Friday, December 29, 2017

Minette Walters

Minette Walters, Toronto, April 1997

A FORMER JOURNALIST I KNOW ONCE EMBARRASSED HIMSELF by making it clear during an interview with an author that he hadn't read her books. I can understand the author's anger, but only up to a point. Journalists are magpie generalists by necessity (and underpaid publicists most of the time, at least within the limits of the entertainment section,) and while the best of them can fake their way through almost any situation, their main job is to fill column inches with copy, and sometimes a writer - or director, or actor - has to acknowledge that ten minutes worth of chat with a stranger and their recording device or notepad isn't where authoritative discussions or great insights happen.

Photographers, on the other hand, aren't really expected to know much about their subjects before a shoot - not even what they look like. I don't know why we get to benefit from such low expectations, but that's the simple truth. This is a long way of saying that I'd never read anything by British mystery author Minette Walters when I photographed her for the Globe & Mail in the lobby of an unremembered Toronto hotel twenty years ago.

Minette Walters, Toronto, April 1997

The Globe was a client I desperately wanted to please. It was then (and still is today) the paper of the Canadian establishment (though that means an awful lot less today than it did then.) When I got my first freelance writing assignment from them, a not-unsophisticated friend asked whether I'd be buying a house, now that I'd obviously "made it." The truth was that, as a writer and photographer, I spent years trying to get regular work from the Globe, but almost inevitably found myself back at square one after I handed in each assignment.

This is probably why I gave whoever assigned me this job so many options, from the rather stark and unusual portrait of Walters with an antique chair, to the ill-lit shot of her peering around a wall (very "mystery writer," I thought at the time) to the Penn-esque portrait at the top. It also might have been because I didn't know Walters' work, so I delivered shots that might have suited an article about a writer of psychological thrillers, or a formalist playing with the genre, or the playful author of bestselling whodunnits.

Minette Walters, Toronto, April 1997

I've made a rule for myself while scanning pictures for this blog that I need to read at least one book by any writer I've photographed if I haven't done so already, so twenty years after I took these photos I can tell you that the photo at the top is probably the most suitable to its subject. Walters' novels are only notionally mystery novels, and while they definitely fit the loose description of British mystery stories as "awful things happening in terrible weather," they're less about story than character, and are suitably full of damaged people and villains whose motivation comes from personal trauma and not supernatural evil.

After a very successful career writing crime fiction, Walters retired from the genre ten years after I took these photos and, after a further decade-long hiatus, returned this year with the first of what she says will be a series of historical novels set in Dorset during the Black Death. I'm grateful that I took my photos of her during her mystery writing heyday, since I don't know how I'd shoot the author of medieval fiction.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Thomas Vinterberg

Thomas Vinterberg, Toronto, Sept. 1998

THIS BLOG IS ABOUT MY PHOTOS, OLD AND NEW, but it's also about time passing, and the changes that mark that passage of time. One change is how old work becomes history when context and notoriety align to create what can only be described as an artifact. Another change is about technology, and the utter transformation that's swept through my business.

Thomas Vinterberg was a newsworthy young director when he brought his film, The Celebration, to the film festival. He'd joined Lars Von Trier in his Dogme 95 movement - big news then, a footnote now - and Edna Suarez at the New York Times had asked me to get a portrait of him to the paper as quickly as possible. A time was booked and arrangements were made.

Thomas Vinterberg, Toronto, Sept. 1998

I couldn't get too fancy with the shoot, so I stuck with what I did best - my Rolleis, a tripod and a hotel room with just enough light. Looking at the shot today, I'm struck at how even very good hotel rooms - this was the Park Hyatt in Yorkville, I'm pretty sure - were dressed in chintz and florals and pastels. Today this would be a sign of a hotel long in need of a refresh to the preferred palate and style of the moment - grays and neutral tones, supergraphics on the walls and sleek new furniture borrowing heavily from midcentury modern.

If I told you I shot these portraits today, you'd wonder why they put a promising filmmaker in such a tired dump, and not the venerable, pricey hotel where we actually shot: This is really what a good hotel looked like in the last years of the 20th century. (The Park Hyatt hasn't actually looked like this in years, and is currently undergoing another major renovation.)

I suppose I shot Vinterberg to look like a bit of an ingenue. He was, after all, a fresh face and a good looking - actually even rather pretty - young man, making his reputation in association with a rebel film movement that positioned itself in strident opposition to Hollywood gloss and conventions. Dogme films made a stand with their studied artlessness, and I wanted my portraits of Vinterberg to take on that quality.

