Monday, September 29, 2014


Gilberto Gil, Toronto, July 1989

DESPERATE FOR THEMES FOR ALL OF THESE PHOTOS, I've decided to group together a trio of subjects shot on two separate occasions as a tribute to Brazilian music, which I've gotten into in the last few years. This week's worth of photos, shot a quarter century ago, comprises pretty much the whole of my work with Brazilian musicians, as far as I know, so I'd might as well showcase them all at once.

I have no memory at all of shooting Gilberto Gil, probably the most famous of these three musicians. I don't know whether I shot him at his hotel or at The Copa, the long-gone nightclub where he played in July of 1989. A few minutes worth of Googling reveals that he released two albums, O Eterno Deus Mu Dança and A Gente Precisa Ver O Luar, that year, but they don't seem to have been put out by a North American label, so what would have drawn me to shoot Gil?

That's a bit easier to pin down: David Byrne's label Luaka Bop had just released Beleza Tropical: Brazil Classics Vol. 1, a collection of music showcasing the Tropicalismo movement that flourished in Brazil in the '70s and early '80s, which featured Gil alongside Caetano Veloso, Jorge Ben and several other major artists. Byrne was, by the end of the '80s, a tastemaker, and the record inspired magazine and newspaper editors to fill their pages with stories on the music.

Gilberto Gil, Toronto, July 1989

Gil helpfully went on tour that summer, and while I can't be certain that Brad MacIver at Toronto Life Fashion assigned me to shoot him, the big ledger tells me that he bought one of my portraits of him later that month. I definitely sent them the photo at the top - the only frame I ever printed from this shoot until now - and liked it well enough to take it in and out of my portfolio for several years.

What makes me sure that I wasn't on assignment for Toronto Life Fashion - still publishing, and now just called Fashion - was the fact that I only shot a single roll of 120 black and white film of Gil. The magazine was considered a prestige client in the Canadian freelance market, so I would have put a lot more effort into producing results on assignment for them. I'd brought along my Mamiya C330 and a flash in an umbrella, but it appears to me like I was shooting on spec, hoping to get something good for my book on the cheap.

In 1989 I knew almost nothing about Brazilian music that I hadn't learned from Byrne's compilation and a Stan Getz record. Gil had begun recording in the late '60s, made his name with Tropicalismo but earned the wrath of Brazil's military junta and went into exile in London. He was politically outspoken, and sat on the city council in Salvador, his hometown in Bahia, when I photographed him. He would later be Minister of Culture in the da Silva government.

But I didn't know any of this at the time, which is what makes me wonder how I got the access to take these photos if I wasn't on assignment and clearly wasn't going to write anything to accompany my pictures.

His records are considered a mixed bag; a Brazilian music fan site describes the two records he released in 1989 as "a pretty wimpy, super-synthy album" and "another terrible mainstream pop album," respectively. I'm a big fan of his first five or six records, most of which are all self-titled, with the possible exception of 1971's Gilberto Gil, recorded in English. My favorite is the psychedelic, fuzztone-laced Gilberto Gil from 1969, and 1970's Copacabana Mon Amour with its ragged, bluesy vocals.

A committed pot smoker, Gil has a charming face and an easy, winning smile. I let that smile do too much of the work with this shoot, and so the top photo looks a uncomfortably like a publicity handout, which might have been a small technical triumph for me in 1989 but doesn't feel like it now. At least both shots are fanatically sharp. The bottom photo is more interesting; the lighting is a little too carelessly placed, but the offside composition is at least trying for something with a bit of graphic interest. It would make a nice album cover.


Friday, September 26, 2014


Harry "Sweets" Edison, Toronto, Dec. 1988

HARRY "SWEETS" EDISON LIVED UP TO HIS NICKNAME. He was a terribly sweet man, happy to indulge a very inexperienced young photographer as I sweated through an assignment that would change my career.

At the end of 1988 I had been taking photos for three years, and wanted to do it full time. At that time, the steadiest source of employment for freelancers was NOW magazine, a free weekly founded in the mold of the Village Voice - very local, very lefty, and at that point very profitable. My then-girlfriend had a job there as a music critic (a job I'd applied for but failed to get) and she pulled some strings with the photo editor, Irene Grainger, to get me a try-out.

My first assignment was a live shoot - Harry "Sweets" Edison playing at (long-defunct downtown jazz club) East 85th. I had been shooting jazz for a couple of years by this point, mostly avant-garde stuff like Cecil Taylor, Charlie Haden or the World Saxophone Quartet, and while I didn't know much about Sweets, I knew that he'd played with Count Basie, and that he'd been around back when jazz was pop music.

Harry "Sweets" Edison, Toronto, Dec. 1988

I'd done a lot of live shooting, but I wasn't comfortable with it at all, and struggled to get printable negatives from my Pentax Spotmatic and its very general light meter. The other photographers at NOW - people like Laurence Acland, Chris Nicholls, David Laurence, Anne Levenston and Paul Till - had experience I lacked by at least a decade, and had set a pretty high standard for a newsprint publication, especially with concert photography.

