Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Jane Siberry

Jane Siberry, Toronto, August 1993

I FIRST HEARD JANE SIBERRY WHEN "MIMI ON THE BEACH" WAS A HIT on the radio in my college years. Ten years later I was assigned to photograph her for NOW at her home, somewhere in or around the Annex neighbourhood in Toronto - what I remember as a little two-storey house with a big garden. I was expecting someone a bit quirky and distant, and that was exactly who I met, so I set about trying to take a portrait of a subject who didn't seem much interested in addressing my camera.

This must have been a cover shoot because I did two rolls of colour 120 film - cross-processed in different directions - and a single roll of black and white 35mm. The shot at the top was the one that suggested itself most strongly - a big vase of oversized blooms sitting under a skylight near the front door. Her all-white outfit looked vaguely futuristic, so I framed the shot like a still from a sci-fi film - arranging flowers on some moon colony where the plants grow bigger.

Jane Siberry, Toronto, August 1993

Out in the garden I went for something a bit more pre-Raphaelite, posing Siberry among the vines and leaves, with her dog curled up by her feet. I didn't give her much direction - I rarely do - and just shot while she gave the old dog the sort of attention old dogs like - soothing pats and back rubs. I didn't notice the echo of her gesture in the birdbath sculpture behind her until much later.

Jane Siberry, Toronto, August 1993

Finally, I wanted to do something with the dappled light coming through the trees overhead, and loaded in a roll of negative film for cross-processing as transparency. I knew the highlights would probably take on a peachy, blown-out cast while the shadows would come out cyan-blue - an otherworldy effect that seemed appropriate.

As with most negative-to-transparency cross-processing, the effect was very uncontrolled and a bit underwhelming, at least in the era before Photoshop. Over twenty years since I took this photo, I was finally able to change the balance between the shadows and highlights and bring out the stray colour effects to produce the sort of psychedelic pictorialism I had in my mind.

Jane Siberry was on the verge of a major change in her career when I took these photos. The album she was promoting, When I Was A Boy, would be the last made with longtime collaborator Ken Myhr, and the second last for Reprise. She started her own label, Sheeba, moved to New York City, then moved back to Toronto. Even before digital downloading changed the way the music industry worked, she took charge of her career outside of the big label business model and turned music-making into a sort of cottage industry.

Ten years ago she sold most of her possession and her home - I'm presuming the one I photographed her in here - on eBay, kept one guitar and a few CDs and changed her name to Issa. She embarked on a European tour that saw her play cafes and fans' homes, and made her back catalogue downloadable on her website for free. In 2009 she changed her name back to Jane Siberry, and has put out her most recent records with crowdfunded support.

While I've never totally understood what Jane Siberry has done musically, it's hard not to respect someone who understood instinctively that the music business is not the most sympathetic to music making and acted accordingly. She has been - and this is a very loaded compliment - a very Canadian success story.

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