Sunday, May 31, 2015

Who are they?


AT LEAST I KNOW WHERE I SHOT THIS. I'm reasonably certain these are actors - most of my mystery shoots were theatre assignments for NOW - but without names on the negative sleeve my memory can't be relied upon for a clue.

Definitely the ornamental gardens next to St. James, the Anglican cathedral near the old downtown. It's the mid- to late-'90s and it looks like fine weather - a day in early summer, much like the ones we're having now. Like most of my shoots with theatre people, my subjects were carefully placed in the frame, moved into place like mannequins in a doll house. In my memory they're less portraits than dioramas.


 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Richard

Richard Kern, Toronto, April 2,1988

THIS WAS THE LAST PHOTO SHOOT I DID FOR NERVE MAGAZINE. I posed Richard Kern in front of the cinema screen on the stage in the backroom at the Rivoli, placed my flash in an umbrella just behind my right shoulder and shot a couple of rolls with my Mamiya C330. My friend Tim had done the interview with Kern, just after a screening of his short films, including Fingered, which showed me more of Lydia Lunch than I was probably prepared to see at that point.

I was rather proud of the results. Even the slight blur - the result of opening the shutter long enough to let some of the ambient stage light bleed into the frame - was actually intentional this time, an effect I hoped would give an uneasy edge to a rather simple, formally composed shot. One of these frames was made into a halftone and laid out on the flats with Tim's story, but that issue of Nerve never hit the presses, and this is the first time anyone has seen these shots.

Kern was famous - infamous, probably - for a series of films starring luminaries of the American pre-grunge indie scene doing violent, often unspeakable things with each other. He was a favorite of bands like Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore, who either appeared in his films or used his photos on their record sleeves. Kern directed the video for Sonic Youth's "Death Valley '69."

He was, as far as I can tell, mostly an arty, conceptual pornographer. In the intervening years the arty and conceptual bits have mostly diminished and he's become a straight up pornographer that specializes in the sort of young women who can be cast out of any major city with a college or two and enough clubs to sustain a music scene. This has less to do with Kern changing what he does than pornography getting better at targeting its audiences, and that school of "sex-positive" feminism that's conditionally rehabilitated slightly arty porn.

Richard Kern, Toronto, April 2,1988

We were a morbid little subculture back in the '80s. The lionization of the cultural "dark shit" from the post-Beat era had lingered long enough to find avid fans in at least part of Generation X, and bookshelves I'd peruse at parties and band houses often contained the usual smattering of Burroughs, Selby and Jim Thompson novels, peppered with Harry Crews, J.G. Ballard and Kathy Acker for the more committed. (I would end up shooting portraits of four of these six writers.)

We liked to make a big show of believing the worst about authority figures, starting with Reagan and Thatcher and moving all the way down to priests, teachers, bus drivers and the local BIA. It was hardly a brave new roster of targets, but we loved to have it confirmed, and our favorite bands were happy to contribute to the theatrical cynicism.

Big Black's "Jordan, Minnesota" was about a small town where two dozen adults had been arrested as part of an organized ring of child abuse and murder - part of a rash of similar, wildly lurid cases of satanic child abuse networks in small towns and preschools that hit the headlines in the late '80s, the most famous of which was the McMartin Preschool case. They turned out to be almost wholly false - a classic example of a witch hunt encouraged by zealous prosecutors and an overeager media, but plea bargains led to convictions and innocent people served years, even decades, in jail despite their cases being revealed as hoaxes long ago.

I'm not sure if Steve Albini from Big Black has ever apologized for "Jordan, Minnesota," but there was something dismal and lazy about our assumption that these stories were true, mostly because they confirmed our worst - and most cherished - fantasies. In retrospect it made a lot of us seem a lot less intelligent - and certainly a lot more gullible - than we thought we were.

Richard Kern, Toronto, April 2, 1988

It would take a few years for this to become clear, and when I look back at the Nerve years, I wonder if my critical faculties might have been sharpened with something more like skepticism and less like mere cynicism. In any case, my time at Nerve - really barely three years - has come to contain the most vivid memories of being young. Which isn't to say that I was left more mature after the paper folded as much as Nerve provided me with a time, a place, the a group of people with whom I could make the sort of breakthroughs - and mistakes - that youth only lets you make once or twice.

I probably didn't know that Nerve was over when I took this shot. Dave carried around the flats for this issue of the paper for months, trying to get together the money to pay for the printers after he and Nancy had broken up and she'd moved on. Tim and I were proud of our work on the Kern piece, but by the summer of '88 we knew it would never come out, and I found myself without a venue or a place that let me learn so much, so fast. It was really like the college graduation I'd never had.

I have a few odds and ends from the Nerve years left to scan, but this is the effective end of my record of that period in my career. The next year or two would be a lot more insecure, as I had to step up as a freelancer, with an odd roster of clients like Graffiti, the Village Voice, Guitar World, the Financial Times and Toronto Life Fashion. At the end of it all was my first work for NOW magazine, the client that would dominate my career for nearly the whole of the '90s.

I was bitter about Nerve for quite a few years after it was over, mostly because it was my school and my soapbox and my first taste of an audience and a bit of local fame. I hate endings, and Nerve's rather abrupt end felt unfair. Now I feel nothing but gratitude for getting such a rare chance to develop what even I didn't imagine as a talent, in public, and with such an inspiring group of people. I wish every anxious young person with a camera could have their own Nerve, and I feel sorry for those who don't.


