Wednesday, February 21, 2018

George Reinecke

George Reinecke, Gas Station Studios, Toronto, Aug. 1993

AMONG MY LITTLE CIRCLE OF LOCAL MUSICIANS AND MUSIC GEEKS, George Reinecke showed up in Toronto as something of a celebrity. A native of New Orleans, he had arrived in Toronto via London, like most people who turn up here unexpectedly chasing a girl. He quickly established himself among the city's network of independent bands, a small but intricately woven circle of groups that included the Cowboy Junkies, Change of Heart, the Rheostatics and other veterans of the Queen West scene of the '80s.

George's reputation preceded him - a former member of Tav Falco's Panther Burns and a friend of the legendary Alex Chilton (Box Tops, Big Star, producer of The Cramps,) he had bona fides to die for. The question we kept asking among ourselves was, of course, "Why is he staying here for so long?" Canada in general and Toronto in particular were still a tidal pool far down the shoreline of the music business, but it wasn't long before his band, Busted Flush, got signed to the Canadian arm of Polygram, a music multinational.

George Reinecke, Gas Station Studios, Toronto, Aug. 1993

It was at this point that I photographed George recording his band's next record at Dale Morningstar's Gas Station Studios, which occupied a few rooms on the top floor of "The Castle," a former baking powder factory in Liberty Village, then still a mostly abandoned industrial district recently gutted by the demolition of the Massey-Harris and Inglis factories. It was where most of the local acts would record demos and albums, and where I'd later photograph Susie Ungerleider, aka O Susanna, for her second CD. (The building is a condo now, the neighbourhood now gentrified.)

I have no idea if I'd been assigned to shoot George for NOW, but the big ledger tells me that I sold some photos to him for promo purposes. I did most of the shots in the big, echoing bathroom that Dale had rigged up to record drums and vocals, but later moved George and his guitar out to a fire escape in one of the building's air shafts. I didn't want to do anything too posed, but the setup with George at a snare drum in a room full of cymbal stands always stood out for me.

George Reinecke, Gas Station Studios, Toronto, Aug. 1993

My other major memory of George Reinecke was when he showed up to watch a band I was playing in one empty weeknight at Lee's Palace. He was at a table with a few other local musicians, and while I'd like to recall that the pressure of having him in the audience inspired a stellar performance from me, I'm afraid all I remember committing were several tuneless, ungainly guitar solos.

After our set I came over to say hello and babbled some utter horseshit about Richard Thompson (I was trying - and failing - to play with modal scales) and he was kind, but I knew that I'd stank like a sack of old fish on a dock. It wasn't long before I gave up on playing the guitar in front of people; sometimes, if you're lucky, it only takes a few mild humiliations to learn to retreat to where you might actually have some talent.

George hung around Toronto for a few more years, but the last time I saw him was outside Dupont subway station near the end of the decade. After that I heard he'd returned to New Orleans, where I'm sure the weather probably suits him much better.



Monday, February 19, 2018

Auto Show

Ford unveiling, Media Day, Canadian International Auto Show, Toronto, Feb. 2018

SOME PEOPLE MEDITATE, TAKE LONG HIKES INTO THE WILDERNESS OR PRAY. I take pictures of cars. We all have our different ways of relaxing and finding our emotional and spiritual equilibrium. Which means, I suppose, that a car show is my idea of a pilgrimage.

I thought that last year would be my last one with accreditation for media day at the big auto show here in Toronto. I was resigned to having to take in the cars in the crush of regular ticket buyers later in the week, but I took a chance and applied for accreditation as myself, author of my social media and proprietor of this blog. To my great shock my request wasn't denied.

Media Day, Canadian International Auto Show, Toronto, Feb. 2018

The great advantage of media day is that the cars are all clean and new and detailed, free from fingerprints and the wear and tear of public display. And as long as you stay away from the crowd of writers, photographers, bloggers, vloggers, presenters and video crews, they can be framed in the camera viewfinder almost human-free and lit with the best that showroom lighting tech has to offer.

