Monday, June 29, 2015

Who are they?

PART OF A TRIPTYCH OF A LOCAL BAND, shot for NOW magazine some time in the mid-to-late '90s. The band's name, alas, lost to time. A timeless look, really, and one that a band with a suitable sound - anything from sloppy '70s hard rock to retread punk to cock rock metal with a blues overlay - could slip into like an old slipper.

While there's a point before which you probably couldn't find a band that looked like this (1976, perhaps, if you weren't called The Stooges,) it's a sure thing that in some town, in every year subsequent to that you'd find some band sporting a variation of this look. In some years - 1978, 1987, 1992 - you would likely find dozens, even hundreds.

Some bands presented themselves to my camera at NOW with a blandness or halfhearted generic attitude that made the shoot work, which usually meant putting them in shadow or out of focus, or buried in some larger landscape. A band like this, however, did most of the work for me, and all I needed to do was find a suitably flat band of light and background to let them pose.

They had their image in hand, even if it was a bit identikit in style, but no one casting an eye over the page with the purpose of looking for something to see that night would be much mistaken about what a band that looked like this had on offer.

(UPDATE: My friend Brian Taylor tells me that this was The Sinisters, a glam-punk outfit that kicked around the city for several years. Sure enough, the Big Ledger tells me I shot them in October of 1997 for NOW.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Ornette Coleman, Diamond Club, Toronto, July 1988

ORNETTE COLEMAN HAD THE STATUS OF A LIVING LEGEND around the time I was getting into jazz. There were plenty of legendary jazz musicians still performing and recording by the late '80s - I had photographed Dizzy Gillespie just a few months before Coleman came to Toronto, and would have a frustratingly brief chance to shoot Miles Davis at Massey Hall a couple of years later.

But Ornette was considered more elusive; a more difficult, experimental artist, rarely seen outside European festivals and more generally recorded by this point on obscure labels. In 1988, though, he'd suddenly been signed to Portrait, a subsidiary of CBS, and was on tour with a new record, Virgin Beauty - his first on a major label in twelve years.

Which was probably why, when a date was finally announced, access was so carefully controlled. Even getting an advance copy of the record seemed a matter of strictest security and publicist scrutiny. (Which is strange - considering how small sales of any Ornette record, or jazz records in general were, you'd think the PR people would be doing their best to create some sort of buzz.)

When Ornette finally arrived I managed to get a photo pass but was told in no uncertain terms that any sort of portrait shoot, no matter how brief or ad hoc, would be impossible. It was terribly unlike the way I was able to approach almost any jazz musician passing through town and get at least a couple of minutes of their time in a corner of a club or in a (relatively) bright corner of a dressing room.

Ornette Coleman, Diamond Club, Toronto, July 1988

Ornette put a fairly large band on the dim stage of the Diamond Club, including a tabla player and his son, Denardo, on drums. I brought both colour and black and white film and scurried about at the apron of the stage trying to get a decent shot. I was far less successful with the colour film, which I thought was a shame since Ornette was wearing one of his trademark "suits of many colours," and I was simply unable to capture it.

Virgin Beauty was an odd record, but you could have said that about many of Ornette's albums. The electronic drums pin it firmly to the '80s, and Jerry Garcia's guitar contributions had a feel of "Hey, look who showed up - pull up a chair!" I was curious to see how his whole concept of Harmolodics - explained countless ways, though never to any particular satisfacion - would play out live.

Joe Zawinul's description of it as "nobody solos, everybody solos" ended up being as good a description as any that night. My good friend and "jazz mentor" Tim Powis had made me a mixed tape of Ornette "essentials" in preparation for the show, but in the end I remained as baffled as before.

Ornette Coleman, Diamond Club, Toronto, July 1988

Technically, the best shot I'd end up of Ornette playing had him with his trumpet instead of his signature alto sax. At the time - and I'm not sure this opinion has shifted much since then - his trumpet playing was esteemed only in comparison to his violin playing.

Of all the jazz "greats" - Armstrong, Miles, Coltrane, Dizzy, Basie, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans - Ornette was always the most stubborn nut to crack, and that night at the Diamond club did little to help me figure him out. I am still trying, to this day.

Ornette Coleman died of a heart attack on June 11.


Sunday, June 21, 2015


William McGinnis, High Park, Toronto, 1967

THIS IS MY FAVORITE PHOTO OF MY FATHER, WILLIAM MCGINNIS. It was taken on what looks like a fine summer day in High Park, the place of refuge for our very West End family. He is 60 years old. I have tried to find this spot in the park for years now, and while trees have grown and the layout has been changed, I will continue looking.

