Thursday, February 26, 2015

Who are they?

Dancers, Toronto 1996?

A DANCE TROUPE, IN THEIR REHEARSAL SPACE. On assignment for NOW magazine, at some point in the mid-'90s. There's nothing on the negative sheet that gives me any further hints - not even a year.

What makes the shot is the shadow on the wall behind them. I wish I'd moved the fan in the background, but the ragged string of Christmas lights on the wall kind of work.

Years earlier I became obsessed with dance photography, and particularly Lois Greenfield's work in the Village Voice. I even cold-called her when I was in New York and visited her studio; she was initially wary of me, but relaxed a bit when I showed her my portfolio and she realized that I wasn't trying to horn in on her beat.

I knew I could never do that kind of work, so the best I could hope for was getting someone to strike and hold a pose, knowing that it would say less about movement and more about the flexibility and strength of dancers. I like how pleased the young woman in this shot looks, effortlessly supporting the weight of the fellow on her back.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

John

John Cale, Toronto, Jan. 1987

SHOOTING JOHN CALE WAS A VERY BIG DEAL. I knew it when I packed my camera bag and walked the handful of city blocks from my apartment to the club where he was performing, so you'd think I'd have shot more than a handful of frames on a single roll of 120 film when the man was actually in front of me. That I didn't says a lot about the very tight economy that I had to work under in the first few years of my career.

Cale was, after all, one of the original members of the Velvet Underground, and even during a relatively fallow period in his career in the '80s, his reputation was still considerable. I was grateful that I didn't have to interview him as well - that task fell to my friend Tim, Nerve magazine's resident magus and far more knowledgeable about Cale's career since the Velvets.

I'm sure that he was just as intimidated as I was, since - thanks to his infamous and intense cocaine-and-brandy-fueled performances in the '70s - Cale had a reputation for being a difficult interview and portrait subject. I certainly couldn't think of a lot of photos I'd seen of him where he radiated anything like warmth.

Mamiya C330 (not mine)

I photographed John Cale not long after I'd bought my Mamiya C330, the first medium format camera I owned, and a serious step towards admitting that I wanted to do this professionally, since - as far as conventional wisdom had it - real photographers did at least some, of not all, of their work on a format bigger than 35mm. The John Cale shoot is the ninth sheet of negatives in my first binder of 120 film, just after my John Waters shoot.

The C330 is long gone - traded up for a pair of Rolleis and a Bronica SQa a couple of years after I bought it, when the numerous technical faults with the Mamiya's parallax lens system and very inelegant controls became too hard to handle. Unlike the cursed Nikon F3, though, I have very fond memories of the camera, and the very steep learning curve it took me on, most of it encompassing the year 1987. To that end, my posts for the next few weeks will concentrate on that year and the work I did with the camera.

Chris Spedding, Toronto, Jan. 1987

Cale was backed up on his gig at the Diamond Club by Chris Spedding, the session guitarist who'd played with everyone from Jack Bruce, Harry Nilsson and Roy Harper to Roxy Music, the Sex Pistols and Robert Gordon. He was a regular visitor to Toronto, and while I could have tried to get a portrait of him any number of times, I took the opportunity of having Spedding in the same room as Cale to snap a few frames from my single roll of black and white 120 with him.

My method was, at that point, a very hungry and poor one; I'd cradle the C330 with my right hand while holding a Vivitar flash with my left, tethered to the camera with a short cable. What I got was a hard, directional light that spilled into the background, thanks to the 105mm lens that required me to stand further away from the subject than a conventional 80mm would have placed me.

After focusing and composing the photo, I'd correct for the parallax by shifting the camera so the top of the frame lined up with the helpful little correction bar that moved up and down in the focusing window. Carefully aiming the flash, I'd trip the shutter with my thumb, making sure I didn't accidentally touch the shutter and aperture adjustment levers at the same time and overexpose the frame. I was light stand, tripod and photographer, all in one.


Quite by accident, this crude lighting scheme produced something vaguely like the Hollywood glamour portraits I'd loved for years, enhanced a little bit on the Cale/Spedding shoot by the bit of palm frond and curtain in the background of the shot, taken in the empty restaurant at the front of the Diamond. It ran big when Tim's piece was published in Nerve, which was always gratifying.

