Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Candido Camero

Candido Camero, Toronto, June 2017

LEGENDARY IS AN OVERUSED WORD, but if you love jazz or Cuban music, it applies to percussionist Candido Camero if it applies to anyone. My friends Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer have a habit of playing with legendary musicians every now and then, so when I found out that they were bringing 95-year-old Candido to town for a show featuring a conga contest, I knew I had to pull one of the few strings I have and try to get a portrait.

Candido was the conga drummer at the Tropicana nightclub in Havana for eight years before he left for the U.S., where he played and recorded with Machito, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton and Al Cohn, among many others. At some point in the '70s he had a few disco hits, and made a record, Dancin' and Prancin', that managed to become influential on the house music scene. He's had a hell of a career, and it's not over yet.

Candido at Lula Lounge, Toronto, June 2017

I showed up at the club for soundcheck and set up my studio in a bag in the little dining room at the front of the club. The soundcheck turned out to be a rehearsal, and I sat and listened to Candido and the band that Jane had assembled around him, which included pianist Hilario Duran, run through most of that night's numbers.

When I finally got Candido in front of my lights, I took a few simple headshots to warm both of us up. While watching him play, I was fascinated by the tape that he wrapped around his fingers - a trick many conga players use to prevent blisters and cracks on their hands. I asked him to bring his hand up to his face, hoping that the white tape and its serrated edges would add some extra visual interest, and provide a cue for anyone who knows percussionists and their ailments.

Candido Camero, Toronto, June 2017

I can't imagine how many times Candido has sat for a photo during his sixty-plus year career, but he was patient and gracious with me as I asked for the tiniest adjustments to his hands in the tight composition my lighting setup demands. Past the midpoint of my own career, I treasure these rare opportunities to get someone like him to sit for a portrait.

On a whim, I'd packed one of my Rolleiflex cameras and a couple of rolls of film that day. I've been scanning old Rollei negatives for the last couple of years for this blog, but it had been well over a decade since I'd run a roll of film through one of my cameras. I put on a close-up filter to get a tighter frame and shot a roll at the end of the shoot. I'll admit that I was shocked at how rusty I felt with the camera - the focus on this frame (the easiest to print without the need to digitally clean up the background) is a bit soft, and would have been unacceptably so back when the Rollei was my main camera. It was fun to use it again, though, just for old time's sake.

Candido Camero, Toronto, June 2017

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Sebadoh

Sebadoh, Parkdale, Toronto, Sept. 1994

SHOOTING BANDS CAN BE A PAIN IN THE ASS. Even when it isn't, it's always a challenge, for a lot of reasons, but it's probably best expressed in a mathematical formula that states that photographing two people is roughly twice as hard as shooting one, and that every extra person added to the equation makes the difficulty increase exponentially.

I have a bunch of band photos waiting to be scanned, but I thought that before I start barreling down the home stretch of the '90s (and the effective zenith of my professional career,) I should get them out of the way. For no particular reason I thought I'd start with Lou Barlow, who I photographed twice - once when he was part of the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr., and again when his band Sebadoh were approaching their critical and commercial heyday.

Dinosaur Jr. Toronto, Sept. 1987

There's not much I can say about my Dinosaur Jr. shoot, done for Nerve magazine at very near the beginning of my career and the edge of my competence. The band were faves around the office thanks to Tim Powis' championing of You're Living All Over Me and "Little Fury Things" in particular. They were playing the back room of the Cameron House, and I showed up during soundcheck to get a portrait.

They weren't wildly enthusiastic about doing a photo shoot and neither was I, judging by the evidence. I found the only workable spot of light in the room, posed them around a stack of Marshall heads and banged off less than a dozen frames. In my defense, I was very poor at the time and economizing on film for John Lee Hooker's show later that night, on the off chance I might corner the blues legend for a portrait. Thirty years later, I stand by my decision.

Sebadoh, Parkdale, Toronto, Sept. 1994

Seven years later, and with the grunge tidal wave raising the boats for a lot of generally unrelated but interesting indie bands, Barlow's Sebadoh was getting a lot of press. I'm pretty certain I shot them for the Village Voice, but there's nothing in the big ledger so it's just a guess. (It definitely wasn't for NOW magazine.)

