Monday, August 14, 2017

Sandra Oh

Sandra Oh, Toronto, March 1995

I HAD NO WAY OF KNOWING WHEN I TOOK THESE PHOTOS that Sandra Oh would end up having the career that she has. She was a young actress from Ottawa who'd just moved to Toronto after her first starring role in a movie. Grey's Anatomy was ten years in the future, and Oh was making a big splash in Canadian film and television, which - then or now - is no guarantee of anything like a career.

Oh was to be the subject of NOW magazine's "What I Wear" page - a fashion feature where celebrities, local and otherwise, itemized their everyday wardrobe and where they shopped for clothes. I vaguely remember that we met in Kensington Market because Oh was living there, but I might be wrong. In any case, these photos were mostly taken in a fruit and vegetable stand in the Market.

Sandra Oh, Toronto, March 1995

The usual format for What I Wear was a single, full-length vertical shot of the subject. I had gotten bored with this pretty quickly and began handing in collages instead - close-up shots of faces and feet and bits of clothing, printed different sizes and taped together onto a big sheet of paper that my editor would scan. We had a lot of creative freedom and space to work in NOW back then, and the best part of the job was how supportive my photo editor, Irene Grainger, was to our experiments.

Sandra Oh, Toronto, March 1995

Sandra Oh was a whirlwind of energy that morning, mugging for the camera and doing the old "melon under the shirt" gag. She was 23 years old at the time, dressed in thrift shop clothing (we'd call it "vintage" nowadays) and having far more success as an actor than anyone else in her profession could hope for at that age. I liked her.

Sandra Oh, Toronto, March 1995

I don't think either of us would have imagined the career she'd end up having, which is why I don't have anything like a conventional portrait of her here. If her career had proceeded on the usual trajectory, I'm sure I would have photographed her again in a few years, either for the opening of a play in one of the local theatres or as the star of the latest in a series of Canadian films made without the hope of turning a profit.

Last year, while shooting at the film festival, I ran into Oh in an elevator in the Intercontinental Hotel downtown. She was surrounded by three or four other women - publicists or handlers or agency types - and looked quite glamorous and put together; no more thrift shop velour tops. I introduced myself and mentioned this shoot; she laughed, which prompted her entourage to laugh as well. My oldest daughter isn't usually impressed by what I do, but she's a big fan of Grey's Anatomy, and thinks that my long-ago shoot with Oh is a big deal.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017


Pond, Washington, DC, Apr. 15, 1993

THE TAXI DRIVER SOUNDED CONCERNED. When he picked me up at Washington National Airport I gave him the address to my motel. "You sure?" he asked. I told him that was where the paper had booked me, so we drove across the Potomac and into Washington DC, past rows of tidy, well-kept townhouses on leafy streets and down broad avenues past imposing buildings housing government agencies and embassies and thousands of lobbyists.

I glimpsed the city's monuments as we drove, and was particularly surprised at how big the Washington Monument was, a gleaming white obelisk that always seemed to be visible above the rooftops. At some point we turned onto a road that took us across a bridge and suddenly it all changed and I was in the ruins of a city. Empty storefronts and long stretched of high chain link fences topped with coils of barbed wire. Men in layers of overcoats pushing shopping carts full of junk. It was almost a caricature of urban dereliction, something dreamed up by a set designer on a movie.

We finally arrived at my motel, which was behind yet another high fence and automatic gate and pulled up at the entrance. "Now I'm gonna wait here while you go in and make sure you have a reservation at this place," the cabbie said. "If you don't, I'm gonna turn around and find you a room at a good hotel." My room was reserved, no problem with that, so the cabbie shrugged after he took my money and drove away. I found my room, threw my bags on the bed and turned on the TV to see this:

I was in Washington DC to photograph a band called Pond for the cover of NOW, and the magazine had booked me into the same motel as the band to make hooking up for the shoot easier. Pond were signed to Sub Pop Records, which was flush with cash thanks to the grunge explosion and signing all kinds of bands, many of which hardly conformed to the flannel and hair image of the Northwest music scene - like Pond.

