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.

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