Monday, February 27, 2017

Agnieszka Holland

Agnieszka Holland, Toronto, Sept. 1995

I IMAGINE IT WILL BE A LONG TIME BEFORE A DIRECTOR HAS BIO LIKE AGNIESZKA HOLLAND'S. Never mind her time spent working as assistant director to Andrej Wajda in Cold War Poland, and the game of artistic cat and mouse that had to be played with governments in communist countries, or the fact that Holland found herself suddenly exiled from her homeland when the political tide suddenly changed and martial law was imposed in December of 1981. Just this Wikipedia passage on her parents contains more history and drama than most of us will live in seven decades:
Holland's mother was Catholic and her father Jewish, but she was not brought up in any religious faith. Her father was a member of the Communist Party of Poland who served in the Red Army during World War II. After the war, he returned to Stalinist Poland and wrote propaganda articles attacking the Polish underground Home Army. His own parents were killed in the Warsaw Ghetto; Holland's mother participated in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising as a member of the Polish resistance movement. Holland's Catholic mother aided several Jews during the Holocaust and received the Righteous Among the Nations medal from the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel.  
Holland was often ill as a child, and spent much of her time writing, drawing and directing short plays with other children. Holland's father died under police interrogation when she was 13 years old. Although official reports labeled his death a suicide, his family and others believe he was murdered by the communist police, by defenestration.
I didn't know any of this when I photographed her at the film festival in 1995. Wikipedia didn't exist and the internet was just a rumour and all I knew was that she was a European director who had begun working in English; her latest film starred David Thewlis and a young actor named Leonardo DiCaprio as French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud.

Agnieszka Holland, Toronto, Sept. 1995

I shot colour negative as well as black and white, so the shoot was obviously intended to be a NOW cover. I found my sweet spot of light and threw together a little setup with two of the film's posters that had been set up in the room on aluminum easels. I turned the posters around to show the foamcore backing and arranged them behind Holland's chair. I asked her to used the chair to create poses; my favorite is the one above, where she seems to cling to it with a dubious expression.

Agnieszka Holland, Toronto, Sept. 1995

I've never reprinted these shots since I handed them in to Irene at NOW over twenty years ago. Holland, on the other hand, has had an interesting career. She's managed to continue making the sort of serious art house films that were far more numerous when she emerged from Wajda's shadow (Washington Square, The Third Miracle, Copying Beethoven, In Darkness) while also working with quality cable networks like HBO and AMC, directing episodes of The Wire, Treme, The Killing and House of Cards.

Three years ago she even directed a remake of fellow Pole Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. While many of her peers have found it harder to keep working, Holland seems to have found a niche for herself that promises to add up to an interesting career, though in retrospect her momentum looks like it began before she was even born, in a hellish cauldron of history.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Piper Laurie

Piper Laurie, Toronto, Sept. 1995

I USED TO WISH I'D BEEN BORN IN A DIFFERENT TIME. About twenty years earlier and I'd have been able to capture the social tumult and style revolution of the '60s; forty years earlier and I might have had a chance to shoot the movie stars and musicians I have watched and listened to since I was a boy - the stars of swing and jazz and the icons of the golden age of the studio system.

By the time I had a camera in my hand and subjects in front of me, most of the stars of my favorite movies and jazz were either inaccessible or dead. I can count the exceptions on one hand; Mickey Rooney was a great star at MGM during its heyday, though my encounter with him was truly odd. Gena Rowlands came to Hollywood when the studio system was waning, though she had the sort of glamour I associated with a real movie star.

Piper Laurie, Toronto, Sept. 1995

Piper Laurie's career began when she was signed by Universal Pictures in 1949, a milky-skinned ingenue who was born Rosetta Jacobs. She didn't get a lot of great roles, and moved to New York City to do stage and TV work, before finally landing a truly great part alongside Paul Newman in The Hustler. For some reason, and despite an Oscar nomination, her career stopped dead after that, and she didn't return to the screen until she was cast in Brian De Palma's Carrie.

I photographed Laurie almost twenty years later; she'd returned to work with a vengeance, doing at least a role every other year, with highlights like Children of a Lesser God and Other People's Money. She even made a film with Dario Argento. Laurie was at the film festival for The Grass Harp, as part of a star-studded cast in a film based on a Truman Capote novel. Ironically, her sister in the film was played by Sissy Spacek, who had been her daughter in Carrie.