Thanks to cradling the camera close to my chest while I worked, I ended up shooting Cale from below, accentuating the circumspect look he gave me for most of the shoot. I ended up printing a much cooler expression for Nerve, but years later I've chosen a slightly less forbidding frame to scan, perhaps because the intervening decades have given me a chance to appreciate Cale's work, which is in significant stretches fare less austere and forbidding than his appraising glare.

John Cale, The Diamond, Toronto, Jan. 1987

The shoot over, I walked home and swapped out my portrait gear for my Spotmatic and headed back to the Diamond to shoot the show. Two years on either side of an album to promote, Cale was also newly teetotal and far from the chicken-butchering, hockey mask-wearing maniac of a decade previous. Still, it was an intense show. I'm sure he played "Fear," and I'm fairly certain that he did his trademark cover of "Heartbreak Hotel."

My live shots didn't have much to recommend them, however, probably because I doubtless felt I'd gotten what I wanted with my portraits, and this single frame is the only one worth scanning.


 
 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Clouds

Clouds behind the Edgewater Hotel, Toronto, April 1990

THE NEON SIGN ON THE EDGEWATER HOTEL HAS BEEN GONE FOR YEARS. Which makes my photo of the afternoon sky behind the old fleabag a bit of history. It's a Days Inn now - has been for some time - and I don't remember when the sign disappeared, though I know that it was denuded of its neon tubing and painted over for a few years before its demise. (A quick Google search says that they took it down in 2009. So there.)

This was taken at the end of a day wandering Parkdale with my Rollei, shooting clouds and sky. I have a few contact sheets worth of these photos, the byproduct of some idle time, a bit of spare cash, and my desire to cut to the chase and just get some nice frames of the dramatic skies I was always struggling to put in the backgrounds of my portraits.

Clouds, Toronto, April 1990

Around the same time I took these shots I did an interview with my friend Chris Buck, as a way of memorializing his imminent move to New York City. We talked about portraits and portfolios, magazines and careers and gear, but at some point I went off topic and got on a bit of a ramble about skies.

We were talking about two of my favorite recent portraits by Chris, one of which was a panoramic shot of the Cowboy Junkies on a golf course. "All I do lately when I wake up in the morning, Chris, is I look at the sky," I began:
What's the sky like? If it's getting warmer and I have the opportunity to shoot outside; is it cloudy so do I put on the red/orange and get those deep blues? How much burning am I going to have to do? I wander around and look at places and try to avoid power lines and just get a beautiful earth and sky. And that's what's so great about those two shoots - it's the earth and sky. It's beautiful.

Clouds, Toronto, April 1990

Listening to myself now, I can't help but reflect on how unhappy I sound. It's not surprising - I was in a long distance relationship that was going the way those things always do, and caught on the horns of a dilemma as I wondered whether I should stay in Toronto or move south. My landlord had hired two thugs as superintendents of our building, so I never knew whether I'd come home to find threats scrawled on my door or toothpicks stuffed in the lock.

So it was no surprise that I was looking out the window at something bigger and more distant from my life. Life was providing me with an increasingly raucous background din, so I was escaping into work that didn't involve clients or publicists or, ultimately, other people. I'd dare say that, at this most agnostic period of my life, I was striving for something spiritual, even religious.

Clouds, Toronto, April 1990

The reference to red/orange in my little rambling with Chris was filter talk - I'd used some inheritance money to buy a few very expensive red and orange B&W filters for my Rollei, and got the results I was hoping to see. It was a warm, early spring, and I guess I could fool myself that, as long as the weather was nice and I was taking photos, everything would be alright.

As the '90s wore on, I definitely began using landscape shooting and still-life work as a refuge from the frustrations of my work and my (increasingly stalled) career. This is the first time anyone has seen these photos.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Tim

Tim Burton, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2005

VERY LITTLE THAT I'VE DONE IMPRESSES MY DAUGHTERS. There are, however, a handful of portrait subjects that they had a hard time believing I photographed. Thanks to the Harry Potter films, two of them were Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham Carter. The other was Bonham Carter's now-ex-partner, director Tim Burton, who colonized a large part of the imagination of my goth-in-waiting younger daughter, somewhere to the south of the much larger one occupied by Hayao Miyazaki.