I'd shot enough jazz, though, to know that using a flash wasn't generally appreciated by club owners, patrons or (especially) musicians, so I shot my roll that night knowing that the dim club light would result in some pretty dark negatives, even with 3200 ASA Kodak film in my camera. The shot above hasn't seen the light of day since the night I took it, and there's no way that I could have produced a workable image back then without a further quarter century of experience - and a full version of Photoshop.

I panicked a bit, and during a break asked the manager if I could get a minute or so with Harry to shoot a quick portrait. A few minutes in the manager's cramped office were arranged, where I did my best with the more abundant but far less flattering overhead fluorescent lighting.

I was much more comfortable with my portrait work, and hoped that, as long as the shot was made in the club where he played, on the night he was on stage, readers would be cool.

Harry "Sweets" Edison, Toronto, Dec. 1988

Irene didn't agree. The live shots I handed in were pretty dim; newsprint technology was still unforgiving at that point, and she knew that an excess of black would look like mud on their pages. The portraits, while much better, didn't fit the brief: She wanted live photos.

The shoot ran - I don't remember whether it was the live shots or a portrait - but while I continued to sell photos on spec to NOW (sales brokered by my girlfriend, I'm sure,) I didn't get another real assignment for almost eight months.

I ended up working steadily for NOW for over a decade. The last photos I handed in to Irene were portraits of Tobey Maquire, at which point I was chafing against the paper's politics and went off to work for their competition, where the newsroom was full of friends, including the best man at my wedding.

NOW made it possible for me to make a living, build a studio and a reputation, but by the time I left I'd relied on it so much that when it came time to find other clients when I lost that steady paycheck, I didn't know what to do. I never got the same steady work from NOW's competition, no matter how many friends I knew there. A lesson learned.

For a couple of years in the mid-'90s I (secretly) wrote a column for the competition under a pseudonym - a regular feature reviewing old jazz and blues records, which were being reissued in a torrent by the major labels during their last period of prosperity. By this point I knew very well who Harry "Sweets" Edison was, and ended up owning countless records featuring him - with Basie, in the Jazz At The Philharmonic orchestra, and on his own, though one of my favorites is a record he made with Ben Webster for Columbia in the '50s.

I handed in my last photo to NOW in 1999. Harry "Sweets" Edison died the same year.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


SO JOHN WOO IS AT THE FILM FESTIVAL. All your film geek friends have been raving about the guy for years, and everyone knows that his new film Hard Boiled, will probably be his last in Hong Kong before he moves to Hollywood. So you beg a publicist to give you just a little time with the man, which is why you're here, in the corridor outside the health club at the Four Seasons in Yorkville, wondering what to do.

I don't know, John - do you have any ideas?

John Woo, Toronto, Sept. 1992

OK, then, let me think. Oh, I know - why don't you hold your hand out like a gun? Come on, just try it.

John Woo, Toronto, Sept. 1992

That wasn't so bad, was it?

John Woo, Toronto, Sept. 1992

Well, OK, yeah.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Alice Cooper, Toronto, September 1989

IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE THAT THERE WAS A TIME when Vincent Furnier, aka Alice Cooper, was an unsettling, sinister pop culture presence suspected of unspeakable acts that every kid a grade or two ahead of you could list, with the authoritative affirmation that "my brother saw him at the Gardens. It really happened."

Today, Vincent/Alice is an avuncular and revered senior pop icon, restaurateur and keen amateur golfer who occasionally releases an album or headlines a package tour of metal bands. Many people know him as the faintly bemused gentleman who appears in documentaries to attest that, yes, a lot of wild shit went down in the '70s and that some of it involved liquor and drugs. For someone who became famous with songs about dead babies, he projects a likability somewhere on a level with Jimmy Stewart.

I was a child of the '70s, exactly the sort of kid for whom Cooper's sinister antics were a schoolyard rumour, so it was that former Alice who loomed in my mind when I showed up at the Sutton Place hotel on assignment for NOW to photograph Vince/Alice, who was promoting a new album and a hit single - his first top 10 since 1977. I knew that the Billion Dollar Babies tour was a long time ago, but his mystique endured, and I didn't know what to expect.

Alice Cooper, Toronto, September 1989

I watched the new documentary on Cooper, Super Duper Alice Cooper, after I dug these negatives out of the files last week. It ends a few years before I met Alice, mostly because as soon as he kicked his blistering cocaine habit and reunited with his wife, Cooper's life reached a relatively placid plateau that it has, from all appearances, maintained to this day. The man I met was a professional entertainer, an industry veteran who knew what he had to do when he had hits and what to do between them.

He was being handled by a large fellow - exactly the sort of corpulent, balding evil uncle type that seemed to fill the ranks of music industry management - who stayed in the room the whole time, acting as a middleman between me and Cooper. I had brought along lighting - a flash, outboard battery, umbrella and stand - wanting to get something a bit more formal; four years into my photography career, I was feeling ambitious. I had also brought along a medium format camera - probably my Mamiya C330.