Thomas Vinterberg, Toronto, Sept. 1998

Edna needed the photos quicker than the standard turnaround of commercial developing, rented darkroom time and an overnight courier could manage. As soon as I finished the shoot, I was told to head to the King Street offices of the Canadian Press where I'd had time booked on their C-41 film developing machine. I was met by a film tech who took my film and came back a half hour later with four strips of negatives. He took me over to a little machine on a nearby desk that, through some primitive magic of lens and light, let me see what the frames looked like in positive. He told me to indicate the ones I wanted sent to the Times by clipping a little notch on the edge of the negative with a hole punch.

That done, I took them back to the tech, who fed them into a marvel of technology - a drum scanner that converted my photos into files that could be sent over telephone wires to the Times office in New York. Keep in mind that the internet already existed, but it would be years before I could simply take photos from my camera to a laptop and send print-ready photos anywhere in the world in seconds. In 1998, this was how things were done, before digital cameras, cheap laptops and high speed internet we take for granted everywhere.

But even this technological marvel had a rough, shopworn analogue aspect; the wire scanner looked more like something you'd find in a machine shop than an office, and showed hard use despite its impressive cost. Scanning my negatives today, I'm shocked at how dirty they are, crusted with tiny particles of dust laminated onto the emulsion by machines that probably didn't get cleaned or maintained as often as they should. I had to spend at least an hour spotting each shot here in Photoshop to make them presentable. Each spot and speck of dust is a little souvenir from the untidy analogue world where these photos were taken.

Nobody talks about Dogme films anymore; the movement was long over by the time it was formally dissolved over a decade ago. But Vinterberg has had a career nonetheless; five years after The Celebration he directed It's All About Love, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes and Sean Penn. He's switched back and forth between Danish and English films, and will release a film about the Kursk submarine disaster next year.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Edmund White

Edmund White, Toronto, Oct. 1990

I HADN'T READ ANY OF EDMUND WHITE'S BOOKS WHEN I PHOTOGRAPHED HIM in 1990 - I hadn't read nearly as much as I would have liked - but I knew two things about him. One was that he was a gay writer - a political as well as a biographical detail in the last days of the first decade of AIDS. The other - and far more interesting to me - was that he was proudly a part of that world of books and letters to which I'd aspired since I was a boy. A world slipping away even as I took these photos.

He was a friend of Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Harold Brodkey (now mostly forgotten, but once a major literary figure based largely on a novel he took decades to write,) and other big names that regularly appeared in the New York Review of Books. He'd lived in New York, but also Paris and Rome. He spoke French and would later write biographies of Genet, Proust and Rimbaud - writers everyone was expected to know (but perhaps never actually read.)

He was exactly the sort of person you'd expect to find at an author's festival - a very writerly writer, just one of the names I'd photograph for NOW that week, including Elmore Leonard and George Higgins, Carolyn Cassady, Richard Ford, Fay Weldon and Marianne Wiggins.

Edmund White, Toronto, Oct. 1990

The great surprise for me was how eager he was to make a good portrait. Most writers try to be offhanded in front of a camera - resigned to the ritual of a newsprint portrait by a local photographer, quickly slipping into their "author face," a diffident gaze dialed several notches down from the intensity they'd give a book jacket photo.

White, on the other hand, seemed eager to please. I won't flatter myself by imagining that he was flirting, but he was far more responsive to my halting stage directions than most subjects at this early stage in my career, putting actual effort into a ritual request that he "do something with his hands." Recently, while reading City Boy, his memoir of life in New York from the '60s to the '90s, I'd learn that White was acutely self-conscious about his looks in a passage describing his earliest teaching gigs:
In truth I had a highly unstable "body image." I didn't know what I looked like. If I managed to pick up one man (or seven of them) in an evening, then I was certain I was handsome, though I did worry why the eighth one had turned me down. Most of the time, when I was less successful, my confidence in my looks plunged ... Years later, after my looks had faded and I'd become paunchy, a few men and women told me how attractive I'd been and how much they desired me. Harry Matthews got angry and said once in Key West, "Why don't you lose all that weight? You used to be so cute!"
Edmund White, Toronto, Oct. 1990

I would know none of this at the time, of course, having read none of his books, never mind one that he wouldn't write for nearly two decades. I was more concerned that my portrait capture some of the gravitas I attributed to someone who lived and wrote in such a rarified world. Years later I'd learn how precarious and anxious that world really was - just another mostly penniless bohemia much like my own, albeit with the great advantage of being lived in major cultural capitals instead of a provincial satellite.