As ever, it's the concept cars and halo models and racetrack thoroughbreds that catch your eye. I remain enthralled by Ford's new GT, despite its demotion from centre stage to the performance division annex. But my real satori are the vintage autos, like the 1967 Mazda Cosmo pulled from some warehouse or private collection to help launch a new car with sporty ambitions, or the sheer madness of GM's Firebird III, plucked from their Motorama show and the '50s vision of the future.

Old cars are full of these gripping details, like the exuberantly overbuilt rear end of a Cadillac Eldorado coupe, or the broad gills on an E-Type or the tidier ones on a Shelby Cobra, set just above a braided set of exhaust pipes. This is high end car porn, and a reminder that I really need to get my license one day.

Media Day, Canadian International Auto Show, Toronto, Feb. 2018

Friday, February 16, 2018

Tobey Maguire

Tobey Maguire, Toronto, Sept. 1999

IT WAS HARD TO TELL IF TOBEY MAGUIRE WAS BEING DIFFICULT. I was shooting the young actor for a NOW magazine cover during the film festival, and his manner as soon as he got in front of my camera could only be described as coming from the point where diffidence becomes confrontational, if you can imagine such a thing.

I'm not sure if Maguire was at the film festival promoting Ride With The Devil or The Cider House Rules - perhaps it was both. He was a star, but nowhere near one on the level he'd reach three years later with Sam Raimi's Spider Man films. I'd enjoyed him in The Ice Storm, two years earlier - the best '70s period film really about the '90s ever - and would be just as big a fan of Ride With The Devil, his second film with director Ang Lee.

I wanted the shoot to go well. I was sure it wasn't.

Tobey Maguire, Toronto, Sept. 1999

I don't give a lot of direction in a portrait shoot. Most of the time, I can rely on a subject to react to my seeming nonchalance by giving themselves internal prompts, trying to deliver what they think I want - or what they'd like to be seen doing in a portrait. As this happens, I might spot something that works and ask them to repeat it or even amplify it; Maguire was doing none of this.

It was as if we were having a staring contest with my Rolleiflex between us. Over the course of three rolls, the most I might have said was "Look away. Now look back at me." When it was apparent that I wasn't going to get much more out of him, I said we were done, to his obvious relief.

Tobey Maguire, Toronto, Sept. 1999

When I got the film back and made contact sheets, it became obvious that Maguire, young as he was, knew just how little he had to give to a camera in close up to register some sort of interior life. He had, more and earlier than many actors, learned the lesson that film acting is all in the eyes, and that most of the time we project most of the emotion we read into a performance.

It was a big lesson for me to learn at this point in my career, and I wish I'd been able to explore it a bit more at the time, but when I handed in the prints from this shoot a couple of months later, on the eve of the new millennium, it would be the last job I would do for NOW magazine.

NOW newspaper box, in-house ad shoot, Parkdale, August 1990

My first NOW cover was a photo of Chuck D from Public Enemy, which came out in May of 1989 - serendipitously the same week that I was fired from my job in the classical music department of a big downtown record store. I had been sending the magazine photos on spec since the previous year, and would do so for a couple more months, but by the end of that summer I was getting regular work, and by the following year NOW work would comprise the majority of my income.

I began my career at NOW as the junior photographer, and felt like I remained so for almost the whole of my decade there. I worked with a group of photographers - Paul, David, Anne, Laurence, Susie, Algis, Debra and Ben - with years more experience than I had, whose work I couldn't help but admire. And I had the great fortune to have a sympathetic photo editor, Irene Grainger, who fought to give us the space to experiment every week, steadily pushing against the arbitrary edicts (the "big face" covers; no high key lighting) that came down from on high.

NOW was a steady gig that gave me access to celebrity subjects and, for a few years, the chance to travel for shoots - as much travel as I'd done in my life up till that point. As long as I kept my overhead low and held on to my Parkdale studio with its absurdly below-market rent, I didn't need to do much work that I didn't enjoy. I didn't have money for savings or big luxuries like a car or vacations, but my Cold War upbringing had taught me to keep my expectations low - hey, you'll probably be dead before you're thirty - so I never felt like I was missing out on anything.

Politically agnostic, I didn't really care much about the paper's politics as long as I was getting work. The first jarring moment, though, was when the employees of this very stridently pro-labour paper led a drive to unionize. Confronted with the obvious discontent with NOW's non-union status quo, publishers Michael and Alice reacted with dismay, even anger; I remember Alice complaining, tearfully, that she thought we were a family.