There's always a sinking feeling when you survey a hotel room and realize that it's a bit smaller, a bit more cluttered, or a bit more banal looking than you imagined ahead of time - even when you shoot in them all the time. At the end of the '80s you weren't likely to find many sleekly minimal hotels, so when I saw the matching floral broadloom and wallpaper in Cooper's suite, I decided to go with that as a background rather than try and find the three square metres of nonexistent neutral space.

Alice Cooper, Toronto, September 1989

I set up my light and waited for the interview to end, then approached Alice where he was sprawled back on a couch. Before I could finish explaining why I wanted to use the wraparound chintz - something about creating an ironic contrast with his image; I might have thought it was original but Cooper had been doing things like that for years - the fat man hit the veto button, saying that it didn't sound right.

"Oh, no. I like it," said Cooper, affably. "Let's do it."

The fat man looked a bit put out but the artist had spoken, and Alice moved to the next room and the chair I'd set up beneath my light in the corner.

Cooper was more than obliging in front of the camera, running through his repertoire of poses - "throwing shapes" as the British say. There's an art to getting something fresh from somebody whose persona has become bulletproof, but I hadn't learned about it at this point in my career, and I faithfully recorded whatever Alice felt like giving me that day, which was quite a lot, but unfortunately not anything anyone hadn't seen before.

In retrospect, there might have been some unconscious logic to my choice of background. Compositionally, none of my shots are quite "there" yet; I was just pointing my camera at my subject rather than framing him, trying to catch up with what was happening instead of controlling it.

The shot at the top is an obvious echo of Annie Liebovitz' famous photo of a splayed- and drugged-out Keith Richards - unprocessed influences drifting to the surface - while the middle shot would have been just that much better if I'd framed more of Cooper's feet and the chair.

None of this is Alice's fault and all of it is mine. Still, they're serviceable photos, though this is the first time they've seen the light of day since I shot them a quarter century ago. And at least taking them let me in on the worst kept secret in the music industry - that Alice Cooper is a really nice guy.

Friday, September 19, 2014


Sondra Locke, Toronto, May 1990

MY WIFE POINTED OUT TO ME that this blog has been, so far, a bit of a boys' club, and she's right. In an effort to address the imbalance in the gender of my subjects, I'm digging back deep into my work with NOW magazine to a shoot I did with the actress Sondra Locke in 1990, when she was in town promoting Impulse, her second feature as a director.

Locke had been, for more than a decade, the companion and muse of Clint Eastwood - a box office giant in 1990 but not quite the industry titan he would become. When I shot her, however, she was going through the Tarawa of break-ups with Eastwood, which went nuclear when he changed the locks on their home and put her things in storage while she was away shooting her film.

I was only vaguely aware of this when I showed up at the old Four Seasons on Avenue to do this shoot. I did know, however, that Locke was a subject worth taking some trouble over, so I brought along lighting - a strobe and umbrella that I positioned just off to the side of the shot at the top, so as to bring down the overcast spring sky to a more somber gray. At the time it was a minor technical triumph that I managed to pull this shot off without getting a big fat reflection from the light in the big hotel window.

Sondra Locke, Toronto, May 1990

Locke was tiny, with translucent skin and what my youngest daughter calls "manga eyes." Born in the south, she made every male around her default to a courtly version of themselves, keeping their voice down, their manners in check, and their eagerness to see that she was comfortable at the foremost.

This might have been because she was battling cancer at the time, undergoing chemo and a double mastectomy that year. She had also undergone two abortions and a sterilization while with Eastwood, who apparently insisted that kids weren't an option for them.

(He'd had three children with the woman he was married to before Locke, two with a woman he had an affair with while still with Locke, and would have two more later in the '90s. I have been a fan of the Man with No Name for a long time, but this news tips Eastwood sharply into contemptible shit territory.)

Sondra Locke, Toronto, May 1990

I can't say that my portraits of Locke are groundbreaking, but it had only been five years since I bought my first camera and I had only begun shooting for NOW the previous year; I felt I had a lot to prove, and the Locke portraits - two rolls of Ilford HP5 Plus shot through my Nikon F3 - were a way of proving that I could wring as much as possible from a hotel room shoot.

I was clearly more concerned with the technical than the end result as I let Locke retain the same basic expression for most of the shoot; it would be a while before I felt relaxed enough with the gear and the film to start demanding more of my subjects. 1990 was a busy year, in any case - just the first ten months of the year fill up a whole negative binder in my files.

(These shots were never printed again after I handed in this assignment. I might have considered them as a portfolio possibility, but Locke's acting career was effectively over by the time I shot these, and when showing work to bored and distracted art directors and photo editors, it doesn't help to make them wonder for a moment who they're looking at.)

Locke's bitter break-up with Eastwood would drag on for several more years, leading to two major lawsuits that ended in out-of-court settlements in Locke's favour. Locke would direct two more films in the next decade and return to acting briefly in 1999 for two films. It was recently announced that she would be an executive producer on an Eli Roth film starring Keanu Reaves.

