Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Who are they?

LIKE MOST OF MY MYSTERY SHOOTS FROM THE '90S, I'm pretty sure these guys are actors, appearing in a local theatre production. I shot a lot of actors back then; NOW put real effort into covering independent theatre, so I would end up at Tarragon or Factory or the Theatre Centre or the Bathurst Street Theatre or some rented hall or improvised space to get portraits of cast members or (more occasionally) a director or writer, just as their production was beginning its brief run - one or two weeks, with no more than the promise of Equity wages (hopefully) to show before everyone was cast back onto the churning waters of theatrical unemployment.

It seemed a rough way to make a living. I'm sure it's even rougher now. With this in mind I always tried to be nice when I had local actors as subjects, even if (or probably because) I knew most of them would burn out on the lifestyle in a few years, leaving a few handbills and programs along with some clippings illustrated with my photos to remember their career on stage.

Guiltily, I'll also admit that I used my shoots with local actors as a chance to experiment with some pose or lighting trick; used to taking direction, they were far more malleable than some politician or celebrity and especially moreso than an actor who'd been bestowed with a bit of celebrity.

Near as I can tell I found these guys near a nice source of natural light and got them to invade each other's personal space as much as possible - something actors do more eagerly than almost anyone else - to fill the frame and leave as little dreaded shadow or black space in the frame as I could. I did individual portraits, but with two guys who looked so much alike as subjects, this sort of thing suggested itself.

I wonder where they are now?

Monday, April 27, 2015


Roses, 1991

AT SOME POINT IN EARLY SPRING OF 1991 SOMEONE SENT US FLOWERS. My girlfriend was living in New York; we were going through a year-long breakup and her sister was my roommate in the loft on Queen West. I was getting plenty of work, but it wasn't the happiest period of my life. I don't know what inspired me, but one morning - I remember it as a Sunday, for some reason - I carried the roses into my studio and began setting up my lights.

I wasn't too ambitious that first day with the roses, but I liked what I got when the film came back - a simple but attractive floral still life with a little magic touch provided by the way the water refracted in the vase. Over the next five weeks I would make regular trips to Harvest Fresh Farms, the grocery across the street from the loft, to pick up flowers, which I'd put take into the studio and shoot with my latest purchase - a Zenza Bronica SQ-a that I'd just bought used and which would become my main studio camera for the next decade.

Tulips, 1991

A week or so later tulips were in season, so I bought two or three bunches and crammed them into the vase. I set a soft light just above and moved the red seamless backdrop close to catch the spill of light. The results weren't nearly as attractive - the flowers were a bit of a mess - but I discovered that the cross-processed film colour-shifted just enough that true colour rendition was almost impossible.

I'd print several versions, shifting the background from a cool violet to a hot orange. I wanted to get a really nice floral shot, but while I was feeling my way there, I'd use these shoots as a kind of test bed for the possibilities of cross-processing, while testing out my new studio strobe kit on the way.

Daisies, 1991

My next subject was a bunch of daisies - a cheap bouquet that I stuck into the same vase as the roses, in a similar setup to the first shoot, a couple of weeks previous. I put a harder light over the flowers and experimented with different light levels on the red seamless.

I was chewing my way through the usual bunch of mostly undigested influences - Irving Penn, of course, but also Robert Mapplethorpe's floral still lifes, which I liked a lot, and Peter Savile's work on the cover of Technique, a recent New Order record. While racking my focus back and forth on the Bronica, I discovered that I liked the way the flowers looked through a thick blur. I'd become obsessed with thin apertures and pulled focus, and would return to it again and again over the years.

Lilies, 1991

The next flowers to come into season that spring were lilies, so I bought a big bunch and took them home to the loft. I set them up in front of a blue seamless and put a big softbox overhead, then moved my camera in close.

I was probably taking Polaroid tests while I worked - another new toy - and hoped that the film would come back looking as nice as the Polaroid print. It did, but true to form the cross-processing gave the photos a slight cyan/blue cast that pushed through in the shadows of the bright yellow flowers. Still, I didn't mind this much at all, and I rented some colour darkroom time later that spring to make big 30"x40" prints of my three favorite frames from this series - the biggest prints I ever made.

