Friday, April 22, 2016

Mary Harron

Mary Harron, Toronto, May, 1996

IT TOOK A WHILE FOR THE NOVELTY OF HOTEL ROOMS TO WEAR OFF ON ME. The fact is that I only ever stayed in a hotel once in my life before I took my first portrait in one, and I probably shot more in hotel rooms than almost anywhere else including my own beloved studio. At first I tried to disguise them by looking for a white wall or a neutral corner, but by the end of my first decade as a professional photographer I stopped trying, and began to feature their odd proportions and conspicuously anonymous decor.

I shot the director Mary Harron when she was promoting her first feature, I Shot Andy Warhol, starring Lili Taylor as Valerie Solanas, the woman who nearly killed Warhol in 1968. I'm pretty certain the hotel room is in the old Four Seasons on Avenue Road, which has since closed and is being gutted to become condos. Of all of Toronto's hotels, this is the one I shot in most of all as it was central and a favorite of the movie studios.

Mary Harron, Toronto, May, 1996

Harron might have been a neophyte director but her name wasn't unknown in Canada; her father was the actor Don Harron, best known on both sides of the border for Charlie Farquharson, the malaprop-spouting bumpkin he created for the CBC in the '50s and played on Hee Haw for almost two decades. Harron herself had barely lived in Canada; the daughter of Don Harron's first marriage, she'd lived in Los Angeles, New York and the UK, helping start Punk magazine before working as a music and drama critic, then moving back to the U.S. to produce documentaries for PBS.

She certainly showed up for her Toronto press day dressed in high Warhol Factory style, with her boots, black leather trousers and Mo Tucker haircut. I can't remember how the film had been received elsewhere, but local coverage of I Shot Andy Warhol predictably ran along the lines of "Can you believe this weird film Charlie Farquharson's daughter's made?" Perhaps this is why she seemed a bit aloof when I showed up with my Rolleiflex and tripod.

Mary Harron, Toronto, May, 1996

I was reminded of my shoot with Harron when I was scanning my portraits of producer Edward Pressman. He's been a loyal supporter of Harron, producing American Psycho, her follow-up to the Warhol film, as well as her last film, The Moth Diaries. Harron is clearly a director drawn to provocative stories and difficult subjects, which means that her ability to get features made has decreased with the increasing dominance of the tent pole blockbuster and the migration of edgy movie-making to cable TV. (She's also directed episodes of Oz, Six Feet Under, The L Word and Big Love.)

I wouldn't have known any of this about Harron when I asked her to sit in a boxy hotel armchair twenty years ago. I just intuited that my subject seemed a bit defensive and uneasy, so I placed her in the centre of my frame, an apprehensive figure in a room designed to accommodate no individual or reflect anyone's personal taste. At nearly the halfway point of my career I'd begun embracing the rigid limitations of hotel rooms, but it would be a while before I'd finally overcome their novelty.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Edward Pressman

Edward R. Pressman, Toronto, Sept. 1990

I BEGAN MY CAREER AS A PHOTOGRAPHER SHOOTING MUSICIANS but when I started shooting full time my subjects gradually became dominated by movie people. It was actors and directors, mostly, but at the turn of the '90s I had a rare shoot with a movie producer - a one-off subject that would rarely be repeated considering how far Toronto is from Hollywood.

Ed Pressman wasn't just any movie producer; unlike the mostly anonymous executives who greenlight projects and mint new stars, he's a name brand, part of a rare breed that goes back to golden age moguls like Darryl F. Zanuck and David Selznick and continues with Pressman peers like Harvey Weinstein and Jerry Bruckheimer.

Edward R. Pressman, Toronto, Sept. 1990

The son of a New York toy manufacturer, Pressman began his career at the turn of the '70s with a trio of counterculture films before launching the careers of directors Brian De Palma and Terence Malick. He's been involved with a wild variety of films, but has tended to concentrate on quirky directors and challenging material that hovered on the hazy, erratic border between art house pics and Oscar bait - films like Badlands, Das Boot, Talk Radio, Blue Steel, Homicide, Bad Lieutenant, American Psycho, Fur and Thank You For Smoking.

