Thursday, December 18, 2014


Voivod, Montreal Dec. 1989

SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SPEND MONEY TO MAKE MONEY. Or at least that's what they say. Back in late 1989 I was as ambitious as I would ever be, and desperate to get clients in the United States. I still not-so-secretly planned to make the big move to New York City one day, to what was (and maybe still is - I wouldn't know anymore) the biggest market for editorial photography on the continent. My friend Chris had brokered an introduction to Edna Suarez, the photo editor at the Village Voice, and just after the film festival that year I'd sent portraits of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki to her on spec.

Edna must have liked them, because a month or so later she called me with an assignment - one that began with the words "How hard would it be for you to get to Montreal?"

Voivod were a heavy metal band from Quebec who, by 1989, had evolved from a thrash band to a more progressive outfit. Their latest album, Nothingface, was a critic's favorite and the Voice was planning to run a feature on them in their annual Pazz & Jop Poll issue - a big deal in my circle of rock critic geek buddies. They needed a nice photo, though, and Edna thought I could just pop up to Montreal and take it for them.

If you're from around these parts, you know that Toronto to Montreal is an only slightly gruelling drive of a few hours, but I was a struggling freelancer, and a car would be overhead that would bleed my meagre profits dry. (I also didn't have a license. Still don't. That has to change.) I accepted the gig without hesitation, got the band's manager's number from Edna, and knowing that a plane would have put me in the red for months, called VIA Rail for timetables. (This is years before the internet, remember, and the train is still cheaper now, but only barely.)

The best deal was an overnight train, so I packed the equivalent of a studio - my ProFoto kit with three heads, light stands, my Nikon F3 and either the Mamiya C330 or a Rollei. It was a back-breaking amount of gear for one person to carry, but I got it on the train, tried my best to sleep in my coach class seat, and arrived in Montreal on a Saturday morning just after a snowstorm that had left ass-high drifts everywhere. I hauled my gear from the Gare Centrale upstairs to the dining room at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, ordered breakfast and waited for Voivod's manager.

Voivod, Montreal, Dec. 1989

I had a soft spot for Voivod. How could you not like a band that releases a record with a title like Rrröööaaarrr, and whose members went by the aliases Snake, Piggy, Blacky and Away? Before I'd finished breakfast their manager arrived, then helped me haul my gear through the snow to his car, and out to a massive rehearsal studio in an industrial park in the suburbs.

Most of the bands I knew rehearsed in damp basements or garages or dingy industrial spaces with dodgy power and worse security. Montreal and the province of Quebec, however, had decided to bankroll the conversion of a warehouse into a vast rehearsal complex, and I marveled as we walked down endless hallways where music pounded from behind closed doors and musicians loitered in the hallways or by coffee machines.

I met the band, who were amazed that a New York paper would send someone all the way from Toronto to take their picture, but also that I'd hauled so much gear there by train. I was grateful that I'd bothered, though, and intent on making a good impression, I didn't want to be hampered by lack of light or any other technical obstacle. I wanted to send Edna several good set-ups and show her that, even if I was marooned in Toronto, I'd go the extra mile to get a shot.

Snake, Piggy, Blacky and Away, Montreal, Dec. 1989

We worked for a couple of hours, the band trying not to get too bored, me at the edge of my technical competence. Even before I was finished I was sure that the shot just above, lit from overhead against a backdrop of egg crate sound insulation, was probably the best thing I'd get.

When I was done, we packed up my gear and headed off to a Ste. Hubert Chicken for lunch. I had a very "Anglo in Quebec" moment: I tried ordering in what remained of my high school French, and the waitress curtly answered me in English. I tried to make a joke with the band about how little French I'd learned after over a decade of mandatory French and official bilingualism.

"That's because you didn't try," Snake told me, sternly.

I wanted to make a crack about Quebec bands who record in English, but thought better of it. From the ass-high snow early in December to the vast government-funded band rehearsal complex to the jab at my Anglophone indifference, I was having a uniquely Quebec experience. In lieu of an easily definable Canadian national identity, moments like this would have to do.

The Voice used the shot, and I ended up getting more work from Edna, both at the Voice and later at the New York Times. I'd end up working for quite a few New York clients, but I never moved there, for reasons best examined in another post. By the time I'd paid for my train ticket, taxis to and from the train station, breakfast at the Queen Elizabeth, and film and processing, I don't think I made any money on the assignment. I don't think anyone has seen these photos in twenty-five years.

Voivod are still around, and released their 13th album, Target Earth, last year. Guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour died of colon cancer in 2005.



  1. HOLY CRAP. These are some of the most gorgeous photos of the boys I've seen! Michel in particular really glows :) Pleeeeease tell me there's more I can see somewhere!

    1. I'm afraid that's all I've put up for the moment, Alysa.