Saturday, July 19, 2014


Gena Rowlands, September 1996, Rolleiflex TLR

ANOTHER PHOTO I DON'T REMEMBER TAKING. According to my files it was shot in September 1996, which means another Film Festival portrait binge, though by this point the three regular festival hotels had been joined by a fourth - the Intercontinental on Bloor, which is where I suspect this was shot. When the festival wasn't happening, I'd end a fair number of evenings in their piano bar.

Her IMDb filmography has only one entry for that year - Unhook The Stars, directed by her son Nick Cassavetes and co-starring Marisa Tomei and Gerard Depardieu. What an unusual cast.

I was never able to get into the films she made with her husband, the late John Cassavetes - too many angry drunks losing control; you see too much of that in real life and for some reason you don't search it out in movies. But I knew why they were important, and I'd always loved Rowlands' image - the blonde who'd lived some life, and much smarter than her hair colour. Real old school Hollywood stars were getting pretty thin on the ground, even in 1996, so I was grateful to get what I could.

Like I said, I don't remember shooting this, but I can take a guess as to how it happened. I was probably working with either Ingrid or John from NOW magazine, and by that time I'd pared down my shooting kit to a single Manfrotto mini tripod and a Pelikan case with two Rolleiflex twin lens reflex cameras that looked like this:

the Rollei shooting case

I'd find my sweet spot of light - as I've said before, memorized from years of shooting in the same hotel rooms - and take a reading with my Sekonic light meter. I'd load both cameras with Ilford 400 black and white film, set a chair or bench in the spot, slip the Rollei into its tripod shoe and set up a rough frame - all while either waiting for the publicist to usher the subject in or while the writer was doing their interview. I might use a bit of window curtain to flag the light or turn a movie poster mounted on foamcore around on its stand to act as a bit of bounce, but I'd be ready to shoot in a few minutes.

The Rollei has a pretty long minimum focusing distance so I'd attach the close-up filters in the lower left of the case to the cameras to get closer to the subject if it seemed worth doing. I think the Rowlands shot was taken without them, though. A shutter release cable was essential, since I was almost always working at exposures of 1/30 of a second or less.

Once the subject was sitting in the light, I tried to keep the room quiet and establish - if only for a minute or two - some sort of intimacy. Moving my eyes from the waist-level viewfinder on the camera to the subject in front of me was a very retro way of working that felt nothing like shooting with an SLR. I had just 12 exposures on each roll, a roll in each camera, so I couldn't waste a frame and took each shot with intent.

For a few festivals I actually wore a suit when I worked - it made everything that much more formal, and made me feel less like a glorified paparazzi and more like a consultant making a house call. Someone you could trust. Someone who knew what they were doing. Someone who didn't let their emotions get in the way of a job.

When I traveled to a shoot I felt like a hired assassin, especially when I'd check into my hotel room and deposit my little black case and the tripod in its padded sheath on the bed. Since my encounters with my subjects were so brief and perfunctory and almost wordless, it felt like I was in the business of collecting images; collating a record of people chosen according to some secret logic that not even I could be allowed to know.

It wasn't a bad way to make a living, for as long as it lasted. I'd love to do it again.


  1. I dress up for work now for essentially the same reasons you did then. These blog entries are interesting. The analog to digital shift wasn't just in photography -- that's just one instance in a series of sweeping changes.

    BTW just one t in Cassavetes.

  2. Time: Mid 1990s
    Place: The Sutton Place Hotel
    Cast: Rick and Steven

    Steven spots Rick in the hallway of the second floor of the hotel, dressed in a custom-made three-piece suit, complete with vest and bespoke white shirt. A black Pelican case in his hand and a tripod slung over his shoulder with a guitar-type strap.

    Steven: Hi Rick, What’s with the suit?

    Rick (sombre and low): It’s my body armor. Nobody fucks with you when you’re in a suit.

    Steven: What’s in the case?

    Rick props the Pelican case on a side table and pops it open to revel two Rolleiflex TLR cameras and supplies. Steven looks inside

    Steven: No flash?

    Rick: I am the master of available light.

    I remember that encounter like it was yesterday. Can’t remember who I shot that day, but your wording has never left me mind.