Piper Laurie, Toronto, Sept. 1995

Piper Laurie was very matter-of-fact with me during our shoot, which was obviously destined for NOW's cover since I shot a roll of colour. She didn't worry about her best angle or the most flattering light. She did, however, insist on wearing her flowery hat. Once again I draped the hotel curtain and sheers over a floor lamp, but tried to inject some colour by putting a table lamp behind the sheer curtain; the incandescent bulb glowed orange once I corrected the for the cool window light, accentuating Laurie's once-famous pale complexion.

I actually would have loved to have given Piper Laurie the full Hurrell treatment. I was experimenting in my studio with hard spots and hair lights and fresnels, but that required time and patience and access, and I'd never have that with my hotel room shoots. There was no shortage of celebrity when I was shooting in earnest, but not a lot of glamour - that had quietly slipped away years before I took my first photo.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Alan Rudolph

Alan Rudolph, Toronto, Sept. 1994

ALAN RUDOLPH IS ANOTHER DIRECTOR WHOSE CAREER WAS ONLY POSSIBLE in the long second golden age of American movies that started in the early '70s and lasted as long as foreign films, art houses and independent film producers thrived together in an ecosystem that no longer exists. His career followed the usual trajectory - an apprenticeship in television (assistant director on The Brady Bunch) followed by a pair of low budget horror thrillers (one of which he would disown) and a period working under Robert Altman, with whom he's inevitably compared.

His career as a director began in earnest with Welcome To L.A. in 1976, the sort of film with which I'd always associate him - a simmering, off-kilter drama where the characters strive for some fervent, often picturesque sexual congress that's ultimately unsatisfying. They were very adult films, starring sexy older women like Leslie Anne Warren (the thinking man's Susan Sarandon) and regulars like Keith Carradine playing a character that it would be very easy to mistake for Rudolph's alter ego, though probably with little accuracy.

Alan Rudolph, Toronto, Sept. 1994

I shot Rudolph when he came to the film festival to promote Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as writer Dorothy Parker. It was clearly destined for the cover, as I ran colour slide as well as black and white through my Rolleis. I liked placing my subjects on a table top when I could - another rip off/homage to Irving Penn - and was clearly drawn to the single spot of interesting light by the hotel room window, which I staged into a corner (another Penn homage) by draping the heavy curtain over a floor lamp but leaving the sheer curtain drawn to soften the light.

I shot the colour rolls with a fill flash in an umbrella to just barely overpower the window light, but turned it off for the black and white shots, striving for a bit more mood. Rudolph seemed something of a sophisticate to me - his latest film was about the Algonquin Circle, and he'd made an earlier film, The Moderns, set in the Paris art world in the '20s - so I tried to encourage a world-weary look from him, with results that ranged from cool appraisal to bored regard.

Alan Rudolph, Toronto, Sept. 1994

Rudolph actually had a more varied career than I remembered - I didn't know he'd directed Roadie, a vehicle for singer Meat Loaf, and had forgotten all about Return Engagement, his documentary about a lecture tour/debate featuring Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy. I always considered his films just a bit more adult than I was prepared for when they were released - an impression helped by the not-quite-softcore-but-almost trailer for Choose Me - so I tended to see them on a delay of a few years. Mrs. Parker was probably the first Rudolph film I felt ready to see when it was released.

Alan Rudolph's last film was released in 2002, and he hasn't found a refuge in cable television like so many other directors whose careers thrived from the '70s to the '90s. He seemed to have left the movies for painting, but last year he shot Ray Meets Helen, starring Carradine and Sondra Locke. A Variety article from a year ago describes it as a story whose characters are "stalled in mid-life, beset by profound material challenges and haunted by their failed potential in happier times. Each undergo a reversal of fortune, affording them unanticipated opportunities at self re-invention. So when their paths eventually cross, each is beguiled by the other’s altered persona..." Which sounds like an Alan Rudolph film.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Francesco Rosi

Francesco Rosi, Toronto, Sept. 1994

WHILE THE DECADE DIDN'T SEEM TO HAVE MUCH TO RECOMMEND IT AT THE TIME, I've come to miss the '90s. There were a lot of things that I took for granted that I would learn - too late - were on their way to disappearing. Things like quality literature on the bestseller lists, the last pretense of political objectivity in the news media, the news media itself for that matter, and art house cinema.

