Monday, May 29, 2017

Gargoyle

Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, April 2017

MOST OF THE TIME, PHOTOGRAPHY IS ABOUT THE RIGHT MOMENT. Some of the time, however, it's about that, plus access. That's true whether you're talking about a portrait or a cityscape, and sometimes it helps to be able to go somewhere most people can't.

Several times in the last month or so I've been lucky enough to gain access to spots that most people can't go, either with or without cameras. Once was in my own hometown, but the other two were while on assignment, aided by the privilege that is one of the perks of travel writing.

Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, April 2017

I was walking back to my hotel from the harbor in Vancouver when I looked up and noticed the carved gargoyles on the corners of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Normally I would just bookmark a detail like this in the hope of some future access, but on this day I realized that I had the business card of the regional director of public relations for the hotel chain in my room, so I called and left a message as soon as I got off the elevator.

In a few hours it had all been sorted and I was let out of an inconspicuous door and over some slightly rickety scaffolding onto the roof terrace where the gargoyles - real and fantastical animals - have been glowering over Vancouver for almost eighty years. I was particularly drawn to the pegasus that looks down over Hornby and West Georgia, with the thin patch of bright green moss on its back and the colourful patina on the copper flashing by its hooves, the result of years of rain and pigeon shit.

Commerce Court, Toronto, May 2017

Before I left for Vancouver I'd gotten an e-mail from another PR person I'd worked with years previous, inviting me to an event at the old bank tower that was once the Toronto headquarters of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. It was home to one of the loveliest banking halls in the city, but the building also featured a now-closed observation deck behind four quartets of long stone faces near the top of what's probably Toronto's finest art deco skyscraper.

I lacked any sort of outlet for the photos besides this blog, but my contact was kind enough to add me to the list regardless. I showed up on the day with a bag full of cameras and lenses for a reception in the banking hall, where I snapped that ceiling in between canapes, and also took shots of an architectural model of the building, on display alongside other artifacts from the vaults of the bank's archives.

Commerce Court, Toronto, May 2017

I was assigned a number, and when our group was called we headed up in the elevator and got a short safety lecture before being led out to the 32nd floor observation deck, which has been inaccessible to anyone but building security and maintenance workers and bank executives for decades. (Though that hasn't stopped some intrepid friends of mine from getting out there.)

Commerce Court, Toronto, May 2017

With just fifteen minutes we had to move fast, and I shot as much as I could of the deck, the financial district skyline, and the "Giants of Jordan" with my new fisheye and my trusty Fuji.

A week later I was in Buffalo on a travel gig, on a private tour of the architecture of the old downtown, when my guide noticed Michael, the chief engineer of the Electric Tower building, as we were just about to leave the lobby. He asked if we could get a quick tour of the locked portions of the building, which is how I ended up in the abandoned offices of Niagara Mohawk Power on the seventh floor, and then in the "amphitheatre" at the base of the spire on the fourteenth floor, and then on the windy and never publicly accessible observation platform outside.

Electric Tower, Buffalo NY, May 2017
View east from City Hall, Buffalo NY, May 2017

The observation deck at Buffalo's magnificent City Hall, unlike the top of the Electric Tower, is very publicly accessible - though ringed with a high glass wall in keeping with modern health and safety (and legal) standards. I was there just a couple of hours after I'd been high in the Electric Tower, trying to get a decent shot of the skyline past the reflections on the glass.

I finally noticed this view of the city's park-like suburbs past the twin Lady Liberties on the roof of the Liberty Building, meeting the horizon just beneath the overcast sky.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Buffalo

Seventh floor, Electric Tower, Buffalo, NY, May 2017

THERE WERE TIMES WHEN BUFFALO FELT LIKE THE EMPTY SET OF A FILM NOIR. I mean that in a good way - thanks to a period of economic distress that was common to a lot of American cities, Buffalo managed to preserve much of its pre-war character, right down to the empty seventh floor of the Electric Tower, which is waiting for a tenant willing to preserve the former offices of Niagara Mohawk Power.

I've lived a short drive from Buffalo my whole life, and grew up watching the city's TV channels, which have made Shea's, the "Aud," Kleinhan's Music Hall, AM&A's and the Statler part of my childhood memories, even though I only saw them most of them up close for the first time last week. I was on assignment again, writing a travel story about Buffalo's architecture, which gave me rare access to the seventh floor of the Electric Tower and the still-abandoned portions of the Richardson-Olmsted Complex, in addition to some Frank Lloyd Wright.

Buffalo, NY, May 2017

Parkside Candy, by the way, is still in operation, and the Main Street store is worth a visit. The photo studio on Genesee, alas, is not, but I'd have rented it in a second if it was. There was a lot of this sort of thing in Buffalo, from Silo City to the Deco ballroom at the Lafayette Hotel. I really need to spend more time there.