Along the way he's had big hits (Wall Street,) made some genre popcorn flicks (Conan the Barbarian, Judge Dredd) and had his name on some really oddball stuff (The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Hebrew Hammer, Party Monster.) One thing you can't say is that he's made a career out of anything safe or formulaic.

I shot him when he was at the film festival, probably while promoting Reversal of Fortune, Barbet Schroeder's film about the Claus von Bulow attempted murder case starring Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close. It's typical of the sort of film Pressman has made, and the sort of directors he's loyally supported despite controversy - people like De Palma, Oliver Stone, James Toback and Mary Harron.

Edward R. Pressman, Toronto, Sept. 1990

I know I photographed Pressman at the (now-defunct) Sutton Place Hotel thanks to the tapestry I chose as a backdrop - one that I'd used in a shoot a year earlier with Sam Rivers. I'd brought along my new Rolleiflex and a flash, which I bounced into an umbrella high and to the side to get as dramatic a light as possible. This was probably when my "tapestry phase" began in earnest - one that would reach its peak with my portraits of Tilda Swinton two years later, in front of another antique tapestry hanging in the halls of the Sutton Place.

He had a boyish uniform - baseball cap, seersucker jacket, chinos, deck shoes and argyle socks - that he wore with the authority of a man comfortable with no small amount of power or access to money. I wanted him to look stern since movie producers aren't known for their whimsy.

For the bottom frame, however, I asked him to sit back down on the velvet couch where I'd met him, clearly at work with a notebook and sheets of paperwork. Today a man like Pressman would likely have a phone and a laptop on either side of him, but this was the turn of the '90s and mobile phones were both brick-like and dweeby, and laptops rare and largely unusable before the internet. He looks pensive, even reflective, and I doubt if this would have been the shot I'd have printed for my client, though I like it a lot now. No one has seen these shots in over twenty-five years.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet & the Sadies

Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Parkdale, December 1990

IN THE SUMMER OF 1985, JUST AFTER DROPPING OUT OF COLLEGE, I went to see Husker Du play a nasty shithole of a club called Larry's Hideaway. There were two local bands opening for them; one was Norda, a noisy post-punk offshoot of another local outfit called Sturm Group. I didn't like them much. At the bottom of the bill was a group I'd never heard of before - Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet.

When they started playing my buddy Rock and Roll Dave turned to me and said, "Hey - surf music! I like it!"

I couldn't help but notice the band's drummer.

"Dude - it's that punk guy who lives near Runnymede subway station," I shouted to Dave over the music.

Indeed, punks were scarce enough on the ground in Toronto that seeing one in your neighbourhood was something worth noting, and I'd spotted Don Pyle, the Shadowy drummer, on and off for years while waiting for the 71A bus home. In my mind he was something of a celebrity.

Fast forward five years and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet were a local favorite who had developed some fame outside the city as the house band on Kids In The Hall, a comedy series that was basically SCTV for my generation of Canadians. Don was now my upstairs neighbour in the loft building I lived in on Queen West, so organizing a shoot was pretty simple when I was asked to take the band's photo for the cover of NOW magazine.

Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Parkdale, December 1990

The photo at the top of this post is a frame from the roll of slides I shot for the cover. I can't help but regard it fondly today as it captures a glimpse of a corner of my first studio, in the bedroom of my Parkdale loft, where I had to fold away my futon and push the furniture to the walls to make space for lights and backdrops.

I haven't a clue why Reid Diamond, the band's bassist, is holding those playing cards. He must have had a reason.

The next two frames were shot for the inside of the magazine, to go next to the story. I think I'd just bought a 20mm lens for my Nikon and used it whenever I could. Pretty sure my direction for this shot was something along the lines of "Hey - remember that Cure video where they're locked in the wardrobe?"

In the top frame Brian Connelly, the band's guitarist, is doing something we used to call "the Risky Business." No seriously, we called it that.

Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Parkdale, May 1993

Three years later Shadowy Men had released a new record, Sport Fishin', and their reputation was probably greater outside Canada than locally. (Steve Albini, who had just produced Nirvana, famously said that he'd work with the band for free, and Sport Fishin' was recorded at his Chicago studio.) SPIN assigned me to shoot the band for a feature, so once again I went upstairs and knocked on Don's door.