 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wire

Colin Newman, Wire, RPM Club, Toronto, June 17, 1987

ONE OF MY FAVORITE MEMORIES OF MY YEARS AT NERVE MAGAZINE was the June evening when Wire, recently reformed and touring with a new record, passed through town. As with any other band that interested me, I showed up during the soundcheck with my camera and some vague accreditation that bought me a few minutes with a bunch of tired, bored musicians halfway through a long day in the middle of a long tour.

That usually wouldn't be enough to make it a memorable day. Certainly the portraits I took of the band weren't enough, either; the frame below, shot with my Mamiya C330, certainly has very little to recommend it beyond a stark artlessness that's somewhat suitable to its subject. Not that Wire were artless - they were probably among the artiest of all of the second wave British punk and new wave bands - but they presented it with a bluntness that trumped pretension.

I can't help but regret that I didn't take just one more frame - one that would have caught guitarist Bruce Gilbert with his eyes open. I have 35mm shots from the same session around somewhere, but they seem to have gone missing.

Wire, Toronto, June 17, 1987

I'd been introduced to the band by Dave, who passed me a copy of 154 - presumed to be their last proper album - in my earliest days at the paper, just as I was leaving the office after dropping off some copy and photos. I took it home and taped it. It was a strange record - psychedelic, in an austere, anhedonic sort of way - with one standout, singable single, the insanely catchy "Map Ref 41°N 93°W." Wire were the sort of band who'd give their poppiest song an utterly gnomic title, and rock critics, especially the budding kind, love that sort of thing.

Then suddenly they were back, reformed with a new album and a tour. The new record, The Ideal Copy, was definitely a progression from 154, with even more electronics, sampling (then a very new thing) and a monolithic, beat-heavy sound. The lyrics were certainly up to Wire's old standard, with individual verses - "They're checking the traps for one of the chaps;" "I remember making the body search;" "When it's cold I feel cold, when it's hot I feel ambitious" - sticking out from some remarkably clubable songs.

Graham Lewis, Wire, RPM Club, Toronto, June 17, 1987
Robert Gotobed, Wire, RPM Club, Toronto, June 17, 1987

When the tour began the band announced that they would play none of their old material, but managed to find a Wire cover band called Ex-Lion Tamer to open for them, playing "hits" from the first three records. At RPM they hit the stage bathed in white light; when they were playing the lights turned on, when they stopped, they went out.

Best of all was drummer Robert Gotobed, whose kit consisted of a kick drum, a snare and a hi-hat; having stripped their rhythm tracks on the record down to a machine-like simplicity, Gotobed turned himself into a human drum machine onstage.

"I get it," Dave said to me as we stood watching the band. "It's a 'rock concert.' That's the 'drum kit.' There's a 'light show.'" He made air quotes for emphasis as he spoke - then a rather novel gesture. We were, I think, just getting used to our newfound role as a generation steeped in irony, and finding just how much ironic material we could mine out of what we saw every day was still rather exciting.

The blazing white stage lights made the band remarkably easy to shoot, and I ended up with live shots I liked far more than my portraits. It was only recently that I realized bassist Graham Lewis was wearing a stop watch like a bolo tie. I wish I had a decent shot of Bruce Gilbert, but he stuck to the shadows.

I think most of the Nerve staff were at the show that night - recipients of promoter Elliot Lefko's typically generous door policy - and the mood was notably jolly. It was probably the high point of the magazine's existence, though we couldn't have known it at the time.


   

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Don

Don Keele, Parkdale, 1986

EARLY ON AT NERVE MAGAZINE WE HAD A REGULAR FEATURE called "Local Hero," where writers were asked to pick someone who'd had a big influence on them - someone in the phone book, who could be visited on public transit. I chose Don Keele, who ran a collectible record shop called Don's Discs in Parkdale. I could confidently say that he was the reason my interest in music went from a lonely suburban kid's hobby to an obsession that would open up the world - and the past - for me.

Photograph 1988 by Patrick Cummins. The sign's still there but Don's moved out.

I photographed Don in what would be the last Don's Discs, in the main floor of an old two-story retail building near the corner of Queen St. West and Sorauren. This was just down the street from his previous store, and would be the last Don's Discs. I did a brief interview with Don and then took a photo of him sitting on the couch by the big front window, beneath a painting of a doo wop group.

The meat of my story was my recollection of the first time I ever met Don. It was the turn of the '80s and, shortly after "going punk," I'd found myself increasingly interested in older music - R&B and soul and rockabilly - and had come upon an ad for Don's store in a local music paper. So on a bright Saturday in autumn I made my way down to Don's first Parkdale store, at Queen and Lansdowne, and found it full of customers. I'd read somewhere that Elvis Presley's Sun sessions were the Holy Grail of rock and roll records - the moment where lightning struck and the world changed direction.

A collectible record store is different from the mall record outlets I was used to, and for a few minutes I wandered around in a daze, picking through the singles, reading the header cards and trying to familiarize myself with names I'd never heard of before. Don was hard to miss - he had his hair greased back and dressed like a DJ at a big city radio station in 1957.

He had the loudest voice in the room, and maintained running verbal battles with several customers at once, mocking them when they tried to bargain him down and alluding to records in their collections or anecdotes from their shared pasts. His wife, Linda, sat by the cash register rolling her eyes at this - I have no other word for it - performance.