Tulips, 1991

Finally, with tulips still in season, I bought a bunch and put them in a tall, slim vase. I set up the darkroom for high key lighting with the white seamless and trained a single, focused but slightly diffused strobe head on the flowers. The result was the most Penn-like thing I shot that month, which is probably why it was my favorite. Years later I'd print one up for a show of still-life work I did in an uptown restaurant. It didn't sell, and has been hanging in our bedroom for years.

I remember this brief surge of inspiration as a refuge from my rather dismal personal life at the time. I also remember it for all the shoegaze music I was listening to - bands like Lush and Ride and Chapterhouse - and they provide a soundtrack in my mind, even today, when I revisit this work. I was trying to make something beautiful, I think, separate from the demands of paying work and as a consolation from an awkward living situation and the deep sense of hurt and rejection that infused everything around me.


Thursday, April 23, 2015


Jane Bunnett, Toronto, November 1990

OVER A YEAR PASSED BETWEEN RECORDING THE RECORD that would be Live at Sweet Basil and the cover photo session with Jane Bunnett at my Parkdale studio. It was probably the busiest single year of my career, and the delay was a gift - what I learned in that year of busy shooting were skills I could never have brought to a portrait session in the summer of 1989.

Over the course of that year Jane released New York Duets and signed a deal with Denon Records in Canada. The turn of the '90s was probably the last golden age for the record industry; there was a lot of money around and even the Canadian branches of record labels run by Japanese stereo manufacturers were flush enough to get ambitious and put out software to play on their hardware.

I knew and liked Lloyd Nishimura, the head of Denon Canada, and convinced him not only to let me shoot the cover but to let me have a hand in designing it - on the record, I'd be credited with "Photography/Design." Which sounds impressive, but it really meant that I had a really great idea that I wanted to rip off.

I showed Stephen Fok, Denon's designer, my Penguin mass market paperback copy of Martin Amis' London Fields and said that I wanted to do something like this. I thought it looked striking and contemporary and knew the black bar and bright lettering would set off a cross-processed colour portrait of Jane. Stephen affably went along with me, and while I'm still fond of the result, it's undeniably dated - not that that's a bad thing.

Ever since her first record, Jane had been wary of putting a picture of herself on the cover of a record. At the time - and it might still be true now, I don't know - there was a perception that any pretty girl on a jazz record was probably a singer. Nonetheless Lloyd insisted that Jane's face had to be front and centre, though we all agreed that she had to have an instrument in her hand.

I loved glamour photography though Jane had never done anything remotely like it, but I asked her to get her hair done for the shoot. To oblige me, she went and got "done" at a beauty parlour just up the street from her Parkdale house - the sort of place where, a generation earlier, ladies would have their bouffants and permanents maintained weekly, reading old copies of Chatelaine and Family Circle while sitting under the hair dryers.

Jane Bunnett, Toronto, November 1990

I'd been cross-processing film for at least a year, inspired by work I'd seen done by Chris Nicholls, a local photographer who I'd replaced at NOW magazine when he moved on to a career in fashion. He'd explained the basics of running colour slide film through negative (C-41) chemistry to me, but told me to experiment, since every different brand and speed of film produced different results. For a couple of years I was in love with the look, and rarely if ever processed colour film the way it was intended.

It meant an awful lot of experimenting, which meant that I was usually plowing part of my profits from the business back into tests. By late 1990, I knew that Fuji's 100D film - RDP, or the predecessor to Provia - produced vivid and intensely contrasty negatives with a pronounced cyan shift. The blown-out highlights, however, were very flattering if lit correctly, and I laid in a small supply of film for Jane's shoot.