White's memoirs and non-fiction are a clear, remarkable record of that world, now largely vanished, when people aspired to be artists and not content creators, and when that aspiration obliged you to develop at least an interest in painting and ballet, classical music, film, jazz, architecture and opera. It was a world that kept opera and ballet companies, used bookstores and huge, well-stocked record stores in business, and its vanishing has, I think, as much to do with the end of that cultural obligation as much as any technological revolution.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy, Wilco, Toronto, Oct. 1996

SHOOTING BANDS IS HARD. Taking a photo of a group of people is hard enough, but bands, with all their personal conflicts and loyalties - large and small - always inhabit a space together uneasily. Getting a decent shot of everyone at one time that isn't a collection of poses is a crap shoot, and always means taking a lot of film. (This problem might be less of an issue in the age of digital photography, but it still means more work, and there's no guarantee you'll get a single, usable frame.)

I was grateful that I didn't have to photograph the whole of Wilco when I set up in what my memory - probably wrongly - remembers as the Park Hyatt hotel downtown. I know I did this as a NOW cover, and that I was probably with writer Tim Perlich for this job, and all I had to worry about was bandleader Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, who was probably as close to a co-leader as Tweedy ever had in Wilco.

Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy, Wilco, Toronto, Oct. 1996

The band were promoting Being There, their newest record, though I can't be sure if the duo were on a promotional tour without the rest of the band or whether this was a tour stop. I didn't know much about them at the time except that they'd emerged from the breakup of Uncle Tupelo and that they were considered a big deal in the alt country world. I'd get into the band much later, around Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but in 1996 I was neck deep in old jazz and blues reissues and not much else.

I worked hard on this shoot, doing a new setup with every roll of film, switching from colour negative to cross-processed slide film. I must have been feeling restless, because instead of trying to force Tweedy and Bennett together into a tight frame in a flattering bit of light, I went uncharacteristically wide, making their hotel room an obvious part of each shot, opting for a slightly staged candid, "documentary" feel.

Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy, Wilco, Toronto, Oct. 1996

What I mostly had to work with was the relationship between the two men, both of them around my age (Bennett was a year older than me, Tweedy three years younger,) about which I knew almost nothing, though it seemed very amicable on that day in the Park Hyatt - two musicians who'd only recently begun working together, whose mutual inspiration was obviously deep enough to have produced a double album of songs.

I was never sure if I got much, but time has filled out the context of these shots, at least for fans of Wilco, Bennett and Tweedy. The tensions that would later develop between them were documented in Sam Jones' film about the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Bennett's firing from the band and later death have given these shots the added aspect of being history, and not merely some old shots of some rock musicians goofing around in a hotel room. But even if that weren't all in play, I have to say that I like these shots now more than I did when I took them - a record of a creative challenge I made for myself, back at the end of my first decade as a photographer.

Jay Bennett died in 2009 of an accidental overdose of fentanyl.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Louise Dennys

Louise Dennys, Parkdale, April 1997

THERE WEREN'T A LOT OF BOOKS IN OUR HOUSE WHEN I WAS GROWING UP. What there were are in these photos of publisher Louise Dennys, shot for NOW magazine in my Parkdale studio toward the end of my time with the paper. I didn't shoot a lot of publishers - probably because there aren't many - and this shoot was my excuse to take these books off their shelf.

They were my grandfather's books. He died the year before I was born, well in his '90s, a man born in the reign of Queen Victoria in a dockside slum in Birkenhead, a sailor, a Boer War veteran, an immigrant factory worker and the builder of many of the houses in the Toronto neighbourhood where I grew up. I never knew him, but he left an indelible impression on my brother and sister - a tough little Irishman who was one of the first literate people in his family.

Louise Dennys, Parkdale, April 1997

I told Louise Dennys about him while I set up for this shoot. It was my way of making small talk with someone whose world I only occasionally glimpsed. My social life by the mid to late '90s was quite restricted - by choice. Occasional bouts of depression and a lifelong misanthropy were only part of the reason; I had realized by the time I hit thirty that my education had been patchy and limited, so I mostly stayed at home, teaching myself to cook and reading about all the things that I'd ignored or missed between high school and an incomplete university degree.

These shots are a good example of what I would do in the studio when on autopilot. A half-assed mix of Penn - and old obsession - and Hollywood glamour photography - a newer influence that I was trying to incorporate into my studio work, they're usable but hardly original, and show what I would do when I stepped back from really striving to find a style.

