Monday, October 6, 2014


Bjork, Toronto, Jan. 1997

MY TEN MINUTES IN A HOTEL SUITE WITH BJORK were fascinating and frustrating, but the results of this shoot only became rewarding last week, over fifteen years after I took these photos. I don't want to sound over-dramatic, but I was sort of hoping something like this would happen when I embarked on this project three months ago.

I know I was on assignment for NOW and that they were planning a cover story, but I have no idea why Bjork was in town. It had been two years since Post was released and it would be months before Homogenic hit the stores; she'd played Toronto a year and a half previous and would only return again for a concert over a year later; Dancer In The Dark wouldn't hit the movie theatres for three years.

I wasn't a huge fan. I'd liked the Sugarcubes record well enough until my roommate Sally put it on heavy rotation in her room and I started wishing for a workplace accident involving steel filings and my aural canal. The word "quirky" had attached itself to her like a carpet of burrs, and I knew why when she entered the hotel room almost wordlessly, settled herself in front of my improvised backdrop by a window and began what I can only call a performance.

She used the hotel chair I'd dragged next to the window as a perch and a limb, clambering all over it like some kind of small forest animal, moving after every click of the shutter of my Rolleiflex into some new position, either addressing the camera like she'd just noticed it or burrowing into the chair like she was trying to hide. I gave her almost no direction at all, but simply kept shooting and re-loading as I tried to keep up with her.

Bjork, Toronto, Jan. 1997

I went home knowing I had something interesting, then spent the next few days trying to get what I imagined onto paper. I'd shot one roll of black and white and two of cross-processed Kodak Ektachrome EPD professional, which produced a much more "normal" colour negative than Fuji or Agfa film processed the same way.

I made prints for NOW, but I never loved the results, and after only a little more darkroom work with filters and tissue, I gave up on the shots even though I was sure that they'd have made a nice portfolio page. None of my experiments remain in the two or three boxes of prints I've saved.

Two weeks ago I dug the negs out again, scanned them in VueScan and started work in Photoshop. My biggest problem with the original negatives was that I didn't have enough room between Bjork and the background, and all my attempts to create a view camera-like "focus tilt" effect in the darkroom never came out looking right.

But everyone knows that pulling and manipulating focus in Photoshop is easier than spotting out dust and scratches, and after an hour or so I ended up with the photos above, salvaging a shoot I thought I'd lost. Of course, then as now I had an undigested influence rattling around my head:

Norma Shearer by Cecil Beaton
Nancy Beaton by Cecil Beaton

Back in the '20s and '30s Cecil Beaton was working with small studio spaces and improvised backdrops, and while he was never able to separate his backgrounds the way I wanted to with Bjork, the fanciful, fantastic mood of his pre-war work had been irresistible to me when - even before Anton or Irving Penn or Sudek or even owning a camera - I fell in love with his photos. And while the anxiety of influence can be a beast to struggle with, it always helps to have a model or an ideal in your mind when you're presented with a less-than-perfect shooting space - or a challenging subject.

One of the advantages of obscurity is that you've passed the point of expectations - even your own. There's a lot of work in my archives that I abandoned because I either lacked the skills or the tools to realize it as it was in my mind, but thanks to last week's breakthrough I think that might not be such a problem any more.


1 comment:

  1. I love photography and I love Björk as an artist. I found your blog by accident, and I'm happy to see these not very known pictures. It would be great if you share a couple more photos one day. Greetings from Chile. :)