Jane Bunnett, Toronto, November 1990

I shot what I considered a lot of film that day - seven whole rolls, with no black and white back-up in case the cross-processing didn't work. I couldn't imagine a better portfolio piece or promo than a CD cover, and I knew that the record was a big deal for Jane, so it felt like a lot was riding on the shoot. I changed backdrops and tried to get as many options on film as possible. After almost three years Jane and I were getting comfortable on either side of the camera, so when the film came back and I pulled my first contact sheet from the processor at Toronto Image Works, I was more than pleased that the shots looked 95% like what I'd hoped for.

I won't pretend that this was the most original work I'd ever made, but at the time I was more concerned with producing photos that held up on the racks at a record store. Having passed mere competence, I was anxious to arrive at what I considered the long, sunny plains of professionalism. It wouldn't be long before my work with Jane would take me somewhere else, somewhere much warmer; a different country, and one very different from Canada.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sweet Basil

Jane Bunnett, Sweet Basil, NYC, August 1989

IN THE LATE SUMMER OF 1989 MY GIRLFRIEND MOVED TO NEW YORK, just in time for me to help my friend Jane Bunnett with her third record - a live album recorded at Sweet Basil, a famous jazz club just north of the Village in Chelsea. The club was the headquarters of the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival, which was in its eighth (and final) year. Getting an invite to play was a big deal, and Jane and her husband Larry decided not to waste the opportunity.

The club was owned by Mel Litoff and his wife Phyllis, a singer, and was booked by Horst Liepolt, a major figure in the New York jazz scene at the time. Recording live at the club was something of a tradition, and there's a long list of "Live at Sweet Basil" titles by everyone from Gil Evans and Art Blakey to Paul Bley and McCoy Tyner. Adding Jane's name to the list when the chance came up seemed like a good idea.

Jane's duet record with pianist Don Pullen was still unreleased, but since he was available it made sense to build a band around Don. I showed up at the club during soundcheck early in the afternoon and ended up filling five rolls of film with my new Nikon by the time the band finished playing later that evening, hoping to get material for the CD booklet. It was a frantic day; in between soundcheck and the gig we went back to Jane and Larry's hotel to shoot portraits for the New York Duets package, and it felt like a lot was riding on what was essentially Jane's debut in front of a New York audience.

Don Pullen, Sweet Basil, NYC, August 1989
Billy Hart, Sweet Basil, NYC, August 1989

Drummer Billy Hart was Don's suggestion. They had recorded together on a Hamiet Bluiett record a decade earlier, but Hart had been around for years, playing with Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery in the early '60s and playing on Miles Davis' seminal fusion record On The Corner. He's a powerhouse drummer from the same generation as Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams, and he's still recording and performing today.

I remember Billy being low-key and serious during the soundcheck, still feeling out unfamiliar bandmates, but he's typically monstrous on the record; his cymbal work on tracks like "Hole in One" is phenomenal.

Kieran Overs, Sweet Basil, NYC, August 1989

Bassist Kieran Overs was a lynchpin in Jane's band at this time. A busy sideman back in Toronto, he'd record with Jane through the next decade and a half, showing incredible flexibility as Jane started moving towards Cuban and Latin music. As an indifferent guitarist, I had a lot of respect for double bassists like Kieran, both for the immense physical effort of tugging on its strings and the vast inconvenience of being wedded to such an inconveniently un-portable instrument.

I liked Kieran a lot but I always had the feeling that he regarded me a bit dubiously. By Live at Sweet Basil I'd become part of Jane's entourage - not quite on equal footing with the musicians in her bands but more than just a hired shutterbug, there to catch a few nice snapshots. And I could, I can see in retrospect, be a bit in the way.

Larry Cramer, Sweet Basil, NYC, August 1989

I have known Jane and her husband Larry Cramer now for almost thirty years, and for the longest time I've had enormous respect for Larry's decision to take on a support role in Jane's career, helping arrange and produce records, concerts and tours and otherwise take on the endless - and often thankless - background tasks required to keep a career in jazz viable.

Playing jazz isn't any easier now than it was twenty-five years ago, and while I know Larry has given up a lot of opportunities to have his own career as a bandleader and sideman, in the end it might have been fortuitous for two people to be able to busy themselves with the sometimes Sisyphean task of keeping a single jazz career afloat.

