Saturday, August 30, 2014

Summer's end

CNE, August 28, 2014

HERE'S A BUNCH OF SHOTS I DID THIS WEEK to illustrate a story I did on the Ex - the Canadian National Exhibition - at night. Another photographer had already shot a package of images to illustrate the story and they weren't able to make mine work with his, and so here they are. A little essay on one of my favorite places, whose final weekend is the traditional end of summer here.

Friday, August 29, 2014


Spike Lee, New York 1990

THE JOHN TURTURRO POST GOT ME THINKING about Spike Lee again, and my only shoot with the director, during a big press event in Manhattan for Mo' Better Blues, his 1990 jazz film starring Denzel Washington.

You can do an interview over the phone but not a photo - not yet, anyway - but Lee was a big deal at the alternative weekly so they pulled out the stops and sent me and the writer down, where we bunked together in a room at the junket hotel. There was a lot of excitement about the film, and getting a good portrait of Lee would be a sure portfolio piece.

Anybody who's dealt with Spike can probably attest to a barely suppressed ... hostility ... toward the press, and it was on display that day in the hotel suite where the media was done. When you show up set to give someone a heaping benefit of the doubt and get met with what I can only describe as sullen distaste, it tends to dampen your enthusiasm. But maybe that's just me.

Even if you just know Lee's films, you'll know that his distaste has a palpable target, but no one at the time - or even until lately - has ever been willing to call him out on it. I remember having arguments with my then-girlfriend where she would insist that it was impossible for non-whites to be racist. (This despite her own uncles leaving a family gathering en masse rather than meet me.) What can I say - we actually used to argue about this stuff back then.

Joie Lee, New York 1990

I did my best not to be put off by Spike and moved on to Joie, his sister, who had been given a major role in the film, and was being celebrated as a rising new star. Rail thin and striking, I'd brought along a 120 camera - a Rollei, probably - with the intention of getting another potential portfolio piece of her. Using just room light and a tripod, I had Joie sit on the edge of bed in an adjacent room where the light took on a tone like caramel.

I liked the results, and went away thinking that the shots of Joie would at least end up in my book. The film turned out to be a mess - after many years, I've come to the conclusion that you can't make a good film about jazz - and after the cover story ran I shelved the results of that day's shooting. Joie Lee didn't turn out to have much of a career, though she's appeared in cameos in several of her brother's films.

Lee ended up making one of the better post-9/11 films, but his moment came and went and he recently turned to Kickstarter to get funding for his latest picture. My girlfriend broke up with me a year after this shoot, effectively leaving me for the writer I'd bunked with for the Spike story. So no - not a lot of great memories associated with these pictures.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


John Turturro, Toronto, September 1992

ANOTHER PORTRAIT FROM MY ONCE-ANNUAL film festival portrait blowout. John Turturro in the tearoom off the lobby of the Sutton Place Hotel on Bay when it was the headquarters of the festival, doubtless shot for NOW magazine. This would be the same festival where I photographed Steve Buscemi, and a glance through the binder reveals adjacent neg sheets with portraits of director Neil Jordan and actor Tilda Swinton.

Those white shirts buttoned to the neck were a thing back then; extra points if you had one with contrasting stitching like Turturro is wearing. They define the early '90s the way that overpriced t-shirts distressed to look like they're about to fall apart do today.

Turturro was in town promoting his film Mac, which he wrote, directed and starred in; it won a Camera D'Or at Cannes but I don't think it did that well. Turturro was on a roll in 1992, having made seven films in the last two years, starring in pictures for the Coen Brothers as well as his semi-regular gig in Spike Lee's films, which began with him playing a Lee regular: the Italian-American bete noire and repository of outer borough bigotry in Do The Right Thing.

I can't believe it, but after watching this, 1989 actually seems like a freer time than today.

Turturro used to be the go-to guy if you wanted someone who was tightly wound and intense to very near a point of self-parody. (Think of Jesus Quintana in The Big Lebowski.) Nowadays he plays a recurring character in the Transformer franchise.

My shoot with him 22 years ago was obviously rushed, with frames snatched as he did his interview, but the frame at the top shows a man with an obvious case of the nerves. Mac might not have set the world on fire, but Turturro has managed to write and direct four more films since I shot him in the Sutton Place tearoom.

The Sutton Place, however, was recently closed and is being gutted for condos; earlier this year I snuck in for a preview of the hotel's contents sale auction.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

John Lee

John Lee Hooker, Toronto 1987

JOHN LEE HOOKER BACKSTAGE AT THE DIAMOND CLUB on September 15, 1987 - thank God some people keep records of this sort of thing. Another shoot I have no memory of doing, and even more mysteriously I didn't bother shooting the show, so these candids are the whole of my Hooker shoot.

While I don't remember much about taking these photos, I can tell you what the show was like: Hooker playing his hits ("Boom Boom," "Boogie Chillen," "Crawling King Snake") to an enthusiastic (and almost entirely white) audience while the pick-up band backing him up cling by their nails to his fluid time signatures.