Louise Dennys, Parkdale, April 1997

I'm sure my grandfather would have considered my lifestyle peculiar, even neurasthenic. When he wanted to broaden his horizons from the narrow ones expected from a former sailor/soldier/tanner/builder, he bought these books, a mix of used schoolbooks and multi-volume digests of classics, history, biography and literature. But he didn't lock himself away in his apartment; a man like him would have considered it a sign of incipient madness, or an admission of weakness. And maybe it was. In any case, my self-imposed isolation would soon be over.

Louise Dennys is one of a handful of stars in Canadian publishing. Where Jack McClelland spent his life making books and writers part of the mainstream in a country that was suspicious of bookish types, Louise Dennys emerged when Canadians had finally mustered just enough self-confidence to imagine ourselves part of an international literary scene. Glamourous and sophisticated, she made friends with book world stars and gave them a reason to linger in Toronto for a reading, a signing, a day of interviews and a party or two. She was a role model for all of the pretty, educated young women (like my wife) who staffed the publishing houses and literary magazines that briefly seemed to thrive here.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Boxer

Film shoot, Toronto, May 1990

WHILE I'VE ALWAYS BEEN PROUD OF THE RESULTS OF THIS SHOOT, I've never felt like I could take total credit for them. My best friend from high school was a cinematographer, and he invited me to come on the set of a short film he was shooting. "It's a boxing film," he told me, knowing that was exactly the sort of thing I was dying to photograph.

The room was set dressed and lit when I showed up, and they kept the smoke machine going pretty much all day. So these are partially my pictures and partially his, which is to say that they aren't really taken with available light, and that while I might have lit it this way, I didn't - I was using my friend Paul's lighting. With that caveat, I still have to say that I liked what I got on that day, nearly thirty years ago.

Film shoot, Toronto, May 1990

The film was directed by Milan Cheylov, at that time an actor and aspiring director working with his wife, Lori, to get his new career off the ground. He shot a couple of short films with Paul, both of which featured Ron Savoy, a young boxer Milan had taken under his wing.

Ron was a good looking kid, and I ended up doing headshots for both him and Milan, which basically constituted the majority of my career as a headshot photographer. I don't know what happened to Ron, but Milan is a television director whose iMDB profile includes shows like 24, Law & Order: LA, Bones, Prison Break, Dexter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Designated Survivor.

Film shoot, Toronto, May 1990

The film was shot at Newsboys Gym, a venerable boxing club in the east end of Toronto, long gone now, though it did inspire a women's gym called Newsgirls that's still open. While I was shooting there I wanted to capture as much of the atmosphere of the place as possible, since even then I knew that places like this were living on borrowed time in a city that's changed so much since I started my career.

Like I said, I have always remembered this shoot as a success. Cheap as ever, I only shot two rolls of 120 film, but I could have scanned more than just the shots featured here. It was probably the shoot that convinced me that I'd made the right decision to sell my Mamiya C330 and buy my first Rolleiflex; the camera was so easy to use and the results were hard to deny. This is probably where my love affair with the Rollei begins, but more about that later.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson, Toronto, April 1990

BRITISH WRITER JEANETTE WINTERSON OBE HAD BEEN BUOYED ALONG BY SEVERAL LITERARY PRIZES by the time I photographed her in the back of a rock club on Queen street at the beginning of the '90s. I had not read any of her books at the time, but she had a stellar reputation; I still can't remember why I shot her here, and not in the usual spot for author portraits - a room in a good hotel, or an empty boardroom at the offices of her publisher.

According to the Big Ledger, I sent four prints from this shoot to Details magazine, but whether one of them actually ran is a question I can't answer. 1990 was probably the single busiest year of my career, and if I ever had a tearsheet for this job, I didn't keep it.

Jeanette Winterson, Toronto, April 1990

Winterson is a fascinating writer. I can't help but think of her as a product of the '80s - experimental without being academic, interested in genres but not in thrall to them. The book I've enjoyed the most was her "sci-fi" novel, The Stone Gods, which is actually four stories under one title with recurring themes and characters, set everywhere from the 18th century to the near future to what is either the very distant future or a very distant past.