Despite our position on the masthead as Contributing Editors, the photographers were still technically freelancers and exempt from union membership, but we'd have our moment with management a few years later. By the late '90s, the internet was a thing full of potential and menace, though still of only marginal utility. (At the end of 1997, less than 20% of American households had internet; Canada was actually a trailblazer, with nearly thirty per cent.)

NOW's news section had published several articles adamantly condemning attempts by big publishers to pay their contributors a pittance for use of their material on websites. The paper's position was that website publication was a separate usage, and should pay reprint fees in line with those paid in print. But when the time came for NOW to launch its own website, the photographers were approached with a proposal that we get paid a fraction of the standard reprint rate - a figure I remember as less than twenty dollars.

The issue reached a head at a meeting where Michael and Alice laid their case out for the photographers, and Michael actually framed our taking this nominal fee as "an investment in the future of the paper." I replied that if this was an investment, it wasn't out of line to ask that we be given shares. (Ultimately we'd be paid nothing for website reprints.)

My relationship with management cooled considerably after that. At one point Irene mentioned during a phone call that I was being referred to around the newsroom as "the Fascist." A shock to me, I should add, who just a few years earlier had voted for Bob Rae's NDP government.

It was Michael's firm conviction - voiced firmly to me once at a party - that NOW should own its market, so we were tacitly forbidden to work for any free weekly competition. (At some point Michael entertained widening that edict to include the big dailies like the Star and the Globe & Mail, but relented.) I had always chafed against this - freelance work was tenuous, after all, and none of us had any guarantee of income - and at some point in the mid-'90s I began writing a column under a pseudonym about old jazz & blues records for NOW's main competitor, eye weekly.

(My pseudonym, if you're curious, was the name of the psychopath protagonist of Jim Thompson's hardboiled novel The Killer Inside Me.)

Many of my friends worked for eye. (I was best man at the wedding of Greg Boyd, the paper's entertainment and later news editor, and he would later return the favour at mine.) I'd played chicken with Michael's non-competition rule with the eye column, to be sure, but I'd helped push to end the "big head" and "no white background" edicts in the past, and imagined - mistakenly - that he'd see reason about this one day.

It was especially galling by the end of the '90s, when jobs from NOW were getting scarcer, and Irene warned us that there were going to be even fewer to come as layouts were maximizing ad space at the expense of our once luxurious photo spreads. The paper's travel budget for covers had been cut a few years previous. Looking at my ledger of assignments, the drop off was considerable: 1999 records just a dozen jobs from NOW all year, culminating in the Tobey Maguire swansong; at the beginning of that decade I was getting up to eight assignments a month.

Which is why I scratch my head when journalists and photographers complain about the destructive effect the internet has had on their business. My experience was that the industry was already shrinking with increasing speed long before the really disruptive effects of the digital revolution - first cheap broadband and then smartphones - had ever happened. The audience - and the ad dollars - that fueled the last golden age of publishing were clearly disappearing before Apple sold the first iMac, and with it the marginal market for my specialty - editorial portraiture.

I pushed things with NOW by taking a job from eye and letting them run my photo byline. It was noticed. Irene called me and, with obvious regret, told me I had a choice. With surprising regret, I told her that I was choosing eye, and with that my long tenure at NOW ended after a supremely productive decade.

I knew, when I hung up the phone, that a major part of my life had ended. What I couldn't know was how much more of it would end, as my circumstances - as both a freelance writer and photographer - would utterly change, while the foundations of the business I'd worked in since I'd left college shifted and buckled in the first clear signs of an industry's historic, slow-motion collapse.

As I write this, eye weekly is long gone (Michael got his wish there) and while NOW - barely, according to some reports - holds on, it's been many years since any of the photographers I shared a masthead with for a decade have had a byline in its pages.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Hilary Swank

Hilary Swank, Toronto, Sept. 1999

THERE'S AN OLD SHOWBIZ SAYING THAT YOU SHOULD BE NICE TO THE PEOPLE YOU MEET going up because you'll meet them again going down. The variation that applies to celebrity portraitists like myself, working below the rarified pinnacle of the trade, is that you'll only get access to people on their way up or down - almost never at that white-hot glossy magazine cover top.

