Monday, November 28, 2016

Mexico

Route 110 outside Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, Nov. 2016

I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT FROM MEXICO. To be fair, San Miguel de Allende and its environs - one of the more pleasant, picturesque and prosperous parts of the country. Some people might say that I didn't see the "real Mexico." Fair enough - but what I saw was very pleasant, and very photogenic, and ultimately I'd challenge anyone to tell me what the real Mexico is, actually.

A colonial town, built mostly on a slope, painted in bright warm colours. Picturesque as hell, and while I've fretted about the lure of the picturesque before, once again you sometimes have to just allow yourself to relax into it and let your camera go where it wants to go.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Nov. 2016

Sometimes the colour is enough of an excuse. Sometimes it's the lushness of a bit of ruin. I had a job to do and a story to write, but there always seemed to be something catching my eye, so I started walking around with two cameras at the ready all the time.

Sancturario de Jesus Nazareno Atotonilco, Nov. 2016

It always helps to leave the city. For someone like me, the average farm is a strange enough place; a vineyard or an olive grove is something even stranger, and it always helps to have an animal or two around.

Cuna di Terra Vineyard, outside Dolores Hidalgo, Nov. 2016
Finca Luna Serena, outside San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016

Back in town there was a marketplace with its piles of merchandise and the ever-reliable oddness of Latin Catholicism in the churches, as well as improvised wiring solutions overhead. There was even time for a portrait.

Artisanal Market, San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016
Templo San Francisco, San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016
Wires, San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016
Artist Mario Oliva, San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016
Laurel trees, Jardin Allende, San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016
Mariachis, Jardin Allende, San Miguel de Allende, Nov. 2016

I could have spent a day in the main square, just shooting the art students sketching in the morning, the schoolkids practicing with their marching band, and the mariachis who started playing as the sun went down, taking requests and doing songs with verses that made sport of the convenient gringo standing there with his camera. I don't care what they said about me - this is my favorite shot from the trip.


 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Bicycle couriers, 1990

Jeff, Parkdale, March 1990

I STILL FIND IT HARD TO COMPREHEND THAT SOME OF MY OLD PHOTOS ARE HISTORY. But it's true - I've been at this long enough that the people and events I've photographed are relics, snapshots of times and circumstances that have gone away. I might still remember the moment I took a photo as vividly as if it were yesterday (or I might not) but that doesn't change the fact that, for many people looking at my work, it's a product of a time they can't possible remember, either because they were too young, or not even born yet.

After posting my latest portrait series from Talladega last week, I went back and dug out the first one I ever did, on assignment for NOW magazine back at the turn of the '90s. Being a right-on, progressive urban publication, NOW regularly published a special cycling supplement, and I was assigned to provide the cover art. I was feeling ambitious, and asked my editor if I could do a group of studio portraits of bicycle couriers. They were a group known for their swaggering, almost piratical public image, and had been the subject of news stories, complaining about their reckless riding while on the job. Irene agreed, and I got to work.

Irving Penn, Hell's Angels, San Francisco, 1968

My inspiration was obvious. I was, as I so often did back then (and probably even now) ripping off Irving Penn, who had been doing August Sander-esque studio portraits of people in their working uniforms since the '50s. Specifically, though, I had in mind a series of portraits he did on assignment for LOOK magazine in the late '60s, of members of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang.

With this in mind I got out a nice big softbox for my strobes, bought a pile of film and rented a painted muslin backdrop. Getting subjects was easy enough; Toronto's business district was full of bike couriers, and helpfully they all used to hang out at a sandwich shop on Temperance Street called Breadspreads. I went by and talked to a few of them, then drew up a flier and put it on the bulletin board by the front door, giving directions to my studio and a time at the end of the business day. I bought a case of beer and waited.

From the top: Timothy, Justin, Peter and Scotty, Parkdale, March 1990

The first ones came before office hours were done, their shifts over for the day. They began arriving thick and fast after that, and it was obvious after a half hour that my two-four of beer wouldn't be enough. Cheerfully a few of them offered to do a beer run, and by the time they came back my living room outside the bedroom/studio where I'd set up was full of couriers, their bikes piled up in drifts in the hallway outside my loft.

