Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle, New York City, Aug. 1992

WE WERE IN FRONT OF ST. PATRICK'S CATHEDRAL ON FIFTH AVENUE when I stopped and said we had to get a picture. Roddy Doyle - Irish writer, professed atheist and my subject for the afternoon - shrugged and said "Of course." It might have been the second most obvious spot to take his portrait in New York City (the most obvious would have been a bar with a name like Kelly's or O'Hara's but there were none of those on this stretch of Fifth) but sometimes you have to bow to inevitability.

I'd flown in to New York that morning to take Doyle's photo for the cover of NOW magazine. The Van, his lastest novel and the third book in the Barrytown trilogy, had come out the previous year and he was passing through Toronto to promote it. The hit movie version of The Commitments had also been released and he was a literary star, though I doubt if anyone on the streets of Manhattan would have recognized him. 

Roddy Doyle, New York City, Aug. 1992

We began our walk around midtown by Central Park in the rain. I had packed light - as much as I could carry in a camera bag - and had decided to try something outside my usual style. Daylight candid shooting with fill flash is the sort of thing I associated with newspaper photographers looking to get evenly-exposed shots without shadows or blown-out highlights, and with a maximum depth of field. I put a wide lens on my Nikon and a diffuser on my Metz flash and off we went, starting by the horse and carriage rides on West 59th.

It was around noon and I guess we were hungry. The pretzel stand was there so I bought one for both of us. I tucked mine in my bag and took a half a roll of Doyle eating his in the rain, a bemused look on his face. This, I thought, at least won't be the standard author's photo.

Roddy Doyle eats a pretzel, New York City, Aug. 1992

Doyle and I continued our walk through midtown, past the Plaza and down Fifth where I took out my Rolleiflex in front of the Cathedral. I must have shot a roll or two of colour film for the cover at one point, but there's nothing to be found in my files and it's no great loss, considering the strict template we had to shoot our NOW covers into at the time. We ended our walk by Radio City Music Hall, by which point the rain had stopped.

I'm still trying to understand why I took such a light approach to this shoot. Perhaps I was feeling less than inspired; I'd enjoyed what I'd read of Doyle so far but I was hardly overawed by him. Perhaps it was because we were close in age or maybe, considering my own background, it was that I've always been less than susceptible to the peculiar charms or "Oirishness," in movies or on the page. Maybe I just wanted to see if I could execute the strict technical requirements of a certain kind of photo.

Looking at the date, though, it also might have been simple mental exhaustion and depression; this was near the end of an agonizing year-long breakup with my ex-girlfriend and I was probably so distracted by the end game as it played out that I couldn't muster the emotional or creative investment to really get something unique from my subject. It would end - in tears, as they say - a few weeks later, but I was bracing for it all summer. Considering my state of mind, I was probably just happy taking a walk through New York City in genial company, even if it was raining.


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