Thursday, September 14, 2017

Film Festival

Cedric the Entertainer, Toronto, Sept. 2017.

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN I DID MY BEST WORK at the Toronto International Film Festival. And even if it wasn't strictly my best work, it was when I collected the lion's share of my most well-known subjects - the actors and directors who passed through town promoting their movies at the little film festival with the ambitious name (the Festival of Festivals, as it was once called) that managed to live up to its ambitions.

Since I barely do any celebrity portrait work at all any more, I decided last year to see if I was still up to the hurlyburly of film fest shooting, nearly a decade after I'd shot my last fest. This year, my friend Andrew Powell of The Gate upped his game and took possession of a suite at the Hotel Intercontinental downtown - the de facto festival hotel - to conduct interviews and attract celebs with a hospitality suite, complete with gift bags and rescue dogs.

Generously, he asked me if I wanted to set up my portable photo studio on site, to capture his interview subjects as they passed through the suite. I'd been wanting to do this for years, ever since the first photo suite showed up at the film festival over fifteen years ago. I'd always envied the photographers who worked those suites the luxury of having their subjects come to them, to a stable lighting set-up with at least a bit of technical control.

Of course I said yes.

Jessie Buckley, actress, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Sara Waisglass, actress, Toronto, Sept. 2017
Anne Winters, actress, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Charlotte Vega, actress, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Luisa Lee, actress, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Katie Boland, actress, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Anneke Sluiters, actress, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Saara Chaudry, actress, Sept. 2017.
Mary Galloway, actress, Toronto, Sept. 2017.

Actors tend to be generally striking people, so the easiest part of the job was shooting the actresses who passed through the suite, already made up and dressed for the camera, and prepared to present their best face. In these situations, it's gratifying that your subject is meeting you more than halfway; the worst part is that you're never far from producing little more than a nice headshot. Since these shoots rarely last more than a couple of minutes, you're banking on their own impatience with looking merely pretty, reacting with whatever nudge you can provide towards a result that transcends a simple record of youth and/or beauty.


One thing that has changed since my festival shooting heyday is social media, and the likelihood that you won't be the only camera in the room. Andrew and I both kept up a running feed across the usual outlets, but it was my oldest daughter who pointed out that one of my subjects had posted a picture of me at work on Instagram.

If there's a drawback to posting the highlights of my shoots online, it was when one subject was displeased with her portrait, and requested through her film's publicists that it be taken down. I won't say who it was, but I remember that at the session she was quite unexpectedly intense, staring down my camera, and that I responded by editing an image that was perhaps a little less flattering than dramatic. It was a risk, I knew it, and it turned out to be one that didn't pay off. I've put up a more subdued shot of that actress here; I'll let you guess who it might have been.

Brian O'Malley, director, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Stephen McCallum, director, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Ksenia Solo, actress, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Bill Milner, actor, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Philip Ettinger, actor, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Eugene Simon, actor, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Karim Sayad, director, Toronto, Sept. 2017.

The biggest challenge of a portrait marathon like this - besides maintaining your stamina and inspiration - is eliciting a performance from your subject. While most people involved - publicsts, agents, the subject themselves - would be satisfied with a merely flattering portrait, I always try to provoke something a bit more interesting by either catching a gesture or movement that's potentially arresting, or encouraging my subject to act a little for my camera.

This is presumably easy enough when you're dealing with an actor, though not necessarily - some actors don't consider themselves "on the clock" when they're sitting for media photographers. I did manage to coach some of my sitters through a performance during the six days of shooting this year, but one of my favorite moments - Swiss-Algerian director Karim Sayad - was captured in a single, errant frame, a shot that hints at a little reverie, enhanced by picking out the highlight from the window light on the side of his face.

Matt Nable, actor and writer, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Antonio Mendez Esparza, director, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Gustavo Salmeron, actor and director, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Justine Bateman, actress and director, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Gijs Naber, actor, Toronto, Sept. 2017.
Alan Zweig, director, Toronto, Sept. 2017.

Beauty is lovely but every photographer prefers working with a really great face, full of character and hinting at a subject who's willing to let a bit of their mental life show in their eyes. (And if they don't, they should.) With over forty subjects to work with, I could count on at least a few of these faces, one of which was my old friend Alan Zweig.