Sebadoh's reputation was for being contrarians - aggressively independent but bitterly sarcastic about the indie rock scene. Their proud unwillingness to make themselves palatable to major labels or a broader audience gave them enormous credibility, and their latest record, Bakesale, was a big favorite with the critics. (Writer RJ Smith wrote about the band for the Voice that year, so perhaps this shoot was meant to accompany that story.)

Sebadoh, Parkdale, Toronto, Sept. 1994

The assignment was a big enough deal that they were persuaded to go to my Parkdale studio for the shoot. I fully expected them to be wary and even distracted in front of the camera, so I didn't bother with careful lighting or an elaborate composition, but crammed the three of them onto the art deco love seat I'd recently bought on credit and parked in my studio.

Barlow and Jason Loewenstein mostly regarded me and my camera dubiously for most of the four rolls I shot, when they weren't cracking each other up. Drummer Bob Fay was the exception, fidgeting and acting up like the kid with ADHD in your middle school, so he ended up being a focal point of sorts. Today, the bottom shot comes across like my "yacht rock" take on the band.

It's an alright shoot - a brute simple exercise in problem solving with a difficult subject. I can't help but look at it fondly nowadays; the love seat is in our basement today, covered in junk and cat scratches, and I moved out of my Parkdale studio nearly twenty years ago. The rented backdrop of painted clouds was my favorite - I wish I'd bought it when Vistek cleared it out of their rental inventory.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Toumani Diabate & Bassekou Kouyate

Toumani Diabate & Bassekou Kouyate, NYC, July 1996

NEW YORK CITY FASCINATES ME. I'm sure that being fascinated by New York probably marks me as a true provincial, but if that's true, I'll accept the verdict. For about a decade starting in the mid-'80s, I found myself in New York regularly, at first visiting women that I was either getting to know or breaking up with, or on work assignments, back when NOW magazine had travel budgets to send photographers to shoot covers.

In the summer of 1996 I was assigned to shoot Toumani Diabate, a West African musician, for an upcoming cover, so they dispatched me on a quick day trip to New York City where he was playing with fellow Malian Bassekou Kouyate. They'd just recorded an album together and were staying in a hotel down by Wall Street, so I began pre-visualizing the two men with their flowing robes and instruments made of gourds and skin and gut on the narrow old streets of Lower Manhattan, in front of the banking towers.

Toumani Diabate, NYC, July 1996

I arrived early to scout locations, and found a really nice spot in a side door of the Federal Reserve Building. I collected Diabate and Kouyate at their hotel and brought them to the spot; I told them that I could only feature one of them on the cover, so I asked Diabate to take his kora out of its case and sit down to play in the arched doorway, underneath the massive masonry blocks that make the Fed building stand out among all the other vintage skyscrapers.

We didn't take a single frame before an armed security guard showed up and told us that we had to move on - that they didn't allow photo shoots this close to the Fed building. I wondered how they'd spotted us so quickly - it was literally a matter of a minute or two - but I apologized and asked Diabate if he'd mind if we found another location.



We walked around the corner of the Fed building and down William Street to the Chase Bank Plaza, which seemed to offer a variation on what I was looking for - a contrast between the men in their robes and the massive old towers behind them. This time I was able to shoot two rolls of 120 film with my Rolleis before another security guard showed up and told us that we were on private property, and that we needed a permit to shoot here.

I've always remembered this very difficult, awkward shoot, with its logistical and technical difficulties, and wondered where exactly it all happened. The location of my cover shots were easy enough to find - the Chase Plaza is the only space like it in lower Manhattan, and the wall of the Fed building makes it easy to find the exact spot. Diabate was sitting right where the little white square is hovering at the corner of the plaza, but the concrete guardrail behind him has since been replaced by a much sleeker one in glass and tubular steel.

Toumani Diabate & Bassekou Kouyate, NYC, July 1996

The location of my second shoot, with a now-very upset Diabate and Kouyate, was a bit harder to pin down, since the fencing I stood them against obviously indicated a future building site, and the likelihood that the view through the vacant lot behind them has long been obscured.

There's a blog, Flaming Pablum, written by a native New Yorker and music fanatic that I've followed for years, and he regularly obsesses over bits of Manhattan time capsule archaeology, trying to find the locations of iconic band shots and other scenes from the past, usually in collaboration with Bob Egan's Pop Spots blog. After reading about their hunts for the spot where Neil Young was photographed for After the Gold Rush, or where the Plasmatics stood for a promo shoot, I thought I'd give it a try.



