably explains why hagiography is the dominant tone of business journalism, and why financial scandals and industry collapses usually only get written about in hindsight.

I only had time for two setups with Matthews, and shot as much film - cross-processed Fuji RHP - as I could in the time we had. By the last half the '90s editorial photography was changing; bright colour and painstaking compositions were giving way to the "artful artlessness" and subdued palette that's become the dominant style today. I was obviously responding to that with a shot where the subject is centred, but the symmetry is thrown off with the visible edge of the screen behind him; a few years earlier I'd have taken care to turn the screen into a seamless backdrop that filled the shot.

VAR Business seems to have been absorbed into something called CRN, an IT company whose subject matter and area of expertise is as obscure to me as value added reselling. Terry Matthews sold Newbridge to Alcatel for over a billion dollars, then reacquired Mitel and turned it into a broadband communications company specializing in VOIP.

Four years after I shot Matthews he would receive a knighthood, and is estimated today to be worth over $2 billion. He was the last assignment I would shoot for a business magazine.


   

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