Friday, July 25, 2014


SOMETIMES A MAN'S GOT TO KNOW HIS LIMITATIONS. For most of my career as an editorial portrait photographer, that limitation was five minutes, usually less, in a hotel suite with available light. This is the kind of work that resulted from that rather severe lack of options:

David Byrne, Toronto 1995

Unless somebody recognizes the pattern on the upholstery of the chair, the best guess I could give you is that it was either the Intercontinental, the Four Seasons, the Park Hyatt or the Sutton Place - four hotels that are (or were) within a few minutes of each other clustered around Yorkville, Toronto's upscale shopping district. I'm saying Four Seasons until someone can correct me. (PS: Found the contact sheets - I actually shot two rolls of Byrne! - and yes, it was the old Four Seasons on Avenue.)

Judging by the date, Byrne didn't have an album to promote but was in town plugging Strange Ritual, his book of photo collages. I know the date and the client (NOW magazine) thanks to the entry I made into a huge ledger book I used to keep track of jobs and outgoing prints. More on that later.

Page 35 of The Big Ledger

The two prints that NOW used are probably still in their archives somewhere, since gifted to a local university, but I obviously kept the darkroom "seconds" for some reason, and they managed to survive the print purge a few years later. As with anything that's survived until now, I can't help but wonder why.

The prints are 5x7s, stored in an orange Agfa paper box along with at least a couple of hundred other prints and a few Polaroids. Since I lived and died by my overhead, I saved money for years by only making larger prints (8x10, 11x14 and larger) when clients requested them, while NOW, who only needed to make quick scans for layouts where the photos rarely exceeded 5 inches by 7 inches, were happy with the smaller prints. I only have one of these boxes, and I've been excavating through it this week.

the 5x7 box

I was largely indifferent to David Byrne's work by the time I took these pictures, but the first five Talking Heads albums had once meant a lot to me. The band was over by 1995, after an acrimonious split that hasn't healed to this day. I didn't expect to get much from Byrne, who had always cultivated a studiously "blank" public image, so all I expected was a subject who would sit where the light was and look where I asked.

David Byrne, Toronto 1995

For the first few years of my hotel room shooting, I did my best to make the portraits I made in them look like they were done in a studio, or in some faintly exotic place, which required dragging subjects in front of tapestries or trying to find bits of furniture that suggested antiquity or luxury instead of standardized rooms or hospitality chains. By the time I shot Byrne, however, I'd given up, and started stressing the hotel settings - in this case as much as possible, by posing him next to the entrance foyer, with its fire exit map screwed into the door, just above the peephole.

On the same page of the ledger book that records the Byrne shoot, I've recorded roughly two months of shoots for NOW - a few restaurants, some local theatre types, a band (Blue Rodeo,) a couple of directors (Abel Ferrara and Agnieszka Holland) and a whole bunch of actors, including Kristin Scott Thomas, Lili Taylor, Piper Laurie and, entered in the line just above Byrne, none other than Mickey Rooney. More on that next week.

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