I called them in one at a time, insisting that they have on their full gear, walkie-talkies, bags and everything. Some insisted on being shot in groups, others with their buddies. There was even a couple who everyone told me I had to shoot together. I barely left the studio, and when I did I tried not to think about what kind of mess they might have been making of our living room. At some point I think my roommate Sally came home to quite a shock.

From the top: Sovereign Crew, Pat, Mike and Gary, Parkdale, March 1990

With Penn still in the forefront of my mind, I tried to avoid mugging and gurning, and encouraged the couriers who walked into the studio (there were others just there for the party who never got their portrait taken) to find some kind of dignified or iconic pose. I was very new to this sort of intense churn of subjects passing in front of my camera, and I remember that I felt both anxious and elated while I worked.

At some point, as the sun was going down outside my window, I'd shot everyone who wanted to be photographed, and within what seemed like a few minutes, they were all gone, leaving behind a huge pile of empties in a tower of cases in our kitchen, which became a welcome cash windfall when I got a buddy to drive me to the beer store to turn them in for the deposit.

From the top: Laurens, Craig & Jane, Nick and Roy, Parkdale, March 1990

You don't see a lot of bike couriers anymore; the job has been a casualty of e-mail, like a lot of other ones. Breadspreads is long gone, and whenever I'm downtown I'm surprised when I see even a single bike courier racing between the cars on their way from one office tower to another, carrying something that obviously resists digitization, whatever that might be.

This recent British news feature about the few remaining couriers riding the streets of London evoked that now-vanished time when a corporate lawyer or millionaire trader would have his receptionist call for the delivery of a vital document, something upon which fortunes or careers might depend, and hand it to a hungover, possibly stoned 28-year-old guy with a lip ring and a Carcass t-shirt, riding a mud-covered bike put together from spare parts, nursing a fractured knee he got after colliding with a distracted bond trader's BMW.

One particular passage stood out for me:
Back in the golden days of the early 1990s, or so I’m told, couriers were urban superheroes, riding for 12 hours a day because the work never stopped piling up, taking home £500 a week, or more. Adrian Knight took up couriering in Sydney in 1992, earning up to A$1,500 a week. When he returned to the circuit at the turn of the century, after a few years travelling, he was unpleasantly surprised to find that his paycheque had shrunk to an average of AU$600. It’s a story that’s repeated in cities across the world, by old men with dodgy backs and dicky knees, still riding because after 20 years, no other job will have them, struggling to earn half of what they did before, warning newcomers like me to get out while the going’s good.
Frankly, his situation is wholly familiar to me, as I returned to freelancing eight years ago to discover that rates were a fraction of what they used to be for work that was far more scarce. I might not have ruined my knees delivering contracts or divorce settlements, but I'm definitely the old guy with a bad back doing what I do because I can't really do much else, warning young people to keep their day job. The photos in this post are a bit of history; then again, so am I.

(ADDENDUM: Her are Trevor Hughes' street portraits of Toronto bike couriers from around the same time as my shots, many of them shot just outside Breadspreads.)


Friday, November 4, 2016

Talladega portraits

Miller from Little Rock, AR, Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama, Oct. 2016

I WASN'T AT TALLADEGA FOR MORE THAN A DAY before I realized that, for many of the people there, the race wasn't the reason they came. There were thousands of people at the track, in the infield and on the campgrounds outside, and it didn't take long to do the sums and figure out how few of them would have a decent view of the track. Clearly, this was about something more than a car race.

It was then that I began taking portraits in earnest, walking up and down the Boulevard with my camera and my flexible reflector, stopping people whenever I thought they looked interesting. I knew that portraits were going to be a big part of my story, but knowing that these people were here mostly because they wanted each other's company for a weekend, I wanted to capture at least a tiny sliver of this ad hoc community.

Paul and his buddies from Canada, Talladega Boulevard, Talladega Superspeedway, Oct. 2016
Talladega Boulevard, Saturday morning, Talladega Superspeedway, Oct. 2016

The Boulevard was Main Street, where campers set up their little compounds with living rooms, bars, kitchens and even hot tubs and stripper poles to face each other. There was almost no point asking permission to take photos here because they'd come to Talladega to put themselves on display.

Bobby and Donnie Allison, Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama, Oct. 2016

When I discovered Bobby and Donnie Allison doing autographs outside the driver's meeting on race day, I knew I had to try and get something like a portrait, even if it was a stolen few seconds before they got back to the task of putting their signatures on tickets, books, hats, shirts and model cars. I like NASCAR a lot, but my vague memories of it from my childhood are of a wilder, noisier, hairier time, and men like this were at their prime then.