Between the soundcheck and the gig I took the band off to a table by the side of the stage and took just three frames of a group portrait, bouncing my Metz flash into a newly-acquired diffuser stuck to the flash with Velcro. The shot just below is the one that ran in the CD package, chosen because everyone was looking at the camera, though Jane says that it made her looked like a rabbit caught in a car's headlights. The shot below that is an outtake that gives a better sense of what that day was like - frenzied and anxious and a little bit ad hoc.

Larry, Kieran, Jane, Don, Billy; Sweet Basil, NYC, August 1989

The shots I took in Sweet Basil on that August day were decently executed, I think, but I knew that they were ultimately only filler in the record's package, and that the cover would really be the test of my ability as a photographer. My only regret with the work is that I was so intent on capturing at least one decent shot of every musician on the stage that I never turned around and took photos of the club and the crowd; it would take me years to understand that having a camera in your hand was a priceless opportunity to capture a moment in time, and a quarter century later it would have been nice to get a few glimpses of the inside of a jazz club in New York City on a summer evening in 1989.

New York has changed a lot. You can still see jazz in Greenwich Village, but Sweet Basil has gone the way of the Village Gate, Fat Tuesday's and Bradley's. Mel and Phyllis Litoff sold the club to new owners in 1992; Sweet Basil closed in 2001 and became Sweet Rhythm, which in turn closed in 2009. The address - 88 7th Avenue - is now Legend, a Chinese restaurant.

Sweet Basil is currently the name of a Thai restaurant in Brooklyn.


Friday, April 17, 2015

Green Day

Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day, Toronto, October 1997

GREEN DAY ARE BEING INDUCTED INTO THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME THIS WEEKEND. I'm not going to comment much on that except to point out that Dick Dale, Roxy Music and the MC5 aren't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And to use the occasion to revisit my own shoot with Green Day, done for NOW magazine nearly twenty years ago.

Green Day were already big but the success of Nimrod and especially "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" had pushed them to a new level, and the record company had put them up at the old Four Seasons in Yorkdale - the name hotel for movie stars and other celebrities. The band were feeling their oats that day, acting up even before their interview with Matt Galloway had begun - I don't know why Billie Joe felt he needed to stand on his chair to make a point to Matt, but I dutifully snapped away, already intuiting that things might get weird fast.

Green Day, Toronto, Oct. 1997

I shot a roll of the band during the interview but, still deep in my triptych period, decided to shoot them individually to illustrate Matt's feature. By the end of the interview, however, they were clearly restless and in a mood.

I suppose it was when Mike Dirnt picked up a hotel chair that things started going out of control. If I'd swung my camera just to my left, I might have caught the other two members of Green Day studying the room looking for things to knock over as they began a very self-conscious trashing of their suite at the Four Seasons. I do remember looking away from my camera for a second and, out of the corner of my eye, seeing drummer Tre Cool pushing a big TV off its stand; it landed on the carpet with a bright, glassy sound of something brittle snapping.

Mike Dirnt, Green Day, Toronto, Oct. 1997
Tre Cool, Green Day, Toronto, Oct. 1997
Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day, Toronto, Oct. 1997

The shower cap was Tre's idea; he quickly rushed into the bathroom to put it on when I suggested that he pose in the closet. Billie Joe was up last, and after helping his bandmates wreck the interview suite, walked himself into a corner of the room and set his face in a theatrical pout, the bad boy reporting for detention. Matt told me a day later that the band had been kicked out of the Four Seasons not long after we left.

I'm not in the habit of feeling bad for people who work for record companies, but I remember a twinge of sympathy for the Warner Music employees who had to rush to book rooms for the band somewhere else, not to mention the hotel staff who had to clear up the mess. Green Day had been trashing hotel rooms while recording Nimrod, which is probably why what I witnessed in the Four Seasons that day felt rote, like a performance they felt obliged to put on and - more to the point - have witnessed. I suppose a lot of time has passed, but Green Day are forever fixed in my mind as a bunch of overrated dickheads.

