Thursday, July 31, 2014


Rudolf Nureyev, New York City, January 1991

IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME SINCE BALLET DANCERS WERE CELEBRITIES. I took these photos of Rudolf Nureyev at probably the last moment that was true, at a time when there was still a highbrow culture that wasn't obscure, and when newspapers had salaried dance critics on staff. It's not that long ago, at least in my mind.

I was on assignment for NOW magazine, back when the paper regularly flew photographers out to shoot cover subjects, and I'd asked the paper to fly me in a day or two early so I could stay with my very nearly erstwhile girlfriend, who was living in Alphabet City while studying film at NYU. I arranged to meet Daryl, the paper's dance writer, outside Nureyev's home at the Dakota apartments on the Upper West Side just next to Central Park.

The Dakota was - I suppose still is - as famous as any apartment building in Manhattan, the setting for Rosemary's Baby and the last home of John Lennon, outside whose entrance he'd been shot to death just a decade previous. Nureyev lived upstairs from Lauren Bacall, in a vast apartment furnished with antiques and hung with tapestries and oil paintings, one of several similarly lush, decadent homes he kept around the world.

Architectural Digest, Sept. 1985

I was very fond of Daryl, a lovely man but a big hippie, and particularly in thrall to the legend of Beatle John, so when I met him just by the Dakota gatehouse he was visibly in awe of being near "the spot," as it were. Much as I loved the Beatles, I had never been a huge Lennon fan, and the only thing that surprised me about his murder was that, at the end of the '70s, nobody had done this sort of thing before.

I was particularly appalled by the cult of Lennon that had sprung up since his death, and its Ka'aba was here, by the driveway leading into the courtyard of the Dakota, and just across Central Park West in the park at Strawberry Fields, where on almost any day you'd find someone strumming "Give Peace A Chance" on their guitar right next to the "Imagine" mosaic. This sort of thing has never sat well with me, and so I have to confess that - I know it was immature, and I probably wouldn't do it today, but I have to ask for your understanding - as we were escorted from the street past the Dakota gatehouse, I slowed as I walked behind Daryl and then, for just a couple of seconds, did a little jig on "the spot."

I'm pretty sure nobody saw me.

I wish I remembered more about our trip through the halls of the Dakota, but the only thing I can recall is that it didn't look anything like Rosemary's Baby, and that all of a sudden we were in Nureyev's apartment, trying to take in everything around us.

Rudolf Nureyev, New York City, January 1991

At this time, just a few years into my tenure at NOW, we were working under an edict from above, specifying that our covers fit into a set format, with the subject taking up a vertical third of the photo, with the other two-thirds of the frame taken up with a light, neutral backbround on which the art department could drop type. I don't know whether this restriction lasted a year or several years, but it was an onerous format to work with, week after week, and so I scouted the magnificent room for the dullest spot I could find to take my cover shot.

I settled on a space by the window, where I could use the spidery black and white background of Central Park in winter as my background, and set up my single light, waiting for Nureyev. He showed up shortly, a small man dressed in tweeds and fully as elegant as I'd imagined him. He was happy to take my minimal direction, and even though I'd budgeted more than the usual number of rolls for the shoot - he seemed worth the expense, if only in the hope of a portfolio piece - I found myself burning through film quickly.

Rudolf Nureyev, New York City, January 1991

I moved him inside the room for the black and white shot that would run in the spread, facing the cover feature, where the biggest problem was that there was no shortage of backgrounds. The whole place looked like the most luxurious opium den I'd ever seen, and I panned my camera around wildly, moving from painting to tapestry to painting trying to do the setting justice. For some reason I rejected the shot above twenty-three years ago in favour of something more anodyne - a slight failure of nerve.

I probably worked in something of a controlled frenzy, as I did back then, and it was all over so fast that my memories of my half hour - twenty minutes, fifteen? - with Nureyev are scattered. Not long after I started, I'd packed my bags and was rushing downtown to get the slides developed (U.S. Color Labs, (212) 254-7200 according to the back of the slide mounts - they still seem to be in business) and back to Toronto.

Ellis Island, January 1991

Just next to the sheet of Nureyev black and white negatives in my files (35mm binder #4, October 1990 to October 1991: a busy year) is a sheet titled "Ellis Island trip," which records a ferry ride I took with my very-nearly-almost-quite-ex-girlfriend the day before the Nureyev shoot, across the mouth of the Hudson River to visit the Ellis Island Museum, which had just opened the previous autumn. It's a melancholy little record of a mostly miserable day, where her dwindling patience with me was becoming hard to ignore, though the end - a tearful, hysterical thing - wouldn't actually come until the following summer.

That same summer Nureyev, who'd had AIDS for years, began visibly suffering from the symptoms of the disease, and he died almost exactly two years after I took these pictures.


  1. Hello, is it possible to contact you by email about your photos of Nureyev in NYC ? thank you

  2. I have enjoyed seeing these lovely photos and reading this so much!