Friday, June 15, 2018

Jodie Whittaker

Jodie Whittaker, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

THE NEW DOCTOR WHO. To be fair, I couldn't have known this when I shot these portraits of Jodie Whittaker, a young English actress promoting her first role onscreen at the film festival. The show had only been revived a year earlier with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, and people were talking more about his northern accent than the possibility of a female Doctor.

Whittaker was just twenty-four when she arrived at the festival with Venus, and she couldn't have asked for a more noteworthy debut with Peter O'Toole as her co-star. I might have been a bit disappointed that I wouldn't get a chance to photograph O'Toole - he'd been on my "List" since I'd first come up with one, but I'm not sure if he even bothered making an appearance at the festival that year.

Jodie Whittaker, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

I didn't know anything about Jodie Whittaker when she walked into the press suite at the Intercontinental on Bloor, but I remember that she was tall and taking the whole film festival thing in her stride. If she reminded me of anyone, it was probably Cate Blanchett, when I'd photographed her at the film festival eight years previous, though Whittaker was far more confident in front of my camera.

Photographing someone like Whittaker is a challenge, since they don't arrive with any sort of persona you can work with or play against. You have to look them square in the eye and just let them react to you and the situation of being photographed. Jodie Whittaker held her ground remarkably well, at least according to what I see in these shots. A bit of time-traveling insight would have been useful, of course, as I'm sure I'd have had more ideas about photographing the Thirteenth Doctor.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Alejandro González Iñárritu

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

I USED TO SEE A LOT OF MOVIES. At some point in my twenties I went from enthusiastic moviegoer to cineaste, and the time I used to spend in clubs seeing bands shifted to cinemas, rep houses and video rentals. I've been paid to write about movies for almost as long as I've been taking photos professionally, so I've always had a lot of respect for movie directors, mostly because they have a job that I think I'd hate.

Filmmaking is a collaborative art - everybody knows that - but what that mostly means is that if you're really good and live with the certainty that you know what a movie should look like better than any producer, writer or actor, you're essentially at war with everyone you need to help you make that film. I have a lot of respect for directors who can maintain a personal vision - an aesthetic brand, the mark of the auteur - when they could just as easily choose compromise and have a journeyman career, for which they'd get paid just as well, and probably work more often.

They keep saying that the idea of the auteur is dead, but a handful of working directors still get tagged with the word - like Alejandro González Iñárritu. Part of a wave of visually distinctive directors that came out of Mexico in the '80s and '90s - his peers are Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro - he's made the shift to Hollywood without losing his identity, and along the way has won pretty much every award worth winning: Oscars, BAFTAs, Independent Spirits and Golden Globes, and awards from the DGA, AACTA, the AFI, the PGA and the National Board of Review, and from Venice, Cannes and Palm Springs.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

Iñárritu had made his breakthrough with Amores Perros, and was at the festival with Babel, his second Hollywood film after 21 Grams. He was a big deal, which meant that it was implicit that he didn't have much time for my photos. (Well, nobody ever did, really, but PR and handlers never seemed to tire of letting you know it.) I panicked when I realized that I was in one of the suites in the Intercontinental on Bloor without any usable windows, so I took a quick run around the suite (three small rooms, basically) and found a blank wall behind a door in a room where there seemed just enough light.

There is a level - don't ask me to tell you where it begins - where portrait photography might be about revealing something about your subject (or yourself. Or both.) But on the most basic level, a portrait shoot is much like this one, where you stand there and try to figure out what to do with a good-looking man wearing an expensive-looking grey crewneck sweater and a corduroy bucket hat. It's a matter of colour and texture and geometry, and with years of experience your mind immediately flips through a file of references and short cuts looking for somewhere to start.

The great thing about most photography that isn't advertising or high level editorial is that it isn't really collaborative; you're alone with a subject who, since they can't look at themselves through the viewfinder, doesn't really know what you're doing. You make some decisions based on instinct, like composing vertically with the rule of seconds, letting the texture of that nice sweater take up half your frame.

You make others based on an assumption of technical skill after the fact - like how am I going to balance the colour in this shot that I'm taking in a room with mixed light sources, most of which are hotel bulbs bouncing light all around the walls? A couple of days later, you're on deadline so you just hit the white balance button in Photoshop and let the software give you a rough approximation of proper skin tone. Twelve years later you say "fuck it" to correct skin tone and play with the CMY sliders till you get that burnished golden tone in the highlights you like so much right now. I often think it's a shame no one would ever hire me to teach photography, but then it occurs to me that it's probably not very useful to tell young people that the best creative decision you can make is likely to be "fuck it."