We shot a couple of rolls in my studio, then went around the corner from our building to Beaty Avenue and did another three rolls in front of a globe that someone had planted in their front yard. I was in the full throes of my cross-processing mania, so I did slide film in negative chemistry and negative film in slide chemistry, and I suppose that's what makes these shots look, to me, as "period" as an Ace of Base remix.

That and Don's Tom of Finland t-shirt. Man, those things used to be everywhere.

The Shadowy Men wouldn't release another record. The band broke up after Brian had a disagreement with Reid and Don about recording with Jad Fair. (Understandable - a lot of people were having disagreements about Jad Fair back then.) Brian would form his own band, Atomic 7, while Don and Reid started Phono-Comb with Bev Breckenridge of Fifth Column and guitarist Dallas Good, who I'd met when he was playing with a local group, the Satanatras.

Sadly, Reid Diamond passed away in 2001. The Shadowy Men reunited briefly for a couple of gigs with Dallas playing bass four years ago, and have reunited again for a joint tour with Dallas' band, The Sadies. They're playing two nights here in Toronto starting tonight, before heading off on dates from Windsor, Calgary and Vancouver to Wisconsin, Illinois, Oregon, Washington and California.

The Sadies, Parkdale, November 1995

These are photos of the earliest lineup of the Sadies, before Dallas' brother Travis or drummer Mike Belitsky joined, when Andrew Scott of Sloan was in the drum chair. I have no idea who I shot these for, but Dallas, bassist Sean Dean and Andrew are sitting in Don Pyle's living room, upstairs from my place in the Parkdale loft building.

I've hauled my Rolleiflex and a couple of strobes up to Don's, and bounced the lights off the ceiling so I could get something loosely composed and informal - I might have been obsessed with the look of old documentary films from the '60s at the time, but I honestly don't remember. I can't think of much I've ever shot that looks like this; I might have done these for NOW magazine, intending to put them together into a collage, but I couldn't tell you today.

I do recognize the guitar Dallas is playing. It's a Hofner and I used to have one just like it. Is he playing my guitar? Who knows? Maybe. (UPDATE: Nope. Don says it was his and that he still has it.)

Brian continued with Atomic 7 and has played with Neko Case, while Don has worked on a dizzying variety of projects in addition to publishing a photo book documenting the early days of Toronto punk. We both moved out of the Parkdale loft building in 1999 when the landlord turned it into offices.

The Sadies are probably the best band playing and recording in Canada on any day with a 'y' in it, releasing at least ten records under their own name (and more as collaborators) over the last twenty years. They've done it all outside of the major label system, following the example of the Shadowy Men, who refused to let Lorne Michaels buy the rights to their music on Kids In The Hall. If I need to feel proud about Canadian music, I have to try to remember how some of the best of it happened - literally - right next door to me.

Reid Diamond died of cancer in Toronto on February 17, 2001.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

George Clinton

George Clinton, Toronto, June 1991

I DON'T THINK I PREPARED FOR A SHOOT IN THE FIRST FIVE YEARS OF MY CAREER the way I did for the one I did with George Clinton in the early summer of 1991. I'd photographed him with the P-Funk All-Stars two years earlier when they'd come through town, and alongside the Fela Kuti gig I saw in the same venue at around the same time, it was one of the best shows I've ever seen in my life.

George Clinton, P-Funk All-Stars, Concert Hall, Toronto, Nov. 29, 1989

I'd taken my camera along and shot a single roll of black and white. This is the best frame. Perhaps I should have shot more but, to be honest, I was too busy dancing. Thanks to my friend and P-Funk mentor Tim Powis I'd become a huge fan of everything Parliament-Funkadelic, which was a sort of natural progression from my interest in the Philly soul records that were hits on the radio when I was a kid and the punk rock and metal I'd come to love later.