I watched the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas burn to the ground for about an hour while various experts tried to explain why this was happening. The band's van pulled into the parking lot and I introduced myself. I'm not sure if I even mentioned what I'd been watching, but I did remark on the compound-like nature of the motel and the dire neighbourhood that surrounded it.

We agreed that we should do the shoot downtown, near the monuments. I'm sure I probably insisted on it - if I'd been flown all the way down here I was sure the paper wanted me to deliver something that didn't look like I could have shot it in an alley behind a bar in Toronto. I think this was my first time in Washington, DC, and I was pretty overwhelmed by the scale of the buildings on the Mall - a reaction captured, I think, in the photo at the top.

Pond, Washington, DC, Apr. 15, 1993

Looking back, I think it was a pretty successful shoot - a departure from my usual close-up style, encouraged by the light on the Mall that day, bright but not harsh, with just enough haze in the air to fill in the shadows cast by the sun. The band were terribly nice guys, a bit stir-crazy from living in a van for the last month and grateful for a real bed that night. I went along to the gig that night at a club in downtown Washington and took photos of the show.

I still like the records Pond put out in the '90s, and I suppose I'd have shown these photos off a bit more if they'd gotten bigger. They left Sub Pop and recorded a record for Sony that wasn't bad at all before they finally broke up five years after I took these photos. They reunited for a gig in Portland, their hometown, seven years ago. It's a measure of their obscurity that a band from Australia is using the same name today.

I keep thinking that, once the lens of nostalgia finally turns full force on the '90s and record collectors start mining for obscurities, a band like Pond will get rediscovered; perhaps these photos will show up in some retrospective book or box set. Until then, they remain permanently bookmarked with the memory of that very strange day in Washington, DC with my motel behind the barbed wire and the burning compound in Texas.

Pond at the 9:30 Club, Washington, DC, Apr. 15, 1993

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Einsteurzende Neubauten

Einsturzende Neubauten, Toronto, July 23, 1991

IT'S EASY TO REMEMBER YOUR SUCCESS STORIES. If we're halfway sane, we try to forget about our failures, but some of them linger in our memory if they're particularly instructive or humiliating. This is what makes obscurity a gift: My failures were rarely witnessed or a matter of public record. In one case, though, I managed to get one of my failures documented.

I was a really big fan of the German industrial band Einsturzende Neubauten. It was easy to snicker at their very German image and avant-garde flamboyance, but their records were great and they could reach a peak of intensity live that most bands should have envied (in my opinion.) It went without saying that I always wanted to get a really good photo of any band I liked, so when the band came through Toronto for a gig at the cavernous dance club/concert space RPM down by the lake, I pitched hard for a chance to do the shoot.

Einsturzende Neubauten, Toronto,  July 23,1991

Shooting bands is difficult at the best of times; it's hard to get the same level of intensity from everyone in front of the camera, and group dynamics dictate that the band will go into any shoot subconsciously united against the photographer/outsider, whose motivations are presumed suspicious. In this case, I made it harder by choosing to shoot only with cross-processed slide film, but you have to try to understand my decision.

I'd shot enough bands by this point in my career that I knew I needed something to add some visual interest to what was, after all, going to be simply a photo of five men standing in close proximity to each other. I chose to use Agfa slide film for this shoot instead of the Fuji stock that I knew would deliver a fairly predictable result. Perhaps I did it because it was German, but I knew in advance that the results might be fairly difficult to print. I guess I was hoping that a chance element might produce an original result.

The band were more than usually obstreperous, and I spent most of the shoot being mocked or baited by lead singer Blixa Bargeld, whose very theatrical disdain only encouraged the rest of the band to treat the shoot as a bonding exercise just before they went onstage. It's not like I hadn't experienced this before, but for some reason I'd made the decision to ask whoever assisted me for this job - I wish I could remember who it was - to shoot a roll of me at work with a nice wide angle lens.