(UPDATE: After these photos ended up with over 1,000 notes on Tumblr, I recalled that I'd written about this shoot before. My recollection, of course, has gotten worse with time; I shot Billie Joe first, not last, and it happened at the Sutton Place, not the Four Seasons. Give it a read for an account of my Green Day shoot when it was still fresh in my memory.)


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Corrosion of Conformity

Corrosion of Conformity, Toronto, Aug. 1986

THE REIGNING MUSICAL MOMENT WHEN I STARTED WORKING FOR NERVE magazine was still dominated by American hardcore punk. Whatever I ended up shooting and writing about for Dave and Nancy in the years that followed, my first months at the paper were spent in the dingy dives where punk shows got booked, dodging flailing legs and arms as bodies rolled onto the scarred stages where I was crouching.

The faster, louder, "bees in a bottle" sound of early hardcore was, by 1986, giving way to a more metallic sound, led by bands like Corrosion of Conformity from Raleigh, NC. I'd been passed a copy of Animosity, their new mini-LP, and I'd loved it, so I asked Dave if I could write about the band as they passed through town.

The band were a revolving door, constantly swapping out members, with the only constant being guitarist Woody Weatherman; bassist Mike Dean had been the singer on Animosity, but by the time they played Ildiko's, a worn-out former Hungarian banquet hall on Bloor Street's student strip that would soon become a pool hall, Simon Bob Sinister had joined the band for a brief run as vocalist.

Perhaps this is why the band had such little camaraderie when I walked them a couple of blocks north of the club to the park next to St. Alban's Anglican church - a spot I'd scouted a few weeks previous and was dying to use as a backdrop. Mike Dean certainly didn't bother trying to look like he wanted to be there, but even at the time I thought that this glaring tension actually made for a better photo than just another shot of a band trying to look moody or antic.

Mike Dean, Corrosion of Conformity, Toronto, Aug. 1986
Woody Weatherman, Corrosion of Conformity, Toronto, Aug. 1986

The only technical note I have is that this is one of the few times I used Ilford's XP film - a black and white stock that was developed in C-41 colour chemistry. (They still make a variation on it today.) It made for a nearly grainless negative, but the expense of paying for it to be developed in a lab and its unusual contrast curve in the darkroom meant that it was an experiment I wouldn't try again.

I shot one roll of XP1 that contained the band portrait and the two live shots above. I was obviously keen on the "flash and burn" effect, and was desperate to capture the chaotic energy of a hardcore show. Maybe I was just a little bit successful.

Corrosion of Conformity, Ildiko's, Toronto, Aug. 1986

When that roll was finished I switched over to a roll of regular black and white film, and filled most of that one with shots taken behind the band, aimed at the crowd, who were always as much - if not more - a part of any hardcore gig. As ever, with old shots like this, I can't help but wonder what happened to these young men. At least I can account for one of them.

As I was examining the second last shot in this post, I noticed the young man in the crowd holding a camera. Knowing he was at this show, I sent it off to my friend Rod Orchard, my onetime assistant and the photographer at my wedding; he confirmed that it was him, a bunch of years before we'd meet. Hopefully one day he'll find a shot in his archives looking the other way, catching me hunched at the side of the stage at Ildiko's.


Monday, April 13, 2015


Henry Rollins, Toronto, April 2, 1988

HENRY ROLLINS WAS IN TOWN WITH HIS NEW BAND and I was in the little abandoned bar at the Silver Dollar again, setting up my studio-in-a-bag. This was the beginning of Rollins' second act after the breakup of Black Flag, touring with the Rollins Band or as a spoken word performer. I didn't have a client who assigned me to do this shoot, but I assumed that I'd be able to sell shots later down the line, so I asked Elliott Lefko, the promoter, to let me do something during soundcheck. Considering how much I shot in similar circumstances back then, I owe Elliott a big thank you.

Henry arrived just as I was setting up, so I made small talk with him while I put together my light. I told him that I'd shot Lydia Lunch in the same spot just a few months previous, knowing that they had been something of an item at one point, appearing together in a Richard Kern film.

