Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Kristin Scott Thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

THE AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHER DUANE MICHALS HAD A LINE that my friend Chris and I used to quote at each other all the time: "There is no such thing as a bad celebrity portrait." In the same introduction for the book of portraits where he wrote this, he explained further:
When someone says, "What a beautiful photograph!" upon viewing a portrait of a handsome man, what they are really saying is "What a handsome man!" Most often, it is an ordinary photograph of a beautiful person. If the same photograph were of an ugly person, would it then be an ugly photograph?
This came to mind when I started scanning these portraits of British actress Kristin Scott Thomas, shot at the film festival when she was promoting The English Patient, and the role that would be her breakthrough. Perhaps they're good portraits; I like to think they are, but to be honest their quality as portraits is hard to judge when the subject is so obviously beautiful.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I remember wearing a suit when I did this portrait; it was when I had my own tailor and shirtmaker, and took to dressing formally as a kind of personal armour, and as a way of making portrait shoots a bit more formal, with myself as a kind of consultant, providing expert professional services. I still think it was a sensible way of going about this sort of work; I'd do it today if I could afford to again.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Kristin Scott Thomas was lovely and elegant and took my minimal direction with only the slightest hint of discomfort. I remember her complaining mildly to her publicist about the limousine the festival was sending around to drive her from her hotel to the theatre, which was only a block or two away. "I live in Paris - I'm used to walking everywhere!" she said. I said that I was sure that the festival was only being solicitous, and in any case it was part of the whole ritual of a film premiere.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I shot this without extra lighting - just my Rolleis on a tripod, the way I worked at what I know now was the pinnacle of my career. I could judge a hotel room for the sweet spot of light, I could print around any problems, and I had just enough time for a couple of set-ups back when fifteen minutes really meant fifteen minutes. I have always been pleased with the results but, once again, I can't take as much credit as I'd like since my subject clearly did so much of the work for me.

I suppose this was also the pinnacle of Kristin Scott Thomas' career as well; after an unpromising start as the love interest in Prince's worst film, she became a star with The English Patient, then discovered she didn't like working in the Hollywood system. She began splitting her time between theatre and film, turning up for what she described as small parts in big English films and bigger parts in smaller French films. Three years ago she told the Guardian:
"So they give me a little role in something where they know I'm going to be able to turn up, know what to do, cry in the right place. I shouldn't bite the hand that feeds, but I keep doing these things for other people, and last year I just decided life's too short. I don't want to do it any more."
The interview was for The Invisible Woman, where she played the mother of the love interest to Ralph Fiennes - her love interest nearly twenty years earlier in The English Patient. Such is the career trajectory of even a great beauty in the movie business. It's no wonder she's said she's "a recovering actress." (Though she has made four films since then.) Still, I remain eternally grateful for her gracious assistance in making my portraits so much better simply by being her very lovely self.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan, Toronto, Feb. 1996

WAS I EXCITED TO SHOOT JACKIE CHAN? You bet I was. I don't believe in guilty pleasures, but Hong Kong action films - a movie subgenre in which Chan is the undisputed superstar - were once my favorite way to spend a mentally undemanding hour or two, letting the truck-sized plot holes and sheer physical improbabilities bounce off my mind like Jackie Chan deflecting a hundred blows.

I can't be sure today if Chan was in town promoting Rumble in the Bronx (shot in Vancouver, with its very un-Bronxlike mountains in the background) or Police Story 4: First Strike. I'm as certain as my dismal memory allows that I shot him at the Park Plaza (now Park Hyatt) Hotel. One thing I do know is that, as excited as I might have been to take Jackie Chan's portrait, he was very nearly as excited to have his picture taken, or at least that's how it seemed that day.

Jackie Chan, Toronto, Feb. 1996

I let the interviewer go first while I found my spot and my light - an intriguingly formal tableaux with a love seat just beneath some 18th century gentleman's portrait, framed with wood paneling and drapery. I wanted to place Chan in the space, imagining him playing against his persona, draped languidly across the cushions and over the arm of the love seat.

I was halfway through describing what I wanted when Chan launched himself into the space, standing on the cushions, then planking himself between the upholstered arms, changing position every time I snapped the shutter. My idea, I realized, would have to wait for a more supine subject, and I did my best to keep up with him, cocking the shutter and re-composing in an effort to keep up with this explosion of utter fucking Jackie Chan-ness that was happening in front of me.

Jackie Chan, Toronto, Feb. 1996

He ended the shoot with a flourish, standing astride the cushions and pumping his fists. It was all over in perhaps two minutes, and even his publicists looked amazed at his energy. This was, after all, a man who had famously damaged himself countless times doing his own stunts, so much so that wince-making blooper reels of outtakes ritually ran during the credit sequence at the end of his films.