Shooting Einsturzende Neubauten, RPM Club, Toronto, July 23, 1991

This is one of the only documents I have of one of my shoots, and it's mostly a record of humiliation. I can see the frozen smile on my face, even from the back, as I'm cajoling Bargeld and the rest of the band to cooperate enough to present themselves to my camera with something less than boredom or contempt. I don't know why I expected anything less.

The results, when they came back from the lab, were mostly unprintable. Cross-processed film had a tendency to produce contrasty, saturated images, but the shadows on the Agfa film clotted like spilled ink and the usual green-blue colour cast overwhelmed almost everything else. It was difficult to remediate these flaws in Photoshop, so I can't imagine how difficult they were to correct in the darkroom. I'm reminded of why, even after relentless testing, I'd end up abandoning cross-processing, overwhelmed by the inconsistency of the results.

My favorite shot from the session today is the one below. The focus is unacceptably soft, probably because I snapped the shutter at the moment when the whole shoot was about to go off the rails, as Blixa had the band rally behind him to lampoon what he obviously saw as the risibly show biz idea of five guys posing for a camera backstage before a gig. It's a moment of almost pure contempt, but it cuts across Neubauten's forbiddingly Teutonic image almost enough to overcome its fatal technical flaws. Consider me humbled.

Einsturzende Neubauten, Toronto,  July 23, 1991

Saturday, August 5, 2017


Screaming Trees, Toronto, 1991

I HAVE SHOT A LOT OF BANDS. Almost none of that work is anything I'm particularly proud of today, but I still have a little backlog of it in my files, and now felt like as good a time as any to scan it and get it out there. Some of it is, I hope, of at least historical interest for fans. The photos in this post are a personal record of something else - failed technical experimentation, mostly.

I shot the Screaming Trees a few months before the release of Nirvana's Nevermind pinned them to the part of the map that said "grunge" - perhaps unfairly, but they might have made just a little more money by being press-ganged on to that particular bandwagon. They'd put out a few somewhat psychedelic records on SST back when I was still at Nerve, but I shot them in 1991, on tour with Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters and after they'd been signed to Epic Records.

Screaming Trees, Toronto, 1991

In a year they'd release Sweet Oblivion, a record I played a lot, but when I took these photos they were just another band who'd survived the indie rock swamp and had scored a chance at a potentially bigger audience. They'd never really get it in the shadow of Nirvana, but the band ended up being a launching pad for their singer, Mark Lanegan, who would turn out to be more interesting than I imagined when I posed them in the alley behind what I'm guessing is the Rivoli on Queen West, with a bunch of colour film I was hell-bent on cross-processing and a flash head in a tiny soft box at the top of a light stand.

fIREHOSE, Toronto, 1991

I shot fIREHOSE a few months later in the same alleyway with the same flash and cross-processed film. They were another bunch of SST veterans now signed to Epic's parent company, Columbia Records, but my history with them went back a lot further.

Mike Watt and George Hurley had been the rhythm section of the Minutemen, a seminal SST band who were credited, along with the Meat Puppets, Husker Du and Black Flag, with breaking hardcore punk out of its stylistic rut and giving birth to what would be the indie rock sound. I was a huge fan, and saw them in New York City just a couple of months before the van accident that killed guitarist D. Boon and ended the band.

fIREHOSE, Toronto, 1991
Minutemen, Irving Plaza, NYC, 1985
It was at the beginning of what I didn't even know then would be a photographic career, and I'd interview and photograph them in the dressing room and bathroom at Irving Plaza. I had a whole roll of photos of the band goofing around for my camera - in the toilet stalls and playing with a big blow-up globe that was somehow on hand, but that roll of photos went missing many years ago and I've never been able to find them again.

