Thursday, November 19, 2015


James Tenney, Parkdale, January 1991

I DID TWO PORTRAIT SESSIONS WITH THE COMPOSER JAMES TENNEY on either side of the turn of the '90s, and they were both pivotal moments in my development as a photographer. The first was a simple affair at an uncertain time that gave me a benchmark for what I'd learned about composition. The second was an exercise in colour and lighting that opened up the possibilities of studio work. That they happened to involve the same subject probably wasn't a coincidence.

I didn't know much about James Tenney when my old Nerve boss Nancy Lanthier assigned me to photograph him for Music Scene magazine. He was an American teaching at York University, a student of John Cage, Harry Partch and Edgard Varese who'd performed in the ensembles of minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass. (He was one of four musicians who performed Reich's Pendulum Music at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969, alongside Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman and Michael Snow.)

If I'd known this beforehand it might have been why I chose to shoot him in front of the stark blackboard with its staff lines and the cluster of music department metal chairs, but I probably didn't, and just saw really great backgrounds.

James Tenney, York University, Toronto, January 1989

I did this shoot not long after Nerve had gone under and I found myself without a steady creative outlet; my apprenticeship over, I was out in the world now trying to make a reputation and a living, and the success of this shoot gave me a needed confidence boost. Tenney must have been pleased with the results as well, because the big ledger records him receiving a pair of prints from me two months after this shoot.

Perhaps this is how I ended up shooting Tenney again, two years later, for the cover of Ear magazine, an avant-garde music monthly being published out of rooms above Manhattan's historic Ear Inn. I'd been shopping my work around New York since my girlfriend had moved there, so perhaps I'd approached them with my portfolio, or maybe Tenney told them about me. In any case it was my first magazine cover on glossy stock and a very big deal, so I put everything I'd learned so far into the shoot.

James Tenney, Parkdale, January 1991

Tenney showed up at my Parkdale loft where I'd set up my studio in my bedroom, with a white seamless, my new ProFoto strobe kit, a whole bunch of coloured gels and my Bronica SQa medium format camera. I wanted the richest colours possible, so I cross-processed Fuji RDP slide film. I'd been experimenting with cross-processing my floral still-lifes, trying to boost saturation as far as possible and boil my shots down to primary colours.

Tenney was an accommodating subject, and seemed to understand what I was trying to do. He had a great face, and with his denim and bolo tie (he was born in New Mexico) sported a manly kind of cowboy style that pre-dated Sam Shepard or Ralph Lauren. After I finished my colour rolls, I put a close-up filter on the Bronica's 80mm lens and took some very, very tight head shots with the hard, focused light.

James Tenney, Parkdale, January 1991

I was very happy with the results, and I'd like to think that Ear was as well, but 1991 would prove to be a very difficult year for the magazine. My cover turned out to be one of their last; after a boost in circulation that came with sponsorship from Absolut vodka, their costs went up and their printer refused to release their last issue. After losing money on a benefit concert, Ear went under at the end of the year.

James Tenney died of lung cancer in Valencia, California on August 24, 2006.


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