Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Giant steps

SOMEONE ASKED ME IF I'D WRITE A POST talking about major moments or shifts in my career. At first I was reluctant - it's the kind of thing I was saving for a summing up, near the end of this whole project of excavating my old work. Then I looked at what I have scheduled to post here and realized that I am very nearly approaching the home stretch, and decided that now is as good a time as any.

I was able to pin down quite a few photos that sum up these milestones. At first they were significant points on the steep learning curve that began when I bought my first real camera in 1985. It has to be understood that photography was very much in  a mature phase when I began shooting seriously - film and camera technology were only seeing the most minor advances, and whatever big steps forward I was taking had to do with mastering basic skills and not adapting to big changes in the medium and the industry.

The changes would come much later, and they would be massive.

John Waters, Toronto, 1987

I shot John Waters for the first time when he came to Toronto for a signing at a bookstore at the end of my street. He was still an underground icon at the time, and I did the shoot without a client, strictly as a fan. I had been taking pictures of people to go with my interviews for many months, but this is really the first portrait I ever shot - an attempt to capture something about the subject's persona and not just a record of how they looked that day.

It was shot on a Mamiya C330, my first medium format camera, and a sign that I was becoming serious about this photography thing. The lighting could not have been more basic - a flash held just off to the left while I triggered the shutter with my right hand. I had spent the day thinking about what I would do if Waters agreed to sit for a picture, and ended up taking the little rubber puppet face home from the toy shop where I worked, on a whim. I remember my amazement when the photo came up in the darkroom tray - it looked like something that actually belonged in a magazine somewhere. Did I actually take that?

Anton Corbijn, Toronto, 1988

I was a big fan of Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn, and when we discovered that he would be in town, Chris Buck and I cornered him outside a Tom Waits concert and convinced him to let us interview/photograph him for Nerve magazine. We did the shoot in his room at a downtown motel, and when we we'd finished the interview and were scoping the room for a place to shoot him, he suggested that we move away from the big windows by the door and further into the room. Corbijn sat down on the edge of the bed; I picked up my Pentax Spotmatic and looked through the viewfinder and a light went on in my head.

He was showing us the sort of light he preferred to use in his own work - the sort of shadowless light you get on an overcast day, which can be made dramatic and more richly textured when you boost the contrast in printing. I had always been anxious about exposure, and inevitably placed my subjects near the strongest light source I could find; Corbijn taught us that light has a range of qualities, and that you could change the mood of a shot by choosing carefully. It's more of an homage than a portrait, really, but this photo is a record of a eureka moment in my career.

Henry Rollins, Toronto, 1988

The success of my John Waters portrait made me ambitious, and within a year I had put together a portable studio that I carried around with me - my Mamiya, a flash, umbrella and light stand, and a big white painter's tarp in a gym bag with a roll of gaffer tape to fix it to walls. I was learning about light and composition and trying to gain more control over my portraits by trying not to rely on available light sources.

That single flash bounced into an umbrella could change the look of a photo depending on simple adjustments of a few inches either up, down, near or far from the subject. Without a modeling light or a way to make Polaroid tests I was always shooting blind with this set-up, and watching the contact sheets come up in the developer was an anxious moment.

The Rollins portrait was clearly a product of my love of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon's work in the '50s and '60s - the anxiety of influence would linger for years - but it was clean and simple and captured something about its subject. Taken just a few months before Nerve magazine finally folded, it's also a record of the moment when I decided to make photography and not writing the focus of my energies.

Roses, Parkdale, 1991

By the turn of the '90s I had moved into a big loft space in Parkdale, and had bought my first serious gear, which included a Zenza Bronica SQ-a medium format camera and a kit of Profoto strobe lights. I could take Polaroids and work with modeling lights and had far more control over my images than I could have imagined with the Mamiya and the darkroom in the bathroom of my bachelorette apartment.