At this point he noticed me in my cream '50s sport jacket with the black windowpane check - my prized vintage find from a thrift store out in the east end. "What are you looking for, my friend?" he barked at me, clearly picking up on my confusion. I'm guessing that my loud jacket prevented him from mistaking me for a potential shoplifter.

I told him I was looking for Elvis' Sun sessions, and in my mind I had an image of the black and yellow record labels I'd seen in a magazine; looking up on the wall I saw the label on a t-shirt displayed on a hangar, alongside several other shirts emblazoned with record labels I'd never seen before. "It's your lucky day, my friend," Don said, and reached into a bin with what seemed like a single lunge. He pulled out a 10" EP that collected eight of the two dozen tracks Presley made at Sam Phillips' Memphis studio, pressed by RCA France.

I still have it today:


Before I could take it from him he leapt over to the turntable in the corner of the store and whipped the little record out of its sleeve. He cued up the needle, put on "Milkcow Blues Boogie" and began playing along with Bill Black's standup bass in the middle of the store. His enthusiasm was obvious, if a little intimidating, and from my own perspective today - older now than Don was when he sold me the record - it's impressive that he still got such a jolt from a record that he must have heard, and sold, a thousand times by then.

I'd return to Don's store again, and even attended one of the record collector's conventions he put on in a hotel down by the lakeshore, where I got a full blast of the record collecting obsessives I'd end up spending much of my '20s, '30s and '40s amidst. He was always friendly, introducing me to dealers, trying to find me bargains, inviting me to sit at his table at the party and concert after the show, next to all these burly, hard-swearing dealers from all over Canada and the U.S., where I'd sit quietly trying to retain details of their stories and the names or musicians I'd never read about in Creem magazine.

Don also showed me a way to be an adult without being boring, which was a big deal at the time for me. I would find a few more of these role models - the artist parents of my best friend; another friend's slightly eccentric, very upper class English parents - but they were few and far between, and I was desperate to know that I could make my way past thirty with my enthusiasm and sense of humour intact.

A year after I wrote my Nerve tribute to Don I ended up moving into a loft apartment across the street from Don's Discs, but by then he and Linda had closed up shop and moved out of storefront retail. The address had been taken over by a cheque-cashing business, which is still there today:


I looked out at that storefront every day for over a decade, and often wished that Don's Discs was still there, as it would have given me a local hangout and an easy fix for my collecting habit, just steps from my front door. I still pass it almost every day as I walk my kids to their school in the morning - just after getting off the bus around the corner from the storefront where I first met Don, on my quest for Sun sessions, thirty-five years ago.

The spot where I took my portrait of Don doesn't look at all the same today:


Don is still in business, as is Linda and his son Aaron, finding and selling records for the obsessives and the collectors, though I wonder how easy it is for a curious kid with twenty bucks in their pocket to find their way to a friendly place in the world of music nuts and hoarders. I doubt that I would have found my own way there if it weren't for Don.


  

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Eugene & Chris

Eugene Chadbourne, Ildiko's, Toronto, 1986

EUGENE CHADBOURNE IS STANDING IN THE DRESSING ROOM at Ildiko's, a former Hungarian wedding hall that was briefly a grimy punk rock club before it became a pool hall. He's holding "The Rake," an instrument of his own devising that combined an electric guitar body with the tines of a garden rake instead of strings. It was usually pulled out at the climax of his shows and played with a plastic toy chainsaw.

I don't need to tell you that it made an awful racket.

One side effect with writing about music - at least in my case - was that your appetite for new sounds becomes ravenous. At Nerve, I began writing about hardcore and metal and ended up following the less polite offshoots of jazz and art music - the improvised and noise fringe that was actually thriving in the mid-to-late '80s. If it howled, skronked, fed back, made a din or sounded like a pallet of pipes falling down a staircase I wanted to hear it.

Thus Eugene Chadbourne.

Chadbourne is an American rock and roll kid who got warped by Beefheart and Zappa, draft-dodged in Canada for a while, then moved back to the States where he put together a synthesis of country, bluegrass, blues and free jazz behind a persona that roughly approximated what Weird Al Yankovic might have been like if his original inspiration had been Albert Ayler and not polka.

I shot Chadbourne for a Nerve article written by my friend Tim. I don't remember much about the shoot except that I wanted him holding the Rake, and that someone - Tim, probably - might have been holding my flash off to the right side of the frame while I focused with my Mamiya C330. The bit of light blur visible on the Rake is probably there because I'd accidentally hit the aperture lever near the shutter on the Mamiya - a design flaw I was only learning about since this was just the fifth or sixth roll I shot on my new medium format camera.

Chris Cutler, Ildiko's, Toronto, 1987

A few months later I was back in the dressing room at Ildiko's to shoot drummer Chris Cutler, who was passing through town playing with Les 4 Guitaristes de l'Apocalypso Bar, a Montreal improv group. Cutler was English, and made his name playing with Henry Cow, one of the free jazz-inspired groups who inhabited the lunatic fringe of the British prog rock scene along with bands like Gong and Soft Machine.

He'd also written a book - File Under Popular - that was much talked about but fantastically hard to procure, then or now. (In the almost three decades since I took this picture, I've only seen a copy in a store once, when I was too broke to afford it.) Nonetheless, book unread and with only a cursory knowledge of his work gleaned from a few records borrowed from Tim, I convinced Nerve to let me do an interview.