Francesco Rosi worked as a children's book illustrator and a reporter before he began his career in film working as an assistant to Luchino Visconti. He made his first film as a neorealist before moving away with a series of ever more stylized films about politics, organized crime and corruption - subjects that Italians sadly know more about than most other countries. By the time he made More Than A Miracle with Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif, he'd moved far from the neorealist camp.

Francesco Rosi, Toronto, Sept. 1994

Rosi was at the film festival in 1994 to publicize Carmen, his film version of the Bizet opera starring Julia Miguenes and Placido Domingo. There was a day when filmed operas were something seen regularly on movie screens, and not just as simulcasts from the Met in New York. One more thing to add to that list of things I didn't know were disappearing - opera as part of mainstream culture.

Rosi said his main inspiration for the film was Gustav Dore's illustrations of Spain, which he was sure were a major visual resource for Bizet, who had never been to the country. I had learned about Dore over a decade earlier in art class at school, and was obsessed with his engravings for Dante's Inferno and the Bible for years. I still have one on the wall of my office. And there's another thing that's gone - high schools teaching kids about 19th century French illustrators and Dante.

Francesco Rosi, Toronto, Sept. 1994

I'm guessing I photographed Rosi at one of the main film festival hotels - the Sutton Place or the Four Seasons, also both gone now. The wallpaper was an appropriate backdrop; a neutral texture until you started to notice it, and I took pains with these scans to bring it out a bit more than I would have in the original prints I handed in to NOW magazine.

I don't think Rosi could have looked more like an Italian film director, do you? He has a relaxed dignity, helped along nicely no doubt by his well-tailored blazer and boulevardier shades. His very wry smile does a lot to convey a man who's keeping a good joke to himself. He had more than enough self-possession that my instructions to him while we shot were probably minimal, though it was only the thousandth time in my life when I wished I spoke Italian.

Francesco Rosi died at home in Rome on January 10, 2015.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Auto Show

OVER A DECADE AGO I WAS ASSIGNED TO SHOOT MY FIRST AUTO SHOW, and it was a huge part of my reawakened passion for cars. Media Day at the Canadian International Auto Show was a much bigger affair then, spreading through the whole of the downtown convention centre and into the Skydome nearby. As a photographer, it gave you the only chance you'd have to shoot the cars in a relatively uncrowded setting, before thousands of hands had run over the the paint and smeared the windows and lights.

It's a smaller auto show now, for a lot of reasons not worth going into here, and even Media Day was scaled back this year, but I had my accreditation again and wasn't going to miss an opportunity to capture the details and art unique to auto design, or the peculiar spectacle of an auto show in general, and the Media Day in particular.

This year was the first one I was under no obligation to shoot anything to illustrate an article on upcoming auto trends, so I decided to enter the show without a safety net. I put a fisheye lens on one of my DSLRs and a LensBaby on the other, and didn't bother packing a standard zoom lens for backup. I was hoping to get something that represented how I remember the highlights of an auto show - a record of the best bits of the cars I'd seen, recalled in a feverish reverie.

It's probably no surprise that there were no shots of Civics or Fiestas or Elantras on my camera's memory cards when I got home. Race cars and concepts and classic cars buffed and shined lovingly by proud owners; this is what got me really excited at that first auto show media day back in 2006, and it's what will probably keep pulling me back to convention centres and parking lots, museums and golf courses and public parks over and over again, with or without my camera.

This was probably also my last year with press accreditation, since the source of my credentials for the last six years decided that auto show coverage is no longer justified by the readership numbers. Maybe someone else might ask me to cover the Canadian International Auto Show again, but right now it looks like the wide open spaces of Media Day are over for me, and I'll be back to ogling the cars in the midst of the crowds again.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Peter Medak

Peter Medak, Toronto, Feb. 1994

LEARNING TO IMPROVISE WAS ALWAYS THE HARDEST PART OF SHOOTING PORTRAITS. I would show up for so many shoots with some sort of idea in my head - either something I wanted to try or a concept inspired by my subject's reputation - but I'd know in less than a minute whether I'd be able to give it a shot. Most of the time the answer would be "no."

I arrived to shoot Peter Medak without any idea in my head. I knew his work mostly because of The Ruling Class, his 1972 black comedy starring Peter O'Toole, which had been re-struck and re-released into the art house circuit several years earlier, and which I'd seen mostly because I was such a huge fan of the star. I knew he was born in Hungary, but I didn't know whether I'd be dealing with a mitteleuropean artist or an English director (it turned out to be more the latter.)

