Monday, July 24, 2017

Stampede

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


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

North

Sawpit Island from Moose Factory Island, July 2017

I HAVE WANTED TO RIDE AN ONTARIO NORTHLAND TRAIN FOR YEARS. Back when I was a single man I'd pass through Union Station and see the ticket booth and announcement board for Ontario Northland and dream about just buying a ticket and riding to the end of the line - North Bay or Cochrane. They discontinued the Northlander from Toronto five years ago, and I thought that dream had gone with it.

This year, though, my editor at the Star decided that, since I was already doing the Rocky Mountaineer and the Agawa Canyon tourist trains, I might as well go for a hat trick and take the Polar Bear Express from Cochrane to Moosonee, which Ontario Northland still runs five days a week, six in the summer. My most Canadian summer ever just got even better.

Cedar Meadows Wildlife Park, Timmins, Ont., July 2017
Railyard, Cochrane, Ont., July 2017

I flew into Timmins and did a quick detour to the Cedar Meadows Resort just outside town, where owner Richard Lafleur keeps an animal sanctuary full of deer, elk, bison and moose. I ended up getting closer to a moose than I ever thought possible, but only after warily taking photos of the two pair of swans that Richard keeps in his ponds, including a male Whooper Swan whose favorite trick is to feign a broken neck so he can get you into biting distance. Swans are angry, belligerent birds.

I spent the night at the Station Inn in Cochrane, my room overlooking the railyard and the track where I'd get on the Polar Bear Express the next morning. After dinner, I wandered with my camera around the railyard in the long northern dusk, waiting an eternity for the sun to finally dip behind the horizon.

Hudson Bay Company cemetery, Moose Factory, Ont., July 2017
Looking across the Moose River, Moose Factory, Ont., July 2017

I arrived at Moosonee the next day, walked through town to the water taxi docks and got a ride across to Moose Factory. I was booked into the Cree Village Eco Lodge on the west side of the island, where I doused myself in bug spray to keep the mosquitoes and deer flies away and headed out to the far shore, where the Hudson Bay Company set up a trading post in the 17th century - the first English settlement in the province, built to attract the fur trade away from the French to the south and east.

The overgrown cemetery where the families of company men were buried (most of them retired to England, leaving their native families behind) was just by the 19th century staff house, now a museum. It was hard to believe that this was where English Canada effectively began, on Cree territory, hundreds of miles from the big cities that grew up around the Great Lakes to the south. It felt as precarious now as it probably did three hundred and fifty years ago.

On James Bay, July 2017
George & Trevor Small, Moosonee, Ont., July 2017
Riverfront, Moosonee, Ont., July 2017

The next day I hired local guide and Cree elder George Small to take me out to James Bay in his boat. It felt like something I needed to see, even though open ocean is probably one of the most terrifying things I can imagine. We motored up the Moose River past Ship Sands Island to where the river opens up into the Bay. George's son Trevor cut the motor and we drifted for a few minutes on the thin membrane between sky and sea. It felt awesome and ominous and I was happy when we were headed back to shore.

I rode up front for the first part of the trip back to Cochrane, stepping out onto the front of the engine when we crossed the trestle bridge over the Moose. I'd wanted to ride with the engineers on my other train trips, but Ontario Northland is obviously a bit more relaxed than most railways. On the way home I tried to catch glimpses of the scenery through an open train window - muskeg and beaver ponds and trees and sky, a landscape that is, to me at least, more quintessentially Canadian than anything I can imagine.

Crossing the Moose River on the Polar Bear Express heading south to Cochrane, July 2017
On the Polar Bear Express, July 2017

Monday, July 3, 2017

New York City

Irving Penn's camera, Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 2017

THERE ARE FEW PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT I'D GET ON A PLANE TO SEE. Irving Penn and Chris Buck are the only two I can think of right now, so last week I took a quick trip to New York City to see the Irving Penn Centennial show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my old friend Chris Buck.

It was a pilgrimage - a follow up to the one Chris and I made just after he moved to New York, over twenty-five years ago, to gaze upon the door of the still-living-and-working Penn's studio. Appropriate to a pilgrimage there was a reliquary - Penn's Rolleiflex, on display in a glass vitrine - and a shroud of sorts in the shape of one of Penn's studio backdrops, helpfully available for Instagram and selfies.