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Carrie-Anne Moss

Carrie-Anne Moss, Sept. 7, 2006

ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER FILM FESTIVAL. I'm not complaining - I wasn't then, either - since the film festival has always been pretty much the only week every year where I got to do as much portrait work as I wanted to the rest of the year. 2006 was even more busy than previous years, while the next year would be my busiest ever at the free daily. I wish I'd known at the time the opportunity I was being given.

My first subject was Carrie-Anne Moss, who'd rocketed to stardom with the Matrix films a few years earlier and was at the festival promoting either Fido or Snow Cake, or both. Moss was probably at the zenith of her career at the time - though she's kept working pretty consistently since then, even finding herself a place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe playing a recurring character across the franchise's TV series.

Carrie-Anne Moss, Sept. 7, 2006

I got access to names like Moss thanks to the free daily, and my editor Jodi's decision to make celebrity entertainment coverage a big part of its package. Previously, working for NOW magazine, I might have occasionally been assigned a movie star, but the emphasis was on art films and directors. Today, access to big names is far more restricted; I don't think publicists were ever enamoured with putting their talent in front of a random selection of photographers in the midst of a hectic press day, and with fewer big publications (but a lot more small, internet-based ones) they've rationed access like this to only the biggest.

For her part, Moss was a more than cooperative subject. Once I'd found my spot of light - easier to find now, after a couple of years shooting at the Intercontinental on Bloor - it was simply a matter of framing her up close and letting Moss engage the persona that had made her a star: A mature woman, smart and able to beguile with a direct look that made you feel like you might be allowed into her confidence, provided you proved worthwhile. Another example of a portrait that works mostly because the subject knew how they looked, and met my camera at least halfway.

Carrie-Anne Moss, Sept. 7, 2006

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

World Trade Center

Oliver Stone, July 17, 2006

THE RUBBLE WAS STILL SMOKING ON MY TV SCREEN on the morning of September 11, 2001 when I wondered to myself how long it would take Hollywood to start turning out 9/11 stories. It wasn't the most noble or profound thought, I'll admit guiltily, but I had been shooting and writing about entertainment for over fifteen years and I thought that this was the sort of history that would be irresistible as a subject or just a setting.

As the response to the attacks resonated over the days and weeks that followed, I anticipated the stories that I assumed were already in production. I imagined several movies, told from the perspectives of everyone from a passenger on one of the flights or a worker in the towers to an Afghan farmer or a shop owner in Kabul. There would, I thought, be at least one miniseries, attempting to tell the whole, long story of how such a thing could happen, or just anatomize the events of that morning from every possible angle, like an exploded diagram of a timeline that turned minutes into hours.

Sure, there were films that came out in the next year or two that reflected the stunned, anxious mood of the time, like Spike Lee's 25th Hour, one of his better films, and one that pauses for a moment in its build-up to let the camera linger as it looks out a window over the former site of the towers in Lower Manhattan, which seemed like they'd be a crime scene and a construction site forever. But I was surprised when almost five years passed before I found myself in a hotel elevator on my way up to a press junket for the first real attempt at a 9/11 movie.

Michael Pena, July 17, 2006

World Trade Center was, along with United 93, one of two films about 9/11 that would come out that year. It's some measure of the stunning weight of the actual event that both films are straightforward depictions of the events of that day, told from either the land or from the air, without any political editorializing. Even more shocking was that the former film was made by Oliver Stone, a filmmaker happily given to politicized projects and hardly immune to paranoid or even conspiratorial takes on history.

Stone was in Toronto with actor Michael Pena, who played (along with Nicolas Cage) one of two police officers, Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, who were buried alive under the rubble of the towers but survived thanks to the efforts of other first responders and rescuers. Scott Strauss was also there - one of those rescue workers who helped find the handful of survivors in the wreckage (and was played in the film by Stephen Dorff.) The one thing that shocked everyone was how straight Stone had played the story, and when I interviewed him that morning he explained that he was simply trying to respect the viewpoints of the living people he was portraying:
"I did not make this movie pro-American, or anything like that. I made it international. I want to make a movie that works for the world. I want people to respond to people ... Certain people took that day and made it into anger. Other people like John (McLoughlin), in the end, in the voiceover, he made it into a different reaction. He called it goodness."
I took very simple, straightforward portraits of the men in that hotel suite (I'm guessing it was the old Four Seasons in Yorkville), using three different bits of daylight. Pena is usually cast as a sympathetic sort of everyman, a character defined by either naivete or inherent morality, while Stone is a famous contrarian, an intelligent man, but one with an infuriating sympathy for anyone - even despots and dictators - who shares his skepticism about America. I figured they could present themselves to my camera without much direction.