The shot above is all that's left - a scan of a print I'd passed on to Phil Saunders, a onetime Nerve colleague, to pass on to Mike Watt. Instead of taking the print, Watt and Hurley signed it (the Blue Oyster Cult logo is, I suppose, a stand-in for the signature of Boon, who was a huge BOC fan) and gave it back to Phil. They look like pretty basic shots, but I'd give anything to find those negatives again today.

This is what makes it poignant that the bottom shot of Watt, Hurley and Ed "fROMOHIO" Crawford - the Minutemen fan who convinced them to start playing again with him taking Boon's place - was shot years later in another dingy dressing room (the Rivoli again, I'm sure.) As with the Screaming Trees shots, probably on assignment for HMV magazine.

Babes in Toyland, Toronto, 1992

The Babes in Toyland shoot was a bit more polished, done once again for HMV when the band were on tour as the opening act for Lush. I'd set up with a rented backdrop and my strobe lights at the back of the Opera House on Queen East, and after changing the lighting setup from the one I'd used for Lush, got the band to pose for yet another batch of cross-processed film.

The Babes were once known as the group who Courtney Love copied nearly wholesale when she formed Hole, right down to singer and guitarist Kat Bjelland's signature look, later dubbed "kinderwhore." They were a pretty raucous bunch of women; drummer Lori Barbaro was famous as a scene fixture, well-liked for her energetic support of anyone she liked. Bassist Maureen Herman had just joined the band, whose new record, Fontanelle, would be released later that year.

A somewhat slick, even characterless shoot, in my opinion. I was far more concerned with nailing down a look I'd seen elsewhere and not with finding something like my own style. It was a mistake I'd make a lot during this hit-and-miss period of my career. Frustrating, to be sure, but at least I was working a lot, which meant that just occasionally something faintly original would make it through all the mimicry.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Chris Buck

Chris Buck, Parkdale, Sept. 1989

IT'S MY OLD FRIEND CHRIS BUCK'S BIRTHDAY TODAY and I'm posting some old pictures of him as part of a tradition I began with this blog. We're both 53 this month; it's not a round number or one that looks particularly significant on the page, so there's not a lot I think I can say about it except that it feels neither young nor old. Somewhere between the parlour and the kitchen of middle age, the front door behind our backs and the back door in sight.

As I said when I began this tradition, I probably photographed Chris more than anyone else I knew (with the possible exception of my roommate Sally, who I was constantly pressing to hold up colour grids for film tests.) We'd use each other as guinea pigs to test out new cameras or lighting setups, and these two shots were taken just a month apart. The photo at the top is probably the closest thing I ever got to a nude in my career; I'll let you decide if that's a pathetic admission.

Chris Buck, Parkdale, Oct. 1989

The next shot was part of my struggle to master high key lighting; I've posted a frame from this shoot before. As much as these were tests of cameras or film or lighting, they were also an opportunity for each of us to experiment with how we presented ourselves to the camera. Chris would become much better at it than I ever did; I have never overcome my unease on the wrong side of the lens.

The final shot is recent, taken in the middle of our day long epic hang in New York City earlier this summer when I came to town to see the Irving Penn retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It had been a big year for Chris, who had published a thick monograph of his portrait work just before Christmas. Walking through the Temple of Dendur, I impulsively asked him to stand between two statues of Sekhmet, the Egyptian goddess of healing. I have no idea if that means anything. Happy birthday, old friend!

Chris Buck, Temple of Dendur, NYC, July 2017

Monday, July 24, 2017


Horse barns, Calgary Stampede, July 2017

STAMPEDE IS ONE OF THOSE THINGS THAT - AT LEAST FOR ME - DEFINES CANADA AS A COLLECTION OF REGIONS. An annual event since 1886, 1912 or 1923 (depending on what you read,) it's a sort of state superfair, the sort of thing no Prime Minister can avoid attending, even if they're unpopular with the citizens of Calgary or Alberta. I don't recall a time when I didn't know about Stampede, but I never thought I'd ever get there.

