Friday, January 9, 2015


Jane Bunnett and Don Pullen, New York, Aug. 1989

NINETEEN-EIGHTY-NINE WAS A BIG YEAR FOR JANE BUNNETT. I know because I was there for most of it, camera in hand. She played her first major date in New York City and produced the record that ended up breaking her out of the (very small) Canadian jazz music market.

It was also a year where the pace of work forced me to sharpen my skills and upgrade my very rudimentary equipment. Thankfully, that was the year I ended up inheriting a bit of money from my mother's estate and the sale of our family home, so I upgraded my Spotmatics to a Nikon F3 and my Mamiya C330 with a Rolleiflex. With all this fabulous new gear, I just needed to up my technical game, and shooting Jane's very busy year would provide me with plenty of challenges.

Jane Bunnett, Toronto, Jan. 1989

The year began with a quick shoot around the corner from my Parkdale loft, in the house Jane shared with her husband, trumpeter Larry Cramer. A new 8x10 was needed for the year's gigs and especially an upcoming booking with Don Pullen at a jazz club downtown.

I still hadn't moved up to a roll of seamless paper for my backdrops, so I shot Jane using what had been for at least a year or two my standard portable background - a white painter's drop cloth I carried around with a roll of gaffer tape in a gym bag. Using my Metz flash bounced into an umbrella, it was a pretty basic portrait setup; the sort of thing a first-year photography student would produce in the school studios using a classmate as a subject. I was sure I could do better.

Locked out of East 85th, April 1989

The booking - at East 85th, one of a handful of jazz clubs in Toronto at the time (there are fewer now) - turned into a debacle. With Don Pullen co-headlining on piano, it was supposed to be Jane's follow-up to the gig that produced In Dew Time a year before, but it ended with a note and a padlock on the door and drummer Barry Romberg's kit locked inside the darkened club.

It had been a tense gig up till that point - as I mentioned in a previous post - and after a call from Jane and Larry I took the streetcar down there to shoot the band waiting outside in the rain. That's my camera bag on the sidewalk, and one of the headshots from the January session pinned to the marquee board behind the band.

If everyone in this shot looks miserable, they had good reasons. Beside's Barry's drums, there was the matter of unpaid wages for the band and the balance of Don's airfare and accommodation. The prospect of being out of pocket for an as-yet-unknown amount of money was a potential blow to Jane and Larry's plans for the rest of the year.

Jane Bunnett, Toronto, July 1989

Still disappointed with my work on January's shoot, I was grateful when, early that summer, Jane asked to do another session for a promo shot. By this point I'd invested in a roll of gray seamless and set it up in my loft, with the big north-facing windows in the bedroom providing light to fill the shadows from the umbrella flash. The results were much more satisfactory.

By this point Jane knew she was booked to play the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival in August, and had rented studio time in the city to record her second album - a duets record with Don Pullen. A shot from the July portrait session would end up in the CD booklet for New York Duets, but we needed photos of Jane and Don together for the package, which I had convinced Jane to let me help design.

In a rare coincidence of timing, my girlfriend was moving to New York at the end of that summer to study film at NYU, and we'd be driving her down just in time for Jane's gig at Sweet Basil. At some point in the afternoon, probably between the soundcheck and dinner, I posed Jane and Don against a white wall in a cramped corner of Jane's room at the Washington Square Hotel and shot six rolls of 120 film on my new Rolleiflex, desperate to get at least one good shot.

Don Pullen & Jane Bunnett, New York, August 1989

"Don had my back," Jane remembered when I asked her about the recording sessions for New York Duets, "and that gave me a lot of confidence." She remembered the portrait session in her hotel room better than I did, and recalled looking at Don as we shot, hardly believing that she was actually making a record with someone whose work she'd admired for years.

I like to think that my shots reflect the bold but nervous step Jane was taking, and Don's generosity as both a musician and a friend. They're hardly technical masterpieces, and tasked with doing them again a year or two later I'm sure I'd have done something much more ambitious, but in this case their utter artlessness ended up helping show the relationship between the subjects in bolder relief.

Don Pullen & Jane Bunnett, Top of the Senator, Toronto, 1990
(please click on the image)

With a record to promote, Don and Jane shared a bill again the next year at the Top of the Senator, and I decided to shoot the matinee gig as a technical challenge to myself, leaving my F3 at home and bringing the Rollei on a tripod and a rented Widelux panoramic camera. Knowing that there would be plenty of bright afternoon light streaming through the Senator's big west-facing window, I guessed that I wouldn't have an opportunity like this again.

The year ended for Jane with two records either released or recorded. Personally, it left me a slightly better photographer with a few better tools and a long-distance relationship that, despite all the grief it would lead to, gave me a brief base in New York to pursue my career outside Toronto. For both Jane and myself, there were even bigger challenges ahead.

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