He would have a year left to live. My memories of my father are scant; I can only barely remember the faintest trace of this day. My most vivid is waiting by the big picture window in the living room on Gray Avenue for him to come home from work, sitting on the couch next to him, watching Looney Tunes on the big black and white TV. It is one of my happiest memories.

William McGinnis and Agnes Murphy, Toronto, 1943(?)

William McGinnis was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland and emigrated to Canada with his family near the beginning of World War One. His father, Robert, died not long after they arrived, and he and his brothers would leave school early to help support their family. His teens and twenties are a record of manual labour and factory work in Toronto's industrial West End: butcher's assistant, Canadian Cycle & Motor, Willys-Overland.

My father got a job at Supertest, where he would stay for the rest of his life, working his way up into white-collar middle management, thanks - or so the family legend goes - to a mathematical formula he worked out to estimate the amount of gas stored in tanks at service stations and depots all across the country.

I don't know when he met my mother, but they were an item when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in December of 1940, and it was on leave in November of 1943 that they got married at Our Lady of Victory in Mount Dennis - a church his father-in-law had helped build.

He lost an eye working on an airplane engine and had the first of a series of heart attacks while in service, but both times he refused an honorary discharge. He spent most of the war with the 168 Heavy Transport Squadron - the "Flying Postmen" - based in Rockcliffe, Ont., and was a Flight Sergeant when it was disbanded and he was discharged in October of 1945. He returned to Supertest and my mother, who gave birth to my brother, Marty, in December of 1945.

William and Marty McGinnis, Mount Dennis, Toronto, 1946

Here he is, demobbed and a new parent, in the backyard behind the house on Grandville. I have quite a few photos of Bill and Agnes and their new family, and they radiate with the optimism and prosperity of the post-war years.

Agnes, Mary and William McGinnis, Mount Dennis, Toronto, Christmas 1952

My sister Mary was born in 1952, around the time they bought their first home, at the corner of Gray and Outlook. This is the big picture window from my memory, where I waited for him to come home.

He was, as they inevitably describe such men, a "pillar of the community." He helped found the credit union and fundraised to build a new church. He bowled on a team.

Dad and me, High Park, Toronto, 1967

This is the only photo I have with just Dad and me. My sister and mother are sitting on the picnic blanket behind my cousin Terry, who took this picture. The bags hanging in the trees are keeping the food safe from ants. I remember being very fond of that blow-up dolphin, though what I was doing with a pool toy baffles me - we didn't have a pool and I have never learned to swim.

The book my father is reading is Dear and Glorious Physician, a Taylor Caldwell novel about Saint Luke. Caldwell was once a famous, bestselling novelist, but no one reads her much these days. I ordered a copy a week or two ago; I'm going to try and read it this summer, perhaps at a picnic in High Park.

My father died in his sleep on a May morning in 1968. I have no memory of that day, or of the weeks and months on either side of it. I would miss him bitterly, and still miss him today. Like most boys who lose their fathers early, I was desperate for a father figure; my brother and brother-in-law would be pressed into service, though I'm sure neither of them were prepared for the role at that point in their lives.

I think about Bill McGinnis all the time, and since becoming a father often wonder what he would do, and hope that he would approve.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


USF2000 race, Honda Indy, Toronto, June 12, 2015

I LOVE CARS ALMOST AS MUCH AS I LOVE PHOTOGRAPHY. Which is why the auto show and the annual IndyCar weekend here in Toronto are probably the highlights of my year, the way the film festival once was. The Honda Indy rolled through town this weekend, a month earlier than usual, and for the fourth year I was able to snag accreditation and spend three days in the sun and rain with my cameras, stalking the edge of the track with my earplugs.

It's mostly a technical challenge, about capturing action and framing shots on the fly, trying to get some sense of the speed, the weather and the human element tucked somewhere inside the machines. Learning to shoot motorsport presented a steep learning curve, but this was the first year when I felt I could get up to speed fast and reach a plateau of competence, and maybe set myself a further technical challenge.

IndyCar race, Honda Indy, Toronto, June 12, 2015

The challenge I set myself this year was "car panning" - those shots that inevitably get run on double truck spreads and posters, where the car is relatively sharp and centred and the background and foreground are a horizontal blur. It's a motorsport photography cliche, but I wanted to see if I could pull it off this year.

The challenge at the Toronto Indy circuit is that there are no long unobstructed straights where you're level with the cars as they speed past. The closest you get is the front start/finish straight running down to the Princes Gates, which is planted with a line of trees. As you pan your camera, trying to hold the car stationary in the middle of the frame, you hope that one of the shots in the high speed burst you're firing will catch the car between the trees and the poles of the catch fence.