Hooker was born in Mississippi where he picked up his strange, droning, open chord blues style from his stepfather, William Moore, before heading to Memphis and then north to find a job at the Ford plant at Rouge River. He was ripped off mercilessly by the Bihari brothers, the owners of Modern Records, who issued his earliest records and gave themselves his songwriting credits under a variety of pseudonyms.

John Lee Hooker, Toronto 1987

Hooker had a fierce dignity that no number of drunk white girls putting on his white hat while taking pictures with him could undermine. Actually, it's easy to make fun of white blues fans, but they're the people who kept artists like Hooker in guitar strings and white hats until Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt saw fit to give him a big hit record and a reliable royalties contract.

The venerable bluesman, seventy years old at the time, shares a roll of film in my negative binder with proto-indie rock legends Dinosaur Jr., who were playing the Cameron House on Queen West a day or two previous. Film was expensive, I was poor, and so I rarely spent a whole roll on anyone.

(Update: An e-mail from my friend Chris Buck: "Regarding John Lee Hooker, I must have been standing right next to you as my shots of him are almost identical." I have no memory whatsoever of this shoot, or Chris being there. Sometimes I worry about myself.)

(2023 Update: I've gone back and re-scanned and re-edited these photos, which are now much improved from what I originally posted.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


I'M BAD AT THROWING THINGS OUT, especially if they have a sliver of usefulness left in them. Cameras are among the most useful things in the world to me, so it's no surprise that, more than two decades after I stopped using them, I still have a Pentax Spotmatic.

Asahi Pentax SV

Just after I dropped out of college I was given a small nest egg by my mother - my Baby Bonus, saved up for years with interest at the Our Lady of Victory Credit Union. An act of charity, I'm sure - I was out in the world without a degree but with a vague ambition to become a journalist, something no one in our family had ever been. I promptly bought an electric guitar - my priorities were sound, as you can tell - but there was still some money left over, so for reasons still obscure to me today I headed downtown to the camera stores near Pawn Shop Row on Church Street and purchased a 35mm camera.

We were a Kodak family. The Kodak Canada plant was just a few blocks from our house, and my mother worked there from the '20s till the late '40s. My sister had a job in the plant as a teenager, and my cousin Terry spent her whole working career at Kodak, retiring in the '90s, a few years before the plant closed. I'd been given Instamatics as gifts when I was a kid but I'd never been bitten by the photography bug, so I can't really tell you what made me think that I needed a camera. Nonetheless, here's a frame from the first roll I ever shot with my first Pentax Spotmatic - the view from the window of our living room out onto the corner of Gray and Outlook:

Gray Avenue at Outlook, Mount Dennis, spring 1985

A pretty terrible shot, but at least I'd developed it myself, in the basement kitchen. This isn't the first shot on the roll, however; that was actually a series of candid photos of my co-workers at Simpson's Toy Town, where I was head stock boy, so I probably bought the camera on my lunch break, loaded in a roll of Tri-X and started snapping, eager to see if the damned thing actually worked. This photo was probably taken the next morning, after I woke up and took another look at my new purchase and decided to finish the roll. There are no leaves on either the trees or the ground, so we're looking at a sunless spring morning in 1985. I don't want to sound too grand, but my life basically started here.

The Spotmatic was an obvious choice for a novice photographer, which is probably how the salesman at Henry's sold it to me - it was simple and cheap, with plenty of inexpensive used lenses made by Pentax or a half-dozen brands like Vivitar, Tamron and Soligor. Once the camera of choice for students, it had been supplanted by the Pentax K1000, which replaced the Spotmatic's screwmount lenses with bayonet mounts. If you watch old footage of the Beatles on their first tour of America, they're all carrying Spotmatics.

As my friend Jonathan Castellino pointed out to me recently, it was hardly a fine camera; almost Soviet in construction, it was rough and inelegant, with a crude in-camera meter. It didn't take motor drives, and changing the screwmount lenses was time-consuming and clumsy. My first Spotmatic had a nasty metal burr on the film advance lever that left a red mark on my thumb until I took a bit of sandpaper to it. It was all I could afford, however, and I quickly started buying lenses, then an extra body, as I'd noticed other photographers carrying around two or three, loaded with different film and lenses. The Spotmatic was my camera for the first four years of my career.

Sharp eyes will notice that the camera I still own today isn't a Spotmatic, but a Pentax SV - the immediate predecessor to the Spotmatic, launched the year I was born. It's purely mechanical, with no internal meter and no battery, which probably explains why my camera has this piece of surgical tape on the back, with a helpful list of f-stops for different lighting conditions:

This was the last Pentax I bought; black Spotmatics were rare, which was probably what caught my eye and extracted whatever money was burning a hole in my pocket that day. I liked the idea that it didn't have a meter, requiring me to trust my eye and my intuition - though obviously not so much that I didn't need the cheat sheet. I'd switched to Canon autofocus cameras by 1992 and sold off my Spotmatics and their lenses not long after, but I kept the SV, which I last used on a Christmas trip to visit a friend in London in 1997.