I ran into Locke at the airport the next day, when I was on my way to New York to visit my then-girlfriend. Going through security, she seemed even smaller; I offered to carry her luggage through customs.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Bob Stinson, Toronto, April 6, 1986

AFTER THE IMPROBABLE FEAT OF RE-FORMING AFTER 20 YEARS, the Replacements have been getting a lot of press lately, which is a bit rich for those of us who loved the band back in the '80s and wondered why the hell nobody else did. My single (I assumed) experience shooting the Replacements in their heyday was a frustrating, chaotic one, and since I never got the results I was hoping for, most of these shots have never seen the light of day until now.

Thanks to the efforts of fans and the wonder of the internet, I know exactly when these were shot: April 6, 1986, at the Concert Hall (aka The Masonic Temple) on Yonge Street, when the band were in town touring to support Tim. This would be the last tour Bob Stinson would do with the band; after playing on the demo tapes for Pleased To Meet Me later that summer, he either left or was kicked out of the band.

Ironically, my photo of Bob is the sharpest, best-composed one I shot on the afternoon when I tried to get portraits of the band during soundcheck. He's wearing a Damned t-shirt and the tattoo on his forearm reads "LUV HER." Stinson would be dead nine years after I took this shot; it's hard to believe that he's only 26 here.

Tommy Stinson, Toronto, April 6, 1986

I don't know if I was on assignment for Nerve or whether I was doing these shots for myself, but whatever hope I had of getting a decent group shot or portrait of individual band members became wishful thinking when I realized that they had no intention of posing together, and that anything I was going to get would be wrestled from four very wary, bored and possibly drunk young men. As I recalled to a friend last week when I was scanning these shots, it was like trying to catch ferrets in a tube.

Chris Mars, Toronto, April 6, 1986

Drummer Chris Mars couldn't even be bothered mugging, and apart from a few half-hearted gestures he slumped in the shadows, very nearly comatose. I'd owned a camera for barely a year when I took these photos, and I was working at the very edge of my competence. The set-up was basic - a Spotmatic shooting Tri-X; I'm guessing I pushed the film, and the spottiness of the photo above gives you a hint of how thin this negative was, and how much work I've done to make it even faintly readable.

Paul Westerberg, Toronto, April 6, 1986

If I couldn't get a shot of the whole band together, I knew I wasn't going to leave until I had a worthwhile shot of Paul Westerberg, This is one of just four frames I snatched of him, and the only one where he doesn't look like he's posing for a Creem magazine Boy Howdy! beer profile. It's far from ideal - his face is just slightly out of focus, but it's sharp enough that I'd take it out of its negative sleeve every few years and try to pull a decent print from it.

Eight years after I took these photos I got a call from Julie Clair at Rolling Stone Press, looking for photos to illustrate a book project that I assume was either (probably) The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll or (shudder) Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama. According the the big ledger, I sent them eight prints on spec of everyone from Metallica and R.E.M. to Henry Rollins, Fela Kuti and Ice Cube.

They were looking for a picture of Westerberg - a solo artist now, having broken up the band in 1991  - and it seemed as good a time as any to try and get someone to publish my photo. I was getting heavily into printing through tissues and filters, so I pulled out the negative again, spent a couple of hours in my horrid little darkroom, and eventually sent them this:

I think I was trying to make the sloppy snapshot quality of the whole shoot a virtue by distressing the image so that it looked like something you'd pull out of a waterlogged cabin or a dead man's storage locker. Not entirely successful, and in any case I have no record that this or any of my photos ended up in the Rolling Stone Alt-Encycloped-O-Rock-A-Rama.

Nearly thirty years later, I prefer the unfiltered version, and while my photos of The Replacements are hardly definitive, they sum up a bleary, slipshod afternoon that would end later that day with me in the mosh pit while the band stopped and started through a typically half-assed set full of fragments of covers and audience baiting. Which is probably why, great as they were, the Replacements were always doomed to a sort of noble obscurity. And why, if you've only ever seen the cleaned-up, reformed revision, you have no idea.

Paul Westerberg, Toronto, February 17, 1991

THE REPLACEMENTS RETURNED TO THE SAME VENUE five years later, on a tour supporting All Shook Down, their last album before breaking up, and I was sent to shoot the show for NOW magazine, apparently.

I say "apparently" because until I happened upon these negatives while looking for something else - after I'd written the post above - I had no memory of seeing them again.

I used my Nikon F3 - a huge upgrade from the Spotmatic - and shot two rolls of Kodak T-Max 3200, a high-speed black and white film, which I eventually stopped using for concerts because it produced such blocky, blown-out highlights. Of 70 frames - every one of Westerberg - this was the most successful to scan. (T-Max 3200 was, however, a great film to use for portrait work in flat, low-light conditions, for precisely the reason Kodak warned photographers about it - monstrous, chunky grain.)

Bob Stinson and Chris Mars were both gone by this point, and (as far as I can tell from the tape of the show) the band played a cover-free set full of fan favorites, with Westerberg bantering brightly with the audience. They had pacing they wholly lacked five years previous, and finished the show with a four-song crescendo, beginning with "Bastards of Young" and ending with "Alex Chilton." It was, everyone knew, their farewell tour, and I guess they wanted to go out on a high note.