Martin House, Buffalo, NY, May 2017
Graycliff Estate, Derby, NY, May 2017

Except for a couple of visits to the Guggenheim in New York, I'd never been inside a Frank Lloyd Wright building, and Buffalo is a constant source of embarrassment for Toronto in that it has seven Wrights, including a boathouse, a filling station and a mausoleum. (It would have had eight, but they knocked one down; everyone makes a mistake now and then.)

Richardson-Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, NY, May 2017

The Richardson-Olmsted Complex was the whole reason I was in Buffalo - they've opened a new hotel in the centre of the once-abandoned state asylum, and I was one of its first guests. I'm sure some of my urbex friends have been in the place when it was empty, and they're still doing tours of the abandoned floors while they remain untenanted. Part of me hopes that as long as there's an abiding interest in this sort of thing, they'll keep at least a bit of it unoccupied for the experience.

Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY, May 2017

The Albright-Knox wasn't originally on my schedule, but I was so eager to get inside this world-renowned museum that an hour was carved out of my last morning in town. As is my habit, I used the school groups visiting that day as subjects in my ongoing series of art museum tableaux. I felt really privileged to have seen Buffalo during this pregnant moment in the city's reinvention; I hope they can avoid Toronto's mistakes and preserve some of the charm I saw there.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Apocalypse Club, Toronto, Nov. 1989

CHRIS CORNELL HAS DIED, AN APPARENT SUICIDE. I can only imagine the pain this has left his family and friends to suffer.

I was a big fan of Cornell, and especially his first band, Soundgarden, who I saw several times on either side of the turn of the '90s. He was a spectacular front man with a phenomenal voice that was clearly some sort of gift, which is just one reason why his death seems - at least from this fan's perspective - a terrible waste.

Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Apocalypse Club, Toronto, Nov. 1989

My earliest memory of the band is their first Sub Pop album. My editor at Guitar World magazine in New York, Jesse Marinoff Reyes, once sang "Beyond the Wheel" over a dinner of fried alligator to Chris Buck and I, trying to sell us on what he felt was the obvious genius of one of his favorite hometown bands.

I saw them not long after in a dingy basement club in Toronto, packed in the front row where I was basically shooting right through Cornell's hair, just a few feet away from where Derek von Essen stood with his camera. I'm not sure if we were using the "grunge" word yet; there were a lot of great, loud, hairy bands playing clubs like the Apocalypse at the time, but I remember thinking Soundgarden might have stood a chance of making it big, thanks mostly to Cornell's incredible voice.

Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Lollapalooza, Molson Park, Barrie, Aug. 1992

It would be almost three years until I saw them next, but I have no problem remembering it since it was the week of the Rodney King riots, and we left the Concert Hall after the show to find Yonge Street blocked off by the police after copycat riots broke out way up here in Toronto, far from Los Angeles. The next time I saw the band with a camera in my hand was at Lollapalooza, and the rise above dingy basement clubs was obviously well underway.

Having photographed the band from mere inches away, I wasn't particularly into shooting Cornell over the lip of the stage and past the stage monitors. I got maybe two or three half decent frames before I started turning around to shoot the vast mosh pit behind me, which was where I thought the real action was that hot August afternoon.

Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Exhibition Stadium, Toronto, Aug. 1993

Cornell had cut his hair by the time I saw them next, on a bill with Blues Traveler and Pearl Jam supporting Neil Young with Booker T's MGs at Exhibition Stadium, on assignment for SPIN magazine. I've written before about how little I enjoyed that particular assignment. The band were just a few months away from releasing Superunknown and the single "Spoonman." I slipped away from the band around that time, partly losing interest in their musical direction, partly feeling that I was getting a bit old for the rock thing.

Cornell's voice never seemed to fail him, and over a decade later he recorded the first Bond movie theme I've liked since "Live and Let Die." I remember thinking at the time that it shouldn't have been at all surprising that he turned out to be the Tom Jones of my generation.

After witnessing the tragic ends of Cornell, Scott Weiland and Kurt Cobain, just to name a few, it would seem that the rock stars of my generation are a troubled bunch. I wish I could explain this with something better than a half-hearted guess or an overused generalization, but I can't. Weiland and Cobain's deaths weren't, either in retrospect or at the time, terribly surprising, but Cornell's came as a shock. I don't really have much to offer except a prayer for his family.

Chris Cornell died in Detroit on May 17, 2017.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Gena Rowlands

Gena Rowlands, Toronto, Sept. 1996

SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE I WAS BORN TWENTY YEARS TOO LATE. The rest of the time it's more like forty years. I've probably felt like this since I was quite young, but by the time I took this portrait of Gena Rowlands at the film festival in the mid-'90s, this regret was a condition of my life.