I photographed Hilary Swank, two-time Oscar winner, just as her career had begun in earnest, at the film festival promoting Boys Don't Cry, a film where she played a young woman passing as a young man. She'd been in a holding pattern in Hollywood for a few years, doing TV roles and parts in movies like The Next Karate Kid, and had her character on Beverly Hills 90210 written out of the show - a setback that, serendipitously, allowed her to audition for the part that would win Swank her first Oscar.

Hilary Swank, Toronto, Sept. 1999

For some reason, we didn't have a hotel room for this shoot, so it was shot in a reception area on one of the meeting room floors of either the Four Seasons Yorkville or the Hotel Intercontinental nearby (I honestly can't remember which.) I have the vaguest memory of this being late in the festival, which explains why the busy hallways of the hotel had emptied out, and we had some privacy for the shoot despite its very public location.

What the spot lacked in privacy it made up for in light - a big bank of tall windows that filled the room with soft daylight. The shoot wasn't scheduled for a NOW cover, as I did it all on three rolls of black and white, but ended up being bumped up to one in the end, when the buzz for Boys Don't Cry and Swank continued to grow after the festival.

Hilary Swank, Toronto, Sept. 1999

I began the shoot with Swank standing, wearing a linen shirt, but quickly asked her to take off the shirt and sit on the carpet. This was already more direction than I usually gave most subjects, but I pushed it even further by asking her to draw her legs up to her chest in a position that made her fit the square frame of my Rolleiflex better.

Swank had apparently lost a lot of weight to play Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry, and lived in male drag for a month to prepare for the part. She was clearly only starting to get that weight back when I photographed her, but the young woman I met was remarkably feminine - and very petite. Six months later she'd have been in the care of handlers and PR people and stylists who would have raised alarm bells when some nobody asked her to sit on the floor in a hotel hallway for a photo.



Monday, February 12, 2018

NOW portraits

Bob Boyer, artist, Rouleau, Sask., Nov. 1994

BOB BOYER MET ME AT MY HOTEL IN REGINA IN HIS CAR, a big, fully loaded Cadillac with all the extras, and a buddy of his sitting in the back. Boyer, a Cree Metis artist, lived in a town a few miles south of Regina and I was in Saskatchewan for the first (and so far only) time in my life to photograph him for the cover of NOW magazine.

"Your seat belt is undone," the car told me as I settled into the passenger seat, in a warm, beguiling female voice.

Boyer's studio was in the old train station in Rouleau - the town that, many years later, would become famous as Dog River, the setting for the sitcom Corner Gas. It had been jacked up and moved from the side of the CNR Soo line and set down on Boyer's property, where he lived with his wife, Ann.

It was my first time in the prairies, and I was blown away by how flat it was - an ominous landscape that, as an easterner, set my teeth a bit on edge. In the distance were lines of smoke and flame where farmers were burning off the stubble from the fields, and it added to the epic unease of the place. I insisted we get out to take some photos at magic hour with the town's grain silo in the background; if NOW was going to fly me all the way out here, I had to deliver something to show what they'd paid for.

As we got back in the car and Boyer drove away, the Caddy's voice informed us that "A door is ajar."

"That's funny," said Boyer's pal from the back seat. "It must be broken. Usually it says 'There is a non-native in the car."'

My shoot with Bob Boyer was just one of the hundreds of portrait sessions I did for NOW in the '90s. It's taken me almost three years to go through the best and most important of them, but I find that, with the end of my NOW work on this blog in sight, I've still got a lot of photos worth scanning and posting, even if I don't really have much to say about the shoots.

What I do remember about my session with Moe Berg from The Pursuit of Happiness at my Parkdale studio is that it was one of my first covers for NOW, and that I still felt like I was on probation with the magazine. This wasn't helped when my editor told me that it was important that I did a good job with this one since Moe was a close personal friend of Michael, the publisher.