It was my portrait of Strauss that I worried about the most. He wasn't famous, like Stone, or used to facing cameras, like Pena. He was an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary story, asked to join the film's press junket to provide quotes from someone who was there, on the day, where history made an ominous footfall. It was a sign of how much the film's producers wanted to show that they were treating that history - still very raw five years later - with due respect, and I tried to do the same with my portrait of Strauss.

Scott Strauss, July 17, 2006

Monday, June 11, 2018

Jason Reitman

Jason Reitman, March 7, 2006

MEN AND WOMEN ARE DIFFERENT. Some of the reasons are obvious, while others are simply a matter of custom - like how so many of the shoots I've done with actresses or other female entertainers will be preceded by the ministrations of a hair and makeup person. I've written before that I think at least a few of the men I've photographed might have liked the same cosmetic advantage - I never did his portrait, but I can't imagine that anyone did a portrait session with Prince without one person each to deal with hair and makeup, with a stylist at work as well.

This got me thinking when I found these photos of director Jason Reitman in my files. As a "behind the camera" personality, someone like Reitman would never have the services of hair and makeup people for anything but a shoot to go with a feature in a high end glossy mag like Vanity Fair or Entertainment Weekly, while almost any actress I shot for the free daily had a professional with a black canvas apron loaded with hair brushes, styling spray and makeup wedges in attendance.

Jason Reitman, March 7, 2006

These are very middling photos, to be sure, so I thought it would a worthwhile experiment to give Reitman the same treatment I might give an actress of a certain age in Photoshop, after the fact of the shoot and even with the cosmetic assistance provided and paid for by the movie distributor. For the top photo in particular, I went to town with the full battery of retouching, dodging, burning and digital burnishing that I'd feel obligated to employ if some flattering light and a generous application of concealer didn't quite do everything they needed to do on the day.

They look pretty strange, I have to admit.

I'm not exactly sure why Reitman - a Canadian by birth, but a Hollywood kid by upbringing, the son of director Ivan Reitman - was in town doing publicity. His hit debut film as a writer and director, Thank You For Smoking, had come out the previous year, and it would be another year before he released Juno, the film that established his reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the industry. I'm not even sure what hotel he was in, since the best spot of light I could find - and it wasn't a great spot, to be sure - was by the bed. Whatever the circumstances, here's what he looked like if he'd been Charlize Theron on a bad day.


Friday, June 8, 2018

Chicago

Grant Park, Chicago, winter 1999

AFTER BARCELONA, THE SECOND TRIP MY FUTURE WIFE AND I TOOK WAS TO CHICAGO. She had to cover a housewares convention and I decided to tag along; I'd been to the city at least a couple of times before, shooting covers for NOW magazine, and I liked it. Chicago occupied some sort of middle ground between Toronto and New York City, in terms of size and scale and urban density, and as a result felt very familiar from the first time I went there.

We decided to take the train - VIA Rail from Toronto to Windsor, then Amtrak once we'd crossed the border at Detroit. Along the way we got a nighttime glimpse of the horror that is Gary, Indiana, and an up close encounter with the gentle manner of pre-9/11 American Customs and Border officials. ("Next time you're here ya should learn English," bellowed the lady with the badge and gun at the pair of frightened Japanese grandmothers in our train car. Seriously America, I love you, but you've got to find better people to work as your greeters.)

Amtrak from Toronto to Chicago, winter 1999
View from Marina Towers, Chicago, winter 1999

Our accommodation was provided by a novel precursor to Airbnb - a (now defunct) service that rented out spaces in heritage buildings for tourists. We managed to snag the home of one of the owners of the service - an apartment in the iconic Marina Towers building right on the river in downtown Chicago. (Soon to be made even more iconic by the cover of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot record.)

I brought just two cameras with me for the trip - a Rolleiflex, and a disposable Kodak panoramic camera. I'd been a fan of the FunSaver panoramic camera since Kodak brought them out in the late '80s. I'd always wanted to own a proper panoramic camera - a Widelux or a Linhof Technorama or a Fuji GX617 or a Noblex - but I could never afford more than a rental, so I mostly had to console myself with the Kodak. The FunSaver wasn't a true panoramic; it just shot a cropped 35mm frame instead of a stretched negative, but its grainy results were intriguing, and in 1990 I was in a group show - my first ever - featuring photos taken with the FunSaver.

