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.

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