Moe Berg, musician, Parkdale, May 1990
Hal Hartley, filmmaker, Toronto, July 1990
Sheldon Rosen, playwright, Toronto, Aug. 1990
Nicholas Goldschmidt, musician, Toronto, May 1991

My first two or three years with the paper were the busiest, as my probation period ended and Irene began assigning me at least two shoots a week. There was a lot of mostly forgettable stuff - restaurants and news stories, live music, local bands and theatre profiles. I'd eventually learn to become more creative with all that work, but portrait shoots were always the highlight.

I already knew American director Hal Hartley through my friend Chris, and his early films about skittish men and confounding women - Trust, Surviving Desire and Simple Men - were a big hit among the very wary single men I was friends with in my twenties. I tried at least three different setups with Hal, but found that knowing him a bit made it hard to establish the formal relationship I relied on during a portrait shoot. The shot above was the best of the lot.

Most of the time, though, I was thrown into shoots with subjects like Sheldon Rosen and Nicholas Goldschmidt, about whom I knew almost nothing except what I was told by Irene or one of the other editors at the paper. (There was, of course, no internet and no quick Google search.) With at least two or three of these portrait shoots a month, I gradually learned to establish a rapport and quietly nudge my subjects to give a performance or react to my camera - skills that were harder to acquire than lighting techniques.

Bob Boyer, artist, Rouleau, Sask., Nov. 1994
AA Bronson, artist, Toronto, Nov. 1995
Debra Plotkin, founder, Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Parkdale, May, 1995
Deepa Mehta, director, Toronto, Nov. 1994
Janet Wright & Diana Belshaw, actors, Toronto, March 1995
Lorraine Bracco, actor, Toronto, Sept. 1993
Maggie Estep, writer, Toronto, July 1994

I always pushed to shoot in my Parkdale studio, but most of my work for NOW was done on the road, either in some hotel room or office or rehearsal space or the subject's home - the trickiest place to do a shoot since you were in their space, after all, and had to try to make them feel just a little bit less comfortable there. (As with filmmaker Deepa Mehta, whose only real direction from me was to be as still as possible.)

Unless you had a cover story or a spread in a special section, your photo was always competing with at least a column full of ads, so the challenge was to make it as graphic as possible. That was always harder on location than in the studio, where I could control everything from the background to the lighting to the mood, as with my portrait of the late Debra Plotkin, which began as a notebook sketch in search of a suitable subject.

Famous as part of the General Idea conceptual art collective, AA Bronson had lost Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal - his artistic partners for a quarter century - to AIDS the previous year. I tried a few different shots during a somber session in his apartment in the Colonnade, but the most obvious success was the one in front of a print of Playing Doctor, one of their last collaborations.

Shooting as often as I did for NOW, I slowly moved out of my own comfort zone - tight, close head shots - and began including more and more of the room where I was shooting. Occasionally the setting would be the star, as with my shot of actors Janet Wright and Diana Belshaw. I remember being disappointed with the results of my shoot with Lorraine Bracco, taken in a hotel room at the film festival - I was a fan of hers from Goodfellas, and probably had something entirely different in my head. But I'm a better printer today, and finally rescued the frame I took of her tucked into the sheer curtains that I took twenty-five years ago near the end of my roll, desperately trying to find something.

I've always liked this shot of Maggie Estep, photographed during her heyday as a "grunge poet." It's right in my comfort zone, of course, but she was a more than cooperative subject. Estep was a contemporary, barely a year older than me, so it was a shock when I heard about her sudden death a few years ago. Poignantly, the blog on her website is still online, featuring an entry written just three days before she died.

Maggie Huculak, actor, Parkdale, Oct. 1995
Allegra Fulton, actor, Parkdale, 1997

Going through my old photos has sometimes been melancholy work, especially when I see shoots done in my old studio. One of the most ambitious NOW covers I shot there was with actress Maggie Huculak, who I'd been seeing in local theatre since my college days. Assigning me the shoot, Irene encouraged me to do something dramatic, so I took her literally and created a little stage set by renting a pair of vivid red velvet curtains.

I'd just bought the art deco style love seat - the most serious furniture purchase I'd ever made in my life - and made it the center of the shot. It had been picked out for its sculptural qualities, to do double duty as a studio prop and as the place where I'd spend my copious free time between shoots, reading in the north light from the windows at the end of the room.