I posted one of these photos before - a scan of one of the few finished prints I've retained in my files, discovered when I was making the first excavation of my long-ignored archives when I started this blog. As I wrote at the time, I didn't have much recollection of this shoot in particular, but scanning my old negatives now, it seems that the film festival of 1996 was an unusually productive one, where I shot Gena Rowlands alongside Kristin Scott Thomas, Mike Leigh, Katrin Cartlidge and Stanley Tucci. A pretty good week's work, and probably my best that year.

Gena Rowlands, Toronto, Sept. 1996

By the mid-'90s I had a standard working method outside the studio - a small, light Manfrotto tripod with a ball head and a little Pelikan case containing two Rolleiflex cameras, a Sekonic light meter, close up filters, a cable release, lens hoods and two boxes of film. As long as the sun was shining and there was a window to pose the subject by, I knew I could get something.

It was a kit that whose technology hadn't changed much in forty years, and while there were some immense changes about to overwhelm photography, both creatively and economically, this was the last moment of an era. Which is probably why I started dressing for shoots in a suit jacket and cuffed trousers; I even had a fedora and a pork pie hat. Since I was working no differently than someone doing the same job in 1952 or 1965, I figured I'd dress the part. It was also, as I noted in an earlier post, a kind of armour - a uniform for a professional, there to do his job.

Gena Rowlands, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I'm especially reminded of this with the Rowlands shoot - obviously done for a potential NOW cover, as I shot cross-processed colour as well as black and white. Rowlands, while associated mostly with her late husband John Cassavetes and his very improvised, emotionally fraught and low-budget films, actually began her career in the waning days of the studio system, and arrived in front of my camera redolent of the sort of glamour that was rare by then, and virtually extinct now.

Rowlands had a cool, even icy beauty, and didn't lose it as she aged. Even as a young woman she never seemed like an ingenue; alongside a contemporary like Joanne Woodward she was a woman, never a girl, and brought  a frightening intensity to her husband's films such as A Woman Under The Influence, easily holding her own in the frame alongside Cassavetes and his leading men - Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel - and often blowing them away.

I must have found a very sweet spot of light when I shot Rowlands at the film fest, because it looks almost like a studio shot, right down to the patterned wall behind her. I would have given almost anything to have worked when someone like Rowlands ended up in front of my camera every week, instead of once a decade. But I missed that world by a scant decade or two.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

West

Train Station, Banff, Alberta

CROSSING THE CANADIAN ROCKIES FOR THE FIRST TIME was probably a bigger deal than it should have been. Nonetheless, I was over fifty when I finally managed it earlier this month, on a travel junket to take the Rocky Mountaineer luxury train from Vancouver to Banff. It's a trip that it seems most Canadian have wanted to take, and I was lucky to do it for work.

I love trains. They're the perfect balance between a car and a plane - you get to cover distances and see the sights while someone else does the driving and navigating. Taking a train with a gourmet kitchen and a glass-domed roof enhances this comparative advantage, of course, and it goes without saying that I took a lot of pictures.

Vancouver, BC

As a city, Vancouver is often described by Canadians as the anti-Toronto - coastal and laid-back instead of lakeside and work-obsessed. That might have been true at one point, but both cities have been experiencing real estate booms for so long that their differences have been minimized; making the money to afford to live there has become enough of a common endeavor that I imagine Vancouverites need to get a glimpse of the mountains every now and then to remember where they are.

I didn't get to see a lot of the town apart from a couple of walks down to the water from my hotel, but my travel media status did get me out onto the roof of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver to photograph the skyline from behind the magnificent carved gargoyles that have been brooding over the town for over seventy years.

Nancy Lanthier, Vancouver Art Gallery

If you've read this blog regularly, you'll know that I got my start as a photographer thanks to Nerve magazine, a ragged little music monthly published by the couple I usually referred to as the aggregate "Dave and Nancy." The end of Dave and Nancy also meant the end of Nerve, and Nancy eventually made her way to Vancouver. I hadn't seen her for years so when I knew I'd be passing through town I had to get together with her again.

While I feel older, grayer and fatter, Nancy didn't seem to have changed at all - still lovely, and full of the same enthusiasm and curiosity that have always made her so charming. We met in the hotel lobby and drank beer on the patio of the Vancouver Art Gallery next door, where I took a quick portrait of Nancy amidst the columns and umbrellas.

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward in his Kitsilano studio

An afternoon free also gave me a chance to meet someone whose work has been inspiring not only to my photography but to this blog in particular. When I started scanning my old photos and putting them online almost three years ago, Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's long-running website was the best model for this kind of thing I'd ever seen, so I had to ask if he had an hour or two free when I passed through his (adopted) hometown.