You need to understand Stampede to grasp Western Canada, and how it has proudly held itself separate from the country to the east and especially the capitals of Canada's "two solitudes" - Toronto and Montreal. For ten days, businesses decorate their entrances with hay bales and split rails, citizens head to their jobs in jeans, western shirts and cowboy hats, and horses parade down the main streets every morning. Make no mistake - Calgary is a very modern, prosperous city, but for the duration of Stampede, it collectively glories in its nickname "Cowtown."

Downtown Calgary, July 2017

It's also one of those places in Canada where the presence of First Nations people - plains tribes such as the Blackfoot, Cree, Stoney, Assiniboine and others - is much higher profile than in the eastern capitals, and the Treaty Seven tribes have been a major part of Stampede from its beginning. The Indian Village, with its circle of clan tipis, is an annual attraction with its daily pow wows, tours and crafts for sale, and its participation has increased as a political and public image priority for the Stampede over the years.

Indian Village kids' pow wow, Calgary Stampede, July 2017

Stampede is also the place where Canadians can celebrate our own iteration of that most American of mythic figures - the cowboy. Rodeo events and chuckwagon races are integral to the annual event, celebrated and supported in defiance of pressure put on it by animal rights groups whose priorities and politics are viewed as essentially "eastern" and therefore hostile.

I was lucky enough to have Jim Dunn, an actual cowboy, as my guide to help untangle what looked like the apparent chaos of the chuckwagon race, and explain the judging criteria for bronco and bareback horse riding. A multiple winner of Stampede and Canadian bareback rodeo championships, a pro rodeo association hall of famer and the winner of Cowboy of the Year, he seemed like the perfect ambassador to guide this easterner through his culture shock.

Jim Dunn, cowboy, Calgary Stampede, July 2017
Chuckwagon horse, Calgary Stampede, July 2017
Rodeo riders behind the chutes, Calgary Stampede, July 2017

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Three years

Selfie in front of Irving Penn's backdrop, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, July 2017

IT'S BEEN THREE YEARS SINCE I STARTED THIS BLOG, after my wife noticed that I was moping around the house a bit too much. As a make-work project, she told me that I should start digging through my old negatives to see if anything was worth scanning and putting online. I frankly dreaded the thought, but my wife is usually right about most things, so I swallowed hard and got to work.

Three years later I'm shooting more than I have in a decade, and feeling a lot better about my work than I imagined I would when I cracked open that first binder full of negatives. I know, however, that I'm entering the home stretch with this blog project - there are only a few dozen worthwhile shoots worth digging up from my old negatives before I hit the dawn of digital photography, and once I've gone through whatever was worthwhile from my time shooting at the national free daily, the project of discovery and appraisal will be over. I'll be surprised if there's a fourth anniversary post in a year.

In front of framed Bjork print, Analogue Gallery, 2016. Photo by Steve Stober
In front of framed Patti Smith print, Analogue Gallery, April 2017

One of the milestones of the last year or two was my decision to enter my work in a juried competition and see what happens. In late 2015 I entered five shots into the Sound Image show at Analogue Gallery, a Toronto photo gallery that specialized in music photography. My portrait of Bjork made the cut so, when the next Sound Image show was announced after Analogue moved its premises, I sent in another five entries.

My Patti Smith portrait made the cut, and to my surprise won the Photographer's Choice award this year, which felt very gratifying. Neither print sold, however, which reminded me of something I learned over twenty years ago: Gallery shows are mostly pointless. The walls of our house are full of framed prints from gallery shows I've done since the early '90s, and I can count my sales from all of them on one finger.

Steve Lacy print, ready to mail, Dec. 2016
Montana print, framed, 2016

Which doesn't mean I haven't sold any photos. Far from it - thanks to this blog I've managed to sell a few prints, which is a big ego boost (and far more economical than shouldering the expense of printing and framing without a guarantee of a sale.) I should probably try and think of a way to sell prints more aggressively online, and maybe I will, but I do know that it will take a lot to convince me to do a gallery show again.