The love seat made an encore appearance in a cover shoot with another local actress, Allegra Fulton, only by this time the cushion had begun developing a serious ass groove from hours of downtime reading. I lit the hell out of these shoots; they're a record of the peak of my time as a studio photographer, and while I'd hate to be the lonely, anxious man I was when I did them, I'd love to have that studio back again.

Marion Woodman, Jungian analyst & writer, Parkdale, May 1996
John Southworth, musician, Parkdale, Dec. 1996
Rolf de Heer, director, Toronto, Sept. 1996
Paul Campbell, actor, Toronto, Sept. 1999

Putting together this post let me rediscover shoots I'd overlooked or forgotten. I don't remember much about the four shots above, except that they were all done when I was no longer worried about my technical competence as a photographer. If I have a style, they're examples of whatever that might be. I haven't printed any of them since I shot them for Irene, and I'm pretty certain that these probably look a lot better now than whatever 5" by 7" prints I handed in to NOW all those years ago.

My only memory of Marion Woodman was shooting a lot of film, hoping that I'd push her just enough to get something more than a very bright, confident smile. Local musician John Southworth and Australian documentary filmmaker Rolf de Heer are from sessions that don't look a million miles from something I'd shoot today. The film festival portrait of Paul Campbell, now apparently Jamaica's most popular actor, was one of the last jobs I did for NOW, and I can't help but see it today as the place where I dropped a thread I've only recently picked up again.

Bob Boyer died in Macy, Nebraska on Aug. 30, 2004.

Nicholas Goldschmidt died in Toronto on Feb. 8, 2004.

Debra Plotkin died on Oakland, California on Nov. 7, 2000.

Maggie Estep died in Albany, NY on Feb. 12, 2014.

Janet Wright died in Vancouver, BC on Nov. 14, 2016.


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Restaurants

Flowers & vase, Toronto, Oct. 1995

ONE OF THE BIGGEST PARTS OF MY JOB AT NOW MAGAZINE - alongside thankless tasks like shooting local theatre and live music - was illustrating our weekly restaurant reviews. The food section is a staple of any free weekly, and reviews by our resident restaurant critics - first Byron Ayanoglu, then the late Steven Davey - were at the core of the paper, up there with the live music listings and personal classifieds.

As with any regular gig, though, it can get tired fast. Portraits of chefs in their whites can start to look the same after a while, and photographing food in black and white is a brutal challenge that no one wants to take on every week. After a few years of struggling with shooting the restaurant section, I hit on triptychs. I wasn't the first person to shoot triptychs at NOW, but once I started making them I couldn't stop. (Something else I can blame on my Catholic upbringing - altar pieces are usually in triptych form, and don't forget the Holy Trinity.)

Restaurants, Toronto, 1994-1998

I might still try to shoot a portrait of a chef or a server, but that didn't have to carry the weight of illustrating the story, which I could fill in with still lifes of table settings or details of the restaurant interior. I found my best shots in the kitchen, though, among the prepped ingredients and chef's tools. As fancy as a restaurant might be, the kitchen always presented a pleasing contrast - everything spare and utilitarian and well-used.

Restaurants, Toronto, 1994-1998

I had my obsessions as well - chairs and tables and the tanks where live seafood was kept, especially in Chinatown. A lot of money was spent on restaurant interiors - money I knew would barely get recouped if the place managed to survive till the time came to renew the lease. Most of the places I photographed are gone now, victims of the churn and pitiless economics of the business.

Restaurants, Toronto, 1994-1998

I was eternally grateful to Irene Grainger, our photo editor, who made it possible for us to experiment with things like triptychs and - for me especially - restaurant still-lifes that were almost abstract. My food section triptychs became a highlight of my work at NOW, so much so that when they arranged a group show for the paper's photographers to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary, I (perversely) ignored my portraits entirely and set up a display of my triptychs, framed in heavy arts and crafts style wooden frames and hung salon style on the gallery wall.

As with every other gallery show I've ever done, none of them sold, and with the exception of one I traded with my sister for money to cover my rent one tough month, I still have them all.

Selfie at Gold Stone Noodle, Chinatown, 1996