Thursday, July 24, 2014


John Waters, Toronto 1987

MY FIRST REAL "HIT" AS A PHOTOGRAPHER. Taken about two years after I picked up a camera, and shot on spec with my first medium format camera - a Mamiya C330 that I'd only bought a couple of months before. The seventh shoot I'd done with the camera, according to my negative binder, and lit with a Vivitar 285 flash held in my left hand while I cradled the camera and triggered the shutter with my right. (Believe it or not, they still make the Vivitar.)

Waters was in town promoting his book Crackpot, and was doing a signing at the late, lamented This Ain't The Rosedale Library, which had recently moved into its third location just down the street from my apartment in Toronto's gay ghetto. John Waters was a big deal for pop culture freaks, but the "Pope of Trash" was still a cult figure at the time, his reputation made solely by rep house screenings of Pink Flamingos and Polyester.

Hairspray wouldn't come out for a year, and so the crowd at TATRL was small but eager - die-hard fans who'd seen Divine eat the dog turd more times than they could count, even before they'd been able to afford a VCR. I showed up just after a shift at the toy shop where I was working, with a bag full of these little rubber gargoyle faces I'd "borrowed" from the store. I wasn't sure if Waters would go for the props, but he didn't say no, and picked out the one with the moustache.

I shot the whole roll - just twelve frames, the last three with the little rubber face. As a back up, I'd done a few more conventional portraits, my earliest attempt to shoot in the Hollywood glamour style that I'd come to love since buying a book of George Hurrell's photos. At some point in the subsequent twenty years of darkroom work, I printed one of these shots and actually kept it.

John Waters, Toronto 1987

It's a bit soft - I'd reject it out of hand today - but it's nice to have some evidence that I was working towards something even if I lacked the technical means. The C330 I bought came with a 105mm lens - a mild, portrait-length telephoto that explains the tight depth of field. I don't know who I eventually sold the photo to, but I'd re-sell it a few times in subsequent years. Maybe five minutes worth of shooting, but it gave me more confidence that I was on my way than anything else I did at the time.

Waters, of course, would go on to have a career well outside his cult following, one that finally landed squarely in the mainstream when they made a Broadway musical out of Hairspray, and then a Hollywood movie version of that. I'd cross paths with Waters again, years later, when a touring version of Hairspray hit Toronto.

John Waters, Toronto, April 2004

I was working for the national free daily at the time; I might have still been the photo editor, and was sent to shoot Waters for a feature while he did press at the Princess of Wales Theatre on King Street. This was shot in some sort of private room off the lobby, using available light, and it's really nothing more than a snapshot, though it was good enough for the paper. I'm pretty sure posing in front of the Lady Di pic was his idea.

John Waters, Toronto, November 2004

I'd shoot Waters again a few months later, in some unremembered hotel suite, probably on a publicity tour for A Dirty Shame. Window light, a Canon digital SLR, and a perfectly serviceable but nothing special portrait that I could knock out without much effort back then. In retrospect, the first time was the best, though part of me would love to re-create the original portrait today. I actually kept that bag of little rubber faces for years, until the rubber started to decay and the contents of the bag turned sticky.

Waters hasn't directed a thing since that last shoot, and he seems OK with that. He says he won't go on Kickstarter to get funding: "I'm not public begging." I think he should have directed HBO's Grey Gardens docudrama, but nobody listens to me. He's turned into a tasteful, even dignified elderly gentleman with at least three homes full of modern art, books, the occasional macabre memento, and an audience that seems willing to stick with him. "Thank God I still have many ways to tell stories: my books, spoken word shows."

It's amazing to think that there was once a time when cultural slumming was something hipsters did, and that one man could singlehandedly corner the market on movies about misfits, weirdos, deviants, freaks and fuck-ups. While Waters' vision of a world more tolerant of oddballs turned into musical comedy, the inspiration for his characters have gone on display every night thanks to reality TV like Honey Boo-Boo and Hoarders.

Ultimately, my affection for Waters' films was tainted by the people who said they loved them, like falling out with a band because you can't stand their fans. Waters actually seemed to have an honest affection for the lunatic fringe of white, working-class culture that I didn't see his audiences sharing, and the laughter edged too close to mockery for me.

And if you've actually lived up close with that kind of flamboyant desperation, acted out in cramped rooms without a safety net, it's hard not to notice the sadness and weird pride. It makes the laugh stick in your throat, and soon enough it's hard to resist the urge to avert your eyes and turn away.

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