I photographed Burton nearly a decade ago for the free national daily, when he was in town promoting The Corpse Bride at the film festival. For me, he was forever the man who endeared himself to me with Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and then squandered all that goodwill with the execrable Batman films. But I didn't tell him that.

Tim Burton, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2005

I had been shooting in hotel rooms for almost two decades by the time I met Burton, so I knew that there was a certain kind of light, combined with just the right bright, plain wall, that would give me something like a high key studio lighting effect with just ambient room light. (Aided by a judicious bit of dodging and burning, about an hour's worth of work in the darkroom, a matter of seconds in Photoshop.)

I knew the light was a gift as soon as I saw it in what I assume was a room at the old Four Seasons in Yorkville, which was nice because Burton himself, taciturn and glum, obviously wasn't going to give me anything. Not that it bothered me; with just a few minutes to work, the way a subject presents themselves to me is one of the scant clues they give me to how they want the world to see them.

Bonham Carter, photographed a decade previous, performed for me and my camera like the overwrought Victorian she often channeled in her work. Burton planted himself in the indicated spot and responded to my minimal directions, minimally.

Tim Burton, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2005

The images here look very different from whatever I handed into the free daily. The image at the top has been given much more selective focus than the original jpeg, while the colour in the middle shot has been pulled back so that it reminds me of a Chuck Close portrait. (Click on the image and you'll see what I mean.)

The portrait at the bottom, one of the few where Burton actually showed movement and emotion, has been enhanced with some motion blur in Photoshop. Look at the man - it's like he's going to leap out of the frame at you.


 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Helena

Helena Bonham Carter, Toronto, 1996

THE BREAK-UP OF TIM BURTON AND HELENA BONHAM CARTER late last year prompted the sort of expressions of shock and dismay that should normally be confined to close friends and family. Despite having an unorthodox living arrangement that required separate (but linked) households, they were regarded as having the perfect relationship. (Which says a lot about how we look at marriage today.) Worst of all, it was said, Burton seemed to be breaking up with his muse - though frankly, I've always thought Johnny Depp filled that role more than Bonham Carter.

I photographed her nearly twenty years ago, when she was in Toronto promoting a movie adaptation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The client was NOW magazine, and as far as I can tell the shoot took place wholly within the confines of a wingback chair at either the Four Seasons or Park Plaza hotels, across from each other in Yorkville.

Helena Bonham Carter, Toronto, 1996

I first saw Helena Bonham Carter in real life several years earlier, in the lobby of the Sutton Place during the film festival. She was already known as an eccentric, and suddenly appeared in the middle of the thronging lobby in a pair of overalls with one leg rolled up, a pair of mismatched socks and Converse high tops. Oblivious to the stares of the crowd around her, she scanned the corridors looking for someone, apparently in vain.

Doing celebrity portrait work, and especially with actors, you often find yourself in an unusual situation. I have, several times, found myself in a hotel room with someone who I have seen, on film, without any clothes on. A few years before I photographed Bonham Carter, I'd seen her in Getting It Right playing an aristocratic young woman who, for reasons I can't recall, strips off and climbs on top of a car. She would, of course, be in the altogether again just a year after I did this shoot, in The Wings of The Dove. (Her penchant for eccentricity and nudity hasn't abated with time: Here are some recent photos of her posing naked with a tuna.)

It always seemed to me that this always shifted the balance of power during a photo shoot ever so slightly in the photographer's favour. I'm not sure how to address this, or whether it's even worth trying to address. I do know that, chronic exhibitionist that he is, my good friend Chris would probably be happy to keep things even by trading nude photos. I don't think I'd ever go that far myself.

Helena Bonham Carter, Toronto, 1996

I positioned my Rolleiflex between a hotel window and a big armchair, where the light would drop off drastically deeper into the room. A tiny woman, Bonham Carter had a lot of room to move in the big chair, and responded to my minimal direction enthusiastically, filling two rolls with a fantastic choice of shots. She was, to be sure, very present.

Here's the thing: These three frames are only taken from one of them, and there are even better ones on the other roll. I have contact sheets of both, but for some reason the negative sheet for the better roll has gone missing, and hasn't turned up despite some frantic searching. One more victim of my sloppy filing in the last years of analog photography.