Her inventiveness and superb prose style is summed up by a single paragraph, where she sends her main character (and, I always presume, alter ego) from a collapsing Earth on a space ship to a distant planet colony. Most writers, in love with the technology of space travel, would spend endless pages detailing the hardware and science in an attempt to give some cinematic vision of the experience. Winterson, to her credit, dispenses with the whole thing in one short, telegraphic paragraph:
Cheers, tears, saxophones, catwalk, celebrities, webcam, blog, helicopters, live coverage, pom-poms, confetti, clock, countdown, blastoff. Yes!
I wish other writers would be so concise and original. There are some things we've read too many times. Any of the four sections of the book could be the basis of an interesting movie, but any film that tried to contain all four would be a mess.

Jeanette Winterson, Toronto, April 1990

I photographed Winterson backstage at the Rivoli, a now-venerable club on Queen West that I have been seeing shows at for three decades. I set up my Metz flash with an umbrella bounce, but far enough away from my subject that the light has a harder edge. I'm pretty sure this was taken in the space between the dressing room and the back door of the club, where they stack the empty beer cases and kegs. It's just a few feet away from where I took James Chance's portrait just a year ago.

Winterson's androgynous image is what makes the shot; thanks to the setting it looks less like a contemporary author photo than a candid of some angry young man, taken in a Soho alleyway when MacMillan was prime minister. (Ironically, this stretch of Queen West was known at the time as Soho, named for a nearby street, rather than its current realtor-friendly title.) I've always liked the shot but I've never known what to do with it. According to the writer, my friend Denis Seguin, Details never used my shots, so these have never been published until today.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Matthew Goode & Hayley Atwell

Hayley Atwell & Matthew Goode, Toronto, 2008

I WAS HALFWAY THROUGH THE NEW SEASON OF THE CROWN when I remembered that I'd once shot Matthew Goode, the actor who plays Tony Armstrong-Jones, the photographer who married Princess Margaret and became Lord Snowdon. Goode, coming off of Downton Abbey, makes a star turn playing him as sexy, mysterious and dangerous, shagging his way through several scenes with Margaret and others, most dramatically in Snowdon's dim and sinister Pimlico photo studio.

Thanks to my oldest daughter getting me hooked on the show, I was primed for the return of The Crown, but having a photographer as a major character (as a bonus, Cecil Beaton appears as a minor one) couldn't help but amplify my interest. With his stygian shooting space and rich aura of charisma and rebellion - accessorized with a vintage Triumph motorcycle - Goode's Snowdon is probably the best advertisement for my trade since David Hemmings in Blow Up.

Most of an episode is taken up with Margaret and Armstrong-Jones and their mutual seduction, much of their initial meeting being a discussion about portrait photography, followed by a photo shoot. That shoot, played out in the dim light of his studio, is meant to contrast Snowdon's audacious, edgy shooting method with the obsequious deference of Beaton during an official portrait session with Margaret just a few scenes previous. I can't remember the last time that the style and aesthetics of portrait photography played such a key part in a historical drama.

Poor Beaton comes in for a beating in the show, dismissed by Snowdon as "a disgrace" and played for comic effect, reciting corny odes to the monarchy and England as he stands next to his big view camera, a minor courtier full of deference for the establishment, unlike the dismissive young Snowdon. It's an unfair caricature, but I'll always be first in line to defend Beaton, who was so important in making me see the art of portrait photography.

Hayley Atwell & Matthew Goode, Toronto, 2008

The Crown also exercises considerable license with facts and timelines. The sensuous, glamorous portrait that Snowdon takes of Margaret during their first session together wasn't actually shot until years later, after they were married. Even more puzzling is a scene where Snowdon, engaged in a friendly menage a trois with a married couple, is reminded that he'd said that Margaret had "thick ankles and the face of a Jewish manicurist." The real Armstrong-Jones might have said this, and it might have been true of the actual Princess, but it certainly doesn't apply to Vanessa Kirby's onscreen Margaret.

Most annoying of all - at least for photographers - is Snowdon taking the princess into his basement darkroom to see the results of their shoot. He walks up to the enlarger holding his loaded Leica and a moment later is making a print. A generation who takes for granted that photography is an instant art won't notice, but as someone who has spent a lifetime sum of literal weeks souping film, it had me spitting.

Quibbles aside, Goode is fantastic as Snowdon, a man whose immense confidence and talent blind him to the certain trauma that he's about to bring upon himself and a woman wholly incapable of enduring real pain. I photographed him almost ten years ago for the free national daily, together with Hayley Atwell, who was co-starring with him in an entirely unnecessary movie adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. (The 1981 Granada miniseries starring Jeremy Irons was the definitive version, for either large or small screen.)

