Thursday, October 27, 2016

Nelson Mandela, 1990

Nelson Mandela, Toronto, June 1990

AS I SAID IN YESTERDAY'S POST, THERE WAS A LOT OF HISTORY HAPPENING IN 1990, and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa was one example. Mandela wasted little time - after leaving prison in February, he traveled around the world meeting world leaders, and his world tour took him through Toronto. Really a series of epic photo ops, in retrospect events like these aren't real history as much as history taking a victory lap.

I was assigned to cover his appearance in Nathan Phillips Square, in front of Toronto City Hall, in front of what turned out to be a massive crowd, jubilant crowd. They wanted to see history happening as well, and it seemed like everyone from ecstatic Africans to beaming Italian grandmothers and schoolkids were in the square that day.

Crowds at City Hall for Nelson Mandela, Toronto, June 1990

As it always is at events like this, the crowd was the real event; shooting from behind the barricades, my shots of Mandela probably didn't look too different from what any other daily or wire service photographer would have gotten with a long lens, but the crowd always presents you with something unique from moment to moment.

The photo of Winnie Mandela I printed to go with the story over twenty-five years ago was more flattering - a shot of her with a beatific smile looking out at the crowd. It would be a few months before the story of Winnie's "football club" and the murder of Stompie Moeketsi became news outside South Africa, and longer before the details of her affair with Dali Mpofu while Mandela was in prison emerged.

Winnie Mandela, Toronto, June 1990
Nelson Mandela, Toronto, June 1990

All of this complicated the triumphant narrative, of course, and even if it made the newspapers it's doubtful whether anyone would have wanted to hear it when "Free Nelson Mandela" had suddenly become "Nelson Mandela Free." Obviously I knew that the paper wanted to happy ending, so it's only now that my shot of a more nervous looking Winnie, looking at her husband with what looks like uncertainty (it would be another two years before he divorced her) makes narrative sense.

Which proves, I suppose, that these victory laps by history are more spectacle than truth.

Crowds at City Hall for Nelson Mandela, Toronto, June 1990

None of this would have mattered to the crowd that day. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Cold War was over and Nelson Mandela was not only free but standing in front of them, in front of the building where you lined up for construction permits. The crowd was overjoyed, and even in retrospect it's hard to blame them for it - after decades when nuclear Armageddon and despotic governments were taken for granted, history had taken a positive turn, or so it seemed.

I didn't have much experience with shooting news, but I must have done a pretty good job with the Mandela event because the paper assigned me to photograph the Dalai Lama's appearance at city hall four months later.

Nelson Mandela died in Johannesburg, South Africa on Dec. 5, 2013.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Dalai Lama, 1990

Dalai Lama, Toronto, Sept. 1990

AT THE BEGINNING OF THE NINETIES IT SEEMED LIKE WE WERE LIVING THROUGH A LOT OF HISTORY. The Berlin Wall had fallen the year before and a year later the Soviet Union would no longer exist. Maybe this is why I ended up shooting a lot of news stories like this for NOW magazine in 1990, when history looked like it was happening fast and we needed snapshots of it as it passed.

Toronto hosted two visits by famous political figures that year, both of which I was assigned to shoot. The second was the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, whose fame and international profile grew exponentially during the following decade. He'd received the Nobel Peace Prize the year before, and his positive image has persisted: Just two years ago he was voted among the three most popular political leaders in the world (alongside Barack Obama and Pope Francis.)

Buddhist nuns at Dalai Lama event, Toronto City Hall, Sept. 1990

I can't speak to the popularity of the Dalai Lama as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism; I've tried to understand this very particular offshoot of Buddhist thought, mostly by reading books by Robert Thurman (father of Uma!) but they utterly stumped me. His political appeal, especially at the time, was easier to understand; with Soviet Communism and the Eastern Bloc on the way out - almost bloodlessly - there was a surge of optimism, hardly ever imagined during the Cold War, that authoritarian states could be defeated simply by being persistent and nice.

With China remaining the sole Communist superpower, it was hoped that this constantly smiling man, with his saffron robes and prayer beads, could shame China's leaders into relaxing their oppressive rule and perhaps even withdrawing from Tibet. Goodwill tours like this one - to a city with a growing population of Tibetans - were the beginning of years of Free Tibet concerts and fundraising campaigns, and even saw spiritually questing westerners professing to adopt the gnomic and baffling precepts of Tibetan Buddhism the way they'd once flocked to Yoga and Zen. If nothing else, you started seeing a lot of singing bowls showing up on coffee tables, and Buddha statuary showing up in "prayer gardens."