I can't tell you how grateful I am to this simple little camera, and it's appropriate that one of the first images I took with it was the view from the front window of my parents' house. There was a whole world out there, outside Mount Dennis, and I was desperate to see if I could find a place in it. That blurry, grainy photo reminds me of how eager I was to get started, and it was a cheap used camera that would pull me along.

Monday, August 25, 2014


Richard Attenborough, Toronto 2007

RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH WAS A PLEASURE TO PHOTOGRAPH, amiable and grandfatherly and generous with his time. I was on assignment for the free national daily, and I shot Attenborough during one of my film festival portrait blowouts - five minutes with a Canon DSLR in a hotel room (the Four Seasons? The Intercontinental? I can't remember) with window light and a publicist counting the seconds by my elbow. He was in town promoting Closing The Ring, the film that would turn out to be his last.

Richard Samuel Attenborough - Baron Attenborough, though he insisted everyone call him Dickie - died yesterday at 90, seventy-two years after he played his first role as an unnamed sailor in Noel Coward's In Which We Serve. He would have a long career as an actor, producer and director, and won an Oscar for Gandhi, the sort of epic biopic we don't seem to know how to make any more. (Perhaps for good reasons.)

The Oscar made his reputation as a director, but he had a more than decent career as an actor, much of it in postwar Britain, where he often ended up in uniform, playing mostly squaddies, swabbies and erks in films like Desert Patrol, Private's Progress, Glory at Sea, Operation Disaster and The Baby and the Battleship. He'd show his range in civvies as the sociopath gangster Pinkie in Brighton Rock and the killer Christie in 10 Rillington Place, but even in his later career in front of the camera, he'd end up in khaki, navy or airman's blue in films like The Great Escape, Conduct Unbecoming, The Chess Players and The Last Grenade, albeit with a promotion to officer class.

His short stature and round face made him the perfect NCO, though, and he personified the rank in Guns At Batasi, a post-colonial war film where Attenborough presented us with a spit-and-polish parade ground bully who showed the mettle behind the bellow when barrack life turned into something more deadly.

At the film festival he was unashamedly thrilled to be there, even with a film that was getting lukewarm press. I spent barely fifteen minutes with him in that hotel room, but he made his immense pleasure at being invited to show his film and his great pride in being in the company of so many people whose talent he admired obvious to anyone he met.


Metallica, Toronto 1991

AT SOME POINT IN YOUR CAREER YOU KNOW that it isn't all fun and games any more. Some people know this from the start - it was never about fun, and they make sure you know it. For the rest of us, it takes a bit longer.

I shot Metallica in 1991, when they were passing through town promoting Metallica, also known as the "Black Album." I can't remember who the client was - it might have been HMV magazine, or it might have been whatever incarnation Music Express was on at the time. Whoever it was, they had enough pull to get the record company to schedule a shoot with the band, and I was given the gig.

I booked an assistant and a backdrop and set up in what I remember as a basement space in the record company offices downtown. Metallica was on their way to being the biggest band in the world, and I was made to understand this fact. Shortly before the band showed up, I was handed a contract to sign, agreeing that the band had the right to review and reject the results of my shoot, which would only be used for the purposes of this story.

I'd seen these contracts before; they'd been handing them out to photographers when we waited to shoot major acts in concert, but the right to review the shots was something I'd never encountered. I swallowed hard and signed, not wanting to sour my relationship with the client. Metallica were a metal band, sure, but they were a notably creative one - hell, drummer Lars Ulrich even collected modern art. How bad could this be?

The band filed in one by one, clearly not feeling the thrill of another photo shoot. James Hetfield made an only slightly racist comment about my assistant when I showed them the test Polaroids I'd done, with my assistant standing in for them. I could see him wince from the sidelines where he was waiting with my camera. It was a pretty stock show of rock star bad attitude, especially for a band who were about to have a huge hit with a song about being afraid to go beddy-bye.

I tried to break the ice with Lars by mentioning the interview I'd done with him a few years before, when the band was in town promoting Master of Puppets. I'd just gotten into jazz, and Lars told me his dad had been a big jazz promoter in his native Copenhagen, and that bop saxophonist Dexter Gordon was actually his godfather. When I brought this up, Lars denied it, laughing that he was bullshitting me. (It was actually true. Who does something like that?)

So I felt a bit wrong-footed from the start of the shoot, embarrassed and, frankly, a little bit angry. I motored through several rolls of 120 colour slide film, then finished off with a single roll of black and white 35mm. As soon as I put my camera down the band tore out of the room, except for guitarist Kirk Hammett, who seemed like he wanted to say something, then thought better of it before leaving.

About a week later I got a call from the magazine; the slides had come back from Metallica's management. The band had put a lit cigarette through every frame they rejected, burning a hole through the negative sleeve and the film, leaving only the single frame they liked intact. My whole shoot had been reduced to a single shot, which I don't think I ever picked up from the magazine when they were done.

I'd once been a fan, but after this experience - and a bunch of crap albums - I soured on Metallica, so you don't need to guess whose side I was on when the band, led by Ulrich, decided that the best way to deal with file-sharing was to sue their fans.