Michael from Little Rock, AR, Talladega Boulevard, Talladega Superspeedway, Oct. 2016
Cody from Little Rock, AR, Talladega Boulevard, Talladega Superspeedway, Oct. 2016
Blake from Little Rock, AR, Talladega Boulevard, Talladega Superspeedway, Oct. 2016

The great attraction of photography for me is the constant challenge, where I'm forced to pivot from landscapes to street photography to still lifes and even sports shooting. Photography is my craft and my trade, but portraiture is something like a calling, and once I begin shooting portraits I don't want to stop.

Patricia from Murphy, NC, Talladega Boulevard, Talladega Superspeedway, Oct. 2016
Fireman, Pit row, Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama, Oct. 2016

There were so many great faces at Talladega, and thanks to the nature of the event and some quirk of southern hospitality, nobody turned me down when I asked to take their picture. If I didn't have another job to do and a race to shoot, I could have happily walked around all day with my little Fuji camera and my collapsible backdrop, collecting faces.

Dennis from Talladega, AL, Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama, Oct. 2016
Barry from Talladega, AL, Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama, Oct. 2016
Ricky from Walker, LA, Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama, Oct. 2016

My last portraits of the weekend were of my neighbours in the exclusive little RV parking lot just by the start/finish straight. Ricky McGehee and the Craig brothers, Barry and Dennis, were real gentlemen, and I offered them the use of the rooftop deck of my rented tour bus to watch the race while I wandered back and forth around the track during the big race.

I shot these portraits and they asked me how I'd enjoyed myself. I said I'd had a ball, but it was my big disappointment that I'd never had a taste of moonshine. After all, if it wasn't for moonshine this whole huge spectacle wouldn't be here. They looked at each other and laughed and one of them pulled open his cooler and offered me a big cold jar of shine with peach slices swimming at the bottom.

And with that, my trip was perfect.


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Talladega

Looking down the track, Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama, Oct. 2016

IT'S THE SIZE OF THE PLACE THAT GETS YOU FIRST. A whole town fits into the infield at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway, and that doesn't take into account the town that springs up in the campgrounds outside the track for the race. Despite this, the race weekend never feels overcrowded or mobbed.

I jumped at my editor's suggestion that I build a travel story around living in the infield at a NASCAR race, and when the nice people at Alabama Tourism stepped up to make it happen, I knew I was going to be given a photo opportunity I'd probably never have again.

Infield campground, Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama, Oct. 2016

The infield is a story on its own, independent of the race, and I'll have more on that tomorrow. What was amazing was how well it all worked, with thousands of people showing up with tents, campers and RVs of varying size and quality to create a makeshift community for a hard-partying weekend, then disperse within a day of the race ending.

As a logistical feat, it's actually more impressive than the well-oiled machine that brings the cars, drivers, mechanics and crew to a new track almost every weekend. The people who make that happen are a community of professionals who get paid to make that happen; the folks in the infield and in the campgrounds outside the track are paying for the chance to sit in the sun (or rain) and celebrate their love of car racing, coming from around the country (and the world) with few certainties other than that they'll probably get drunk, eat grilled meat, and use a porta-potty.

Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama, Oct. 2016

As I wrote elsewhere, shooting the race itself proved to be far harder than I anticipated, and was nothing at all like photographing the Indycar street circuit here in Toronto. It was a good thing, then, that my job wasn't to cover a race but the whole circus around it.

The great attraction of a NASCAR race is how close fans can get to the cars and the drivers, so the garages and pits were thronged with people right up until the race started. After my competence with shooting racecars at the Honda Indy improved enough that it felt less challenging, I found myself turning my camera on the people at the track, and the hunt for photos there has never lost its thrill.

Race day, Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama, Oct. 2016

It's one thing to do street photography. It's another where the street has no speed limit, and half the people there are wearing clothes branded with corporate logos. And then there's the constant potential for accidents and misadventure, built into the the experience and anticipated with the waiver you sign just to be there. There's no other place like it.

I'd like to do it again - maybe at Talladega, but certainly at some other iconic track like Indy or Daytona or Watkins Glen. At the moment, though, I'm without any client interested in sending me back to a track with my cameras, so my weekend at Talladega felt something like a swansong.