Saturday, September 10, 2016

Melanie Doane

Melanie Doane, Parkdale, June 1998

I HAVE ALWAYS LIKED THESE PORTRAITS. They were made a decade after I moved into my Parkdale studio, and represent the point at which I'd achieved what I jokingly call a rudimentary mastery of studio portraiture. They also mark the beginning of an end, though I wouldn't have known that at the time.

Melanie Doane was a singer and songwriter from Nova Scotia who'd gotten signed to Sony Records Canada on the strength of an independent record she'd put out. I was assigned to shoot her for the cover of NOW, at the point when we no longer did black and white shots for the inside cover, having graduated to full colour interior pages.

Melanie Doane, Parkdale, June 1998

She was very nice. Her father was famous as a music educator back in the Maritimes - "Mr. Ukelele," thanks to his championing the humble, cheap stringed instrument - and Melanie had inherited his missionary attitude about music in schools. The lighting scheme I favoured at this point - strobes ringed tightly around the camera lens with carefully positioned modifiers to soften the light without blunting its specular quality - had the advantage of being flattering to most subjects, but that wasn't a problem I obviously had with Melanie Doane.

My bedside manner as a photographer had also improved by this point to where I could stage direct subjects through stock poses to those fascinating expressions people make when they're trying to think about what to do next. The shot at the top was a perfect example of that; I'm not sure if it was picked for the cover, but I know it's the one I lobbied for the hardest.

She also arrived with the resources of the record company behind her, which included a hair and makeup person and a choice or wardrobe. I didn't mind, as long as they didn't get in the way of a good shot, and I even squeezed of a frame when the makeup artists leaned in for a quick touch-up.

Melanie Doane, Parkdale, June 1998

For the interior shot I swapped in a big piece of fake grass I had sitting around from another shoot, which provided texture and colour and nicely set off her skin tone and camisole. Overall my memory of this shoot is how calmy competent I felt about it all, underlined in hindsight by the fact that I shot it all on transparency instead of colour neg, either straight or cross-processed. Shooting slide, which had far less leeway or forgiveness for mistakes, meant that I could judge the colour temperature of the film ahead of time and use filters to nudge the finished shots to something pleasing.

The shoot must have gone well because several months later I was hired by the record company to take promo photos for Melanie. This time Sony called the shots, and had a menu of images they wanted to see - a few of which were clearly outside my comfort zone, and some very much more like the work I'd seen other photographers doing. To this day I don't understand why you'd bother spending your career developing a style, only to be hired to ape someone else's.

Even more regrettable, though, was the wardrobe they'd picked out for the shoot - a sort of schoolgirl deal, complete with the knee socks, which I thought was rather inappropriate for a grown woman. The whole thing made me intensely uncomfortable, and I suppose it followed through in the work, which didn't please Sony at all, and I never bothered asking for them to return it, which is why none of it appears here.

Melanie Doane is still performing and recording - self-financed releases, of course, in the absence of any meaningful support from the much-diminished major labels - and has continued her father's work by setting up a foundation for music education.

This would be the last record company promo shoot I would do, which is deeply ironic in hindsight considering how badly my first one, with Crash Vegas, had turned out eight years earlier. I suppose I've never had much respect for major record labels, which probably didn't finesse my attitude, but they always seemed to opt for the worst choice of any possible number of options.

My long working relationship with NOW magazine would also end not long after this, as would my tenancy in my Parkdale studio. By the time the '90s ended I was no longer doing anything I had been working so hard to achieve at the start of the decade, and my time as a studio photographer was all but over.

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