A much better band, by objective standards, than the one that I'd spent half a day with in 1986, but I remembered that shambolic mess of a show and completely forgot the much better one. Hell, I can't even tell you if I bothered staying for five minutes after I finished my roll.

Monday, September 15, 2014


the marble box

PERHAPS ITS MY SCOTTISH BLOOD, but I hate wasting anything useful, so I save rubber bands and plastic bags. Back when I shot film, I used to save film trimmings - the stray frames from the beginning or the end of rolls that you'd sacrifice to make a better fit when you were cutting up a roll to fit into negative sleeves. I'm aware that anyone who's only ever shot digital won't have a clue what I mean.

Back when I started as a photographer, I discovered that if you fed your 35mm rollfilm onto the take-up spool of your camera carefully, you could get 37 frames out of a 36 frame roll. I didn't know what to do with that odd frame when I'd finished cutting up rolls to sleeve, so I had a habit of saving them into a little marble box on my desk, a hand-me-down from my brother-in-law. (I think he used to keep his stash in it.)

I used 36 frame negative sheets for the first few years that I shot until I discovered that 35 frame sheets fit into binders better and made for neater contact sheets on 8x10 paper. Which meant that I had to sacrifice a frame to fit a 36 shot roll into a 35 frame sheet. Needless to say my Scottish tightness chafed against this waste, and so the trimmed frame would end up in the marble box.

Talking to my friend Jonathan Castellino the other day about those stray shots that your camera takes when you put it in a bag without turning it off, I remembered these film trimmings as the closest equivalent in the analog world, and remembered the marble box on my desk.

The trimmed frames were still in it.

And so, as a tribute to the random nature of film photography and those happy accidents that sometimes happen, every month I'll pull a frame out of the box and scan it. Some might be abstract blurs or shots of my camera bag or offhandedly composed pictures I took, knowing I was wasting a frame. I might even remember where I took them. Here's number one:

The Catalan signs hanging from the balconies are a dead giveaway - this is the Placa del Pi in Barcelona, and the view from our hotel room at the Hotel el Jardi in the early summer of 1998. This might be the first frame of the first roll I shot there, on the first trip I took with the woman who would be my wife three years later.

There was some kind of protest going on by the residents on the square against some local authority, but without sufficient Catalan I couldn't tell you what it was about then or now. It's a lovely square, with a medieval basilica on one end and a Basque tapas bar I'd frequent while my girlfriend was off teaching classes at the university. I would love to be there now.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Anton Corbijn, Toronto, October 1987

MY FRIEND CHRIS BUCK IS OPENING A PORTRAIT SHOW at a Montreal gallery today. Since I've already written one very nice post about Chris this year, I thought it would be a good time to recall a career-altering moment we experienced in tandem.

In the fall of 1987 I had owned a camera for just over two years and Chris had just graduated from Ryerson's photography department. We were barely in the foothills of our careers and busy trying to digest a thick stew of our influences when we learned that a photographer whose work we both admired would be in town, attending a Tom Waits concert.

Joy Division by Anton Corbijn

We had seen Anton Corbijn's work in the British music press for years, and by this point he had moved past the ink-smudged newprint weeklies to glossy mags and album covers for big-deal acts like U2. (The Joshua Tree had been released in the spring of 1987, and it was a publicist at U2's label who'd tipped Chris off to Anton's visit to Toronto.) Corbijn was still at a point where only other photographers would recognize his work, and we both agreed to stake out the box office at the hall where he was supposed to pick up his tickets for the Waits show and see if he'd consent to being interviewed by two eager fans and (we hoped, one day) potential peers.

Chris Buck shoots Anton Corbijn, Toronto, Oct. 1987

To our great surprise he agreed, and told us to meet him where he was staying the next day. The motel isn't there any more; it had been the flagship of the Four Seasons chain when it had opened over a quarter century earlier, but after new owners and a name change it was getting a bit shabby. Anton greeted us a bit warily but invited us in to do an interview before we took photos. Chris sent me a transcript of our chat a while ago, and it's a fantastic record of two novices rather nakedly trying to winkle tips and advice from someone we'd studied perhaps a bit too intensely for his comfort.

Miles Davis by Anton Corbijn.

Rick: Tell us about your Miles Davis shoot. 
It was done on assignment for the NME in Montreal, where he was playing. For him I was just a photographer for some music magazine so I had just six or seven minutes in his hotel room - one just like this. 
Rick: How did you get him to pull on his face? 
I just asked him to do a few things like that and he did it. Basically, you sit with someone and they do something like this (rubs his eyes) and you watch. It looks good so you build it up a little bit. It's really an unprepared sort of thing, I didn't know what I would get with him. 
Rick: Do you think you'll do much more magazine work? 
I'm now looking for somebody to represent me in America, and maybe do some things in American magazines. I would continue to do some album sleeves, though not that many. I really would like to move more into film. 
Chris: Is there anyone who you want to photograph but can't? 
I've been trying to get a hold of Bob Dylan for a while, but I'm not sure I'll manage in the end, you just need patience, you know? Tom Waits I've tried for ages, I started like 10 years ago.