   

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Cameras

 

THIS IS MY CANON EOS ELAN. It hasn't worked in more than a decade. The rubberized grip on the shutter side of the body is decaying and sticky. It's a useless brick that will never shoot another roll of film again, but I can't bring myself to get rid of it. This was the 35mm SLR I used the longest and for the busiest part of my career.

It did yeoman service, and for that reason, I suppose, I want to give it a suitable retirement, so it's tucked away in a ragged Domke camera bag with rusted hardware, next to its stiff old camera strap. I can't think of a piece of equipment I was married to as closely, or used as hard, so it has my abiding affection.


It was not my first professional 35mm SLR. That was a Nikon F3 that I bought used in the late '80s when the drawbacks of using Pentax Spotmatics (lousy meter, fiddly screw-in lens mount, no motor drive) became too hard to ignore. The camera above is not the F3 I used - that camera was sold in a fit of rage over twenty years ago.


The F3 was the industry standard - a heavy, rugged piece of kit that Nikon advertised with testimonials from war photographers. You could rent accessories for the thing almost anywhere, but I still invested in a nice set of lenses for my F3, including the legendary 85mm/f1.4, a massive piece of portrait glass famous for its sharpness. I became a Nikon Professional Services member and should, by all rights, still be a Nikon user today.

Unfortunately my F3 was cursed. Either the camera body or the motor drive I purchased for it new - we never quite figured out which - had a habit of sticking at the end of a roll of film and exposing frames on top of each other well past the 36th shot. It was never consistent - it would only happen every few rolls, and if you weren't paying attention, you'd find yourself shooting one wasted frame after another until you realized that no roll of film could last this long.

For a year it was in and out of Nikon's service bay, and I ended up running up an impressive bill in camera rentals. I took pains to describe what was going wrong, and provided plenty of evidence of the camera's irritating flaw. I persisted, hoping to get satisfaction as a pro user who was generally happy with my heavy, vaguely military-grade camera except when it turned on me.

Finally, on Valentine's Day, 1992, I was called up to Nikon's offices to meet with the head of pro services and Gunther, who ran the (almost wholly German-staffed) repair department. They had decided, after much discussion, to sell me a new motor drive at cost, even though no one had come to any satisfactory conclusion that the problem was either in the drive or the camera body. Additionally - standing next to each other behind the counter at the service bay and smirking wryly - they told me that they thought I was faking my camera's malfunction, at great personal inconvenience and cost, just to get a new motor drive.

I was furious. I should have thrown the whole bag of gear at their heads, but I was at the end of my tether after a year, so I paid for the drive, tucked everything back into my camera bag, and told them that, come Monday, I would be selling every piece of Nikon gear I owned and switching to Canon. I turned in the doorway of the service department and shot Gunther a vigorous Nazi salute - a futile but satisfying gesture of contempt.


True to my word, I went down to Vistek on the following Monday and sold the lot, finding that all my Nikon gear wouldn't fetch near enough trade-in value to get me Canon's equivalent 35mm SLR - the mighty EOS-1. Instead, I was shown the Elan - their camera for the "advanced amateur" market, which I could afford along with a few lenses to replace my Nikon glass.


It was an autofocus camera but, built out of plastic and polycarbonates and a few scant bits of metal, it weighed a fraction of the brass and steel F3. It didn't need a motor drive, so I purchased a flimsy little stub of an accessory grip that made the camera sit a bit more comfortably in my (rather large) hands.

It was a far more technologically advanced camera than the F3, but it looked and felt like a toy and didn't even have a flash sync. (I'd have to buy a cheap accessory sync cube and stick it on the camera's hot shoe.) Owning one guaranteed that I'd get dismissive looks from the pros from the wire services and newspapers as long as I showed up in their scrums and photo pits. Still, it was all I could afford, and it rewarded my trust by working non-stop for over a decade until the day its LCD display finally blinked and died.

It taught me that, ultimately, gear wasn't terribly important, and that as long as everything worked, what your eye saw mattered more than what the camera did. Still, whenever I'm asked advice about buying cameras, I pointedly badmouth Nikon. Fuck those guys.


 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Car show


I'M A BIT OF A GEARHEAD, so the auto show is a highlight of my year. For a few years now I've had a regular gig covering it for a website, but there are always a bunch of shots I like but can't fit into the story. Here are a few. As ever, click on the photos to see a larger version.


At least a few of the cars on display are lovingly lit on the showroom floor to help the media get the best possible photos. Of course I appreciate the effort.


