Wednesday, August 31, 2016

D. M. Thomas

D.M. Thomas, Toronto, October 1990

I AM JUST OVER FIFTY YEARS OLD, AND NONE OF MY PORTRAITS were made more than three decades ago, but going through my files I can't help but regard some of these old photos as artifacts from a vanished world. These portraits of the English poet and novelist D.M. Thomas are only about as old as Nirvana's first album, but this is the world pre-internet, and sometimes it might as well be a hundred years ago

I was an English major in college before I was a photographer, so I can recall a time when authors were celebrities and books - real books, written for adults - were major cultural events. Any newspaper had a book section fully staffed with editors, and a celebrity-studded event like the Toronto film festival had its stature enhanced when a big name writer like Norman Mailer would make an appearance.

When I was a college lit major there was a heated and ongoing debate about what contemporary books might have been potential candidates to the canon of fiction we were meant to have read in or outside our reading for classes - big names like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Twain, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Austen, Ibsen, Joyce and Kafka. Candidates were proposed and debated and every season's crop of well-reviewed novels would be scrutinized for the qualities that might put them on some future syllabus and, it was presumed, bestow literary immortality.

D.M. Thomas, Toronto, Oct. 1990

D. M. Thomas published The White Hotel around when I was sending out college applications, and by the time I started attending classes it was all over the book review pages and literary supplements, and remained prominently displayed on bookstore shelves for the rest of that decade, a controversial but undeniably "serious" book that drew so deeply from the modernist tradition that it was presumed as likely a candidate for some future canon as anything else published at the time. Hell, even People magazine wrote about him.

Nearly ten years later I was a young photographer and found myself assigned to take Thomas' portrait when he came through town (likely for the author's festival) to publicize his latest book, a novel about writers in which he appeared as a character, which felt very postmodern, at least inasmuch as we understood the term. I've said before that assignments like this felt like a very big deal for me - as momentous as shooting a movie star or a politician for someone who loved books and, for at least a while, dreamed of being a novelist.

D.M. Thomas. Toronto, Oct. 1990

I expected someone a bit more forbidding - as serious and intimidating as you'd expect from the author of a book about Freud, opera and the Holocaust - but Thomas was remarkably wry and self-mocking, making jokes about doing an "author face" while we shot and bantering with the publicists on the sidelines.

I read his memoirs years later and learned that he was working class, from Cornwall, and the lucky recipient of an Oxford scholarship, so perhaps he was simply compensating for that displaced feeling shared by class trespassers, trying to overcome that nagging sense of "imposter syndrome." In hindsight, he was probably still a bit astounded by the lightning strike success of a very unlikely novel, and couldn't hide how bemused he was by it all, even a decade later.

I doubt that Thomas was destined for a cover story, but I took a roll of cross-processed colour in any case, feeling that the subject deserved the extra outlay of cash and time. I don't think these photos have been seen since they were published over twenty-five years ago, and in any case that world of book sections, celebrity authors, writer's festivals and serious fiction as a cultural event has receded even more rapidly into the past.

What hasn't apparently ended are the attempts to make The White Hotel into a movie. Thomas himself has told this ongoing story with immense humour, going back to just after his book was published, when Barbara Streisand bought the rights to make it into a film. Since then an impressive list of directors, including Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch (with a screenplay written by Dennis Potter), Terence Malick, David Cronenberg, Emir Kusturica, Hector Babenco and Pedro Almodovar have been linked with the film, along with actors like Isabella Rossellini, Anthony Hopkins and, tragically, Brittany Murphy.

Nobody talks about The White Hotel's place in the literary canon anymore, but then again nobody talks about the canon except as an instrument of hegemonic cultural oppression or, conversely, as some vague cultural ideal we need to defend (but not, apparently, read.) Sometimes I miss that old world.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Prince, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, March 30, 1993

UNTIL LAST WEEKEND, I ADAMANTLY MAINTAINED THAT I HAD NEVER SEEN PRINCE LIVE. I did the same thing with David Bowie, until I began rooting around my files and found proof that my memory is the least reliable thing about me. It would have been nice if I'd remembered these shots earlier this year, but here they are nonetheless.