These roses were delivered to the space one day, and on a Sunday morning I began setting up my white backdrop and the lights. I had been playing around with still lifes but hadn't done anything really worthwhile; I'm not sure if I even knew to call this a "high key" lighting setup at the time, but I'd seen this sort of thing before, had striven to get the effect in my portraits, and decided to work all day until I got something that looked like what I had in my mind.

After countless Polaroid tests I finally hit somewhere near the mark and began shooting slide film for cross-processing, to wring as much contrast from the shot as I could. After much fumbling and failing, I'd climbed up the first rung of still-life photography, and a bit more confident about calling myself a professional.

James Tenney, Parkdale, 1991

In the days before Photoshop, making really big changes to the look of a photo began in the camera, and cross-processing colour film - slide film developed in negative chemistry or vice versa - was one way of really pulling away from a realistic, technically "correct" image. It was also a big risk that required lots of testing and careful records of darkroom enlarger settings to compensate for the wild colour shifts from this experimental process.

I'd been playing around with cross-processing privately, but when I was assigned to shoot avant-garde classical composer James Tenney for the cover of a New York music magazine, I wanted to take a big risk and see what I got in the studio with bright colour gels on my strobes. Cross-processing would turn out to be a creative dead end after many years, but the strong colours and deep contrast of portraits like this one helped me realize that photography could be a graphic art as much as anything else, and taught me that colour balance itself is mostly arbitrary.

Pure, Toronto, 1990

After the first big hurdles of my learning curve were over, it required more work to push forward and make progress - technical and artistic - in my work. I was no longer worried about poor exposure whenever I developed a roll of film, though there was always some aesthetic effect that seemed just out of my reach. By now I was working for NOW magazine and shooting a lot of live music.

Concert photography has never been a focus of my work, but I did a lot of it for many years, and it took real effort to keep it interesting. I ran into Kevin, a guitarist I'd known since the Nerve years, and he invited me to see his new band - an industrial metal outfit that put quite a bit of care into their live show, going so far as to have a regular lighting guy to deal with strobes and smoke machines. I ended up working with them quite a lot over the next couple of years - they loved to strike iconic poses onstage and, frankly, looked fantastic through my lens.

There were a lot of conventions with shooting live photography, where a long lens and a fast shutter speed were key to getting usable shots. I decided to go in the other direction, and shot the band with my medium format Rolleiflex, hand held at low shutter speeds. The smoke would fill in the shadows onstage and the strobe lights provided bursts of sharp action, often in multiple exposures. Every frame was a wild card, but it felt fantastically exciting to shoot, even if no one besides me and the band ever saw most of these shots.

Tilda Swinton, Toronto, 1992

By the early '90s I'd settled into a comfortable method for shooting portraits outside of the studio. I carried two Rolleis in a small case and a compact tripod but no flash or strobes, relying on available light and either a steady hand or a locked-off camera and shutter release. The technology I was using was decades old - my Rolleis were built in the '50s and the Sekonic light meter I relied on hadn't changed it's design since then. In the whole of the first two decades of shooting professionally, the only really new technology I used was my autofocus Canon SLR.

This portrait of actress Tilda Swinton was probably among the best examples of this first "mature" period of my portrait work. With my camera on a tripod and the shutter set to a half second or less, I had to be able to coax my subjects into a calm, quiet space to avoid movement; I had to manifest some brief authority to take control of the shoot. At some point I started wearing suits. The negatives would often look a bit plain and underwhelming, so most of the real work took place in the darkroom.

Forest Whitaker, Toronto, 2005

A decade later I was back shooting celebrities in hotel rooms, but everything had changed. "Luxurious" ten or fifteen minute shoots had been cut down to five minutes, then two minutes, then less. Film photography had given way to digital after the briefest transition, and every new generation of camera saw an improvement in chip technology and image size. My darkroom was replaced by Photoshop - the only change for which I was grateful right from the start.

Shooting for the free national daily, I would plead with the writer for as much time as I could get at the end of our interview slots, but publicists would still pull subjects out of the room after just a couple of dozen frames. (Or less. My Heath Ledger shoot lasted precisely five frames.)