What always amazes me, though, is how these glamorous hunks of glass and metal turn into dull, indistinguishable heaps within minutes of leaving the showroom floor. Not all cars mind you, but most of them.


One of these days I'm really going to have to learn how to drive.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Trimmings

Teri, Parkdale, 1992

HER NAME WAS TERI, AND SHE WAS THE GIRLFRIEND of Dave, my old boss at Nerve. She was a model and needed portfolio shots so Dave gave me a call. I wanted some fashion in my own portfolio, so it was a good trade.

We started in my studio in Parkdale but - impetuously - I suggested we head outside after a few different setups and try to get something ... grittier. We ended up in a dodgy greasy spoon by the corner of Lansdowne (now long gone) where the patrons gave us funny looks but let me shoot in a booth and in the back, by the kitchen, where they stacked the empties.

My brief forays into fashion photography will be the subject of another post. All I can say now is that I loved the challenge of shooting fashion and even liked some of the results, but couldn't see my way to getting a foothold in that part of the business.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Whitney

Whitney Houston, Toronto, Oct. 1990

PAPARAZZI ARE TO OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS WHAT VULTURES ARE TO EAGLES. Or at least that's how "legitimate" photographers imagine the relationship. I had, until the '90s, spent very little time around paparazzi, but that decade would put me next to them - in scrums, on red carpets and in press holding rooms at the film festival - more than I enjoyed. The thing is, I'm not sure a disinterested outsider would have been able to tell the difference between me and a self-identified paparazzo from a few feet away.

When Whitney Houston came to town promoting I'm Your Baby Tonight, NOW assigned me to shoot a press event. It wasn't the sort of thing that NOW normally covered, but they can be forgiven for being tempted since Houston was probably the most famous woman in the world at that point next to Princess Diana.

It wasn't the sort of thing I normally did, either, but I was vaguely curious about how her handlers would manage a photo op with someone so in demand, and how other photographers - and I knew there would be a lot of other photographers - would get something worth printing. It was probably the first time I found myself behind a rope with paparazzi, as well as a thicket of wire service and newspaper photographers.

And like I said, I would challenge any civilian to tell them apart.

Whitney Houston, Toronto, Oct. 1990

I arrived early at a banquet hall in the Harbour Castle Hilton to find a white riser set up at the far end of the room, with a curtain behind it and a chair set on it at an angle. There were already a few photographers there with their Nikons and Canons and a range of cannon-like telephoto lenses, all staring with some confusion at the rope barrier that had been set up just in front of the riser.

I was pleasantly surprised. With a prime spot in the centre of the scrum I'd only be a few feet away from Houston when she sat down. It was just a little farther away than usually was from my portrait subjects; I could probably do the whole thing with my 50mm, maybe even the 35mm. I put my telephoto lens back in the bag.

But then I noticed that the rest of the photographers were milling around, looking at the rope anxiously and talking among themselves, with the paps - not a term they were using for themselves much yet; that would come a bit later - looking most distressed. And then without a word a couple of them began pulling the security rope back, first a foot or two, and then with other photographers helping, they dragged it back halfway down the room, creating a yards-wide moat between us and our subject.

Whitney Houston, Toronto, Oct. 1990

It felt like everyone around me had gone mad. I looked around, appealing to the few photographers I knew, but they simply shrugged; some kind of majority consensus had been reached and it meant making sure that none of us would have a better chance at a good shot than anyone else.

I appealed to the PR people handling the event, but they shrugged and said that this was obviously what the majority of the shooters in the room wanted. With a heavy heart I reached into my bag for my telephoto.

Robert Capa was famously supposed to have said that "if your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough," but that rule apparently didn't apply in this room, where it was more like "If you're too close, your photograph might be too good." For not the first time I was reminded that enforced mediocrity is one of the less attractive by-products of a democracy.

Whitney Houston, Toronto, Oct. 1990

Houston was late, and looked a bit surprised to see the chair on the dais separated from the scrum by yards of carpet. Before she even sat down I realized why most of the photographers - and the paps in particular - wanted to put some room between themselves and their subject.

The shouts and bellowing began while she walked to the chair and became a din as soon as she sat down and looked our way - calls to "Look over here!" and "This way, Whitney!" and "Give us a smile!" and "You look great!" Combined with the strobing flashes and the jostling it made for an imposing spectacle, and I could see why anyone might want to be separated from it by at least a couple of yards of air.

