|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.