"Here?" Henry asked, obviously interested.

Yeah, just over there I said, pointing to the stool I'd placed in front of my painter's drop cloth, a bit of furniture that seemed to live in the room, and which I'd come to rely on being there.

"She sat on this stool?" he asked.

Yeah, I said.

Henry walked over and picked up the stool, lifted it to his nose and took a deep, noisy sniff at the seat.


Henry Rollins, Toronto, April 2, 1988

After the steep learning curve of 1987, I was intent on closing in on something like a recognizable style in my portraits, and with the looming presence of Penn in my head (as ever) I'd been paring away at my shots, getting rid of detail and anything more than a basic background and a well-placed light. That was, really, all I was working with; any attempt at a concept or colour or eliciting a performance from my subjects was just beyond my competence at the time and would have to wait.

The biggest challenge was overcoming my own wariness of my subjects, especially when they were performers yoked to their persona. It was easy enough to let them just do their party piece for the camera; it was a lot harder to calm them (and myself) down to the point where we could work together towards something unique, a record of a moment. It was - and remains - the hardest thing about portraiture. Many years later I would find myself without the energy or confidence to keep at it.

Henry Rollins, Toronto, April 2, 1988

Within the admittedly modest expectations I'd set myself, I thought I was quite successful with my Henry Rollins shoot. The frame at the top of this post ended up on my business card and in my portfolio for as long as I showed it; at the beginning of spring in 1988 I was satisfied that I'd reached a milestone of sorts, and that I might allow myself to become a bit more ambitious.

As for Henry Rollins, he'd turn out to be a bit more ambitious as well. The band and the books eventually led to movie roles, but I'm not exactly sure when he transformed into the Dick Cavett of Generation X, interviewing writers, artists and celebrities on quality cable. In my circle of bitter ex-punks he's something of a punchline, so I suppose these portraits are from the last moment when he had the whole of his underground credibility intact.


Thursday, April 9, 2015


Rowland S. Howard, Toronto, April 1, 1988

TO THIS DAY I'M NOT ENTIRELY SURE WHY I PHOTOGRAPHED Rowland S. Howard and his band. I had given the first These Immortal Souls record a bad review in Nerve, and I didn't do an interview that might have accompanied these photos in the paper. The mystery is why I assigned myself to shoot a band whose record I panned without a client to take care of the expenses or put the results in print.

Actually, it's not that mysterious. Whatever I might have thought about his new band - and I'm willing to admit that I was wrong - he had been the guitarist in The Birthday Party, and I was a fan, so I was probably just headhunting; collecting another portrait of someone I admired for my portfolio or posterity or some vague ambition to be the William Claxton of the post-post-punk/pre-grunge musical scene. Maybe.

Harry Howard, Epic Soundtracks, Rowland S. Howard, Toronto, April 1,1988

And so two months after shooting Lydia Lunch, I was in the same little former bar next to the main room at the Silver Dollar Club around soundcheck, my little studio-in-a-bag taking up a corner while I loaded my Mamiya C330 and tried to figure out what to do with Howard and his band. The group shot is hardly anything for the ages, but it does capture the crumpled state of my painter's drop cloth after several months living mostly in a gym bag whenever I wasn't taping it up on the walls of dressing rooms and backstage hallways.

I mentioned in passing to Rowland that I'd shot Lydia Lunch on the same spot just a few weeks previous, and he perked up, asking me what I'd thought of her. I said that she worked very hard to maintain her surly, confrontational image, but that every now and then you got a glimpse of this nice Catholic girl from upstate New York that she may once have been, in a distinctly sweet smile that would slip itself in between sneers. Howard agreed that the nice girl was in there somewhere, if you knew where to look. I asked him to turn sideways on the stool that seemed to have been sitting in the room since I'd shot here last.