Chris Buck in front of Penn's backdrop, Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 2017
Rick in front of Penn's backdrop, photo by Chris Buck

It was the most purposeful trip I've ever taken to New York; my only objectives were the Penn show and an extended hang with Chris in his adopted hometown. So no shopping, no business, and no visits to any of the attractions I still haven't seen yet for some reason, like the High Line, the Cloisters or the WTC Memorial.

It was a good thing that I'd set aside time for two visits to the Penn show, because I learned that my old friend Chris takes gallery shows at a gallop and does a running commentary while he does. The Penn show was crowded, so our visit there together ended up being like a scene from a French film where subtitles rattle past like a news crawl. No matter - I'd have the next day to take in Penn at my leisure.

Upper East Side & Central Park, NYC, June 2017

In the song "Venus de Milo," Tom Verlaine of Television (one of my favorite NYC bands) sang "Broadway looks so medieval." I wasn't near Broadway for this trip, but Central Park and the neighbourhood around the Met certainly looked medieval on the morning I went back to see the Penn show.

The Met was quiet when I arrived, the Penn show almost deserted. I took out my camera and set about one of my favorite camera pastimes lately - shooting people as they look at art. As an aside, New Yorkers - and people visiting New York - are for some reason less self-conscious when a camera is pointed at them than Torontonians, who require more stealth to capture unawares. Also, the Met is a bloody fantastic museum.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, June 2017

Friday, June 30, 2017

Algoma

Bridal Veil Falls, Agawa Canyon, Ontario, June 2017

THERE ARE THINGS CANADIANS LIKE TO TELL EACH OTHER to flatter ourselves and downplay our uncertain sense of ourselves. One is that we have a unique relationship to our landscape. But what landscape? It's a very big country.

I somehow doubt that someone from Saskatchewan thinks of the Atlantic coastline when you say something like that. And I can't imagine that a Maritimer's mental picture of the shore looks anything like that of someone from British Columbia. I'm pretty sure that no one who wasn't born and raised there pictures the harsh, often treeless tundra and snowscapes of the Arctic north.

Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, June 2017

I suppose if I'm called to conjure up a Canadian landscape in my mind's eye, it would probably be the lakes and trees and rocky outcrops of the Canadian Shield, and mostly that's because of two things - a couple of camping trips I took with my sister and her husband when I was a boy, and the paintings of the Group of Seven.

A travel assignment sent me to Sault Ste. Marie, just across from our long border with the United States, at the choke point between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. We'd passed through Algoma - the name for this region of Ontario - on one of those trips back in the '70s, but closer to Wawa as we hopped from campsite to campsite in a string of provincial parks.

I liked "The Soo," as it fondly refers to itself. It's a modest little city that feels like it's clinging to a slip of land between the water and the forest, and humbly goes about the inevitable business that it was fated to do, in a place where shipping and mining, forestry and tourism and hydroelectric power were always going to be competing for time and effort.

I had couple of very nice meals (the town has a well-established Italian-Canadian community) and got to visit the Bushplane Museum, which is very worth seeing in the Soo's particular context. I also got to ponder the epic vastness of the Edison Sault hydroelectric power plant on the U.S side of the St. Marys River.

Agawa Canyon, Ontario, June 2017

The main purpose of my trip, however, was the Agawa Canyon scenic train tour, which leaves daily from a station by the mall next to the river and heads north into Agawa Canyon Wilderness Park through landscapes that Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald and several other members of the Group of Seven painted when they were in hot pursuit of a uniquely Canadian vision for their work.

It was, on every turn of the tracks and during our modest hike in the park, very much the Canadian landscape I have in my mind, in all its somewhat terrifying glory. On the following day we took a car trip up the shore of Superior parallel to the train's route, to visit a few other of the Group's painting locations, contemplate the hugeness of Lake Superior - really more of an inland sea than a lake - and get up close and personal with the mosquitoes and black flies.

Chippewa Falls, Ontario, June 2017
Agawa Bay, Lake Superior, Ontario, June 2017