Crowd at Dalai Lama event, Toronto City Hall, Sept. 1990

The crowd at City Hall for the Dalai Lama's appearance certainly reflected this wave of popularity - a major show of numbers by not only Tibetan emigres, but also Vietnamese and Chinese Buddhist communities. They were only half the crowd, however, which was truly mixed and filled the square.

I think I might have softened my own habitual pessimism at the time as well, and I certainly remember the early '90s as a time when the dismal potential outcomes of the past three and a half decades of nuclear stalemate might actually have been forgotten. (At the same time, though, it made me wake up with a start to the possibility that I might live past thirty, and that the nihilism with which I'd lived my life for the past decade could have been a mistake.)

Buddhist monks, Dalai Lama event at Toronto City Hall, Sept. 1990

There was always something slightly absurd about Dalai-mania. His newfound fans and followers have always turned a blind eye to his less-than-progressive stance on homosexuality, for instance, and there is something curious - even disturbing - about all this support for a regime that's positively pre-medieval in nature, with church and state firmly combined.

At around this time I was sent to do a fashion shoot with a very cheerful Tibetan Buddhist monk who was being hosted by a wealthy woman who'd re-done her whole house in high Tibetan style, right down to the meditation garden out back. He seemed bemused by it all, but content to accept her largesse - a monk not terribly different from one you'd read about in Chaucer.

I also remember a New Yorker profile of the Dalai Lama where several of his lieutenants admitted that they were unimpressed with the vegetarian meals his supporters were constantly offering them; Tibet is, after all, a mountainous country where little can be grown; the diet is protein-rich, and they said they'd prefer a good steak any time. The Dalai Lama himself tried to switch to a veggie diet to please his western followers, but his doctor told him to knock it off.

I have never considered myself a news photographer, but early on in my time at NOW I was eager to please and up for the challenge of shooting a big story like this one, fighting for shots alongside photographers from the big dailies and the wire services. They're not bad shots, but I'm not surprised that I'd never have a job at Reuters or AP.

Friday, October 14, 2016


R.E.M., Toronto, April, 1991

THE BAND IN THIS PHOTO ARE ABOUT TO BECOME ONE OF THE BIGGEST in the world. R.E.M. had just released Out of Time a month before I took these photos, and the band I discovered in college - the textbook college rock band - would be stadium headliners soon enough, mostly thanks to the success of "Losing My Religion."

It was probably the last moment when I'd have the sort of access that would let me shoot Michael Stipe and the rest of the group - who I'd last seen at a house party at a friend's place after they'd played Massey Hall on the Life's Rich Pageant tour - together for a NOW cover story. It was a very big deal. I just wished I still cared.

Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, R.E.M., Toronto, April 1991

I was a huge R.E.M. when I first heard them in college, before I'd even heard of the term "college rock." I reviewed Reckoning for my college paper, and bought records by any band mentioned in the same sentence; in retrospect, my passion for the band was a huge contributing factor to becoming a music critic not long after I dropped out - they were the sort of group who encouraged a nerdy sort of fandom, and a connect-the-dots search for influences, whether it was the songs they covered, the bands they toured with, or the people they worked with.

But that felt like a long time ago when I set up in the hotel room where I took these shots. This was early in my NOW days, when the paper still had its mandated-from-above cover template that squeezed the subject into less than half the frame, with plenty of neutral space for type, which explains the colour slides I shot with Stipe and bassist Mike Mills. I even remember hanging up after getting the call with the assignment and thinking "if only this had been five years ago."

Michael Stipe, R.E.M., Toronto, April 1991

They were perfectly nice. Michael Stipe complimented me on my shoes. These are perfectly serviceable photos, and fulfilled the assignment without a hitch, but I know there's a lack of enthusiasm behind the camera,

I've written about my falling out with R.E.M. before, at length, but the short version is that they simply became less interesting to me the moment I could understand what Michael Stipe was singing - or more to the point, when he decided that we needed to understand what he was singing about, in plain language. A band whose musical world was mysterious and gnomic suddenly became didactic; they had opinions about politics, and had causes they wanted us to support. "Fall on Me," for instance, was apparently about acid rain. Who, I still wonder, is actually for acid rain?