In the intervening months since I'd bought the Mamiya, I'd invested in a light stand and umbrella for my flash, and was just learning how to use a single light in portraits. For this shot I obviously placed it high in the corner of the dressing room at Ildiko's, which explains the only slightly softened lines in the shadow under Cutler's chin. At least I'd learned not to knock the aperture lever by then.

It's not a bad portrait, really, and at the time what would have impressed me most was how sharp it was - likely the effect of running my flash at full power. As I've written before, 1987 was my learning year, much of it occupied with doing just one or two things over and over until I got them right.

I don't remember much about the show or the interview, except that a copy survives, and I managed to bluff my way through it by working up three or four decent questions and letting Cutler expound with erudition at length. Another memory is how Cutler reduced his whole drum kit to just two pieces of luggage, with his toms nesting inside each other in one with the hardware neatly folded inside, and another containing the cymbals and the rest of the hardware.

I was much impressed as I watched him haul the two cases up with either hand and lug them down the stairs at Ildiko's to the street. It would be my inspiration for my own portable studio, and years of trying to boil down my portable gear to the smallest, lightest packet of kit.

Cutler would shortly play drums for Pere Ubu, a band I much esteemed, before continuing with a long career in free and improvised music. Lately he's been hosting a series of podcasts about musical history and theory for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona. I've been making my way through them for the last couple of week and they're very good.


   

Friday, May 22, 2015

Live: Coldplay

Chris Martin, Coldplay, Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Aug. 2, 2005

I CAN CONFIDENTLY SAY THAT I WOULD RATHER HAVE STAYED AT HOME the night I took these pictures. I was working for the free national daily at the time, and part of my duties as onetime-photo-editor-turned-senior-reporter involved shooting the big acts when they came through town and when - for some odd reason - my boss didn't want to use whatever the wire services might provide.

A year earlier I'd set up my rented lens on a monopod halfway down the Air Canada Centre mezzanine to shoot Madonna. This night I found myself in a photographer's pit closer to the stage, but just at the edge of what my 80-200mm zoom could deliver. I can't remember how many songs I had to work with - a vague memory says two - but I know that years of anxiety while shooting film in these circumstances had been replaced with a breezy confidence that my Canon DSLR would provide something workable.

Chris Martin, Coldplay, Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Aug. 2, 2005

It's easy to make fun of Coldplay as some anodyne music for the recently mortgaged - the Mumford & Sons of their day. And while Chris Martin's reputation for being a bit of a prat is likely an unfair legacy of his now-defunct marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow, he does favour the messianic rock star persona a bit more than I can stomach. That said "Clocks" is a lovely tune, and whenever I hear it I have fond memories of the first year in our apartment on MacDonell after my oldest daughter was born.

All of these shots are tight crops from larger images, and a testament to how much detail the paper's Canon could deliver, even at 1600 ISO. The metadata tells me that I was shooting at 1/100 of a second, and considering how sharp they are, I'll put money on a monopod being used that night. I might have been in the photographer's pit reluctantly, but at least my professional instincts were in order.

Chris Martin, Coldplay, Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Aug. 2, 2005

If I'm making this sound like a wholly technical exercise, you're right. There's not a lot of passion to be got from megavenue concert shooting, even though there's some vague reward that another photographer shooting inches away from me might not have gotten the same halo effect on their shot that I have on the frame above. In a situation like this, you have to live for this sliver of competition.

Nearly ten years old and, if I'm not mistaken, the last concert photos I ever took. That might change soon, though.


 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Karen

Karen Finley, Toronto, 1988

KAREN FINLEY WAS CONSIDERED A MARTYR FOR FREE EXPRESSION in the arts back in the '80s. And like most martyrs for this sort of thing she has the distinction of still being alive. Which makes you a funny sort of martyr, don't you think?

She might not be so famous today, but back in the '80s Karen Finley was known for all intents and purposes as the Lady Who Stuffs Canned Yams Up Her Ass. I photographed Finley twice; once in 1987 when she came to Toronto with her notorious showpiece and again a year later when she returned with a much tamer spoken word performance and Nerve decided to do a story on her.

The interview took place in the dressing room at the Copa, a tacky dance club near the trendy Yorkville shopping district. It was a strange venue for Finley's show, but I mostly remember showing up expecting at least one well-lit room in the place, only to discover that the whole club was filled with pot lights and spots. I'd neglected to bring any lighting, so I desperately walked around with my Sekonic light meter trying to find enough light somewhere.

I finally found it in a hallway where a line of pot lights were focused on a shiny wall. I had Finley lean into the wall and slowly rotate her face in the tiny pool of light while giving a few directions - "Look up." "Put your cheek against the wall." "Look at me."

Later my editor, Nancy, told me that Finley had described it all to her like a parody of a high fashion magazine shoot, with the photographer - me - making effusive, even campy, pleas and commands: "Beautiful, darling!" "Give me more!" "Work with me, baby!" Which scandalized me more than her show, to be honest; my working method has always been low key, almost wordless, and I didn't understand why Finley felt a need to tell such a fib, except perhaps she needed a better story to tell.

Despite it all, I ended up with one fairly decent - if difficult to print - frame, which I had in my portfolio for as long as Finley's A-section, above-the-fold fame lasted. It was shot on 35mm but I cropped it to look like it was done with a medium format camera, since I always regarded the bigger format as more inherently glamourous and the portrait, for no particular reason, was as close as I'd get to an old fashioned Hollywood glamour shot at the time.

