Friday, September 9, 2016

John Bottomley

John Bottomley, Toronto, April 1995

WHEN YOU MAKE A LIVING DOING PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY, you sometimes anticipate some subjects more than others. There are always a few people you admire, and every portrait photographer I ever knew had a "list" of subjects they were aching to get. After a while you learn that it's not a great idea, usually because any situation that produces a less than ideal shot is a huge disappointment. Sometimes you just have to let yourself be surprised.

I knew John Bottomley from Tulpa, a band he led with his brother Chris in Toronto in the '80s. Even in a scene full of unique, even oddball groups that conformed to no particular genre, never mind to each other, Tulpa stood out. Ambitious, odd, even mystifying - frankly they intimidated me, and it would be years before I'd come to appreciate them.

By this point they'd broken up and John had gone on to a solo career, re-inventing himself as a singer/songwriter in a slightly melancholic folk-rock vein. Just as he was releasing Blackberry, his most successful record, I was assigned to shoot him for a profile in NOW magazine.

John Bottomley, Toronto, April 1995

I did these profiles all the time, and usually expected to get through them in a single roll. I showed up at what I remember as a downtown office for the interview to find Bottomley decked out in a silver suit, clearly willing to meet any photographer more than halfway, which is always inspiring.

I found a nice patch of north light in the office, flat and clean, and shot him there first asking him to do things with the suit. Looking through the viewfinder at the way the silver fabric was reflecting in the cool window light, I couldn't help but wonder why everyone didn't wear silver suits all the time.

John Bottomley, Toronto, April 1995

I finished a couple of rolls with John in the office and asked if he'd be willing to step outside for another one. We were right off Queen West, near a hydroelectric facility I'd passed for years and always wanted to use. The light was the perfect overcast for what I wanted to do, and I posed John underneath one of the big carved stone signs outside the building, and by one of the enormous service doors.

John Bottomley, Toronto, April 1995

John was a great subject, and understood instinctively how to strike the right attitude; the shoot was that rare thing - a collaboration, with people on both sides of the camera working toward something like the same goal. I ended up with plenty to choose from, and felt bad that NOW could only run a single shot. At least one of these frames would end up in my portfolio for as long as I had one.

As I said, the record John Bottomley released when I took these pictures did well for a Canadian release, but that's always more a curse than a blessing, and between the industry's general inability to understand a really creative and idiosyncratic musician like him and the freefall collapse of the whole business in the digital era, John ended up like a lot of other musicians, living from release to self-funded release. Some artists can endure this rough independence; some even thrive on it. Others are worn down by the effort and the diminishing returns.

John Bottomley committed suicide in Brackendale, BC on April 6, 2011.

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