R.E.M., Toronto, April 1991

And, not surprisingly, they became musically much less interesting. I keep looking at guitarist Peter Buck in the group photos. More than Stipe, he was my favorite member of R.E.M., the record store clerk-turned-guitar god. He looks a bit sullen here, and in my mind, the only explanation is that he'd woken up to realize he was the guitar player in the band that had just recorded "Shiny Happy People."

A decade later he'd be arrested after a drunken incident in first class on a British Airways flight. I felt so sorry for him when I read about it, as inexcusable as his behaviour was; I already had a narrative in my head about growing self-loathing, and a man standing onstage in front of thousands of people, thinking to himself "Why couldn't I have joined Rain Parade?"

And so, a very big deal shoot, except to me. I still wish I cared more. I wish I'd tried harder to get something good. But mostly I wish they'd broken up after Reckoning.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Philip Glass

Philip Glass, Toronto, February 1989

NOT ALL PHOTO SHOOTS CAN BE SUCCESSES; SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO FAIL. Sometimes you know you're going to fail before you take your camera out of the bag, and the best you can do is salvage some lesson, technical or creative, from the experience. I suppose this is why I've always gone back to the photos I took of composer Philip Glass, back in the early years of my career.

Glass was someone I'd always wanted to photograph, but I didn't have the pull to get anything like a portrait session with the man when he showed up in Toronto in the winter of 1989, so I had to content myself with a small press conference held in the back room of the Rivoli, a restaurant and club on Queen West.

Philip Glass, Toronto, February 1989

I don't know too many photographers who long to shoot press conferences. There's nothing you won't get that any other photographer standing over your shoulder won't get as well, and any chance of getting the subject to interact with you only happens with either luck or your willingness to make a pest of yourself.

For some reason, though, I don't recall many other photographers being at the Glass press conference, and since the room was half empty I was able to wander around, trying to get something interesting under the dim stage spotlights. Unwilling to take a risk with slow film, I loaded my camera with Kodak TMZ, a film rated at 3200 ASA, knowing that I'd get grain and contrast and not a whole lot else.

Philip Glass, Toronto, February 1989

I was - and remain - a big fan of Glass and what was very loosely called the minimalist school - Steve Reich, John Adams, Ingram Marshall and Arvo Part. As soon as I saw the scant light and knew what the film would likely produce, I decided to try and treat the whole shoot as an exercise in minimalism - not as much a portrait shoot as an excuse to make something more like an illustration.

I don't know if I had a client when I shot these and I'm not sure they were ever published, but something from this shoot ended up in my portfolio for at least a few years, until I had enough conventional portraiture to take its place. I keep coming back to these negatives, though, as they made me think about stripping down a portrait to its most basic elements, and how photography in practice is very much a graphic art.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Havana, 1995

Yosvany Terry, Havana, June 1995

I'M GOING BACK TO CUBA TODAY, OVER TWENTY YEARS SINCE THE LAST TIME I WAS THERE. I won't be in Havana, however, which is something of a relief, since I don't imagine a lot of the things I saw happening in Cuba's capitol in the early to mid-'90s have either improved or gone away. (UPDATE: Thanks to Hurricane Matthew, the press trip has been cancelled.)

I've posted photos from my first trip to Havana here and here, when I went with Jane Bunnett to document the recording of Spirits of Havana, probably her most important record. I went back four years later, on my own, to take photos for her follow up, Chamalongo. It was a year after the shortages and economic hardship of the "Special Period" led to something that hadn't been seen much in Cuba for nearly four decades - riots against the government.

It might explain why the city seemed unusually subdued, even sombre. One thing that I couldn't help but notice, though, was that there was a curious absence of stray cats and dogs on the streets. It was on this trip that a friend - someone who worked for the government, no less - warned me to stay away from the Cuban sandwiches.

"I don't think that's pork in them," he said, ominously.

Havana, Cuba, June 1995

I took my cameras out on the street, of course, in the spare time I had during that week, between portrait shoots. For some reason, though, I didn't shoot as much 35mm as I had four years earlier, and most of my contacts were made with the Rolleiflex. It was probably because, by the mid-'90s, I was far more interested in what I could do with medium format film, and had also fallen hopelessly in love with the square format frame. (A love that has persisted until today.)