Peter Medak, Toronto, Feb. 1994

I decided to make the hotel room setting a feature, and even shoot a few frames of him eating his room service lunch as I set up. (He wasn't nearly as put out by my camera as he looks in this shot; he was, in fact, quite cooperative.) I don't think I would have done anything with this shot at the time - too afraid of presenting my editors with something a bit too offbeat. Today I'd have gone for this shot straight away, but then I no longer suffer from the illusion that I have anything to lose.

Medak was in town promoting Romeo Is Bleeding, a "neo-noir crime thriller" (as described by Wikipedia) starring Lena Olin and Gary Oldman. He'd had a very busy career since The Ruling Class, directing films as different as The Changeling and Zorro The Gay Blade before returning to a thriving British film industry to make The Krays and Let Him Have It. Like a lot of art house and indie directors from this period, he's worked more on TV lately, directing episodes of The Wire, House, Breaking Bad and Hannibal.

Peter Medak, Toronto, Feb. 1994

He was interested in what I was doing as I set up, and noticed my little case of Rolleiflex cameras. He mentioned that he had a photographer mate back in London who used them quite a bit.

"He owns a whole bunch of Rolleis. Maybe you've heard of him. David Bailey?"

Of course I'd heard of David Bailey. Frankly, I was thrilled to hear that a big deal photographer was still using the Rollei; in Toronto at the time it was something of an eccentricity, so thoroughly did Nikon and Hasselblad dominate the business. In retrospect I had a lot of Bailey photos rattling around in my head without knowing it; only now do I recognize how often I was referencing (or just stealing) something he did in my work. I've always regarded this shoot as a little brush with photo greatness - my two degrees of separation.

Friday, February 3, 2017

John Sayles

John Sayles, Toronto, Sept. 1994

MOVIE DIRECTORS, AS I'VE SAID BEFORE, WERE TO MY '90s what rock musicians were to my '80s. Back when independent film was viable and people could still pronounce "auteur" I shot a lot of movie directors for NOW magazine, mostly because movie studios and distributors had the budgets to fly them to town for a day of interviews.

John Sayles was probably the epitome of American independent cinema, having taken the classic career path, starting with a brief stint in Roger Corman's exploitation stable before making his first art house hit, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, a film that would later be known as the Baby Boomer pre-midlife crisis weekend story that wasn't The Big Chill. He was at the film festival with his latest film, The Secret of Roan Inish, a story about selkies set in rural Ireland, made between his women's picture (Passion Fish) and his western murder mystery (Lone Star.)

John Sayles, Toronto, Sept. 1994

Sayles' reputation was based on his talent with scripts, bolstered by his involvement on an early version of what would become E.T. and uncredited work on movies like Apollo 13. I was personally a big fan of Baby It's You, his 1983 film starring Vincent Spano (remember him?) and a young Rosanna Arquette, about young love doomed by class differences in the '60s. Americans tend not to be able to deal with the complex machinery of class very well, mostly for lack of a vocabulary to discuss it with candor, so Sayles' film felt exceptional, at least when I saw it in college.

Sayles is what the British refer to as a Man of the Left, but his take on class in Baby It's You was refreshingly free of Marxist tropes. The best thing about the film, though, wasn't how it dealt with class as much as its very moving portrayal of that frightening moment, just after high school, when life suddenly isn't so full of promise and opportunity as much as disappointment and the bracing realization that your capabilities might be more limited than you imagined.

He'd explored something similar in The Return of the Secaucus Seven, albeit with adults breaking into their thirties harrowed by a reprise of this brute reality. It endeared me to him quite a bit, though I remember being more than a bit disappointed by his follow-up film, The Brother From Another Planet, which I can't help but recall as a film that Spike Lee might have had more success with.

John Sayles, Toronto, Sept. 1994

I don't know why I put Sayles in the deep shadows of the hotel room where we did this shoot. Perhaps I was trying to say something about his reputation as a screenwriter and script doctor - one of the movie industry's more obscure jobs. Or perhaps I just liked this stark piece of light by a bit of bare wall.

I know that I was trying to capture something heroic with the shot at the top, not just because of Sayles' politics (Men of the Left tend to regard their political stances as implicitly heroic) but more particularly reflecting his role in the independent film scene, in which he was once a trailblazer and where he's now something of a survivor, and an endangered one at that.