Monday, January 9, 2017

Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot, Toronto, July 1992

ONE MORNING IN THE SPRING OF 1992 I WAS LYING IN BED in my Parkdale loft thinking about how lonely and broke I was. The phone rang. It was a man who said his name was Barry Harvey; he was Gordon Lightfoot's manager and he wondered if I was available to do some album cover shots. For almost a minute I treated the whole thing as a joke, and tried to figure out which one of my friends was pulling a prank on me.

It soon became obvious, however, that Mr. Harvey was serious, and that I had come recommended by a publicist at WEA Canada. We briefly discussed fees (still imagining the whole thing might be a joke I quoted my full day rate, which almost no one had ever paid up till that point) and availability (I was very available, at any time.) By the time the call ended, my head was swimming. Did this really happen?

I'm not sure how long it was until Barry called me back with a day and a time. I was to show up precisely at 10am at Gord's house in Rosedale with my cameras. There would be a contract giving Gord and Early Morning Productions exclusive rights to the photos, in exchange for my full day rate plus expenses. I arrived at the house early, walked up and down the block a few times to kill time, then rang the doorbell. Gordon Lightfoot answered, shook my hand, then told me to wait in the big sun room, which was filled with guitars and cases.

Gordon Lightfoot, Toronto, July 1992

I looked around for a good spot to shoot, but when Gord came back I asked if there was somewhere outside he found comfortable. He mentioned a spot down in the ravine behind the house, and after he made coffee, I found myself walking a path through the woods behind a guitar-carrying Gordon Lightfoot. It was the most utterly Canadian moment of my life thus far.

If you didn't grow up in Canada in the '70s it's hard to describe the importance of Gordon Lightfoot. His music was literally everywhere, a string of hits ("Early Morning Rain," "Bitter Green," "If You Could Read My Mind," "Summer Side of Life," "Sundown," "Carefree Highway," "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald") that were constantly on the radio, soundtracking the decade with a subtle but persistent melancholy and a peculiarly northern romanticism that was tentative but intense and fully anticipatory of regret and heartbreak.

Did I want to try and capture all of that with my photos in that ravine on a pleasant weekday morning? I'd like to hope that I was that ambitious, somewhere beneath my nervousness. Mostly I wanted to get a really flattering cover shot for a man who'd made seventeen records already and had sat for countless photo shoots. It all felt quite momentous - a few years earlier I was a punk kid shooting hardcore bands in dingy shithole clubs, and now I was doing album photos for a Canadian musical icon.

Gordon Lightfoot, Toronto, July 1992

I mostly shot with my Rolleiflex, trying to frame potential album covers with each shot in the square viewfinder as I worked. Gord seemed relaxed enough, and sang Ramblin' Jack Elliott songs while I snapped. After a while his wife Elizabeth and young son Miles came down and joined us, and Gord started playing and joking around for them.

I'd brought my Canon SLR with me, and took another quick roll near the end of the shoot for insurance. Typically, it was one of these frames that ended up on the cover of the record, Waiting For You, when it came out a year later, while one of the Rollei shots ended up on the back of the CD package.

When we were packing up, just before Gord gave me a ride to the subway station in one of his big '70s Cadillacs, he asked if I thought I had everything I needed. I told him that I might have, but if he was willing, I wanted to do another shoot in my studio to get something different, a bit more formal, for variety. To my surprise he agreed, and a week or two later he showed up with guitar and suit bag at my Parkdale loft, commenting on the colourful street life outside.

I'd stripped the furniture away from by the windows of my studio/bedroom and set up two lights, one bounced into the ceiling for ambient fill, another in a big softbox just to Gord's left. I wanted to bring the daylight outside down to a cool twilight blue, and shot with cross-processed slide film to increase the saturation. I don't know if I played anything on the stereo while I shot, but Gord happily sat and picked while I worked. One of the shots ended up inside the booklet of the record, so I felt like I'd given Gord value for his money.

Gordon Lightfoot, Parkdale, July 1992

A footnote: When Gord arrived, I asked him if he wanted to hear an interesting cover of one of his songs. I pulled out the first album by Clawhammer, a California group I quite liked, and cued up their version of "Sundown." He was visibly amused by the album cover, and listened to their raucous take on his song all the way through. When it was over, he handed the record back to me and said, grinning wryly, "Not bad, not bad. Some tough changes in there."

It would be another four years before I heard from Gord or Barry Harvey again. Once again the phone rang, and Barry asked if I was available to shoot some live photos at Gord's annual concerts at Massey Hall. They were thinking of doing a songbook and needed some fresh live shots.

Of course I agreed, but made one request: I could skulk around at the lip of the stage and get the same sorts of pictures any newspaper photographer on assignment might get, but if they'd let me wander the wings and edge of the stage, I might get some shots with a different perspective. I'd dress in black and try to be as inconspicuous as possible, of course. To my surprise, Barry agreed.

Gordon Lightfoot, Massey Hall, Toronto, Nov. 1996

I began by showing up for the soundcheck, where I tried to get candid shots of Gord and his longtime band - Terry Clements, Rick Haynes, Barry Keane and Mike Heffernan. I was given free access to the stage and the backstage area, and shot roll after roll of mostly black and white before the show, my mind focused on getting something like the work of Columbia Records staff photographer Don Hunstein back in the '60s.

I switched to colour negative film for the show, and did most of my shooting around and behind the band, occasionally darting forward to get shots of Gord as he knelt and shuffled through the fan gifts and song requests that had been left by his mike stand during the show.

Gordon Lightfoot, Massey Hall, Toronto, Nov. 1996

I was quite pleased with what I got, and handed in the contact sheets to Barry, but I don't know if the songbook ever happened and ultimately I was never asked to print up any of the shots. That would have been the last I ever heard from Barry or Gord, in any case. Barry Harvey died suddenly before Christmas almost ten years ago, just after Gord had a couple of serious health scares.

Since recovering, Gord has spent long months of every year on the road with his band, playing what amounts to the sort of endless tour that his friend and peer, Bob Dylan, has been doing for over a decade. I would love to get another chance to photograph Gord again, but while asking for permission from his management to post these photos, my request for a quick shoot was turned down. No matter - I had my chance to contribute to the image of a musical icon, and had an altogether happy experience doing it, making for a highlight in the heyday of my professional career.

(Photos reproduced by permission of Early Morning Productions.)


  1. Great pictures. Great stories.

  2. OT but you might be interested:


  3. Wonderful pictures. Ask him again. He needs new photos.
    I'm an actor in Boston,MA.
    I would love if you ever wanted to shoot photos of me.

  4. Thank you, Rick, for the wonderful pictures and insights of and into this national treasure of a talent. He face does evoke a thousand words...Long live Gordon.
    Inge P.
    Sea Cliff, NY