I was trying to pare down my photos to the cleanest, starkest compositions I could manage, though the photo above of the rooftops of the city, taken from the balcony of a friend's apartment in Centro Habana, isn't very minimalist at all. I tried not to dwell too long on the ruined buildings, as hard as they were to avoid (a whole building had collapsed just before I arrived, I was told) though the photo of the basketball court next to the Malecon - my favorite shot from this trip - gave just enough of a hint of that ongoing decay for me.

Partagas Cigar Factory, Havana, June 1995

I asked my government connection if he could arrange a tour of the Partagas cigar factory for me while I was there. The cigar craze was in full swing by the middle of the '90s, and I'd become an enthusiastic smoker when I could afford it. I probably had some vague ambition to sell some of these shots to one of the cigar magazines when I got home, though how I would have done that I couldn't tell you, then or now.

I shot quite a lot of film at Partagas, colour and black and white, desperate to capture as much of the atmosphere and detail as possible. Looking over the contact sheets today, it's the portraits of the workers that stand out, with these three among the best. I also can't help but notice how thin everyone looks, especially compared to Habaneros four years earlier.

Frank Emilio Flynn, Havana, June 1995

My main reason for the trip was to get portraits of the musicians Jane had played with during the sessions. I'd met Frank Emilio Flynn before, when he'd been on the Spirits of Havana sessions, and when he'd come to Toronto for concerts Jane had organized. He was a dear man, and I felt privileged to visit him at his home in what was once a prosperous suburb of the city near Vedado.

Frank was a legendary figure in Cuban music, who formed a link between the older son traditions and the Afro-Cuban jazz revolution of the '50s. His eyesight had been damaged at birth, and he was completely blind by the time he was a teenage piano prodigy. I tried to capture some of the stateliness of his playing, and his considerable dignity. It helped that the light coming from the street through the big windows of his home was so lovely.

Merceditas Valdes & Tata Guines, Tropicana Club, Havana, June 1995

I had shot Merceditas Valdes for the Spirits of Havana sessions, in which she and her husband, Guillermo Barreto, had played key roles. Guillermo, tragically, had died not long after those sessions, and I could see when I met Merceditas in the lobby of the Inglaterra, my hotel, that she was doing very poorly herself. She was dressed in santera white, and was a real celebrity in the Inglaterra's lobby, basking in the attention of the staff.

We took a cab out to the Tropicana club, one of the few relics of the Batista/Lansky/Traficante era to remain in business under Fidel. Waiting for us was conga player Tata Guines, another legendary figure from the Afro-Cuban music era, who set up his drums by the club's famous fountain.

Tata scared the shit out of me. He had an intimidating reputation, and gave off an air of menace that it was hard to miss even if you hadn't heard any of the rumours or stories that attached themselves to him. He was known as a hard man, even though he probably wasn't as scary as his wife, who once stuck a knife in him.

I posed the two of them together with the fountain in the background, and they quickly began running through a series of practiced poses that they'd probably learned for publicity shots and LP covers back in the '50s. It was touching to see them there, in the middle of this carefully preserved throwback to Havana's less than austere past, and even as I took these photos I felt like I was catching the last moments of a musical era quickly passing. Taken together, everything I shot on this trip had an inescapably elegaic feel.

Yosvany Terry on the Malecon, Havana, June 1995

Not everything I photographed was about the past, however. While I was in Havana, Jane had asked me to take some promo shots for a young saxophonist she was trying to help out. Yosvany Terry was from a musical family, and had come up through Cuba's music schools with a fantastic reputation. I met him at my hotel and walked down to the Malecon, the seaside boulevard, where I wanted to take some shots that hinted at what could become an iconic talent. (Which explains the obvious echo of Dexter Gordon in the photo at the top of this post.)

It's worth noting that the saxophone Yosvany posed with in these shots was broken; even for a talented young player, getting instruments repaired was a challenge, and Jane had set up a charity to help provide instruments, parts and repairs for Cuba's young musicians. Yosvany would, however, overcome this brief setback, and leave the country for New York, where he'd play with major figures like Branford Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Henry Threadgill and Taj Mahal. Today Yosvany Terry lives in Harlem, is a Rockefeller grant recipient, and was hired by Harvard last year as a senior lecturer and Director of Jazz Ensembles.

Merceditas Valdes died in Havana on June 13, 1996.

Frank Emilio Flynn died in Havana on August 23, 2001.

Tata Guines died in Havana on February 4, 2008.