Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Dario Argento, Toronto, Sept. 1990

I HAD HEARD OF DARIO ARGENTO when I was assigned to shoot him for NOW magazine during the 1990 Toronto International Film Festival - then still called the Festival of Festivals - where he was in town promoting Two Evil Eyes, half of which was directed by Argento, the other by George Romero. A friend had seen Opera a couple of festivals previous, and while no huge horror movie fan, he raved about the camera work and Argento's visual audacity.

It would be a few years, however, before I realized that he'd worked on the screenplay for Once Upon A Time In The West - probably my favorite film - with Sergio Leone, so these portraits are something of a trophy.

When you're assigned to shoot a portrait of a horror movie director, there are a couple of pretty obvious cliches you can fall back on:
  1. Light him from below.
  2. Shoot him standing in a bathtub.
I chose to do both. I vaguely regret the low angle I set my light at now, but not the background; hotel rooms are usually featureless spaces, and the marble walls in the bath/shower stall in the room at either the Four Seasons or the Sutton Place were an irresistible temptation. In retrospect, lighting Argento from below prevented the light from reflecting on the polished stone behind him, so kudos to me.

Dario Argento, Toronto, Sept. 1990

The photo above is the one that I immediately printed for the client; the hands gripping the face reminded me of some tentacled, Lovecraftian creature; once again, a bit obvious, but I felt I had to visually underline "horror movie director" for the benefit of disinterested readers. There was, however, a bright white seam of tile grout running through the top left corner of the frame in the original negative that always bothered me, and was simply too large to burn down or retouch away. Thanks to Photoshop, however, I have finally been able to eradicate this irritant after a quarter of a century.

Looking over the contacts now, I prefer the frame at the top of this post, mostly because it says "haunted" more than "scary," and with age I like to default to the more subtle option. Argento was a more than cooperative subject, eager to help me get the shot I wanted - his mother was a photographer - but don't let these shots give you the impression that he was glum or intense; most of the frames in my shoot capture smiles and grins. If I can say he reminded me of anyone, it was probably his fellow Italian, Roberto Begnini.

Dario Argento, Toronto, Sept. 1990

I can't tell you if I was using my Mamiya C330 or a Rolleiflex at this point in my career - I might have to get out my lightbox and a magnifying glass and compare the notches in the frame to solve that puzzle. My light was a Metz "potato masher" mounted into a brand new mini soft box I'd just purchased. I shot two rolls of black and white and a roll of Fuji Provia 400 which I cross-processed to get as much colour as I could from a subject and a setting that was a bit monochrome.

We weren't considering Argento for a cover shot, and NOW definitely wouldn't have run a shot with as much deep shadow as this, so I took this extra roll looking for a portfolio possibility. But the "tentacle hands" shot was such an obvious choice that I never even considered printing one of these, which I actually like a lot more today.

The saturated colour from the cross-processing makes it look like a still from a '70s giallo, and I love the hand thrown back over his forehead, with its cool, greenish skin tone, veined like marble. As a portrait, though, it's only almost there; I'd probably have pulled it off with a few years' more experience.


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