Monday, September 19, 2016

Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 1998

THERE'S AN ASSUMPTION YOU MAKE DOING CELEBRITY PORTRAITURE that every shoot is the only chance you'll get to capture a subject. This is probably a good thing - you might not strive to get the best in whatever time or circumstances you have if you know you'll get a mulligan at a later date. Which is why it's always interesting when chance puts someone in front of your camera more than once.

I shot Paul Schrader the first time at the film festival in 1998, when his career had one of its cyclical revivals with Affliction, a movie based on a novel by the then very fashionable Russell Banks and a critical hit. The film was shot in Quebec, and one of my best friends was its cinematographer, so I had that, at least, to break the ice when I set up my Rolleiflex and tripod in the hotel room (the old Four Seasons, I think) after draping a hotel curtain over a floor lamp to create a backdrop for what was obviously intended to be a NOW cover. (One of my last, it would turn out.)

Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 1998

The setup wasn't a million miles from the one I'd used to photograph Bjork a year previous, though the subject couldn't have been more different. Anyone who's ever used a Rolleiflex knows that it has a minimum focusing distance, and that if you want to get tighter, you have to fit it with one of a trio of close-up lenses. I own a couple of these lenses, which makes me wonder why I didn't reach for them to get a more intimate portrait of Schrader.

The truth is that I was intimidated by him. Schrader has done a lot of things in his career, but he's probably best known for writing the script for Taxi Driver, in addition to a raft of other films as either director or writer (Raging Bull, Blue Collar, Hardcore, Mishima, Bringing Out The Dead) of uncomfortable intensity and pitiless subject matter. His preoccupations always suggested a rather tortured psyche, and even while he sat, visibly basking in the warm glow of a festival hit film (I think there's more than a hint of self-satisfaction in his expression in these photos) I still felt moved to keep my distance.

Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016

Nearly twenty years later I met Schrader again, at another film festival with another violent and intense film to promote. Dog Eat Dog arrived in Toronto with advance word that it was a pretty grim piece of work, and some of the early reviews were equally grim, but Schrader's reputation was such that there was a lineup of critics and interviewers who wanted to talk to him, regardless of what they might have thought about the film.

I set up in an upstairs room in a building converted into a media lounge for the festival. He seemed to be at a table in the restaurant downstairs most of the day, dealing with an endless lineup of interviewers, and I was told to get ready and hang on until he had a break in his schedule. I put up the black backdrop - it seemed appropriate - and positioned the two umbrella bounces to create the bubble of light and waited.

Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016

I am an older man than I was when I took the photos at the top of this post, and the gulf in age today between Schrader (70) and myself (52) feels a lot narrower than it did when I was 34 and he was 52. I might not be able to sit through a Paul Schrader film nowadays, but I certainly feel more moved to get up close to the man with my camera and try to see if I can get a glimpse of something behind his eyes that gives a key to what is often a harrowing vision of the world.

These are much simpler portraits than the ones I took eighteen years ago. They're also much better ones, I think, and not just because I didn't have an obligation to fit a client's cover format, or an urge to pursue a photographic style that seemed germane to my career. When I sat Paul Schrader down on the ottoman between my lights and my backdrop, I was getting that rarest of things - a second chance to take a better portrait of a person whose work has made an impression on me (although not always a pleasant one.) At this point in my career I can't help but cherish these opportunities.

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