The shots aren't anything special - a competent snapshot of a pair of actors toying with the chemistry they developed on set, like a party trick they learned together. Much of my work for the free national daily was like this - merely competent, exercised with no particular concern with style or lasting quality. I was shooting to fill a hole either one or two columns wide in a layout, if it ran at all, so the most I concerned myself with was sharpness and exposure and a clean graphic that wouldn't clutter up already busy newsprint pages.

If I cared about future re-use or resale I might have pressed Goode and Atwell for individual shots, though that would have tried the patience of publicists who saw portrait sessions as something dispensed with in seconds, if possible. Goode met my camera lens with the clear gaze of a man resigned to being handsome; the intervening years have lined his face and chiseled his features even further for his turn as the seductive Snowdon. Rediscovering this shoot with a prompt from his role in The Crown only makes its perfunctory nature seem like a missed opportunity - one of many.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Fay Weldon

Fay Weldon, Toronto, Oct. 1990

PERHAPS IT'S BECAUSE THEY DO THEIR REAL JOB ALONE, WITHOUT AN AUDIENCE, writers were among the easiest people to shoot - at least in my experience. Actors expect the lens and, maybe even just unconsciously, withhold that extra bit they only give at work. Writers on the other hand always presented themselves in front of my camera eagerly, as if they'd been waiting forever for someone to ask them to perform.

I had this thought when I dug out these portraits of British novelist Fay Weldon, taken at the same busy 1990 author's festival where I photographed D.M. Thomas, Richard Ford, Marianne Wiggins, Carolyn Cassady, Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins. I had two contact sheets of shots, one colour and one black and white, and no shortage of decent frames from which to choose. Weldon didn't get out of her chair, but she responded to my simple directions - look to the side, look up, bring up your hand, look up at me with just your eyes - as if she were in close up for a pivotal scene in a movie.

Fay Weldon, Toronto, Oct. 1990

I shot a super fast Agfa colour negative film that was easy to work with in low light conditions and printed with plenty of tight, pleasing pointillist grain. It would have been my film of choice except that it was always hard to get and in any case soon discontinued. I didn't bother with the usual NOW cover format, composing her tightly into one side of the frame with headspace for the magazine logo, so the big question is why, particularly, I bothered shooting colour portraits of Weldon when she wasn't meant for NOW's cover.

Maybe I was being ambitious. The Hollywood movie version of her breakthrough novel, The Life and Loves of a She Devil, had been released the previous year and Weldon's profile was a high as it would ever be. Maybe I was hoping for a portfolio piece, or a future sale to another magazine. I covered all the bases in any case, with colour and black and white and plenty of vertical and horizontal shots to suit any future client.

Back then you shot verticals - portrait mode as our phones call it now - if you were aiming for a cover or a full page. Today, if I knew I was shooting for the internet, I'd only shoot horizontals - landscape mode in cellphone parlance - to fit into the average browser window layout. Most art directors in the heyday of print cropped square format photos to fit the layout, much to my annoyance as a Rolleiflex loyalist; today, finally, Instagram has fostered popular appreciation for the magic of the square.

Fay Weldon, Toronto, Oct. 1990

Weldon is considered a leading light of second wave feminist writers, and has a fine, brusque prose style that serves her stories without being merely utilitarian. In preparation for this post I read her autobiography, which is full of arresting anecdotes and observations. Writing about the portrait that she and her sister sat for with an eminent artist - the painting hangs in New Zealand's National Gallery - Weldon recalls being a fidgety subject and her ultimate disappointment with the result:
She was very nice, though we didn't think we looked at all the way she had painted us. We were more real and lasting on canvas than we were in real life. But we were very polite. We knew instinctively from an early age that the artist's sensibilities are to be protected, lest they give up altogether and walk off into the night.
A lifelong renegade, Weldon has attracted controversy, especially recently as age has amplified her tendency to speak plainly with a growing disregard for dogma and conventional wisdom. I like to think I captured at least a hint of this forthrightness in these portraits of a quietly defiant writer who met my camera more than halfway.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Tex Perkins & The Cruel Sea

Tex Perkins, Toronto, July 1994

AUSTRALIA FASCINATES ME MORE THAN ANY OTHER COUNTRY. When the editor who assigned me travel stories asked her writers to name the places they most wanted to visit, I put Australia at the top of my list. I didn't care where I got sent, I told her: Melbourne, Sydney, Darwin, Alice Springs, Hobart, Coober Pedy - I was game for any place on the continent, huntsman spiders and all. I haven't met an Australian I haven't liked, and perhaps it's some kind of post-colonial thing, but I'm willing to risk disappointment by flying for eighteen hours to find out.