I never sent in the roll of black and white film from the end of the shoot, however, and sat on the pictures for years. This is frame #33, four shots from the end of one of the unhappiest shoots I ever did. Not the biggest bunch of dickheads I ever photographed, but pretty close.

Friday, August 22, 2014


Jerzy Kosinski, Toronto 1988

ANOTHER PRINT FROM THE FILES and another early "hit," like the John Waters portrait. Hungry for subjects and still only a few years away from an incomplete bachelor's degree in English lit, I talked my way into accreditation at Toronto's International Festival of Authors and arranged shoots with at least a half dozen major writers, mostly in a little alcove off the lobby of the then-Harbour Castle Hilton. I budgeted my film tightly back then, and this portrait of Jerzy Kosinski is one of just 22 frames of the writer, shared over two rolls with portraits of Kathy Acker and Jay McInerney.

With only a minute or two with my subjects and whatever available light I could find, I was forced to do what I did best, and so I got up close with Kosinski with my Spotmatic. He obliged by raising an eyebrow to my lens, and I ended up with this cyclopean portrait that ended up in my portfolio for at least a few years.

I'm still very fond of the shot, but I'm pretty sure I took it out after his suicide in 1991, just three years later. By then his reputation was in tatters after nearly a decade's worth of a plagiarism controversy, and his once-considerable fame had tipped over into infamy.

Everybody I knew - or at least anybody I knew who read books - had read The Painted Bird. If they liked it, they'd probably read Steps or Being There. If they were a big fan, they'd likely made their way through Passion Play and Blind Date and The Devil Tree. If you subscribed to the notion that history was cruel and that life was perverse, then Kosinski was your cup of hemlock. Needless to say, he was catnip to a certain kind of literate youngster who'd graduated from Salinger to Vonnegut and was looking for stronger stuff.

Kosinski wasn't just a famous writer - he was a celebrity. He was friends with Roman Polanski and George Harrison; he married heiresses and aristocrats; he played polo. He barely missed being at the house on Cielo Drive the night Manson's kids killed everyone there. They made a movie out of Being There and Kosinski played Zinoviev in his friend Warren Beatty's film Reds. He was voted president of PEN - twice in a row.

Which is probably why his fall was so steep. He wasn't just a Holocaust survivor but the boy in The Painted Bird, or so he claimed. When this turned out to be not strictly true, he not only let down the readers who'd invested the author with so much of the harrowing story in his book, but the famous friends and literary gatekeepers who'd helped tend his reputation, and their betrayal was probably what did him in.

And so Kosinski has joined a legion of authors who were once giants in my youth - names like Mailer, Cheever, Vidal, Updike and Styron - but whose reputations now drift through used bookstores on battered hardcovers, their names in massive type on the torn dust jacket. (You can't help but wonder where they'll be when the last used bookstore is gone.)

They're gone, and with them a whole world that thrived but began dying before I'd reached my thirtieth birthday. A once impressive Upper West Side of the mind that stretched between the blue chip middlebrow and the highbrow, full of publishers staffed with prep school grads, chronicled in the Sunday New York Times and the New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair, where the streets were full of tweed and tuxedos and little black dresses and everyone had their favorite hotel bar.

Here's the thing, though: Fame and infamy become indistinguishable after a few years, and if I had to put together a collection of my best shots today, I'd probably include Kosinski. Not only as an example of the best of my first few years of work, but as a portrait of a man with a good story, someone a young person leafing through the pages might not have heard of, but would read about with interest once they clicked on a link.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Steven Soderbergh, Toronto 1993

STEVEN SODERBERGH WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE RETIRED FROM MAKING FILMS a couple of years ago, but he seems to be back at it, directing The Knick for Cinemax. I don't think anyone would blame him for walking away from feature films, but with cable becoming a far more rewarding venue for filmmakers nowadays, he probably shouldn't have bothered with the dramatic announcement.

I photographed Soderbergh twenty-one years ago, when he was swinging through Toronto doing press for his third feature, King of the Hill, just four years after he made his big debut with Sex, Lies & Videotape. He was a big deal, and the client, NOW magazine, had obviously scheduled him for the cover, back when they were still bullishly committed to the "2/3 whitespace" format. I can't remember much about the shoot itself - I can't even hazard a guess about which hotel we were in - but I do know that I was in the middle of a frenzy of technical experimentation at the time.

Steven Soderbergh, Toronto 1993

I was obsessed with cross-processing, and after I was sure I had a handle on putting slide film through negative chemistry, I discovered that you could develop selected negative films through slide chemistry and get striking results - mostly the sort of unnatural colour shifts that film companies spent decades of research and millions of dollars trying to prevent.

Steven Soderbergh, Toronto 1993

I did a roll of regular slide film, processed normally, and another of Kodak Gold 100, an amateur film that seemed to produce a fruity pink skin tone that I liked, in addition to a marked green cast everywhere in the midtones. I tested every film I could find to see what they delivered, but the results could be a bit inconsistent - a process I found exciting, but that made clients uneasy.