Two years later Tim was an editor at HMV magazine, George had been signed by Prince to his Paisley Park label and we had a perfect excuse to do a feature interview with him when he passed through town with the P-Funk All-Stars - the circus-like rotating cast of musicians that he'd been touring with ever since legal troubles had claimed the Parliament and Funkadelic names.

George Clinton, Toronto, June 1991

The shoot was in a room off the lobby at the hotel where the band was staying - a strange residential hostel on Church Street that I'd passed for years and had assumed was a slightly run-down apartment building. I brought along my studio camera, the Bronica SQ-a, and a black cloth backdrop that I gaffer-taped to a wall behind George.

I wanted to get the light to drop off sharply around George so I used the two smallest soft boxes I had and placed them on either side of his face. It produced exactly the effect I wanted but I didn't count on his big Cazal shades reflecting the lights in almost every shot - a classic rookie mistake. I shot four rolls of cross-processed colour film, then put a close-up filter on the lens of the Bronica to get some really tight shots, like the one at the top of this post.

George Clinton, Toronto, June 1991

I'm pretty sure HMV used the more madcap shots from this shoot, but looking at them again twenty-five years later, I'm fonder of the less antic, more uneasy expressions in the shots above. I'm not sure what sort of direction I gave George to get them - based on the contacts it was more a matter of snapping as fast as he could mug or throw a new shape.

I'm not sure if I did the shoot before or after Tim did his interview, but I do remember Tim bringing up conspiracy theories and George launching into a long, enthusiastic dialogue with him. I didn't dare interrupt - Tim was talking with George Clinton about Freemasons and the Illuminati and I knew that he was having the time of his life.

P-Funk All Stars live, Concert Hall, Toronto, June 22, 1991

The show later that night was typical P-Funk anarchy. It wasn't as loose as the show two years earlier, which filled the stage with band, crew and family, with an onstage cartoonist doing drawings to illustrate the songs and encouraging the band's kids - loitering around between the amps and the risers and wandering at will - to do the same. (UPDATE: I've since learned that opening act Alix Anthony and his band were pressed into filling in for several All-Stars who were delayed at the border.)

Guitarist/singer Garry Shider - aka "Diaper Man" - had been George's onstage foil for over a decade by this point, and the two of them shared front man duties. It was a typically huge band, with half a dozen guitarists onstage at any time, including Shider, Dewayne "Blackbyrd" McKnight and the return of Eddie Hazel to the All-Stars, which made the whole evening a very big deal.

P-Funk All Stars live, Concert Hall, Toronto, June 22, 1991

It was a fantastic show, and I shot the hell out of it with my Nikon - nine rolls of 35mm film; I felt greedy for the moment and wanted to have a document of the whole gig instead of the single roll I'd shot two years earlier. I don't think anyone has seen these shots since I took them.

At one point during my shoot earlier that day, George noticed Eddie Hazel walking through the nearby lobby of the hotel. "Hey Eddie!" he shouted. "You've got to wear your shoes, man! That was how you got sick the last time!" George motioned for Eddie to come over and I took four frames of them together. This is my favorite:

George Clinton & Eddie Hazel, Toronto, June 1991

At this point I didn't know how my shoot with George Clinton could have gotten better. Eddie Hazel's playing on songs like "Maggot Brain" and "Super Stupid" made them some of my favorite Funkadelic tracks, and while knowing he was on the tour was a bonus, getting a shot of him with George just gilded the whole occasion. I knew Eddie hadn't been well, but no one knew that this would end up being a kind of farewell tour.

Eddie Hazel died of liver failure in Plainfield, NJ on Dec. 23, 1992.

Garry Shider died of cancer in Greater Upper Marlboro, MD on June 16, 2010.



Monday, April 11, 2016

Bootsy Collins

Bootsy Collins, Toronto, May 1991

NEXT TO GEORGE CLINTON, BOOTSY COLLINS MIGHT BE THE BIGGEST STAR in the P-Funk universe. He hasn't played regularly with Clinton or any iteration of the P-Funk All-Stars in over three decades, but his place in the group's musical cosmology was cemented in place with his central role on the Mothership albums in the '70s, both as a musician and as a cast of characters from Casper the Funky Ghost to Bootzilla. You can argue about the importance of other musicians like Garry Shider, Eddie Hazel or Bernie Worrell to the development of P-Funk's sound, but Bootsy's persona is one of its visual trademarks, and I've always been in awe of the man.