I can't say where my antipodiphilia comes from, but it might have its roots in the '80s, when I noticed that many of my favorite bands were from down under - bands like The Saints and Radio Birdman, the Birthday Party, feedtime, the Go-Betweens, the Scientists and the Beasts of Bourbon. Given the vast distances involved, Australian bands rarely made their way to Canada until they reached some level of popularity between Lubricated Goat and AC/DC, so I was excited when it was announced that Beasts lead singer Tex Perkins would be passing through town with his other band, The Cruel Sea.

The Cruel Sea, Toronto, July 1994

The Beasts were a sort of Aussie underground supergroup with a flair for singing about degenerates and heroin; The Cruel Sea, on the other hand, were swaggering master musicians as likely to record instrumentals as perform with Perkins fronting them. Just two of perhaps two dozen groups Perkins has been associated with, they do nothing to dispel my fantasy of Australia as a land of intense musical ferment on the far side of the globe.

Perkins himself is a charismatic front man, whose public image can be summed up loosely as "Nick Cave's talented and charming younger brother, the one everyone will admit they like much more if you bother asking." His recent work has included a stage show featuring his best Johnny Cash impersonation; an early entry on his discography is a single by his band Thug, featuring the exhortation to "Fuck your Dad" chanted and mumbled over abrasive industrial screeches and pulses. There is literally nothing he's done that I haven't liked.

The Cruel Sea, Toronto, July 1994

The band were playing the Horseshoe Tavern, I believe, so I showed up at soundcheck to do their portrait in the same alleyway behind the club where I'd shot Mark Eitzel and American Music Club the previous summer, and where untold numbers of bands have likely been captured on film. I was fond of diptychs and triptychs and collages at the time, so I tried to liven up the standard five abreast band photo with a bit of bisection.

The idea I'd discussed with NOW music editor Tim Perlich - also a fan of Perkins and the band - was that we'd get these shots in the can and put the band on the cover at the end of the summer, when they were scheduled to pass through town again. Which explains why I have no live shots of the show, but a whole roll of Perkins alone, shot with a telephoto by the schoolyard fence down the alley.

Tex Perkins, Toronto, July 1994

I gave Tex the full Tiger Beat treatment with these shots, all lantern jaw and smoldering glare. It would have been a great cover, but either the band never returned or the cover got nixed, because I have no record of making any prints, and the sheet of Perkins slides remained uncut and unscanned - until today.

I may be wrong, but to my knowledge neither Perkins nor the Cruel Sea have been back to Canada since then. And I still haven't been to Australia.

Guitarist and keyboardist James Cruickshank died in 2015.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Mark Eitzel & American Music Club

American Music Club, Toronto, May, 1993

IF YOU ASK MOST PEOPLE, THEY'LL PROBABLY TELL YOU THAT THEY LISTEN TO MUSIC TO FEEL GOOD. Most of those people might be telling the truth, but the rest are lying. In my experience, we listen to music to feel - not just for elation, but for an expression of our strongest feelings, and it's likely that there are long stretches of our lives where we've felt pretty bad.

I listened to Mark Eitzel and his band, American Music Club, an awful lot when I felt pretty bad. About my life, about myself, about my general prospects at a time in my life when it would have served me better to have had access to some conduit to optimism. I don't really regret it; the music Eitzel and AMC made over at least three records helped me explain - at least for myself, in my dark nights of the soul - the desperate emotions that often overwhelmed me in the aftermath of the first major romantic disappointment of my adult life. (And thankfully the only one.)

American Music Club, Toronto, May, 1993

The band were touring their Mercury record and I was assigned to do some live shots by NOW magazine when they were in town. Being a fan, I showed up at soundcheck and talked them into a brief portrait session in the alleyway behind the club. If I had any ambitions toward having the band act out the enormous emotional service they were performing for me at the time, it certainly doesn't show in these photos.

It would have been absurd to even ask. Mark Eitzel might have had his roots in punk rock, but AMC were a musically sophisticated group across all their lineups, up to the demands of Eitzel's melodramatic and often orchestral songs. I was a particular fan of guitarist Vudi and pedal steel player Bruce Kaphan, but I'm a big guitar geek. The second frame would be a merely serviceable promo handout; the one at the top is a more accurate snapshot of a band going about the wholly joyless ritual of having their photo taken by some local fanboy photog.