Under the El, Chicago, winter 1999
Grant Park, Chicago, winter 1999

Chicago was in the depths of winter when we arrived, under a fresh snowfall. While K went off to the convention centre for her show, I headed out to Grant Park with my cameras, detouring via the El and the old downtown. Down by the lake the city seemed deserted, and I ended up with some pretty somber shots on my roll. The view at the top of this post, by the way, isn't there any more - the Harrison Hotel is a Travelodge now, and the view to where its sign would have been has been filled in by a big, glass-fronted building.

These photos might make our Chicago trip seem like a bleak affair, but we actually had a lot of fun. We ate dinner at the old Berghoff and Rick Bayless' Topolobampo, and spent an amazing afternoon at the Chicago Historical Society's museum - a model for any city museum. We had dinner at my super successful cousin Donna's massive loft near the El and - at K's insistence (she was writing a story) - did high tea at American Girl Place.

The latter was apparently a test; K wanted to see how I'd deal with such a hyper-girly experience; what I remember isn't the strange looks I got as a man in the very male-free room, but us as a couple eating there without a child. Notwithstanding, I apparently passed the test, which would prove useful a few years later when we became parents to daughters.

View from Marina Towers, Chicago, winter 1999

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Still Lifes: Deck Garden

Italian eggplants, Macdonell Ave. Toronto, 2000

IN 1999 I MOVED OUT OF THE PARKDALE LOFT I'D LIVED IN FOR MORE THAN A DECADE. I lost the darkroom and studio I'd relied on for so much work, but the consolation prize was that my girlfriend (now wife) and I had a rooftop deck - outside space I hadn't had anywhere I'd lived since moving out of my mother's house. Our container garden on the deck was pretty modest for the first year (see photo below) but by the second year we were getting ambitious, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, lettuce and tomatillos in addition to herbs and flowers.

Deck garden, Macdonell Ave., spring 1999

At around the same time, a monograph was published in the UK - Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones - that inspired me to do a new round of still life work, mostly using subjects we were growing in our container garden on the deck. Jones' story was a preview of what would happen a few years later with Vivian Maier - an unknown amateur photographer (born in Wolverhampton in 1866; died in Lincolnshire in 1959) whose life work was discovered by a photograph collector in a flea market in Bermondsey in 1981. Jones had spent his life working as a professional gardener on private estates, photographing the products of his labours and, possibly, offering his services to document the work of other gardeners.

Charles Jones, Beet Globe, 1895-1910

The trunk of prints was all that was left of Jones' work; later, a granddaughter would recall him using his glass plate negatives to make cloches for young plants. I was already a big fan of the still life work of photographers like Karl Blossfeldt, Josef Sudek and (naturally) Irving Penn, but discovering the Jones monograph gave me a whole new wave of inspiration at a time when my main business - editorial photography - was contracting, and I needed a reason to take out my cameras and shoot.

Poppy bud, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000
Chinese eggplant, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000
Pickling cucumber, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000

With no more access to a studio, I mostly shot on the deck, or by a small window in the kitchen of our flat in the Victorian house around the corner from my old loft. I occasionally pulled out my strobes, but mostly I shot with available light and a bunch of home made light modifiers, using a collection of backdrops - handmade Japanese paper, a tabletop I'd made from old weathered barn boards - I'd built up over the years in my old studio.

I did almost all the work on a Rolleiflex with a close-up filter and a tripod, carefully racking back and forth the focus knob to find the sweet spot in the very narrow depth of field this set-up involved. I might have hoped that I could turn all of this into portfolio work - I've written before that I was trying to break into the food and lifestyle market, the only one that seemed to be thriving at the time - but I'm pretty certain almost nobody has seen any of this work until now.

Long peppers, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000
Chinese round mauve eggplant, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000
Italian eggplant, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000
French breakfast radishes, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000

I spent most of 2000 shooting still lifes out on the deck, using what we were growing almost all of the time, occasionally drafting in something we'd bought in the market around the corner when there was nothing to harvest. My fiancee grew up in the country and had tended little garden plots when her rental had a backyard, but I hadn't grown anything in dirt since I was a boy. Taking these photos was exciting, but so was growing our own food out on the deck - a hobby we'd abandon briefly when our next flat came without any outside space, but returned to enthusiastically when we bought a house with a backyard from an Italian widow who gardened seriously.

I remember carefully watching as things grew, planning the shots I'd take as things ripened and started to bloom. I have a very strong memory of these French breakfast radishes, harvested in late spring and photographed with the potting soil still on them. We'd slice them up for a salad a few minutes later; I hope we used the tops as well - they're peppery and a little bitter, and give some depth to a bowl of greens when you don't have any dandelion or chicory to mix in with the romaine.