Ah the hell with it. I know you want to see it so here it is: Karen Finley shoving canned yams up her ass.

Karen Finley, Toronto, 1987

Shot a year earlier at another club, the Diamond, when Finley was at the peak of her fame - or infamy, depending on how you saw it. Where we all stood around and tried not to look shocked or embarrassed and a few young men heckled, mostly because - just my theory - they had so few actual options for responding to this sort of thing without looking like prudes, so they opted for looking like rubes.

It took me a long time, but I finally decided I was against public funding of the arts precisely because of situations like this, where taxpayers (rightfully) decide they don't want their money used to pay for canned yams or crucifixes in urine or whip handles up assholes. This is, of course, not censorship; if artists feel the need to do this sort of thing they should be free and clear of the law, provided they understand that someone might be offended.

And I'm not sure how, exactly, the state might actually censor someone like Finley. There are already laws about where and when you can take off your clothes in public. They might ban canned yams, I suppose, but this is where things get silly.

Times change, of course. Back when I photographed Karen Finley the right sort of people thought it small-minded and terribly unhip that anyone would object to public money being spent on offensive art. Nowadays, however, the same people are outraged at offensive artwork being made without public money.

Being offended, of course, is simply free expression meeting free expression, and should in no way involve guns, knives or bombs. But there are already laws against that, so let's just say that the system has found an equitable way of dealing with this sort of thing a long time before anyone saw fit to express themselves with canned vegetables. All I know is that watching Karen Finley stuff canned yams up her ass made it easier for me to clarify my opinion about all of this, and for that she has my eternal gratitude.


   

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Live: Lollapalooza '92

Lollapalooza, Molson Park, Barrie, Aug. 5, 1992

I DON'T KNOW WHY I TOOK THESE PHOTOS. By the early '90s I knew that shooting live music wasn't any kind of thrill, but for some reason I went out of my way to get accredited, then took myself to the sun and dust of Molson Park when the second annual Lollapalooza passed through town.

I might have been responding to a sense of occasion and wanted to capture a bit of musical history. I might have looked at a big summer festival as a challenge. Or it might just have been that a group of local musicians had been booked to perform their version of Jesus Christ Superstar at the second stage tent, and at loose ends, I tagged along for the ride. I was still in my twenties and given to doing spontaneous things that I couldn't explain.

Thank God that wouldn't last long.

Pearl Jam, Lollapalooza, Molson Park, Barrie, Aug. 5, 1992

There's no doubt that this was a moment. One year after Nevermind and seven years before Napster, a generation-defining musical genre had crested and the record industry was in its last boomtime. I showed up in time to catch Lush, the opening act, and even though I liked them more than probably any other band on the main stage that day, the photos aren't anything special, so I didn't bother scanning any.

Pearl Jam were still evolving their unique persona - a synthesis of stadium bore and concern troll - but I already knew I didn't like them. It would be a year before I had that confirmed, though, and when Eddie Vedder stepped to the lip of the stage to survey the acre-wide mosh pit boiling away under the noontime sun, I was there with my wide lens.

Soundgarden, Lollapalooza, Molson Park, Barrie, Aug. 5, 1992

I liked Soundgarden. I'd shot them before in a dingy, low-cielinged club, standing right up against the stage, and while I stared up at Chris Cornell from the photo pit, I realized I'd been lucky; it might be a long time, probably never, before anyone would see them in that intimate setting again.

Perhaps it was this knowledge that widened the gulf between me and the surging crowd at my back. I was one of those old guys who'd be able to pull that anecdote out when a younger person talked about how great they sounded from 800 feet away. Even down in the pit my experience of the band was privileged, and I was sure I'd never see them again as a mere member of the audience.

Ice Cube, Lollapalooza, Molson Park, Barrie, Aug. 5, 1992

I'd done portraits of Ice Cube, so shooting him live just felt like filling out a card in a collector's deck. Even by the early '90s rap concerts were still largely hit-or-miss affairs, with a DJ spinning the record with only the slightest embellishments while the artist did a glorified karaoke over their own voice. Dynamics and pacing were usually an afterthought.

Ice Cube mostly stalked the edge of the stage, wandering out in front of the stage monitors, so I shot most of his show with my widest lens held over my head, pointed in his general direction while I fired bursts with the shutter. In the bright afternoon light, I knew I didn't have to worry about sharpness, and the camera took care of the focus. Since I doubt if I had a client in mind for these shots, the whole day was really just a lark.

Lollapalooza, Molson Park, Barrie, Aug. 5, 1992

I stopped shooting the bands - I have nothing on film of Ministry, the Jesus and Mary Chain or the Red Hot Chili Peppers - and turned my lens on the crowd, who were a much more interesting subject. The action in front of the stage looked brutal, but after several interventions by security, the crowd in the mosh pit, as ever, seemed to find some sort of loose compromise with each other and mostly did their mass impersonation of a snake pit in turmoil without any conspicuous injuries.

They certainly seemed happy when I turned my camera on them, and I have dozens of frames of beaming, mugging faces picked out in the churning mass of bodies.

