Wednesday, November 12, 2014

LKJ

Linton Kwesi Johnson, Toronto, March 1990

SOMETIMES DIGGING THROUGH MY ARCHIVES IS LIKE DISCOVERING A WHOLE OTHER LIFE I FORGOT ABOUT. I wish I could tell you more about my shoot with Linton Kwesi Johnson back around the time of the Exxon Valdez and the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact, but these photos were a complete surprise to me.

What's really surprising is that - as with David Bowie and Iggy Pop - I was a fan. I'd been listening to LKJ since 1985, when Dave at Nerve handed me an advance cassette of his first live album and said "give it a listen - tell me what you think." I liked it - a lot, and especially loved his backing group, Dennis Bovell and the Dub Band. So I obviously would have been excited when I was assigned to cover his concert five years later.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, Toronto, March 1990

Going through the big ledger, I discover that while I never printed any of these shots for anyone, I had been assigned to photograph Jean "Binta" Breeze for NOW magazine in early March. Breeze, another dub poet, was a label mate of LKJ's who also performed with Bovell, and the live shot above is on the tail end of a roll of shots of Breeze and Bovell. I'm guess that the double bill was at the BamBoo, and that I talked the promoter into letting me have enough time with Johnson before the show to get a roll of portraits.

The portraits, like the concert photos, were shot on T-Max P3200, so I must have found a bit of decent available light somewhere backstage at the BamBoo - a difficult job - and shot a roll of tight head shots with my lens wide open. I wish I could remember what Johnson was like as a subject, but he was clearly a good one since I have a contact sheet full of nice frames; choosing just two to scan wasn't easy.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, Toronto, March 1990

While scanning the shot above I had a vague memory of making a portfolio print but taking it out when I lost my nerve, sure that nobody would know who it was. (In my experience, nothing deflated a go-see faster than having to explain who you'd shot and why.) Which means that this is probably the first time anyone has ever seen these photos.

Johnson has had a pretty decent career for a lifelong protester and scold of the establishment - many awards and honours, and the distinction of being only the second living poet to be published in Penguin's Modern Classics series. He's also managed to survive prostate cancer.

Two years ago he told an interviewer from the Independent that he hadn't written a poem in years: "If I never write another poem, so be it. I don't know whether I've written my best work. Some writers keep going on writing and writing, but you reach a peak at a particular age, and then go on to write inferior work."


 

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