The luxury of a couple of setups had vanished, and I had to find the sweet spot of light in the hotel room fast and shoot as quickly as I could. Most of the time I was back to the start of my career, taking photos of what celebrities looked like on that day instead of real portraits, but sometimes a subject like Forest Whitaker would respond to the occasion and give something like a performance for my camera.

Harbourfront, Toronto, 2011

When I started shooting digitally, I assumed that I was just using any other camera, slapped my old Canon lenses on the new bodies the paper provided for me and worked accordingly. It would take a few years before I understood that a jpeg or RAW file was different than a film negative, and that light hitting a sensor worked in subtly different ways than it did when it hit film in the back of a camera.

The hurlyburly of work at the free national daily - writing several columns a week in addition to shooting - never gave me enough time to appreciate this, but when I was laid off and forced to return to freelance work (in a very different and much harsher economic climate than before) I had time to really think about the peculiar nature of digital photography and the quality of a pixel.

Most of my work in the first year or two after I lost my job was for blogTO, a website devoted to city news and lifestyle reporting with a big visual component. Just before noon on a dim autumn day I was downtown near the lake shooting a story when I came upon this scene - a bunch of boats turned turtle under a low sun that barely burned through the thick clouds.

I had been trying to shoot cityscapes and landscapes on my own for years and falling short of an idea I had in my head, but this photo was where the strangeness I always saw in the world around me finally came into sharp focus in a picture. It was a moment of real inspiration, and without it I don't think that any of the travel work I've done in the last few years would have been possible.

Patti Smith, Toronto, 1995

Photoshop was seven years old when I took this portrait of Patti Smith in a hotel room in the mid-'90s, but almost no photographer I knew used it. Intrigued by what I'd heard about digital image manipulation, I priced out a basic Mac system around this time; it would have cost about as much as a used BMW in really good condition. I wouldn't switch from darkrooms to computers till the end of 2001, when I took a job as the photo editor at the free national daily.

I was never satisfied with these Patti Smith portraits back in the days of film. When Patti asked me what I was trying to do, I mentioned Nadar and the pictorialists working a century earlier, but shooting with a Rollei and modern film, I was never able to achieve the look or feel I was imagining at that time. I probably could have come close with a view camera, but even with a whole fifteen minutes worth of shooting time, I probably wouldn't have provided my editor with more than a handful of frames to choose from, and that would have been irresponsible.

The 75mm/3.5 lens on the Rollei was simply too sharp and the depth of field too deep to get the look I wanted, and it wasn't until I learned to unlock layers and selective focus in Photoshop with my portraits of Spalding Gray and Bjork that I was able to revisit my Patti Smith shoot and complete the job the way I imagined it in my head, twenty years earlier.

Kinky Friedman, Toronto, 2015

I don't know that there's any money to be made doing it any more, but my first love will always be portraits. After years of exploring the peculiarities of digital photography with cityscapes and news photography, I made a tentative return to portrait work with this portrait of Texas country singer and writer Kinky Friedman.

The setup was simple - diffused window light coming from behind me on the landing of a set of stairs in a club, with a collapsible white reflector for a backdrop - and the camera was my new Fujifilm X30, the first digital camera I'd enjoyed using as much as my beloved Rolleis. I was boiling down the setup from the Henry Rollins shoot nearly thirty years earlier to its essence, in the hope that I would be able to reconnect with the photographer I used to be, eager once again to make decent portraits.

I haven't a clue about where photography is going, or if what I'm doing is still a career. I know that my last fifteen years of serious shooting have seen more changes to the technology and market than the first fifteen. The way people take and consume photos is still transforming convulsively, and camera technology like this could prove to be a major game-changer. I don't feel in control of my role as a photographer - I probably never was, but there's no illusions any more, at least. At least I still feel like I'm moving forward, but where this is all going, as either art or business, is anyone's guess.

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