They looked so young. I was only 28, but I could already feel my perception of myself as a fellow youth slipping away. A year earlier, when Nevermind was released and punk "broke," it felt like a vindication of sorts, a sign that the culture me and my friends had championed for most of the '80s had been acknowledged and accepted.

Two years later, when Kurt Cobain killed himself, I was thirty and under no illusion that the young people looking so dejected on the news were my peers. Which means that these photos of youth, lunging and convulsing in the brief certainty that injury was a minor consequence, were taken in the moment when I would realize I was no longer one of them.


   

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Nerve portraits: Bands

Gibby Haynes, Butthole Surfers, Toronto, Dec 8, 1987

THE WORST PART OF LEARNING ON THE JOB is that when things work, you're often at a loss to know why. I'm cleaning up the last of the Nerve work now, and these three shoots, running from roughly at the beginning to very near the end of my time at Nerve magazine, sum up the best and the worst parts of growing up, so to speak, in public.

My portraits of individual members of the Butthole Surfers, shot during their soundcheck for a gig at the cavernous RPM club in the docklands, were a notable success for me. Which would have been nicer if they'd actually been the result of a plan, but they weren't.

Jeffrey "King" Coffey, Butthole Surfers, Toronto, Dec. 8, 1987

My shoot with the Buttholes was very ad hoc - I desperately wanted to get a photo of the band, but knew ahead of time that they weren't uncooperative or difficult as much as they regarded photo shoots as just another way of cementing their reputation for anarchic, batshit behaviour. I set up my single light in a corner of the room and tried to corral them together for a group shot, which invited the sort of mugging and gurning I expected.

But after we finished I tried to salvage the shoot by asking them to troop in front of the camera one by one. I couldn't do another set-up, so I had just enough time to do a quick light reading just a couple of feet away from my flash and umbrella. They trooped through and stood still just long enough for me to get two frames of each of them.

Butthole Surfers, RPM Club, Toronto, Dec. 8, 1987

I was sure that I'd walked away with nothing much, but when the contact sheet hit the developer a day later, I was surprised at how striking these rapid-fire portraits were. What I learned at that moment is how a single light, diffused or bounced, produces an even more flattering or dramatic when placed right next to the subject - a Rembrandt kind of light. I suppose a teacher in a portrait course could have told me that but I was, as I said, on my own.

We loved the Butthole Surfers at Nerve. The drugs might have helped, but the combination of potty humour, noise and malevolent psychedelia was practically tailored for our little group of critics and photographers. They're technically still a going concern, though they haven't put out a record in nearly fifteen years. Drummer Jeffrey "King" Coffey's front garden was voted "yard of the month" in his local Austin community paper last year.

Bob Mould, Husker Du, Columbia University, NYC, Feb. 6, 1986

At the beginning of my career at Nerve, I wasn't learning lessons about lighting as much as I was fighting with my camera to get something printable. I had no time to worry about influences or lighting schemes; it was enough just hoping that I had the right lens and that there was enough light in whatever room I shared with my subject to get something sharp and detailed on the film.

In the fall of 1985 I'd flown to New York to visit a girl. A few months later I went back, ignoring my instincts, desperate for something like a girlfriend. Husker Du were playing two gigs back to back at Columbia University and Irving Plaza while I was there, with Soul Asylum opening both shows. I was able to arrange an interview backstage through their new label, Warner Bros., and brought along the girl.

Grant Hart, Husker Du, Columbia University, NYC, Feb. 6, 1986

Things were going badly. Whatever chemistry I'd had with the girl had evaporated, and I could tell that the same thing was likely going on with my favorite band. Bob Mould and Grant Hart circled each other warily in the big room backstage at Columbia while bassist Greg Norton absented himself completely.

I put on a long lens and caught several pensive frames of Mould and Hart, which turned out to be far more representative of the band at the time than the awkwardly posed shots I caught of them together. The new record (Candy Apple Grey) was a bit disappointing, and the one after that (Warehouse: Songs and Stories) would be even worse. The band broke up not long after that, but the girl gave me my walking papers on my last day in New York.

Die Kreuzen, Silver Dollar, Toronto, Jan. 15, 1988

In the last months of Nerve's existence, an impromptu roadshow of bands on the Touch & Go label passed through town, playing the Silver Dollar club. T&G was the sort of label that would become legendary a few years later as the home of a dozen very disparate bands that would, in hindsight, be dubbed proto-grunge. They were, at the time, the sorts of bands that we loved at Nerve - loud and weird and wholly unlikely to end up on WEA or Polygram.

My favorite at the time was Die Kreuzen, a Wisconsin band whose October File LP - taped from my friend Tim's copy - was one of my favorite records. They played a soaring, sharp-elbowed kind of take on heavy metal that the music snob in me was far more likely to embrace than the appalling hair metal on the charts. I have revised my opinion on a lot of things I believed then, but I have not changed my position on this at all.

Killdozer, Silver Dollar, Toronto, Jan. 15, 1988

I set up my studio-in-a-bag - the Metz flash, light stand, umbrella bounce and white painter's drop cloth - in a corner of the club's big downstairs room. As each band finished their soundcheck I invited them to stand between the light and the backdrop for about half a roll of film. The results - at the time and now - were disappointing.

My backdrop had, by this point, become a wrinkly mess from living in its bag. It wasn't such a problem when I shot a portrait with one or two people, where I could use a longer lens and put some distance between them and the drop cloth, where the wrinkles would be out of focus and some judicious dodging in the darkroom could make the background look almost like a studio seamless.