This shot isn't perfect, but it's as good as the circumstances allow, and I'm pretty pleased with it considering; it'll be nice, one day, to find myself in an ideal spot, on a track with a clear view of a straight. One day, maybe.

I set myself another challenge this year - an Instagram series shot with my new X-30, provisionally titled "Behind the Fence" and featuring the sorts of things you see when you have an all access pass and a photo vest.

Call it street photography, where the street is one where the cars can hit 200mph and occasionally flip over or hit each other. It's also the sort of place where there are literally dozens of professionals and hundreds of amateurs walking around with cameras; it's an environment where almost anyone expects to be in someone's frame at some point, which makes them relaxed in a way the average pedestrians aren't anymore.

I set the X-30 to work as a compact Rolleiflex, with a 1:1 frame and the sensor set to either ape black and white film with a yellow filter or nice, bright Velviachrome. It let me work much more in my comfort zone as a photographer, which kept my shooting morale up while I worried about what my DSLR was capturing all weekend.

It also let me dip a toe into Instagram as a publishing and promotion platform - one that (so I'm told) is where you'll find the kids who source and buy photos for magazines, books and websites. My Instagram feed is here, if you're curious, and the series can be found by searching it using the hashtags #indyTO, #behindthefence and #indycar. Let's see what happens with this sort of thing, shall we?


Monday, June 15, 2015

Trimmings: Nursery

Couch and pillows, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2003

I DON'T HAVE TO GUESS WHAT - OR WHERE - THIS IS. Probably taken sometime in the summer of 2003, after we'd vacated what had been our bedroom in the apartment on Macdonell and set up a nursery for Agnes. We moved down to what had been the living room for three years, which wasn't ideal, but we hadn't planned on becoming parents when we first moved into the place - or at least I hadn't.

This is the old couch from my loft, bought out of a warehouse storage space from an antiques dealer from whom I was buying an old RCA Victor TV. (Don't ask why.) On the couch: An assortment of my wife's pillows, part of Aggie's bouncy chair, a puppy-shaped pillow that I think we'd bought on a whim, and Comfort Bear, the pink-and-blue stuffed bear with whom my daughter still shares her bed. And what looks like a crumpled Kleenex. There would be a lot of those.

The baby who occupied this room turned twelve yesterday. Time passes quickly.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, 2015

I KNOW THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE A BLOG ABOUT MY OLD PHOTOS, but I am - at least inasmuch as I need to imagine myself as such - still a working photographer. And I know I like to complain a lot about shooting live music, which probably was about the miseries of photo pens and three-song limits and having to photograph bands I don't like. Which is why I forced myself out of the house last night, camera in hand, to see if I could rise to the challenge of shooting a band I do like.

I've written about Jon Spencer and his bands before. What I haven't written about yet is how one of those old photos of Jon and the Blues Explosion ended up on the back of their latest record. So when the JSBX announced that their tour was passing through town, I decided to make the evening a challenge: take your new camera and leave the club with at least one decent shot.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Lee's Palace, Toronto, June 10, 2015

I don't remember how long it's been since I squeezed up against the front of the stage at Lee's Palace. The photos of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the same stage that I posted earlier this week are almost thirty years old, so I have a vague idea when I first took my place, looked over the stage monitors and wondered that anyone can get a decent photo in such dim light.

There were at least a half dozen other photographers there, and we all got to work when Jon, Judah and Russell took the stage and started a breakneck set. Not long afterward I noticed that a couple of them were gesturing to each other with confused looks; one of them caught my eye then held up three fingers. It took a moment for me to realize that he was asking if three songs had already been played, and whether they had to leave.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Lee's Palace, Toronto, June 10, 2015

Let's be clear about it: I wouldn't have bothered bringing my camera along last night if I only had three songs to work with. I guessed that Jon didn't do that sort of bullshit, and I was right - security wasn't enforcing any photo restrictions and we were free to shoot like it was 1985. But I couldn't help but wonder about the young photographers holding up their three fingers and thought to myself: You poor fuckers - they really have you trained, don't they?