I was particularly impressed by Justine Bateman, an actress whose white hot moment of fame happened when I wasn't really paying much attention, back in the days when I didn't own a television. We talked about how she got her single engine pilot's license out of the rather challenging airspace around Santa Monica airport. She was nice.

Judy Greer, actress, Toronto, Sept. 2017.

For most people in the city, the film festival is when celebrities come to town, and while access to the biggest stars has become increasingly rare for photographers of my status, it's nice to get a name for a subject, especially when they're someone whose work you admire. Judy Greer is a longtime favorite of mine, one of those actors whose appearance in the credits promises to make a dull film watchable while they're onscreen.


She showed up with a few more people than most subjects, and therefore I had to work with a bit more of an audience in the room than the rest of the weekend. It can be distracting - conversations and running commentary will be going on while I shoot; it's hard to take control of the sitting when this happens, and at one point I remember Greer saying "I'm sort of freaked out by how close you are when you shoot!"

It's a fair comment; I do get in fairly tight when I shoot, and perhaps I wouldn't do it as much if I had ten or even five minutes on average to get a shot. But when you only have a minute or two, I've learned that invading the personal space of a subject is at least one way to break down their guard and elicit some sort of reaction. At this very tentative point in my career, my whole portrait setup is based around lighting and working into this very intimate space.

Cedric the Entertainer, Toronto, Sept. 2017.

Finally, Cedric the Entertainer was the first big name that Andrew mentioned as a possible subject in the weeks before the festival. He was in town with Paul Schrader's new film, and I couldn't help but try to imagine the best possible shot I could get, even while the shoot remained unconfirmed. It happened, in any case, on the last day of the festival, after we'd shut down the Gate Lounge and I was working with just my cameras, available light and a collapsible backdrop.

I've been a fan of Cedric's for years, since before the Barbershop films. Given my fondness for shooting portraits with the subject's eyes closed, I had an image in my mind of Cedric having a "moment," perhaps spiritual, perhaps even transcendent. We sat facing each other with a big window behind me in a mostly empty restaurant, and I explained that I wanted to get a bit of a performance from him.

I worked close for a few frames, then zoomed back and asked him to raise his hand over his heart. He seemed to like the direction I was asking him to go, and gave me the shot that was very nearly exactly what I'd been imagining for a week or more. It was the perfect end to the week.



Monday, September 4, 2017

Hamilton

Hamilton, ON, August 2017

ALL PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE LIARS. We don't mean to be. It's just the nature of what we do, selecting and cropping, manipulating and editing and - if we're halfway good at what we do - forcing the world to conform to our vision of what it looks like in our heads. Perhaps "liars" is too strong, but we are definitely unreliable narrators.

First of all, Hamilton doesn't really look like this - not much, anymore. After a period of rather severe decline, it's been rebounding for at least a decade and will probably start matching Toronto's ridiculous home prices in about five years. But my eyes were naturally drawn to the low water marks left behind from that decline during three days I recently spent there because they made for better pictures than a neatly renovated Victorian with a landscaped flowerbed out front.

Hamilton, ON, August 2017

The fact is that decay and dereliction are more appealing, for reasons that are hard to explain. Perhaps its our inherent morbidity, or the way a ruin seems to tell a whole story, right down to the final tragedy. For photographers, it's even simpler - old brickwork and crazed paint have pleasing textures an colours.

A photo is a document of a single moment - context is inferred, but you never know the whole story. These shots will probably look very different if I return in a few years; there might be new paint, and the boards will probably be down from in front of those windows. Or the change might be more abrupt, and the building will have been demolished altogether, and any trace of the view I caught last month gone forever.

Whitehern historic house, Hamilton, ON, Aug. 2017

Cities always change, but a historical house like Whitehern exists to resist change. The rooms have been carefully dressed to preserve them as they might have looked when the last residents lived there, though I somehow doubt that they were quite as pristine when Thomas McQuesten and his siblings were still alive. When you see a neatly made bed that nobody will probably ever sleep in again, it's hard not to see why people believe in ghosts.

I can't help but have a lot of affection for Hamilton. It was a city that I very nearly grew up in, and one that I often visited as a child - the furthest extent of my travels for many, many years. It's older than Toronto and, in its current state, hovering between stagnation and prosperity, it has a charm that Toronto doesn't have - probably never had.

Hamilton Cemetery, Aug. 2017

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

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