But in a cramped space with a wide angle lens the effect was far less polished. Of the three bands I shot that afternoon only the Killdozer shots look halfway worth the effort, which is ironic since they're the band I find least interesting - now or then. A trick of the light and the band's own wry persona - they were more a joke band than anyone else on T&G - has some humour and personality, while the other two bands are reduced to merely glaring, leering, or passively staring down my lens.

A better photographer might have overcome these obstacles. I wasn't that photographer at this moment, and these shots are little artifacts of me bumping my head against the ceiling of my technical and stylistic shortcomings.

Laughing Hyenas, Silver Dollar, Toronto, Jan. 15, 1988

Years later, Michigan's Laughing Hyenas are the group I still enjoy hearing. Treating the blues much the way Die Kreuzen mutated heavy metal, they had the benefit of a front man (John Brannon) whose intensity was undeniable as he howled and bellowed out the group's hard luck stories. Guitarist Larissa Strickland was also an unsung hero in a scene both full of interesting guitar stylists and groups destined to toil in cult status obscurity.

A few years later grunge would be a kind of vindication of the musical tastes Nerve's staffers tried to foist on the world, unsuccessfully, as people like Kurt Cobain would name check all the bands and labels we promoted at Nerve. I'm a bitter old codger now, and so whenever I hear someone describe some pewling, overproduced outfit of tantruming milk babies as "monstrous" or "intense," I hit the shuffle button in my mind and call up Laughing Hyena tracks like "That Girl," "Just Can't Win" or "Let It Burn" and wonder that anyone could say something so stupid. Yes, I'm that kind of sour old punk.

I just wish I'd taken better pictures of them.

Larissa Strickland died of a drug overdose in 2006.


   
 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Live: Borbetomagus

Borbetomagus, The Music Gallery, Toronto, 1989

WHEN I POSTED MY LAST WEEK OF LIVE MUSIC PHOTOGRAPHY, I noted that I didn't enjoy shooting bands in concert. I have a lot of this stuff, though, and it seemed appropriate somehow that I find a way to share my pain with you. And so we have Borbetomagus, the avant garde jazz noise trio, playing at the Music Gallery as the '80s drew to a close

My years at Nerve had left me with a condition that my friend Alan Zweig has called "neophilia" - an insatiable appetite for new music. Years pursuing ever louder and faster sounds had pushed my taste into the realm of what might charitably be called "ungodly noise," and it was with Borbetomagus that I pushed out to the furthest edge of that proclivity.

The band had formed a decade earlier, but it was Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth who had lately drawn them to the attention of record geeks and music perverts, which is probably one reason why they showed up in Toronto, playing at the Music Gallery, which was then in what was once the basement swimming pool of a Victorian YMCA building.

My friend and musical magus Tim Powis browbeat me into going, and for some reason I brought along a camera and plenty of film, though I can't imagine who I thought would buy the pictures. Which makes this shoot a true rarity - a live music shoot I did purely for fun.

Borbetomagus, The Music Gallery, Toronto, 1989

"Fun" is, of course, a subjective term. Most people wouldn't consider an evening spent with Borbetomagus much fun, but rather a kind of weaponized harrowing. And for the first five or ten minutes of their show, I might have thought the same.

The band's sound is simple enough; while guitarist Donald Miller attacked his instrument with various tools arrayed on a piano bench in front of him, saxophonists Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich chose from among their array of horns to blow a cacophony of sounds ranging from guttural to piercing. Their big showpiece, however, was something known as "bells together," which involved holding the bells of their instruments an inch or two apart to use each other's horns as resonators.

At the Music Hall show, all three of them were plugged into a single big speaker cabinet in the centre of the stage, which must have been an exceptionally fine one since it could handle the freight train of sound they were forcing through it and fill the room without adding harshness or distortion beyond what the musicians were producing at the source.

Borbetomagus, The Music Gallery, Toronto, 1989

What started as an assault began, as the minutes passed, to turn into something awesome in the strictest meaning of the word; a huge, breathing monolith of sound that - through some acoustic principle I'm not quite able to understand - used the room to produce extra harmonies that you could feel in your bones. As I moved around the group with my camera, you could feel it change in tone and intensity in different parts of the hall.

It remains, in my memory, one of the most indelible concert experiences I've ever witnessed - up there with Fela Kuti or Tackhead or Husker Du or the P-Funk All-Stars. I'm not sure my photos do it justice, but I've always cherished them as a document, though this the first time anyone has ever seen them. Another memory is that no one - neither the audience or the band - took any notice of me as I wandered the periphery of the stage shooting three rolls; it was as if everyone, onstage or off, was completely transfixed with the effort required to will that extra dimension of sound into the air.

I can't promise a recording will do justice to the experience, but see what you think - and don't say I didn't warn you.




 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Trimmings: Hands


THIS SERIES OF PHOTOS BEGAN WITH THE FACT THAT a regular roll of 35mm film has at least one or two more frames than fit comfortably into a standard negative storage sheet. For years that meant that, as a stingy young photographer, I'd save the extra, trimmed-off frames. After several years I became more relaxed with the penny-pinching, and would try to waste the first frame of every roll by taking a photo of my hand, held in front of my lens, to check that the auto focus was working.