Chris Buck and Anton Corbijn, Toronto, Oct. 1987
Me, Spotmatic and Anton Corbijn, Toronto, Oct. 1987

Finally it came time to do the portraits, and I could tell that Anton was more uncomfortable with this than the interview. I don't know who started shooting first, but I do know that we began by the window to the motel courtyard when Anton stopped us and said that it would probably look a lot better if we moved back, to where the light was a lot flatter and dimmer.

I panicked. The last two years had been a steep learning curve, but I was still struggling to get the best results possible with my tools - Pentax Spotmatic with Ilford HP5 through D-76 developer, basically - and finding enough light was a constant battle. Moving a few paces deeper into the motel room, where the typically overcast Toronto autumn light almost disappeared, would mean pushing my film at least two stops, with the resultant loss of shadow detail and explosion of grain.

Still, Corbijn stood up and sat on the bed by the wall and we kept shooting. Perhaps we saw it then, or maybe it only became clear when we developed our film and made contacts, but it turned out Anton had given us a little gift.

Anton Corbijn by Chris Buck, Toronto, Oct. 1987

Moving into the shadows meant pushed film and more grain, especially when you boosted the contrast to get some separation between the grays, but as soon as the first test strip bloomed in the developer it was obvious that Anton had given away a trade secret of sorts. For the next few years both of us would lure our subjects into the shadows and push our contrast and harvest what we learned on that one autumn morning. It would be the closest thing to a masterclass that I would ever experience.

Anton Corbijn, Toronto, Oct. 1987

The two shots above are the ones that ran in the story Chris and I published in Nerve. I'd like to think that, anxiety of influence aside, Chris' style is already visible in his portrait, while my own shot is a bit more Anton-alike, though I've always been proud of it.

The photo above is the print I took in and out of my portfolio for years, but it's the portrait at the top of this post - scanned and blown up for the first time in nearly thirty years - that does a better job of summing up the wariness of a subject who was, all the same, startlingly generous to two young photographers.

Anton Corbijn, Toronto, Sept. 2007, Canon EOS digital

IT WOULD BE TWENTY YEARS before I met Anton again, when he came to the film festival with Control, his debut feature: He had, after many years, moved into film. The movie was a biopic about Ian Curtis and Joy Division, and as a fan of the band and Anton I pleaded with the free national daily to let me do the story.

I showed up with a print of my portrait, and was grateful that he remembered our interview, two decades previous. He was obviously aware of Chris and his work, and tactfully didn't bother asking what I'd done since then.

We chatted amiably, but when it came time to do the photo, Corbijn insisted that he pose in front of a poster for his film. I don't deny that I was desperate to re-create the photos I'd taken twenty years before, but he would have none of it; I suppose you can only be really generous to a stranger once in a lifetime.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Paul Cox, Toronto, Sept 1986

THE FILM FESTIVAL IS IN WINDING DOWN right now, which is a good time to try and remember when the ten days of the Festival of Festivals, later the Toronto International Film Festival, were the highlight of my year. So why not start at the beginning?

1986 wasn't the first year I'd managed to score a press pass for the festival - I'd covered it for my college newspaper a year or two previous - but it was the first year I brought a camera along. I was working for Nerve, the free music monthly that would be my first post-collegiate venue as a writer and shooter, in what we would call an unpaid internship nowadays; it would be at least a year before there was money available to pay us, and another year before Nerve stopped publishing. (Probably not coincidentally.)

Paul Cox was the epitome of a festival director at the time; he'd made his mark with films like Lonely Hearts and Man of Flowers earlier in the decade, and was in town with Cactus, a marriage breakdown film starring Isabelle Huppert. He was an intense interview, expressing what I would almost call a militantly humanist philosophy, and an utter contempt for mainstream filmmaking and Hollywood.

His passion and conviction was so hard to deny that I remember leaving the interview stoked, perhaps even converted to his worldview. It would take a day or two before I remembered that I actually liked a lot of big, dumb mainstream filmmaking; it didn't help that his films post-Man of Flowers took on a dour tone that made them feel penitential.

Cox had been a photographer early in his career, which is probably why he was such an obliging subject, using his pipe to create a bit of atmosphere that I wasn't technically able to seek out or provide on my own at that point. I like to flatter myself that Cox, an Australian but Dutch-born, was the inspiration for my Dutch Masters homage in this shot, but I frankly only noticed that later.

Jean-Jacques Beineix, Toronto, Sept. 1986

The festival was still pretty manageable back then, headquartered almost entirely in the Park Plaza (now the Park Hyatt), a slightly shabby New York-style hotel in Yorkville whose rooftop bar was popular with the city's publishing establishment. It's still my favorite place for a $20 martini. (But since I can't afford a $20 martini, I haven't been there in years.)

In a year or two the festival would move to a bigger hotel, then start sprawling out into four or five different buildings, but in 1986 I shot everything at the Park Plaza or, in the case of French director Jean-Jacques Beineix, on a hotel balcony. Beineix had a huge festival hit a few years earlier with Diva, a film that still makes me nostalgic for the early '80s, but he'd followed it up with Moon In The Gutter, a stylish but overwrought bomb.