Steven Soderbergh, Toronto 1993

I also shot another 120 roll of Kodak Vericolor III, a professional slide film, which had an overall cyan cast but put an ochre tint into the highlights. Sometimes. Well, it did this time. I knew that NOW wouldn't use the 120 shots for the cover, and since they didn't print colour inside the paper, I obviously meant to shoot this roll for my own portfolio - a portrait that's more than a bit mid-period Cecil Beaton. In my first decade of shooting, I was obviously still trying to process my influences.

I've never tried to duplicate the look of cross-processed print film in Photoshop, but I'm sure it could be done. These photos are far from raw scans - besides the usual painstaking dust removal, I was considerate enough to remove a big red zit from the middle of Soderbergh's forehead - a service I could not have rendered so easily back then.

Cross-processing was a big fad, and while I was hardly the only person doing it, I ended up being the Toronto photographer who'd tested every film and happily answered questions from anyone who asked. The appeal was simple - film had reached a technical plateau of sharpness and colour rendering that I was desperate to roll back.

Obsessed with old photographs, I was hoping cross-processing would help me get the look of vintage Kodachrome or faded colour slides. It never quite did, and I'd pretty much abandoned it by the last half of the '90s, moving on to manipulating my prints with filters and tissue paper after discovering pictorialism.

It's not only Soderbergh's white shirt buttoned up to the top and his baggy jacket, but the pastel blush of the cross-processed film that makes these pictures look dated. In my mind, this is what the first half of the 1990s looked like - a slightly toxic glow that's as period as Francis Fukuyama's "End of History."

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Ronnie Hawkins, Peterborough, Ontario 1990

RONNIE HAWKINS IS A BIG DEAL UP HERE IN CANADA, partly because he's had a lot of famous friends, but mostly because he was an American who chose to live here for reasons we're far too polite to inquire about. He's big, loud and a shameless self-promoter - traits we deplore in the native-born but tolerate when they're imported.

I dug these pics out of the files at the request of my old friend Cadillac Bill, who's tall, British and a shameless self-promoter. He recently interviewed Ronnie for his TV show and needed some pictures to illustrate the segment, and I just happened to have had a brief encounter with Ronnie back around the time the Berlin Wall fell.

John Constable, The Lock, 1824

I photographed Ronnie in the winter of 1990, in the middle of my "English painters" phase when, after seeing a show of Joseph Wright of Derby's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I became obsessed with taking photos that echoed Wright and Constable and a particular favorite, J.M.W. Turner. To that end I dragged my studio camera, the Bronica SQa, and a whole bunch of lighting gear to Hawkins' ranch outside Peterborough, and somehow managed to rent a wide lens for the Bronica. I may have even brought an assistant along, but I can't remember now.

The client was Country Estate magazine, and don't bother looking them up because they went out of business not long after I took this, a victim of the recession that began that year and took most of my clients with it. A local knock-off of Country Life aimed at Canada's propertied classes, they'd been around since the '70s apparently but became a big deal when the '80s boom made greed good and all that great stuff I didn't enjoy as much as I should have. Like most things that thrived before the internet, they haven't left much of a digital trail. I did all of three jobs for them just before they closed down, which I remember mostly for a lavish Christmas party they held just before I did the Hawkins shoot; in my mind these photos are relics of those heady days of publishing's last golden era.

Mr. Dynamo, Columbia Records 1960

Ronnie himself was a relic of another golden era - the gut-bucket rock and roll that thrived improbably in the pre-Beatles/army Elvis era, when the charts were full of pop trifles and the old-school managers seemed to have gotten a grip on popular music again. Ronnie and his band the Hawks were the alt-rock of their day - raw, rootsy and possessed of a presumed integrity that big deal chart acts were regarded as lacking. For some reason he decided to move up here in 1964, the year I was born, and for the balance of that decade he was the king of the Yonge Street bar scene, which finally got the three-part documentary treatment it deserved a few years back.

I remember the drive to Peterborough along snowy highways taking a long time, and telling the art director who'd hired me for the shoot that I was intent on winning her a magazine award. My gig at the magazine was illustrating their "road test" feature, where they gave a celebrity an expensive new car to drive around for a week or two. I'd shot director David Cronenberg a few months earlier on the beach near my studio with a C4 Corvette, and Hawkins had been given a Range Rover to drive around his farm. I would do one more job - some captain of industry and a BMW - for the magazine before it folded.

Ronnie Hawkins, Peterborough Ontario, 1990

We set up in the snow on an overcast day that made it hard to get the moody cloudscape I wanted for that Constable look, but the rented lighting kit I'd brought along helped darken the skies and a warming filter over the lens gave the slide film the ochre cast of a varnished oil painting. The dogs were a welcome accessory. At the end of the shoot I shot a couple of rolls without the lights and cross-processed the slide film through colour negative chemistry - a new look that I'd been experimenting with, and which would end up obsessing me for a few years after that, the successor to the "English painter" look that didn't end up winning me or anyone any magazine awards.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Ex

Ferris wheel, CNE August 2014

STILL RECOVERING FROM OUR VACATION, the family made our annual trip to the Canadian National Exhibition yesterday. We've done The Ex every year since before the kids were born, and at this point in time it feels like we're hoarding Ex days waiting for the first August one of the kids says "Thanks mom and dad, but I'm going with my friends."