Rowland S. Howard, Toronto, April 1, 1988

Howard would record another These Immortal Souls record and two solo albums, by which point I'd finally come around to appreciate what he was doing, as distinct from the Birthday Party and undeniably inspired by his musical hero, Lee Hazlewood. He lived for years with a brutal drug problem; in Autoluminescent, a recent documentary film about Howard, he makes a heartbreaking declaration about how much it diminished his life, a regret that comes - almost inevitably - too late.

I never did find a market for these photos; this is the first time they've seen anything like publication.

Epic Soundtracks died in his sleep on November 6, 1997.

Rowland S. Howard died of liver cancer on December 30, 2009.

(UPDATE: Thanks to Hans at for giving me the exact date when I shot Rowland and his band.)


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


Lydia Lunch, Toronto, Jan. 26, 1988

BY THE TIME I PHOTOGRAPHED LYDIA LUNCH I had been carrying around my studio in a bag for several months. Lydia was a Nerve assignment, meant to accompany an interview done by my friend Tim, shot in a disused room in the Silver Dollar club that was the closest thing to a studio space I'd have at the time. Starting with the Lydia shoot, I'd end up producing a trilogy of portraits there that documented an ad hoc scene of sorts that stretched from Los Angeles to New York to Australia, loosely held together by creative and personal relationships radiating out from Lydia.

I don't know if I'd seen "Fingered" when I set up my backdrop and light in what was, I think, once a small bar next to the Silver Dollar's main room. I don't think I had, since I'd probably have some lingering, awkward memory of meeting someone who I'd previously seen getting fisted in a grimy little film made in a dubious squatter's camp in what was once the seedily glamourous valley between art house films and porn.

Lydia Lunch, Toronto, Jan. 26, 1988

Lydia's reputation, as ever, preceded her. She was supposed to be rude and confrontational and ready to make things unpleasant if she thought she was dealing with someone who thought they could underestimate or patronize her. Without "Fingered" resonating in my memory, I only knew her as the caterwauling singer on records by Teenage Jesus & The Jerks and 8-Eyed Spy, and from the weirdly ardent squirming she inspired in men in my circle.

It would be a few years before I'd hear Honeymoon in Red or Queen of Siam; perhaps if I had I'd have been able to actually talk to her during the shoot, instead of circling her warily with my camera, I might have drawn more from her than a series of sneers and glares only faintly veneered with a sultriness that wasn't seductive as much as it was tactical. A lot of people have ripped off Lydia's persona over the years, but only rarely is it ever noted that Madonna was one of them.

Lydia Lunch, Toronto, Jan. 26, 1988

By early 1988 I'd gotten pretty good with my single Metz flash bounced into a big umbrella. Placed at the right distance from the subject, it would blow out my white painter's drop cloth just enough to suggest high key studio lighting; with some careful dodging and high contrast filters in the darkroom, the effect was halfway to perfect. Scanned and run through Photoshop, I can make the illusion nearly work today.

I remember being pretty proud of the results of this shoot. The shot above would be in my portfolio for years, though I'm certain that most of the art directors and photo editors who saw it assumed that I'd presented them with a portrait of some random goth chick and not an originator of that whole look. It's a testament to the strength of Lydia's personality that she projected far more of herself into my shots than I was probably able to elicit from her.

Lydia Lunch still records and performs today, though recently she's been giving "post-catastrophe" workshops and retreats on empowering female creativity, and a couple of years ago she brought out something that looks suspiciously like a cookbook.

(UPDATE: Thanks to Hans at, I have learned that I shot Lydia on Jan. 26, 1988.)


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Trimmings: Easter

Cristo Blanco, Cusco, Peru, October 2003

THE STATUE OF CHRIST, ARMS OUTSTRETCHED, THAT STANDS OVER RIO DE JANEIRO is probably more famous than the shorter one that overlooks Cusco, just a short walk from the ruins at Sacsayhuaman. I had no idea it was there when my guide took me there on my third day in Peru.

The White Christ, or Christo Blanco, was a gift to Cusco, built by Palestinian Christian refugees in Peru in 1945 before they returned home after the war.

It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not. Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.