Alex began working as a professional over a decade before I did, and got to experience ten more years of what was probably editorial photography's last golden era. We talked about that, among other things, at his home in Kitsilano, where he and his wife Rosemary were kind enough to invite me for coffee and pastry. At the end of my visit he took me out to his studio, where I asked him if he'd sit for a quick portrait; I shot him looking back through the door of his shooting space to the filing cabinets where he keeps his work meticulously archived.

Rocky Mountains, British Columbia

Shooting from a moving train requires a steep learning curve; a steady hand isn't as important as timing - getting your camera out and ready when a new vista sweeps into view, and keeping one eye open for the break in the trees to get an unobstructed frame. There was a lot to shoot, and I had to suppress my street photographer's aversion to the scenic with the justification that I rarely get to photograph anything really spectacular, so it was time to relax into the picture postcard majesty of it all.

Railyard workshop, Kamloops, BC
Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta

I felt much more at home in the Kamloops railyard where the Rocky Mountaineer services their trains - a step off the beaten tourist path that I'd requested to see as part of my story on the effort and logistics that go into a luxury train. We also made a quick trip to Lake Louise after reaching Banff - one of the most iconic locations in Canada, and one that I perversely responded to with this photo of a stone wall buried in late winter snow.

Fenland Trail, Banff, Alberta

After two days on a crowded train I had an urge to escape crowds, so with an afternoon free I took a short hike on the Fenland Trail just outside Banff. Our host in the town helpfully told me that the recent grizzly warning for the trail had been taken down, so I got to enjoy the crisp, pine-scented air with only the slightest terror of predatory wildlife. We ended the evening of our final day in the mountains overlooking the town; I shot some scenic vistas, to be sure, but inevitably my eye was drawn to something a bit more man-made.

Sulfur Mountain, Banff, Alberta

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Kristin Scott Thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

THE AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER DUANE MICHALS HAD A LINE that my friend Chris and I used to quote at each other all the time: "There is no such thing as a bad celebrity portrait." In the same introduction for the book of portraits where he wrote this, he explained further:
When someone says, "What a beautiful photograph!" upon viewing a portrait of a handsome man, what they are really saying is "What a handsome man!" Most often, it is an ordinary photograph of a beautiful person. If the same photograph were of an ugly person, would it then be an ugly photograph?
This came to mind when I started scanning these portraits of British actress Kristin Scott Thomas, shot at the film festival when she was promoting The English Patient, and the role that would be her breakthrough. Perhaps they're good portraits; I like to think they are, but to be honest their quality as portraits is hard to judge when the subject is so obviously beautiful.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I remember wearing a suit when I did this portrait; it was when I had my own tailor and shirtmaker, and took to dressing formally as a kind of personal armour, and as a way of making portrait shoots a bit more formal, with myself as a kind of consultant, providing expert professional services. I still think it was a sensible way of going about this sort of work; I'd do it today if I could afford to again.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Kristin Scott Thomas was lovely and elegant and took my minimal direction with only the slightest hint of discomfort. I remember her complaining mildly to her publicist about the limousine the festival was sending around to drive her from her hotel to the theatre, which was only a block or two away. "I live in Paris - I'm used to walking everywhere!" she said. I said that I was sure that the festival was only being solicitous, and in any case it was part of the whole ritual of a film premiere.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I shot this without extra lighting - just my Rolleis on a tripod, the way I worked at what I know now was the pinnacle of my career. I could judge a hotel room for the sweet spot of light, I could print around any problems, and I had just enough time for a couple of set-ups back when fifteen minutes really meant fifteen minutes. I have always been pleased with the results but, once again, I can't take as much credit as I'd like since my subject clearly did so much of the work for me.

I suppose this was also the pinnacle of Kristin Scott Thomas' career as well; after an unpromising start as the love interest in Prince's worst film, she became a star with The English Patient, then discovered she didn't like working in the Hollywood system. She began splitting her time between theatre and film, turning up for what she described as small parts in big English films and bigger parts in smaller French films. Three years ago she told the Guardian:
"So they give me a little role in something where they know I'm going to be able to turn up, know what to do, cry in the right place. I shouldn't bite the hand that feeds, but I keep doing these things for other people, and last year I just decided life's too short. I don't want to do it any more."
The interview was for The Invisible Woman, where she played the mother of the love interest to Ralph Fiennes - her love interest nearly twenty years earlier in The English Patient. Such is the career trajectory of even a great beauty in the movie business. It's no wonder she's said she's "a recovering actress." (Though she has made four films since then.) Still, I remain eternally grateful for her gracious assistance in making my portraits so much better simply by being her very lovely self.