We bought ride bracelets for the whole family, which meant we gorged on the midway more than the unhealthy fair food. Did a rollercoaster (but not the scary Crazy Mouse) and both ferris wheels. The kids hit every fun house they could find and we did the Alpine Bobs twice and the Polar Express - the best ride on the midway - three whole times. It was great.

Looking up. CNE  August 2014

Late in the evening, settled in while waiting for the Polar Express to start up, I took in the scuffed plywood, the chipped paint, the light bulbs radiating out from the ride's hub, and wondered whether this might be the pinnacle of my life. Surrounded by my children and the woman I love, my health basically OK; I know it's never been better than this, but is this the best it will ever be?

It's a question that's been on my mind a lot lately as I've been excavating my photo archives, confronted by the possibility that the fury of work I did in the '90s was some sort of zenith, professionally if not creatively. I'll still take photos, and some of them might be among my best work, but there's every likelihood that my profile and earnings might never match what I managed twenty years ago.


The road to the sea, PEI 2014

I'VE BEEN AWAY FOR A WEEK. My sister offered us her cottage near St. Andrews Point in southeast Prince Edward Island and it was a great week by the water. I brought a camera or two, of course.


I once joked with my friend-I've-never-met-in-person Sean McCormick that while his landscape photography was all about the beauty of nature out in his prairie neck of the woods, mine tended to look like crime scene photos. I hope I've improved.

Wind farm

Well, maybe not.

Montague harbour

If you're a landlubber like myself, it's hard to avoid the stock images of a maritime setting, mostly because they're so foreign to my experience. The temptation of the picturesque can sometimes be hard to ignore.

Old pier footings

I could spend most of my time shooting this sort of stuff - a genre of landscape work I like to call "Earth five minutes after the humans have left."


Not groundbreaking stuff, of course, but a pretty good set of snapshots of what the world looks like to me, pared clean and catalogued. Available for framing.

Friday, August 15, 2014


Trees, High Park, Toronto, date unknown

ANOTHER PRINT FROM THE 5x7 BOX, printed at leisure some time in the late '90s, I think. Rolleiflex with Ilford black and white film, printed through dry mount tissue in the darkroom. In my mind, I can imagine myself in the makeshift closet in my old Parkdale loft, huffing in the stewing developer, stop and fixer in the tiny, unventilated room before taking the prints to the rinse bath in the kitchen. I'm sure I shaved a few years off my life in that little room.

There's a real "chicken or the egg" dilemma whenever I remember this part of my career. Work as an editorial portrait photographer was starting to dry up by the second half of the '90s; a lot of my clients had gone out of business, and a few of the art directors and photo editors who I relied on for work a few years previous had moved on up or out of the business. I'd come to rely on NOW magazine for most of my income, which was becoming a tenuous proposition as my own politics started to veer away from my employer's doctrinaire leftism.

I had also gradually begun to lose interest in photographing people, which is a bit of a problem if you're a portrait photographer. My files are full of still life work and landscapes during my last years in the Parkdale studio, and the only exhibitions I took part in during the '90s were strictly still life work. I didn't know how I was going to make a living doing this sort of work, and to make up the shortfall I slowly returned to writing after a decade of just taking photos for a living.

Here's the thing - did I start favouring still-lifes and landscapes because I was getting less work doing portraits, or did my growing preference for unpeopled photographs take the creative energy from my portrait work and alienate clients? To this day, I still don't know.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Mount Hope cemetery, Toronto

THE HEADSTONE OF MY FATHER'S PARENTS. A few years ago - about a decade, maybe less - I decided to find where my grandparents were buried. I made a couple of calls to make sure I'd find them there, then packed a bag with a Rolleiflex and a couple of rolls of film.

Mount Hope is the "old" Catholic cemetery here in Toronto, opened after St. Michael's Cemetery, just down Yonge Street, had filled up. The "new" cemetery is Holy Cross, way up in Thornhill, where my parents are buried. My wife keeps telling me we need to start thinking about funeral plans, and while I'd do anything to avoid this, if I had a preference I'd like to end up At Mount Hope, if only because it's closer to the parts of the city where I've actually lived.

It didn't take me long to find the Murphys, my mother's parents, but the McGinnises were a tougher hunt. I eventually found this faded white stone cross, probably put in place when Robert McGinnis, my grandfather, died in Christmas of 1914, not long after the family emigrated from Lesmahagow, Scotland. He'd taken a job at the Swift's Edible Oil and rendering plant in the stockyards north of the Junction - a short walk from where I live now. Typhoid had an affinity for stockyard workers, unfortunately, and he left behind a wife, a daughter and four sons including my father, who'd leave school shortly afterward to help support the family.