Mark Eitzel & American Music Club live, Toronto, May, 1993

Mark Eitzel is a riveting live performer, recklessly throwing himself into his songs, a "real showman," as he mockingly put the words into another singer's mouth in one of my favorite AMC songs, "Johnny Mathis' Feet." Most of my photos of the band playing that night are of him, and I could have scanned a lot more, not because they're so great, but because at least a hint of Eitzel's electric abandon is captured in them.

I still listen to Eitzel and AMC, but (thankfully) not with the same hungry need to hear someone reflect my emotional state back at me, lending some nobility to my despair. Thankfully I don't feel nearly so desperate any more - despair is a sin, as we Catholics say - and the characters in Eitzel's songs can be appreciated from more of a distance, like characters in a short story. Sometimes I miss having that heartfelt, urgent reaction to music, but I don't miss the lonely, angry person I was when I took these photos.

Drummer Tim Mooney died in 2012.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett, Toronto, May 1993

TONY BENNETT WAS ALWAYS ON THE LIST. I didn't end up photographing most of the people on my list, but in 1993, when I might have described my career as "up and coming," I could still imagine that I'd get access to them one day. So I was pretty thrilled when the chance to do Bennett's portrait came up. I only wish I knew who gave me the assignment, if anyone did; there's nothing in the Big Ledger, so there's every chance that this was something I begged and scrounged into happening, and that these photos might never have been published anywhere until now.

I had photographed Bennett once before, for NOW magazine, live in concert at the old Ontario Place Forum (long since demolished.) I was already a big fan then, thanks to the Jazz compilation Columbia had put out a couple of years previous, when Bennett had re-signed to his original record company after years of struggling with money and drugs. I got a couple of decent shots of Bennett with Ralph Sharon's trio, working the crowd all around him like a pro, and assumed that would be the closest I'd ever get to the man.

Tony Bennett, Ontario Place Forum, Toronto, August 1989

The List was the informal wish list of portrait subjects Chris Buck and I had challenged each other to come up with in the late '80s, sitting around the table in a Chinatown restaurant before he moved to New York City. We didn't imagine we'd have a shot at most of the people on our lists when we were begging for access to bands still playing clubs or counterculture figures passing through town. We had a few names in common, and I think Chris ended up getting quite a few names on his list, but neither of us ever got a portrait of Sinatra.

Bennett was in town doing a benefit for the Variety Club, that much I do know. (His willingness to do charity gigs had long ago earned him the nickname "Tony Benefit.") I'm pretty sure that legendary old school local promoter Gino Empry was present when I took these photos, and though I can't exactly remember where I found this little patch of flattering window light in some uncluttered corner, a tiny stirring of memory is telling me it might have been at the King Edward Hotel downtown.

Tony Bennett, Toronto, May 1993

I loved Bennett's singing. I'd grown up with "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" thanks to the MOR AM radio stations my mom listened to, but when my then-girlfriend was sent a copy of the Jazz compilation to review, I became a huge fan. Years later I'd fall big time for a string of records he released in the late '50s and early '60s (The Beat of My Heart, Tony Sings for Two, I Wanna Be Around, Who Can I Turn To?, If I Ruled The World: Songs For The Jet Set, the records with Count Basie) during the last golden age of the crooner.

The shot above reminds me of the single moment I do recall, when Bennett looked at me through the camera lens and said "Aren't you a bit close?" I don't think he was the first portrait subject to ask me that question, but he's definitely the first one I distinctly remember. I already knew by this point that getting up close to my subjects with a relatively short lens was my best chance to elicit some sense of intimacy in the scant minute - sometimes just a few dozen seconds - I had for these shoots. One day I need to come up with a snappy answer.

Tony Bennett, Toronto, May 1993

After somehow managing to get the access to take these shots, I spent years trying to figure out what to do with them. As long as Bennett remained famous - he is still singing, and still famous, to this day, thanks to a string of duets records he started making in the early 2000s - I knew I had to get them into my portfolio. But anxiety and a typical lack of self-confidence meant that I could never choose the right shot or figure out how to print them the right way. I've revisited this shoot many times, but least two of the frames here are ones that I've never printed before.

The frame at the bottom is my favorite now, a little moment near the end of the shoot when Bennett was probably wondering when his handlers were going to extricate him from my looming camera. Considering that this was probably a shoot that had more to do with begging than an assignment, I can still read the wariness in Bennett's face in most of the shots. And twenty-five years after I shot them, I think I finally figured out how to print them right.