Prince, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, March 30, 1993

It's the Act I Tour, early spring, Maple Leaf Gardens, on assignment for NOW magazine. The most elaborate Little Richard marcel wave, the microphone pistol, the hat with the veil of chains. He was between the "Love Symbol" album and Come, and just at the beginning of his long dispute with Warner Bros., his record company.

It's two years after "Diamonds and Pearls" and "Cream," a year after "Sexy MF" and "My Name is Prince," and two years before "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." He's hardly a spent force - Prince's wilderness years are yet to start in earnest - so why did I completely forget that I saw this show?

Prince, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, March 30, 1993

The one thing that I do know is that I have just half a roll of photos of this show - eighteen frames, which means that photographers were likely given a single song to shoot, probably less. With a motor drive on my camera I should have been able to rattle off at least a roll if I'd had enough time, even with a lens change. It's a testament to Prince, though, that so many of them aren't bad (for concert photos.) I shot more than this at a Miles Davis show and got nothing. Prince was definitely a value-for-your-money performer.

Once again, I can only assume that the briefness of the shoot, the fact that it was just a job, sandwiched between a whole bunch of other jobs (the early to mid-'90s were probably my busiest time as a professional) and my own sullenness contributed to the core dump of this particular memory. A with Bowie, I thought I was seeing him too late - a whole decade since the Dirty Mind, 1999 and Purple Rain tours, after all - so I discarded the memory altogether.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Mel Hurtig

Mel Hurtig, Edmonton, January 1993

I PHOTOGRAPHED MEL HURTIG IN HIS LOG CABIN HOME, overlooking the Edmonton River valley. It was really more a log mansion, with a spectacular view that was covered in snow on the overcast day I made these portraits. He had just formed a new political party and was running in that year's election in his hometown.

I'd been sent out by NOW magazine for the shoot - to this day the furthest west I've ever been in Canada. The sky was clear when I flew over the prairies and I had an almost endless view of the snow-covered fields, a white sheet broken up only by grid-like roads and the odd town or farm. Gradually, off in the distance, the foothills of the Rockies came into view, breaking up the endless flatness, and further behind that, in a blue haze, the jagged peaks of the mountains loomed.

It was like flying over a topographical map, and it was one of the most Canadian moments of my life - appropriate for my subject, a bookseller turned publisher and politician who was probably one of the fiercest nationalists the country has ever known.

I knew Hurtig as the man who'd spent a then-unprecedented $12 million on The Canadian Encyclopedia, an earnest and worthy project that was probably one of the last echoes of the explosion of patriotism that burst over the country in the centennial year of 1967. I don't know if it ever made any money but it was a passion project for Hurtig, who ardently believed that Canada was selling off its resources cheaply while being culturally swamped by our neighbour to the south.

Mel Hurtig, Edmonton, January 1993

To prepare for the shoot I read his latest book, A New And Better Canada, which was basically the platform of his National Party. It was a slim book but passionately argued, and when I landed in Edmonton I was mostly convinced, so we talked eagerly while I worked. Inspired by the view, I set up a light to the side and tried to take something between a portrait and a landscape shot, evoking Georgian portraits of the newly rich with their estates behind them in a cloudy haze of glazed paint.

We exchanged numbers when I left, and his campaign office contacted me not long after the story ran. They wanted to use one of my shots for publicity, which was fine by me, but they also didn't want to pay, which wasn't. I might not have known much about politics at the time, but I knew that there was some money involved, and that at least a couple hundred bucks of it could be used to compensate a struggling photographer.

It's probably a good thing that the National Party didn't do well in that election - they failed to win a seat, and while Hurtig did the best of all the party candidates, he only won barely 13% of the votes in his Edmonton Northwest riding, a distant third to the Liberal candidate, Anne McLellan. I'm not sure that economic protectionism would do Canada much good, and I'm positive that our efforts at cultural protectionism have been either pointless or harmful.

I'm a lousy patriot, though I can't help but admire it in our southern neighbours that Hurtig regarded so warily, or in someone like Mel Hurtig, whose passion and conviction I didn't doubt - which might explain why his career as a politician was so short and unsuccessful. (With rich 21st century irony, his economic policies aren't a million miles away from those currently being promoted by Donald Trump.) He was a nice man, and my brief encounter with him did a lot to help form whatever political opinions I have today.