His wife, Isabella, would survive for almost three more decades, ill for much of that time, dying in the summer of 1943, when my father was in the air force. He'd put off marrying his fiancee due to his mother's health, and so a few months later he was able to get leave, took the train to Toronto, got married and took my mother for a brief honeymoon in Montreal before heading back to base in Rockcliffe, just outside Ottawa.

I never knew any of my grandparents.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Peter Jackson, Toronto 1994

PETER JACKSON'S LATEST HOBBIT FILM COMES OUT THIS CHRISTMAS, and barring a global Ebola pandemic, I can't see why it won't make millions. These portraits were shot at the beginning of his career, however, when he was at the Toronto International Film Festival to promote Heavenly Creatures, the sort of film that he really doesn't make any more.

As with any film festival shoot, it was shot at one of four or five hotels; the black and white portraits were done with window light, and in this case using my Canon EOS Elan autofocus - my 35mm SLR for most of the '90s. I was an assignment for NOW magazine, as usual, and they'd obviously decided that Jackson would get the cover, since I shot two whole rolls of black and white film and two rolls of 120 colour slide.

Peter Jackson, Toronto 1994

I didn't like shooting slide film; it took away the control I'd get in the darkroom, so I'm guessing that there was a deadline, and that the paper needed the colour cover shots quickly. I'd obviously brought along a flash - my Metz potato masher with a Speedotron battery - and judging from the reflection in Jackson's eye, I used a soft box, not an umbrella. The background was one of my old standbys - the back of a hotel curtain, draped over a floor lamp or a poster stand. Along with my Rollei case, this was my standard portable studio set-up.

I can't say that I'm taken with the results. It's a merely passable portrait, with a distracting background and a subject who's definitely posing. This was why I preferred shooting in the studio, where I'd have time to set up lights and backgrounds at leisure, and deal with the subject in relative tranquility, without a publicist behind my shoulder, ready to cut my time short.

Peter Jackson, Toronto 1994

The black and whites are more successful. He's still posing, but the compositions are tighter and the background's not an issue. I could probably go back and do better scans of these shots, but they'll do for now. I can't remember a thing about Jackson. He was clearly happy to be in front of the camera, as his career was starting to take off with a perceptible rush. Pretty good for a guy who, just a few years earlier, was best known for a film about puppets fucking each other.

Monday, August 11, 2014


Queen Street West afternoon, date unknown

I HAVE NO IDEA WHEN I SHOT THIS, though I'm pretty sure that's my friend Tim Powis walking away from the camera. Taken on Queen Street West here in Toronto, just by the corner of Peter Street, with a Rolleiflex, and printed with soft focus filters in the vignetted edges of the frame. It was in the 5x7 box, along with a few other similarly mysterious prints I took pains to print for reasons I can't remember any more.

By the early-mid '90s I'd become a bit of a Luddite, intent on holding back the computerized future, stubbornly refusing to buy a computer, still submitting work typed on my ancient Remington and striving to shoot as if it were 1958 whenever I could. The digital revolution in photography was a decade away from sweeping all before it, and whatever digital cameras were out there were experimental and expensive, so it was an easy pose to adopt. In many ways, just a few years from the dawn of the 21st century, we really were still shooting like Eisenhower was still in the White House.

Even though it's not quite twenty years ago, this photo feels like it comes from a distant era now. Nobody is looking at their cell phones, and in my mind I can recall the street as it was then - very different from when I'd first walked down it fifteen or so years before, and not at all like it is today. I wouldn't dare call it a clear and accurate document of the city as it was - a photographer like Patrick Cummins has done a much better job at that sort of thing - but for me it's a moment of vanished past, more mine than the city's, caught mostly by accident.

Friday, August 8, 2014


FOR YEARS I INSISTED THAT I HAD NEVER SEEN IGGY POP LIVE, despite being a big fan. As with David Bowie, I presumed that since I'd missed seeing both of them at the height of their creative careers (which happened to coincide to just after the mid-point of the '70s,) I'd given them a miss whenever the opportunity came up, afraid of being disappointed.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found this staring at me from a binder full of unedited colour slides:

Iggy Pop, Toronto 1990

Iggy Pop at the Concert Hall, shot during the Brick By Brick tour. I have no record of who the client might have been. I'm guessing it was shot with my ill-starred Nikon F3, and that I might have rented a 300mm telephoto for the occasion since I never owned a lens for the Nikon long enough to have gotten this sort of close-up from what I'm pretty sure was the side of the stage, just by the speaker columns.

Or maybe not. Brick By Brick was a pretty lousy record and I'd long since stopped caring about what Iggy was doing by this point, so I can't imagine that I'd have invested money out of pocket on a shoot that I didn't care enough about to remember as soon as it was over. Maybe I was close enough to use my mild portrait telephoto.

I'm guessing, though, because - like the Bowie show I shot the same year - I have no memory of shooting this at all. My wife has suggested that since I didn't see them when they were at their most vital to me - Iggy at Seneca Field House in 1977 with Bowie on piano, touring to support The Idiot; Bowie at Maple Leaf Gardens in either 1976 or 1978 - I had diminished the memory, since seeing them past their prime didn't count.