Some part of me would still love to get another shot at Chan and take that languid portrait of him, as boneless and lazy as a sleeping cat, but I'm still grateful that I once barely shoehorned him into my camera frame, back when I was starting to take it for granted that I'd be shooting celebrities like Jackie Chan for a living.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh, Toronto, Sept. 1996

AS I'VE WRITTEN BEFORE, THE NINETIES WERE A TIME WHEN MOVIES became a lot more exciting than music, at least for me. Part of the excitement was discovering new directors who, though they might have had careers going back at least a decade or more, were reaching their stride - directors like Mike Leigh, who made his first film in 1971, but who really made his breakthrough with High Hopes in 1988 and especially Life Is Sweet in 1990.

I adored Life Is Sweet when I saw it; it had the downbeat characters and grim charm I had loved in the films Paul Cox had made earlier in the '80s, with an added intensity that came from the actors and the long process of improvisation that Leigh led them through to create the script. By the time I was assigned to photograph Leigh at the film festival by NOW I was a huge fan, thanks to Naked, with its performances by David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge, stock players in the "company" Leigh was building around him.

Mike Leigh, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Leigh was at the festival with Secrets & Lies, and would release Career Girls a year later - my all-time favorite Mike Leigh movie. I was desperate to get a good shot of him, and with no pressure to produce a colour cover shot, I could focus entirely on working with my Rolleiflex cameras, tripod and the available light in the hotel room to get the sort of simple portraits I loved the most.

I'm pretty sure the shot at the bottom was the one the paper ended up running - a picture that sums up the hangdog tone of Leigh's films and his sometimes desperate, often melancholy characters. The middle shot was more formal and minimalist - my fallback composition - but going through the contacts today, it's the shot at the top that I like the most, a portrait not much different in feel from the one below, but which has just a hint of a performance in it.

Mike Leigh, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Leigh was actually very cooperative with me, taking my admittedly basic direction happily and wryly indulging in the morose image his films had acquired. It probably helped that the writer on this story was Ingrid Randoja, whose enthusiasm and obvious familiarity with his work had made for a very good interview just before I took my allotted five minutes for shooting. I clearly recall that, after she'd turned off her tape recorder and thanked Leigh before leaving the hotel room, he turned to his publicist and said, "She was very good, wasn't she?"

I always looked forward to working with Ingrid at NOW; her enthusiasm and professionalism put my subjects in a decent mood and she always left me ample time at the end of each interview slot. (Slots that seemed to get shorter with every passing year.) I liked to think of us as a team, doing our best to help each other produce our best work with the chance, unpredictable factors of subject, handler, film and venue. Ingrid was not only a great colleague, but one of my favorite people.

Monday, April 17, 2017


Brown Street, Belfast, April 2017

MY FIRST TRAVEL GIG AFTER A WINTER AT HOME took me back to Ireland - to the north, this time, and the two Ulster counties straddled by the city of Belfast. It felt like a suitable way to start a new year's worth of travel, in a place that I had imagined vividly for so many years, but which bore little to no resemblance to the city I had in my mind.

It's been almost twenty years since the Good Friday Peace Agreement, and you'd have to look hard - or know where to go - to find evidence of the Belfast I saw on the news from the time I was a child and all through my youth and early adult years. I was, to be honest, grateful that it seemed to have disappeared, though that didn't stop me from trying to sniff out its remnants, or discover what sort of mood was left behind.

Ballintoy, County Antrim, March 2017
The Dark Hedges, County Antrim, March 2017
Giant's Causeway, County Antrim, March 2017
Portstewart Strand, County Antrim, March 2017

The actual purpose of the trip was a tour through the filming locations for Game of Thrones, many of which are scattered on either side of Belfast, up the Causeway Coast Route from Belfast to Londonderry, or south through County Down. It's was a picturesque journey, along dramatic seaside roads, through ancient woods and past castles and ruins. Pure honey for a photographer.

When I went to Ireland a year ago, I fought hard to avoid being seduced by the picturesque. This time around I knew it was pointless, and let myself embrace all the views and the references the sights I was seeing evoked, from Constable and other English landscape paintings to Victorian travel book engravings. I'll probably never lack for cityscapes and rough abstraction, but manicured views and storybook forests will likely be much scarcer.

Castle Ward manor house, County Down, April 2017
Inch Abbey, County Down, April 2017
Tollymore Forest, County Down, April 2017

We were based in Belfast, though, so I had almost two days of urban exploration to enjoy, in a city with tidy, finite borders and walkable distances. I was impressed by Belfast's revival in areas like the Titanic Quarter, built around the old Harland & Wolff shipyards, but I made sure I set aside a long Sunday afternoon to wander around West Belfast, up the Falls Road and over the A12 into the Shankill, two neighbourhoods that were once at war with each other.

I liked Belfast. I like any place with history, but I especially like a place that's proud of its history, troubling and unpleasant as it might be, and is willing to tell you about it. (The Falls and the Shankill are, like the Titanic Quarter and Queen's University, stops on the hop-on/hop-off bus tour.) Some people enjoy beaches or cathedrals; I like terraces, bookshops and political posters.

Falls Road, Belfast, April 2017
The Shankill, Belfast, April 2017
Belfast, April 2017
Titanic Quarter, Belfast, March 2017