Things would change with the film he brought in 1986 - Betty Blue, a tragic but wildly sexy love story starring Beatrice Dalle. It would be a huge hit for Beineix - his biggest, ultimately, with a cult following it retains to this day, along with a broken trail of once-young men who had the line between crazy and hot blurred for them at an impressionable age.

Access to talent was still controlled by a handful of festival publicists in 1986, so I always did my best to ingratiate myself with the (mostly young) women who ran the publicity desks. I could be wrong, but this might be the year I put myself in the good books of a particularly pretty publicist by stealing a handful of wind-up Godzilla toys from the shop where I was working to present as a gift, knowing she had a thing for Toyo's nuclear city-destroyer.

This also might explain how I ended up with an interview and shoot with Beineix, who was the big buzz at that year's festival (along with David Lynch, who was there with Blue Velvet. More on him later.) I don't remember much about the interview, but I like the Gallic smirk on his face as he surveys the streets below the suite at the Park Plaza, a look that sums up the immense satisfaction you might feel when you prove that you weren't a fluke.

Horton Foote, Toronto, Sept. 1986

Horton Foote was famous for his screenplay for To Kill A Mockingbird, and had written the script for Tender Mercies a couple of years before I photographed him at the festival, where he was doing press for On Valentine's Day, a movie based on his own stage play that seems to have been forgotten today.

Foote was a Texan, and represented the literary (and more than slightly melancholy) aspect of the South that's been buried today under an avalanche of rednecks, troubled lawmen and sexy vampires. It was once a powerful cultural idea, though, and Foote seemed to embody it effortlessly. His cousin, the historian Shelby Foote, would become another stand-in for that noble Southern aspect with his appearances in Ken Burns' Civil War PBS documentary series.

I didn't have to do much with Foote apart from find a bit of window light and let my Spotmatic take in the genial, wise forbearance he was kind enough to extend to a young writer and photographer very much out of his depth.

Horton Foote died in 2009.

These three photos were printed together in a feature I published in Nerve, and the prints have been sandwiched together, moving from box to box over nearly thirty years. Working on the scans in Photoshop, I paused for a second with my cloning tool and wondered whether I should be spotting out the dust marks that had lingered on these prints for almost three decades, then realized I was being silly.

After each issue came out, Nerve's editors Dave and Nancy would hold a staff meeting at their apartment that inevitably turned into a party. When this issue was being post-mortemed, I remember Myke Dyer, another writer/photographer at the paper, singling my shots out for what seemed like effusive praise. Myke was older and, to my mind, far more sophisticated - he had an actual, real girlfriend and everything, and I felt terribly flattered.

It had been a year since I'd bought my first camera, and here I was at the film festival, taking presentable, perhaps even more than competent photos of celebrities that I'd developed and printed myself. It felt like a milestone - a test that I'd passed, and from this moment I on I knew that, whatever other ambitions I might have had, I wanted to be a portrait photographer.

Friday, September 5, 2014


Robert Altman, Toronto, Sept. 1990

ROBERT ALTMAN WAS NEAR THE END of a career doldrum when I photographed him at the 1990 Toronto International Film Festival. His first great peak had begun with M*A*S*H and ended a decade later when his musical Popeye had bombed, and when I shot him it would be another two years before The Player was released, returning him to A-list status with that most iconic (and ironic) of Hollywood projects - a film that attacked Hollywood and its cruel, venal denizens.

The Player's success saw the industry that had effectively exiled him for a decade suddenly beckon him over, warmly kiss him on both cheeks and say, "Thanks so much for spitting in our eye. Welcome back. You've always been one of us."

It might have been the best business decision of his career.

Altman was in town plugging Vincent & Theo, a biopic about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother starring Tim Roth, which had originally begun as a BBC miniseries. It was the sort of film an American director in disgrace makes - a faintly highbrow picture for the very finite art market, produced with European money. He might have been in exile, but he still had a home on the festival circuit, and NOW magazine sent me to get a portrait.

I don't know whether it was meant for a cover, but I shot a roll of slide film anyway, probably because I was hoping to get something for my portfolio. I chose Agfa 1000 RS, the fastest 120 transparency film on the market in those days, knowing that it would give me an unusually cool cast. The light must have been quite dim, because even with the fast film in a Rollei on a tripod, I ended up using a very narrow depth of field.

Robert Altman, Toronto, Sept. 1990

Altman had a reserved but genial "Southern Colonel" demeanor, and I tried to break the ice by saying that he'd directed one of my favorite films of all time, but that I was sure he couldn't guess what it was.

This seemed to pique his interest, and he began listing films. "Quintet? HealtH? Tanner '88?"

No, I said. It was Secret Honor - a film I'd seen at the film festival just six years before.

"Oh," he said, clearly surprised. "That is a strange choice."