I've also returned to something I haven't done in at least twenty years - band photography. It began with a Facebook message from Joel Wasson, an old friend and compatriot from the Toronto music scene. He'd done something really remarkable and basically grown his own rhythm section - he'd started a punk band with two of his sons and wanted me to take the album and publicity photos.

I met Joel at Ian Blurton's studio in the Portlands and headed out for an hour of shooting in the August sun. There were a few shots I liked, but my favorite was the one at the top, shot by the entrance of the go-kart track just down the street from Ian's studio. In my mind, this would have been a fantastic picture sleeve for a 45, but people don't do that sort of thing much anymore. It was a pleasure working with Joel who, bless him, was the first person to actually bother to ask if I wanted to shoot their band in ages.

The biggest coup of the last year was getting a photo in the New Yorker, at least judging by the reaction when I announced it. It would never have happened without this blog, but I was loathe to tell anyone it was happening until the issue was in my hands, as this was the second time the magazine had wanted to use one of my photos.

Thea Traff, a photo editor at the New Yorker, had contacted me about a year previous about using one of my Spalding Gray photos but it had fallen through. She e-mailed me very soon after my Jay McInerney post had gone up, and after an anxious wait told me that she was pretty sure my shot had made the cut. I'd thought the McInerney shots looked like they belonged in a magazine like the New Yorker when I shot them; I only had to wait thirty years for it to happen.

A highlight of the year was Seth's Dominion, a graphic autobiography published by Drawn & Quarterly to go with a documentary on my old friend, the comic book artist Seth. My very Irving Penn-esque portrait of Seth with Chester Brown and Joe Matt has always been one of my favorite shots, and after the contact sheets from that shoot ended up forming a two-page spread in D&Q's 25th anniversary book, Seth asked if he could use one of the better frames in his new book.

As the project grew, a portrait I'd taken of Seth and his then-fiancée Tanya was added, as well as the wedding photos I'd shot for them. I was happy to help Seth out with the book, though everyone involved was shocked when the print run ended up stranded at sea in a container when the shipping line that was bringing it back from the printers went bankrupt.

Another big project this year was a set of photos for Natalie Merchant's career retrospective box set. It was another job that wouldn't have happened without the blog, and I spent several long nights scanning and re-scanning my portraits of Natalie, taken for the National Post almost twenty years ago, to get them to the quality she wanted for the package.

There's another box set I'm very excited about working on, but I don't have a finished product to show yet, so it'll have to wait, perhaps for that fourth anniversary post.

While I was hanging around Ian Blurton's studio with Joel and his sons, Ian asked if I'd be available to shoot a reunion of his old band, Change of Heart, for some shows organized around the 25th anniversary reissue of the band's most ambitious album, Smile. I met Ian and the core band who made that record (bassist Rob Taylor, keyboardist Bernard Maiezza and drummer Glenn Milchem) at his studio and after shooting inside, we headed out into the inclement April weather and the same go-kart track where I'd shot The Discarded.

The band ended up using the shot I did there with a fisheye lens, but my favorite was the one just beneath it, deep in the building's basement by the freight elevator. I can see why they might not have thought it the best choice for a publicity shot, but I can't help but like it as a portrait of four men I've known on and off for over three decades. I've since worked with Ian on another project, but the results of that collaboration will probably have to wait for that putative fourth anniversary post.

It's been a great year. I've traveled to some great places, worked with people I like and taken photos I'm proud to show here. There's some good stuff coming up just over the horizon, God willing, and I'm cautiously hopeful that, once I've exhausted my stock of old photos in my archives, I might continue to showcase what I'm still in the habit of referring to sarcastically as my career's "second act."

Selfie at Calgary Stampede with cowboy hat, July 2017