The result was hundreds of photos of my left hand, either blurred or sharp, with perhaps a glimpse of grass or sidewalk or a corner of a hotel room behind it. I threw out most of them as I'd cut up rolls for sleeving, but near the end of the analog era, when I began letting photo lags process my negatives, I'd end up with a 4x6 machine print of my hand at the front of every set of proof prints.


This is a selection of just three of those proof prints, taken around a decade ago, with either my trusty Canon EOS Elan or the Elan 7e that replaced it. They're pictures of my hand, of course, but they're also relics from the last moments of film. It's not worth pointing out that I no longer take pictures of my hand.


It was actually part of a ritual: Squat down in front of the camera bag, unzip it, pull out the camera and mount the lens I thought I'd need; power up the camera, take off the lens cap, then hold my hand out and point the lens at it before squeezing off a quick frame. A precise sequence of actions that commenced every shoot I did for years.

You'll have to believe me that abandoning that ritual has made most of the work I've done since then feel less like a professional task and more ad hoc; more a hobby than a job. Which is probably true enough.

Because I'd usually hold my hand closer to the lens than the nearest focal distance, I'd hear the tiny servo motor in the autofocus lens rack in and out a couple of times, trying to find focus, before I'd press the shutter. It was like I was teasing the camera, frustrating it before letting the little machine I trusted so intimately do its job.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mom

Agnes McGinnis née Murphy, Mount Dennis, early '40s

MY MOM LOVED BING CROSBY. Sure there might have been other singers, but for her it would always be Bing. When I was learning about jazz - thanks to a Benny Goodman sextet record I used to hear in a vintage clothing store - I asked her what she thought about Billie Holiday. She didn't like her, she told me. She had a lisp.

My mother and father were nearly sixty when they adopted me, so I never knew the woman in this photo, taken twenty years before, probably by my cousin Terry, the family photographer. She was stylish; she liked her clothes. She also liked dancing, and was a regular at places like the Maple Leaf and the Palais Royale, apparently. I would have liked to have met this woman.

Agnes and Marty McGinnis, Mount Dennis, 1946

I love this photo. It's from the trove of negatives I've been slowly scanning for the last few months. Judging from the expression in her eyes it was taken by my father, and like the photo at the top - and so many others - it was taken in the backyard of the house on Grandville. My brother still makes that face today.

My mother was nearly a senior citizen by the time my first real memories begin, so I never knew this woman - the young mother in her late thirties, newly married and finally starting the family that she and her husband had put off for years while they took care of their own ailing mothers. It's such a happy scene, and her pride in her baby and her husband radiates from the picture.

Agnes McGinnis, Mississauga, Christmas 1985

My own mother was ailing for most of my life - a misdiagnosed ailment that, in the end, was probably ALS. This was taken at my sister's house, on the second last Christmas she'd live to see, just a few months after I bought my first camera. A year later she'd be unable to leave her nursing home, and we'd drive from Caledon to visit her there. She was wrapped up in blankets on the couch in her room and barely spoke. A few weeks later she was gone.

I have a lot of regret, still, when I remember my mother. I wish I had been able to cope with the illness that gradually sapped her strength for years. I wish I had been a bit older, and able to see past my own chaotic life. I wish I'd had a chance to see her as the young, energetic woman in the old photos I've been scanning. She has a granddaughter now who carries her name. It was the least I could do.


 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Bruce

Bruce Weber, Toronto, Sept. 1987

IT TOOK SOME WORK TO GET A SHOOT WITH BRUCE WEBER. The photographer was in the first major flush of fame, and had arrived at the film festival with a movie, Broken Noses, about a young boxer named Andy Minsker. Access was tight but I summoned up whatever youthful charm and persistence I had at 23 and persuaded a publicist to give me a few minutes.

I had no interest in producing the same sort of high-styled beefcake photographyWeber was producing in his advertising campaigns, but I responded to the retro element in his work strongly enough for me to have something to talk to him about for about as long as it took for me to get a few minutes of interview on tape and a handful of decent portraits.

I don't remember a lot about the shoot except for the entourage of attractive young people who filled Weber's suite and followed him around at the festival - a group that included Minsker, future Tim Burton muse Lisa Marie and (I think) Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Bruce Weber, Toronto, Sept. 1987

At 23 I was dazzled by the fact that there was such a thing as a superstar photographer, and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't hope that it might be possible to have a fraction of this sort of success. In my cockroach-plagued bachelor apartment near Boystown with the darkroom I'd set up on a bunch of garbage bags on my desk, a photographer like Weber looked to be having the career I wanted.

I wasn't big on the shirtless dudes, but after seeing Broken Noses I jumped at the chance to shoot boxers, if only to measure myself up against Weber's work. Just a couple of years after buying my first camera, everything I did was about serving an apprenticeship, and if I wasn't doing that in a school, I could try to learn a few things through simple imitation.

Bruce Weber, Toronto, Sept. 1987

He might have scowled for most of my roll or two of film, but the shot above is a lot more like Weber actually was - surprisingly friendly and gracious. After running the gauntlet of reluctant publicists, when I actually made it into Weber's suite I was enthusiastically met by Weber and his wife, agent and collaborator, Nan Bush, who treated me with a solicitude and dignity that surprised a kid with his cameras stuffed into a bag with a broken zipper who tended to break into a cold sweat while trying to find some decent light.

A year later his film on Chet Baker, Let's Get Lost, helped turn me into a jazz fan, so in addition to the kind treatment, I can thank him for that.