Mel Hurtig died of pneumonia in Vancouver, British Columbia on Aug. 3, 2016.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


Park bus, Yellowstone National Park, July 2016

ON THE WAY TO THE NORTHEAST ENTRANCE TO YELLOWSTONE PARK we pass a lone bull bison ambling slowly down the two-lane road toward Silver Gate. He seems wholly uninterested in us as we snap away with our cameras, first from just behind the open doors of our car, then through the safety of an open window as he passes by  - slooowly - a few feet from us.

We take the road through the park's northern edge, parallel to the Montana/Wyoming border, through wide fields full of bison. After the thrill of that first sighting we get used to seeing them, wallowing in the dust and standing down near the trout streams on the meadows of the Lamar Valley, the bulls snorting and rumbling.

Yellowstone National Park, July 2016

We drive for most of the day, though we only see a tiny fraction of the park, never getting near Old Faithful or Inspiration Point, well north of the Yellowstone caldera and its hot springs and mud baths. There are mountains on either side of us at all times, and there's never a point where you aren't between at least two spectacular views, and by noon I think that something like landscape fatigue has started to kick in, and it takes a real doozy of a panorama to make you take notice.

There are three other photographers on the trip, and even if we all pull out our cameras at the same stops, we're all drawn to different slivers of the scene in front of us, wandering away from each other looking to find some scene forming in our heads. Greg Vaughn, who specializes in nature and travel, tells me that he tends to longer lenses when he shoots, while I'm usually at the widest focal length.

At the beginning and the end of the day Greg, Donnie and Callum are always heading out to find a sunrise or sunset, while I'm happy to get an extra hour of sleep or enjoy the bathtub in my hotel room. The difference, I suppose, is that I'm a city photographer shooting the country here, and when I'm not gawping at some view, I'm looking for places where our fingerprints are all over nature. By the time we hit the hot spots at Tower Fall and Mammoth Hot Springs I'm shooting the tourists instead of the scenery.

Yellowstone National Park, July 2016

In Mammoth the elk wander the streets, napping under trees and walking through backyards while park rangers chaperone them from a distance, putting out signs and asking tourists to keep their distance. I don't have to be asked; big animals naturally scare the shit out of me.

Finally we exit through the big arch at Gardiner and head back up into Montana to Livingston, stopping at a ranch on the way where I get the distilled Montana photo I joked about getting with friends before the trip. I have had a fantastic time, and leave wondering about setting up a portrait studio in Cooke City.

On the way from Yellowstone to Livingston, Montana, July 2016

Monday, August 1, 2016


Beartooth Pass, Montana, July 2016

I WAS IN MONTANA LAST MONTH. Another travel writing gig, and one that I was looking forward to quite a bit, as this part of the United States is mostly a mystery to me. Donnie, our guide, told us that "Big Sky Country" is just one of many slogans the state has used to attract tourists. Looking back at my photos, I certainly did shoot a lot of sky, but that's OK with me.

We started in Billings, then got in the car the next day and drove south to Red Lodge. There was a hike, a wander around town, a very excellent dinner and a drive up into the hills around the town as the sun went down, searching for a picturesque sunset. No sunset, but a lot of very eerie cows.

Montana, July 2016

The next day we were back in the car driving the Beartooth Highway through Wyoming and back up into Montana to Cooke City, a charming but slightly ragged little former mining town with a year-round population of eighty-five and several bars. I liked it there.

Another wander around town, then a wild off-road trip up into the mountains above Cooke City to where they once mined for gold. Suspicious as I am of mere lush scenery, I was grateful when Bob, our guide and driver, pointed out the piles of rusting machinery sitting in a mountain meadow. Finally, industrial detritus - something I know something about!

That night in Cooke City I ate bison, and hoped that no one would smell their cousin on my breath the next day.

Montana, July 2016

Somewhere along the way I even found time to do a quick portrait.

Next stop: Yellowstone.

Biker, Beartooth Highway, Montana, July 2016