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."

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