The band were great - fantastically tight, playing without a set list. In my mind they're still "Jon's new band," but I have to remind myself that the JSBX has been around for over twenty years. I shot for about half the set, but since my little Fuji X-30 is still new to me, I couldn't find the preview button in the dark, so it was like I was shooting with film, unable to take a look at what I'd shot until the show was over.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Lee's Palace, Toronto, June 10, 2015

After a quick glance through the images, I turned to my old friend Tim and said that we should say goodnight to Jon before we headed home. He was standing by the merch table, and unexpectedly said that we should try to take a band photo for old time's sake. Back in the dressing room I reintroduced myself to Judah and Russell after twenty years and scanned the tiny room for a good spot. I glimpsed the band's stars and stripes backdrop through a window looking onto the stage and said that was as good a spot as any.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Lee's Palace, Toronto, June 10, 2015

I shot ten frames of the Blues Explosion out on the stage with the X30 set to a square frame - less than a single roll of 120 film in my old Rolleiflex. The light was harsh and the camera set to a high ISO but I was sure as thirty years of experience would let me that I'd have something worthwhile. It was rushed and improvised but not bad, considering the circumstances.

I'd set out to shoot a great band and get one good live photo. I came home with a half dozen decent concert shots and a portrait. As evenings go, it made a good case for leaving the house.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Live: Staple Singers, 1989

Staple Singers, Harbourfront, Toronto, August 1989


Like most people my age, I discovered the Staple Singers through "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There," big hits back when AM radio was interesting and crossover singles by a family gospel group had a chance of competing with T. Rex, David Bowie, Elton John, Carly Simon and America. I rediscovered them a few years later when the songs were included on some Stax/Volt compilations I picked up in the cut-out bins during my big high school infatuation with soul.

The client was NOW magazine and the venue was the lakeside open air stage at Harbourfront, which at that point carried the name of a tobacco company. The Staples might have been playing as part of WOMAD, which was my big once a year chance to feed my musical neophilia, though in this case I had a chance to see a group whose long history I'd only learned about through liner notes, and whose deep back catalogue of gospel recordings I still hadn't really explored yet.

Mavis Staples, Staple Singers, Harbourfront, Toronto, August 1989

It had been five years since Turning Point, the album that featured their cover of "Slippery People" by Talking Heads, and their last chart hit. Their last album as a group would be released a year later, though the Staples were probably back on the road touring under the buzz generated by Time Waits For No One, the first of two albums Mavis Staples would record with Prince.

With some acts you have to work hard to give some impression of their personality as performers. With too many you end up with endless frames of brow-furrowing concentration with their guitar neck or keyboard, and a face partially obscured by a microphone. With others, like Mavis Staples, you really just have to keep your camera focused and framed around them as they do the thing they were born to do.

The best time to see Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers was probably at a church in Chicago in the late '50s, on the chitlin circuit in the '60s or on tour in the early '70s, with a band drawn from the Stax and Muscle Shoals network of musicians. I was too young to have done any of that, but seeing the band on an August night next to a marina full of boats more than compensated. 

Roebuck "Pops" Staples, Harbourfront, Toronto, August 1989

I had fallen in love with Pops Staples' guitar sound, all neck pickup and tremolo, back when my curiosity about the group led me to their recording of "Uncloudy Day" several years earlier. He mostly stuck to the shadows at Harbourfront that night, but I took out my flash for one of the three rolls I shot and managed to get one half decent shot of him, pensively eyeing his instrument. I don't think anyone else could make a leisure suit look that good.

Mavis Staples is still touring and recording. Pops Staples died on Dec. 19, 2000.


Monday, June 8, 2015

Live: Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1986

Flea, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lee's Palace, Toronto, Dec. 3, 1986

I HAVE OFTEN WONDERED IF THE EMBRACE OF FUNK BY PUNK BANDS in the '80s was as much a matter of demographic survival as a mere musical trend. By the time third generation punk rock turned into hardcore and began policing itself with movements like Straight Edge, the sarcastic rejection of sex as lyrical subject, marketing tool and a stage persona by first wave punk bands (John Lydon: "Love is 2 minutes and 52 seconds of squelching noises.") had turned into a dour, anhedonic sausage party in the scene dominated by Minor Threat and Maximum Rocknroll magazine.

Rediscovering funk - awkwardly at first with bands like the Gang of Four, the Pop Group, the Bush Tetras, more joyously with the Big Boys, the Minutemen and the Chili Peppers - gave all those self-consciously intense boys and the girls lingering at the fringes an excuse to turn a mosh pit back into a dance floor again. So we have the Red Hot Chili Peppers to thank for letting all those college rock fans find their ass and figure out what to do with it.

If nothing else, it probably put them in a frame of mind that led to breeding, and guaranteed that a further generation would be born to parents who would forever roll their eyes at whatever "noise" their precious offspring brought home and mutter to each other that Generic by Flipper was still way more radical.