Thankfully Google Street View makes this a whole lot easier, without having to buy a plane ticket. With nothing but the rather grand building across the vacant lot behind the musicians to go on, I hovered over Wall Street on my computer for an hour, looking for what appeared to be a wedge-shaped building next to a new tower, when I discovered that we hadn't gone very far at all - just across William to the corner of Cedar, where Diabate and Kouyate stood against the long-gone fence just behind where the burly man in the dark suit is walking in the photo above.

Looking back, I'm amazed at how, after flying all the way to New York City, I really only did two set-ups. Maybe I was feeling frustrated, perhaps even as angry as Kouyate was, judging by his expressions on the contact sheets. It seems a shame - if I'd been a bit more patent, and exercised better bedside manner, I might have persuaded the two men to help me find an even better location to pose them with their instruments; only now do I realize that Bassekou Kouyate never had a chance to take his ngoni - a form of lute - out of its case. There's something sort of lovely about the shot of Diabate with his kora, and I might have gotten something else like it, perhaps even better, of the two men.

It's not that I wasn't a fan of their music - I've been listening to West African griot music since the mid-'80s, a wholly soothing sound built around the cascading, harp-like sound of the kora and the balaphon. In retrospect I can't be angry at the security guards who kept moving us along; it was only three years since the first World Trade Centre bombing, and I'm sure they had orders to keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. In any case, I can't help but remember this shoot with some frustration, and as an opportunity missed mostly because I got a case of the nerves.



Friday, June 2, 2017

Katrin Cartlidge

Katrin Cartlidge, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I STILL FIND IT HARD TO BELIEVE THAT, SIX YEARS AFTER I TOOK THIS PHOTO, KATRIN CARTLIDGE WOULD BE GONE. I'd first seen Cartlidge in Mike Leigh's Naked - a film I identified with far more than was probably healthy - and immediately recognized the talent that Leigh doubtless had. She was, in 1996, at the beginning of what I was sure would be a remarkable career.

I've written about this shoot with Katrin Cartlidge before, when I found a print of one of these photos in my files, early on in this blog. I wrote that she was in Toronto doing publicity for Leigh's Career Girls, which can't have been quite possible because the film didn't come out for another year. (My guess now is that she was at the festival for Lars Von Trier's Breaking The Waves.) It was my favorite role of hers, and my favorite film of Leigh's, and since movies were a big part of my life back then, I'd obviously seen her potential and become a fan even before then.

Katrin Cartlidge, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Cartlidge's death was a real loss; I'd even call it a tragedy. Her last film role was, unfortunately, little more than a cameo in a not particularly memorable adaptation of an Alan Moore comic starring Johnny Depp. It was the sort of thing an agent tells you to do for the "profile," but she had better taste than that, and between TV and the movies was doing three or even four roles a year, making interesting choices all the time.

I'm sure that her death was a big loss for Mike Leigh. It wasn't until he discovered Sally Hawkins that he'd be able to feature a younger actress with the intensity of Cartlidge in his films. "She took to the improvisation and character work instantly, easily and with extraordinary commitment and imagination," he said after she died. "I am in no doubt that we have lost not only one of our greatest actors but also one of the most interesting new directors of the future."

Katrin Cartlidge, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I did the shoot, I'm sure, in a room at the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor Street. I started by taking simple head shots in the light that came through the hotel's relatively small windows, but then asked Cartlidge if she'd sit on the bed for another roll. She worried aloud that I was trying to get her to do something a bit too cheesecake, and protested to Ingrid, the writer, and I that it really wasn't her image at all.

We both disagreed and said that she shouldn't worry about that sort of thing, and that we thought she looked great. My own motivation for the shots was more personal, and a bit more calculated - I rarely took full body shots of subjects, and worried that my portraits concentrated too much on faces. (I wanted to be a bit more August Sander than Irving Penn.) I wanted to get a shot that captured the way a person stood or sat, and reflected either the ease or discomfort that posing for a camera provoked. Cartlidge managed a bit of both, looking both at home in her skin and a bit wary of what the camera was seeing; it was a perfect character actor's reaction.

Katrin Cartlidge died in London on Sept. 7, 2002.