Houston, an old pro at this by now, responded by shouting back at the photographers, goading them back when their pleading for a look or a pose became more strident. I realized I wasn't going to get much more with the telephoto and switched to my 50mm, just to get a record of how far away from Houston we were, and how isolated and object-like our subject appeared from behind the security rope.

Whitney Houston, Toronto, Oct. 1990

It was all over quite quickly, and I couldn't be certain I'd gotten anything. Houston got up as the flashes kept popping, waved and walked away smiling - to "I Will Always Love You" and The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale and Bobby Brown and all the rest of what would be a much shorter story than anyone in the room imagined.

Whitney Houston died in a bathtub in the Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 11, 2012.


  

Friday, February 6, 2015

Live: Madonna

Madonna, Air Canada Centre, Toronto, July 2004

MANY YEARS AFTER I THOUGHT I WAS out of the concert photography business, I ended up working for the free national daily, who decided it would be nice to have their own photos when Madonna came to town on her Re-Invention Tour, promoting her American Life album. It was an object lesson that, no matter what milestone you think you've reached, a paycheque will erase it like the chalk mark on the sidewalk it really was.

So on a summer night I found myself by the back wall of the mezzanine level of the Air Canada Centre with a rented 300mm lens on the paper's digital Canon. At least the monopod was mine. Shooting big ticket concerts, which meant running around in a pit in front of the stage shooting up a performer's nostrils back when I'd started, now meant standing in a small thicket of photographers a few hundred yards away from the stage, peering down at the performers like they were under surveillance.

Madonna, Air Canada Centre, Toronto, July 2004

I might have cared if I liked my subject more. Back in the days of "Into the Groove" I could appreciate Madonna as pop confection with an undeniable resonance, but this was the era of the London-dwelling Madge and her inexplicable Home Counties accent, and the louche girl from Desperately Seeking Susan had transformed herself into a preening, hard-edged celebrity with more than the usual retinue of grating pretensions.

Madonna, Air Canada Centre, Toronto, July 2004

Even after a years-long layoff, shooting a concert wasn't even a technical challenge. Thanks to digital cameras I knew what I was getting as I worked, and in 2004 that still felt thrilling. It was, in any case, the only thrill I'd have that evening. Unmoved as I was by the show - especially at over half a hockey rink's distance - I concerned myself mostly with composition rather than capturing the energy of the show, which in any case seemed wholly lacking, at least where I stood.

Knowing that I'd have to crop the worthwhile frames, I just tried to arrange the bodies onstage and catch some glimpses of the fans, some of whom actually looked as engaged as I wasn't. The rest seemed merely curious to be this close to a pop culture artifact, and often looked like they were inspecting it for seams and flaws.

Madonna, Air Canada Centre, Toronto, July 2004

To this day I'm certain that Madonna lip-synced the whole show, and I'm not sure that many of her fans would have been disappointed if it were true. Actually singing seemed beside the point, since a show like this has less to do with musical excellence demonstrated than merely bearing witness to the presence of celebrity.

Looking at it that way, I wasn't really doing concert photography but something else entirely. My milestone - or chalk line, depending on how you looked at it - remained intact, and I was engaged in some whole new sort of photography; one that I couldn't have imagined nearly twenty years previous.


 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Live: Hammer Time

MC Hammer, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, Oct. 1990

YES KIDS, JUST BEFORE THE NIRVANA RECORD CAME OUT we all dressed like this. Four years after my rudimentary attempt to shoot Metallica in concert I was back at Maple Leaf Gardens, a seasoned live music photographer who used the right film and lenses and everything. I shot Hammer on assignment for NOW, at the peak of his pantalooned fame, at the point when I was definitely doing this for a living.

I spent a lot of time hunched on the floor in clubs or peering over the lip of stages in big concert halls and stadiums, so it was inevitable that I would master the set of skills required to shoot under the extremely variable lighting conditions of live music. I could, without breaking a sweat, produce well-composed, sharp images that would hold up under the harsh technical requirements of mechanical reproduction in newspapers in the age of halftone cameras. The big question at this point was: So what?