Friday, April 3, 2015


The Nils, Toronto, 1987

YOU PROBABLY NEVER HEARD OF THE NILS. I think that's a shame, because for at least a couple of years, they were probably the best band in Canada. Which might sound like faint praise, but in the context of the best music being made on the fringe of the mainstream music industry at the time, they were probably as good as anything else that was happening - anyone from Husker Du to the Replacements to R.E.M. to the Meat Puppets. They were that good.

But you've probably never heard of the Nils because they were probably the unluckiest band to come out of Canada in the '80s, and that's saying something. I have had a guilty, lingering feeling hanging off my shoot with the Nils for almost thirty years, mostly because I saw them crash and burn so badly and wished desperately that something I could have written or done might have changed their luck. Which is why, even today, I feel sad looking at these pictures.

I first encountered the Nils early in my career at Nerve, when Dave handed me Sell Out Young, their first EP, and asked if I'd write about it. I frankly didn't expect much; habitual Canadian self-deprecation set my expectations low, and the record was on a Montreal label that I associated with the sort of painfully arch kitsch or noisy bullshit that Torontonians like myself presumed came almost exclusively out of Montreal.

But I took it home and put it on and ended up writing a rave review that verged on hysteria. If that was the only thing they ever released they'd have been a hall of fame act in this country, but it wasn't. The thing is, there was no way you were ever going to hear what they did next.

Alex Soria, Lee's Palace, Toronto, 1987

I shot the band the same year they brought out their eponymous debut record on Rock Hotel, a subsidiary of Profile Records. They remembered my review a year earlier and thanked me profusely; we had a good interview despite an awkward start, I took some portraits of the band sitting on the fire escape behind Lee's Palace, then came back later that night to watch them do an incredible set. I took a roll or two of live photos, which I've never printed until today.

And then it all went wrong. Halfway through their tour of North America Profile went bankrupt and their tour support money disappeared. After a depressing drive back to Montreal, they discovered that they were tied up in a four year contract with the defunct label that stopped them from releasing any new music. Don't ask me how something like this can happen - it's the music industry; the only business more exploitative and legally dubious was outlawed in America after a civil war.

Carlos Soria, Lee's Palace, Toronto, 1987

Another band might have bounced back from this sort of blow, but the Nils had too many things going against them. They were from Canada, for one, and from a working class background that ensured there was no safety net or money for lawyers. Being anglophones in a francophone city probably didn't help either.

What it meant was four years of Joe jobs to pay off the debt they still owed a bankrupt label, few gigs, no touring, and no recording. The band effectively broke up when Carlos, the older brother of songwriter Alex Soria, took what money they had left and headed west. Alex formed Chino - basically the Nils Mk. II - and when their contract finally expired, put out a compilation of the early Nils EPs with unreleased and rare tracks.

Alex began playing with a reformed Nils early in the new millennium, but a lot of time had passed and obscurity is a close cousin to entropy, and nearly as hard to overcome. In early December of 2004 he walked in front of a train near his Montreal home. He was 38. For a small group of friends and fans, the news was devastating.

He might have despaired, but based on the Chino record and the two compilations that have ultimately filled in the Nils story, he never lost his ability to write great songs. At any point in their forced retirement and the long struggle back they could have put out records as fantastic as that first EP I loved so much. If they'd been a different band in a different place.

Apart from my rave review of Sell Out Young and the more than slightly self-indulgent interview with the band that ran in Nerve, I'd never write about the Nils again. They were just one of a half dozen Canadian bands that I ardently hoped would make it, and when it was obvious that - for a couple reasons that might have been their fault and a whole lot more that weren't - they never would, I guiltily looked away.

The Nils are touring and recording again with Carlos Soria leading the group, and I hope they can at least manage the sort of anxious and humble but steady living that a cult band traveling the post-major-label landscape can aspire to these days. But I know that they - and Alex Soria especially - deserved a whole lot better. If you don't believe me, just buy the records at the bottom of this post. And tell me you wouldn't prefer just one Nils to a dozen Brian Adams. Because Canada could have been a whole lot cooler.