I shot the Red Hot Chili Peppers the first time they passed through Toronto, after they'd already released two records, and a year and a half after I'd bought my first camera. I would never have imagined that they'd still be a going concern thirty years later.

Antony Kiedis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lee's Palace, Toronto, Dec. 3, 1986
Hillel Slovak, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lee's Palace, Toronto, Dec. 3, 1986

While I barely knew how to use my camera for this Nerve assignment, I was still ambitious enough that I was using "flash and burn" to try to get some impression of the energy and movement of a gig on film. I don't know where I first saw examples of the technique, but it was embraced by people documenting music scenes all over the place, from Glen Friedman in Los Angeles to Charles Peterson in Seattle.

"I wanted people to experience what it was like being there; the sweat, the noise, being pushed against each other," as Charles Peterson recalled. There was nothing new about the look of letting ambient light burn onto the film after the flash caught a bit of action, but in dimly lit, overheated clubs it was both appropriate and forgiving, filling in black space with streaks and tails of light. If I couldn't be sure that I could produce a sharp, well-framed concert photo, at least I knew a way I could leave the gig with photos that hinted at the rude energy of the bands.

Flea. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lee's Palace, Toronto, Dec. 3, 1986

I shot a single roll from the front of the stage, and in the video of the show shot that night, you can catch a shadowy glimpse of me with my camera off to the left, just in front of Flea. Unfortunately I'd run out of film and retreated to the bar and my friends by the time the band came out for an encore with tube socks on their junk - a trademark bit of stage business that I should have anticipated.

Not great photos by any means; I was still a novice with my equipment and timid about getting a good place between the band and the crowd. The framing is rudimentary, and the negatives thick and kludgy - I had a lot to learn about both composition and developing. It is, however, an OK document of the first, "classic" lineup of the Chili Peppers. Guitarist Hillel Slovak would be dead of an overdose a year and a half later.


Friday, June 5, 2015


Michael Nairne, Toronto, March 1990

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

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

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

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

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

Don Green and Michael Budman, Toronto, June 1991

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

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

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

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

Dr. Donald Chant, Toronto, July 1991

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

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

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

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

Yuri Rubinsky, Toronto, March 1993

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

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

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

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

Sir Terry Matthews, Kanata, May 1997

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, June 3, 2015


Frank Mills, Toronto, Dec. 15, 1988

NINE MONTHS AFTER I DID MY LAST SHOOT FOR NERVE MAGAZINE, I found myself on assignment for my old Nerve editor Nancy, now working for something called Music Scene, shooting Frank Mills.

Frank Mills for twenty dancing Christs sake, of "Music Box Dancer" fame.

In his Bill Cosby, '80s dad sweater and everything.

And an entirely dull as fuck portrait it was, too.

When the year had begun, I was shooting Lydia Lunch and Henry Rollins. Clearly this whole freelance photography thing was going to be a whole lot less fun than I expected.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Some old pictures I didn't take: Holiday

Mom and Mae Smith, location unknown, late '30s

MY MOM WITH HER BEST FRIEND, MAE SMITH. I'm sure they met at Kodak or the church. Growing up I called her "Aunt Mae," even though I knew she wasn't a relative. She was a spinster who lived in an apartment in a triplex on Guestville Avenue, just a short walk from the Kodak plant.

She had a brother, Jim, who had a sergeant major's moustache and a very military bearing; I remember him in blue blazers with a crest. They were always around when I was growing up, and then they fade away from my memory around the time Mom got really sick.

Judging by the clothes and the film stock, this is some time in the late '30s, at a picnic or a holiday camp somewhere. I'm guessing the latter - I have at least a half dozen frames taken on vacation, my Mom posing with her mother and various friends on docks and in a canoe and by cottages, with water somewhere in view or implied in the vicinity.

From the looks of it, the Depression didn't take a tragic toll on my mom and her friends. They were that small but lucky part of the working class that continued working; my mom was employed at Kodak from the late '20s till just before my brother was born, at the end of the war, and even if she was supporting her parents for most of that time, she found ways of keeping her wardrobe fresh.

Holidays were occasions. I'm sure my mom bought clothes especially for the trip, and even if you didn't work for Kodak, it was an obligation to document yourself at leisure, in various combinations with whoever was either guest or host.

I try not to romanticize the past, but it's hard, especially when I see the dignity of almost everyone captured in the foreground or background of these photos. I'm sure you'd be forgiven for taking off your tie on a hot day, and the jacket might end up on the back of a deck chair, but it would have been unthinkable to show up dressed like a sloppy schoolboy or in what was considered underwear.