MC Hammer, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, Oct. 1990

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward is a Vancouver photographer whose long-running blog was an inspiration for this site. Back before I even owned a camera, he had identified the big problem with shooting live music. In a post looking back on a shoot he did with Siouxsie & The Banshees in 1981, he recalled that thanks to the physical limitations of concert photography, "even though we were given access to shoot in what we called the media pit (right next to the stage floor) my pictures looked like anybody else’s or not as good."

With a regular gig shooting musicians passing through town for Vancouver magazine, he was desperate to find a way to make his work stand out from the crowd, and discovered that it was harder than he imagined. For a while he decided to go against the conventional wisdom of live music photography and shoot with slow film and a combination of on-camera flash and long shutter speeds - a technique that I'd eventually know as "flash and burn," and which reached its peak with the grunge band photos of Charles Peterson, just over the border from Alex in Seattle.

MC Hammer, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, Oct. 1990

Still, they were small innovations, easily copied by other photographers, and the challenge of establishing a unique style always remains. Waterhouse-Hayward recalled a few years later, when he was teaching photography at an arts school in Vancouver:
I remember once when I told my students that it was virtually impossible to shoot band at concerts in an original way. One particular female student was extremely aggressive and told me I knew nothing and had no experience. She told me that my rock swirls (the slow shutter ones) were simply bad photography. 
I tried to stress that the single most important aspect in personal photography was to develop a personal style. I called the personal style the Holy Grail of photography. But it was to no avail and I see now, more than ever pictures of performing bands (sharp, well exposed, bright colours, etc) that are boring, banal and all pretty well look the same. In fact if you are in front of a band at a concert with a very good camera I guarantee that the pictures you will take will look like somebody else’s. In 1982 having the pictures "turn out" was not a sure thing. It is now a sure thing but that does not necessarily include style.
There are two things you can learn from this story. The first is that young people are infuriating idiots who should be ignored. The second is that technological progress doesn't necessarily travel in tandem with creative innovation. The more you learn - and the more your gear is capable of achieving - the more likely it is that you'll have to work harder to break through the glass ceiling of mere competence. By 1990 I was learning this lesson.


  

Monday, February 2, 2015

Live: Metallica

James Hetfield, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, Dec. 1986

I HAVE NEVER REALLY ENJOYED CONCERT PHOTOGRAPHY. Which is a shame because I've done so much of it. While I'd love to exclusively feature my portraits and landscapes and still-life work on this blog, there are hundreds of live music shoots in my files that it would be unfair to ignore, if only because of the record they make of my technical progress over the years.

I've written about my portrait session with Metallica before, but I'd encountered the band a few years previous, when an assignment to interview Lars Ulrich for Graffiti magazine got me a pass to the pit at the Maple Leaf Gardens stop on the Master of Puppets tour.

Kirk Hammett, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, Dec. 1986

I had only owned a camera for about a year when I took these photos, and if I was somewhat pleased with the results at the time, it was mostly because they'd turned out at all. They were shot with my trusty Pentax Spotmatic and whatever cheap telephoto lens I owned at the time. Thankfully we were still allowed into the space at the front of the stage to shoot back in the '80s, and I might have had more than three songs to get the job done.

The meter on the Spotmatic was hardly state of the art, and whatever lens I had probably didn't have a maximum aperture of less than 4.0 or even 5.6. But the real miracle of these shots is that they were shot on rolls of expired Kodachrome that I'd been storing in my fridge, a gift from my cousin Terry who worked at Kodak.

Jason Newstead, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, Dec. 1986

I was poor and colour film was expensive and I'd been told that pros shot on slide film so I naturally used whatever cost me the least, but nobody would ever tell you to show up to shoot a concert with film rated at just 64 ASA. So of course the majority of my shots are either blurry or dim or both; the frames you see here are the best of the lot, miles from anyone's standard of technical perfection and the result of long sessions in Photoshop.

Thankfully no client was expecting to use these shots, though I did try vainly to interest Graffiti in running them with my piece. Luckily for them there were a wide range of photos of the band to choose from, taken by photographers who knew that fast film, lenses and shutter speeds are what you need to shoot live music.

But years later and with a couple of hundred shows behind me I'd be struggling to capture the loose, spontaneous feel of these pictures, using every ounce of hard-won technical knowledge to get something a bit better than just another sharp shot of a guy with his guitar on a stage.