I told him that it was my favorite film about Nixon, and raved about Philip Baker Hall's performance, which is still my favorite Nixon on film - better than Dan Hedaya or Frank Langella or Anthony Hopkins. What, I asked Altman, had happened to Hall? (It would be a few years before the actor would end up with character parts in blockbusters like The Sum of All Fears and critics faves like Boogie Nights and Magnolia.)

"Ahh," Altman said, sourly. "I heard he's been doing television."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Bruce Dern, Toronto 1990

THIS WASN'T AN ASSIGNMENT, but more of an accident that fell into my lap. By the time I did this shoot I'd been covering the Toronto International Film Festival since it was the Festival of Festivals - about six years, and I'd taken pains to be nice to the publicists in charge of granting access to celebrity guests. It would be a few more years till access became so ferociously restricted that most of the shooting migrated to a special "photo lounge," and so the festival was my happy hunting ground for big name trophies for my portfolio.

Dern was in town for After Dark, My Sweet, an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel starring Rachel Ward and Jason Patric, in which he played the sort of spooky creep - a dodgy uncle who leads the hero astray - he's made a specialty of his whole career. The late '80s/early '90s were a big time for neo-noirs and Thompson adaptations. Don't ask me why.

This was not a rich time in Dern's career; he had steady work, but it had been over a decade since Coming Home and it would be another decade before younger directors and actors like Billy Bob Thornton would seek him out for better projects. He was mostly known at this point as Laura Dern's dad.

And being employed but out of fashion left him at loose ends in the interview suites at the festival hotel, which is where a friendly publicist asked me if I could do a shoot with him; his schedule was empty and she wanted to fill it up. I'd grown up with Dern's baleful, half-crazed stare fixing me from the TV screen during late night showings of Silent Running and The Great Gatsby so I didn't hesitate to say yes.

Bruce Dern, Toronto 1990

I made sure I had enough film and she led me into the hotel room, where I loaded a roll into my Nikon F3, placed Dern in a corner where the light was clean and shadowless  (the "Anton Corner" as I'd come to know it - more on that later) and began shooting. I raised the camera - I'm guessing it was at least my 55mm, but more probably my monstrous 85mm/f1.4 portrait lens - and found myself fixed with that unblinking stare. I might have shuddered.

We shot silently for the next four or five minutes. I finished a black and white roll, then a roll of colour slides. I don't remember exchanging a word with Dern. When I heard the film start rewinding in the F3, I put my camera down and said I was finished. 

"Thank you," he said. "That was very good. You'll go far."

Monday, September 1, 2014


John Tchicai, Toronto July 1988

I WAS A MUSIC JOURNALIST at the same time I was starting my photography career, and like most music writers I reached that dread, inevitable point where I "got into jazz." At around the same time I became friends with saxophonist/flautist Jane Bunnett and her husband, trumpeter Larry Cramer, when I moved into a loft just around the corner from their Parkdale home. They had a residency of sorts at a goofy little Mexican restaurant on Bloor Street, and one week they brought in John Tchicai, a Danish sax player who had legendary status among fans of avant-garde jazz.

Tchicai was a kind of Zelig of free jazz, playing on John Coltrane's Ascension and Albert Ayler's New York Eye and Ear Control, and with ensembles such as the New York Art Quartet and the New York Contemporary Five. He also played on John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Unfinished Music 2: Life With the Lions, but please don't hold that against him. If I'd known more about jazz at that point I'd probably have been in awe of him, but when Jane asked me to come and take a few shots of a friend who was in town playing with them, I just grabbed a roll of expired Kodachrome I had in the fridge and walked over.

We shot in their backyard, where the mature trees overhead filtered and softened the summer sunlight, though I'm sure some of the cool cast on the film comes from the outdated film. Kodachrome, introduced in the mid-'50s and virtually unchanged until it went out of production five years ago, was famous for its grainless texture and vivid colours, but was rated at just 64 ASA.

I'm sure I was working at the limits of my very limited technique at the time to get a sharp image at a slow shutter speed and slim aperture. I ended up with a sheet worth of slides I thought worth saving, though I think this is the first time anyone's seen them after they've sat in a binder for over 25 years; Tchicai might have been a free jazz legend, but the market for portraits of musicians like him has always been scant.

The show was pretty wild, full of all the skronk a free jazz fan would expect, with the bonus of singing by Tchicai, who liked to vocalize onstage. I'm sure I didn't get it at all, and my patience for this sort of thing hasn't improved with time, but I did know that I was seeing one of the last moments when most of the key figures in '60s avant garde jazz were at work and under full steam. Truth be told, the '80s were a great time to "get into jazz."

Tchicai made nearly sixty records as a leader and as many as a sideman. He recorded with electronic music ensembles like Spring Heel Jack - if someone knows where I can get a copy of their John Tchicai with Strings record I'd be grateful - and his last record, Tribal Ghost, is a beautiful example of very contemporary jazz, with decades of influences going back to the '50s, fully accounted for and digested. I'm a bit of a mouldy fucking fig, though, so I have a soft spot for In Monk's Mood, his very mainstream album of Thelonious Monk standards recorded fronting an organ trio.

John Tchicai died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in 2012.

John Tchicai, Toronto July 1988