Bootsy Collins was passing through town on tour with Dee-Lite, and was asked to pose for the "What I Wear" page of NOW magazine, talking about where he got his clothes and how he'd describe his style. I think I would have felt supremely ripped off if I hadn't been asked to shoot him, and I don't remember if I lobbied Irene and Dierdre Hanna, the paper's fashion editor, for the gig, but I wouldn't be surprised if I did.

Bootsy Collins, Toronto, May 1991

We showed up for soundcheck at the Concert Hall, a much-missed music venue here in Toronto that was originally the city's main Masonic Temple. This was the first time I'd been upstairs in the masonic chambers of the building, which still seemed to be in use in spring of 1991. I knew that P-Funk founder George Clinton was an aficionado of conspiracy theories and wondered whether Bootsy shared his interest in the subject, but it never came up.

I couldn't shoot in the ceremonial rooms nearby, but the checkerboard floor in the hallway was an irresistible backdrop, so I set up my flash in an umbrella and found a chair to stand on. Bootsy is well over six feet tall, so there was no way I'd get and angle that captured him and the floor without giving myself a bit of height.

Bootsy Collins, Toronto, May 1991

Bootsy was consistently in character, a little bit spacey and perpetually bemused by whatever was happening, and he never took off his star-shaped mirror sunglasses. The brief of the job was a full-length portrait, which I shot with a slow shutter speed after the flash to capture a little bit of ghostly blur that seemed appropriate to an otherworldy subject.

Do I wish I'd taken a bit more of Bootsy's time to shoot a simple portrait? Of course I do, but frankly I was so happy to be shooting him at all that I didn't want to push things. Today, of course, I'd have been a bit more aggressive about getting the sort of portrait I really wanted, but twenty-five years ago I think I was really just worried about saving a couple of frames at the end of the roll for what my daughters call a "selfie."

Me and Bootsy Collins, Toronto, May 1991

I rarely do this, but I couldn't resist asking Dierdre to get a photo of me with Bootsy. You have no idea how thrilled I am here. What amazes me is that I don't have a framed print of this by the front door of our house.


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Bernie Worrell

Bernie Worrell, Toronto, April 1987

I DON'T REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME I HEARD P-FUNK. Like most people, I knew about them in the '70s when the Mothership tour made its way around the world and George Clinton's band of freaks were - quite against the odds - a commercial success. I do know that I really learned about them at Nerve, under the tutelage of my friend Tim Powis, who had pretty near everything they recorded.

The closest I'd get to P-Funk during those years, though, was when Bernie Worrell, the band's keyboardist, showed up in Toronto as part of Anton Fier's Golden Palominos. He'd already been a key player in the Talking Heads at the peak of their success, appearing on several of their albums and in the concert movie Stop Making Sense. He was a star as far as I was concerned, which is why I felt so timid approaching him after the Golden Palominos' soundcheck at the El Mocambo in the spring of 1987.

Bernie Worrell, Toronto, April 1987

I shot Worrell sitting at his Hammond B3, holding a flash with one hand and tripping the shutter of my Mamiya C330 with the other. I only took four frames out of a roll of twelve, which was itself one of the first dozen I shot with my first medium format camera. These are two of those frames. They're primitive but at least they're sharp, and look a little like something you'd put on the cover of a Blue Note record. Nobody has seen these since I shot them almost three decades ago.

Bernie Worrell has had an interesting career in and outside of the P-Funk organization, and had a documentary film made about him about a decade ago. He's apparently quite sick with cancer right now, and a benefit concert was held for him in New York City just a few days ago.

Here's my favorite video of early Funkadelic, with George and Eddie Hazel and Bootsy and Bernie at centre stage at his Hammond. It was taped for some midwestern teen TV show, where Funkadelic apparently preceded Bobby Sherman. I can only imagine the effect they'd have had on the audience tuned in that day. The world used to be a lot more interesting.