As I said before, shooting Bowie probably wasn't the most ideal circumstance - from some distant point in the local sports stadium, on the end of a long lens - but with Iggy I was in a modestly sized venue and obviously close enough to get these shots. So why didn't I remember seeing someone who was so hugely important to me?

Maybe it was the drugs.

But I don't remember doing any drugs by the turn of the '90s. I was too busy and too poor, but also too concerned with being in control, since I'd begun taking this photography thing very seriously and was desperate to make a living from it. I can't use the excuse about "getting old," since I clearly forgot about seeing Iggy weeks if not days after shooting these photos, and I wasn't even 30 yet.

Here's the thing: This sheet of colour slides is all I've got. I've combed the binder full of negatives from 1990 and there's no live Iggy to be found, so I obviously went in there with a single roll of colour slide film, then left when I filled it, clearly unwilling to stay for a few extra minutes to fill a roll of black and white. I don't think I wanted to be there, so it's not surprising that I couldn't be bothered remembering that I was.

Which is kind of sad, and in retrospect I think Iggy probably deserved better. In any case, here's another frame from the same sheet of slides, and something more like Iggy as I'd like to remember him.

Iggy Pop, Toronto 1990

Thursday, August 7, 2014


Katrin Cartlidge, Toronto, Sept. 1996

THERE AREN'T A LOT OF PEOPLE I'VE BEEN REALLY EXCITED TO PHOTOGRAPH. Katrin Cartlidge was one of them. Shot during my annual portrait blowout at the Toronto International Film Festival, I'm guessing the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor, where I simply found the place where the window light starts to take on the flat, diffuse quality of north light.

Taken with a Rolleiflex on a tripod with Ilford black and white film - the simple formula that I used for most of the '90s. She was probably in town doing press for Career Girls, her best film in my opinion, and certainly my favorite film by Mike Leigh. I first saw Cartlidge in Leigh's Naked two or three years earlier, a film whose mood felt disturbingly too much like my life at the time. (David Thewlis, the film's star, admitted that was actually a pretty disturbing reaction when I photographed him.)

Shot on assignment for NOW magazine, where I was teamed up with Ingrid, always my favorite writer to work with. I must have managed to get into a press screening for Career Girls before I took this portrait because I remember Cartlidge being taken aback at how stoked Ingrid and I were about the film and about meeting her in general.

Cartlidge was an unusually intelligent actor, who shone when given room to work and was generally wasted when doing small roles in films like From Hell, which was unfortunately her last picture. She died the year after it came out, of an infection that came from an adrenal tumour, a sudden death at just 41 that shocked and depressed me when I read the news.

"The hardest thing of all is to face the unbearable truth that Katrin Cartlidge will never again make her magical contribution to my films," Mike Leigh wrote in a tribute after she died. "This devastating fact leaves me very sad indeed." I don't imagine that an actor like Cartlidge, had she lived, would have prevented movies from being any worse than they are today, but like the best performer, she might have improved them for at least the few moments when she was onscreen. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Church Shop

Mary, 1989

I PROBABLY WOULDN'T HAVE CALLED MYSELF A ROMAN CATHOLIC WHEN I TOOK THESE PHOTOS. As a friend - an Anglican priest - would tell me years later, "You were never not a Catholic, Rick."

Point taken.

Back when Queen Street West by Trinity Bellwoods Park was a sleepy strip of storefronts, either empty or failing, somebody took advantage of the cheap rent and set up an antique shop specializing in ecclesiastical cast-offs - statues and lecterns, pews and hunks of wood trim and ornament salvaged from churches, probably Catholic ones, and very likely from Quebec.

St. Peter, 1989

I was drawn into the place like a moth to a fluorescent tube; so much for my self-described agnosticism. One day I asked the owner if I could come by with my camera when the shop was quiet. It was quiet most of the time, and they said yes. A few days later I showed up with my Mamiya C330, a tripod and a few rolls of black and white and slide film.

Sacred Heart, 1989

I must have worked for about an hour, setting up on anything that caught my eye. I treated the statues like portrait subjects, but even more of a breakthrough, started focusing on details and the bits of gesture and texture that seemed to tell a better story than any attempt to capture the contents of the crowded shop.

Fallen Angel, 1989

At that point, labouring under a heavy burden of anxiety of influence, I'm sure my inspirations were equal parts Josef Sudek and 4AD album covers. I didn't worry about that at the time - you shouldn't when you're young; the influences will sort themselves out - but moved from spot to spot in those rooms filled with plunder from the Quiet Revolution.

Sacred Heart, 1989

I was still unsure how to work the Mamiya even a couple of years after I'd bought it, and it was easy to accidentally double-expose images. I ruined a few frames this way, but on at least one contact sheet, I discovered one of those lucky accidents that it would take me years to learn to treasure.

Jesus and Joseph, 1989

Most of these images sat unprinted for years, and I don't think I looked at the slides again until I scanned them this week. But I took the portrait of Mary at the top of this post in and out of my portfolio for years, unsure about what clients would think and, even more, what it was saying. I should have been more confident; I still think it's one of the best portraits I ever made.