Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year

NOW magazine New Year's Eve Guide cover shoot, Nov. 1996

I USED TO DREAD NEW YEAR'S EVE. When it rolled around for most of the '90s I was single and lonely and bracing myself for the annual January retrospective summing-up of my progress so far in life. For non-masochists, it's simple enough: Look back on the previous year and add up your accomplishments, personal and professional (I didn't bother much with the spiritual back then,) to decide whether the total merits holding the present course for another year.

For much of the decade my professional accomplishments seemed solid enough to push ahead with the photography business. There was always some technical milestone reached or a handful of really solid images added to the files, and even if I had this nagging feeling that I was increasingly just spinning my wheels, I was paying my rent and covering my bills and enjoying the peculiar benefits of the freelance lifestyle, setting my own hours and staying as far away from office work as possible.

I could almost ignore the turnover of the calendar year except that, a couple of times, I was called upon to shoot the cover of NOW's New Year's Eve Guide.

Sally, NOW magazine New Year's Eve Guide cover shoot, Dec. 1993

If you know much about old school dead tree publishing then you'll know how big a deal these supplements - New Year's or Summer Patio or Reader's Best Of - were in terms of ad sales. Landing the gig to shoot one meant that you had the confidence of both the art and ad sales departments that year.

For my first New Year's Guide I prevailed upon my roommate Sally to act as my model, and broke the bank at the dollar store buying props. Sally - the sister of my by-then-ex-girlfriend - was probably one of the people I photographed most at the turn of the '90s, either holding up colour cards for film tests or helping me with some new lighting experiment.

She was both photogenic and generous with her time. Which is still remarkable to me considering how awkward our living arrangement was, especially in our last year as roomies, after her sister dumped me long distance.

One thing these shoots bring back is the struggle I had with NOW to print high-key studio work in their pages. When I arrived at the paper they were still stuck on their self-image as the city's radical "alternative" paper, and it took a long time to sell them on the possibility that a slick, clean, well-lit studio photo didn't compromise that image. (Which was, by then, wearing a bit thin with NOW's growing financial success and the simple fact that the longer you survive the more like some kind of establishment fixture you become.)

NOW magazine New Year's Eve Guide cover shoot, Nov. 1996

By the time I got my next New Year's Eve Guide assignment the paper had wholly embraced the sort of studio photography I loved doing. At this point I was roommate free, and had converted the space where Sally had once lived into my studio - a cherished and much-missed space I'll write about a bit later. My grasp of lighting had also improved, and I relished every new chance to shoot in the studio, in thrall to the kind of work I was studying in old magazines and Hollywood promo glossies.

My model for this shoot was the paper's lovely receptionist, and my prop budget was pushed further with a bottle of bubbly and a couple of glasses from a restaurant supply store. Scanning these frames today reminds me of that, no matter how dismal my personal life was for the better part of the Clinton administration, I could forget about it for a few hours every week while working in my studio. When the annual summing up rolled around, these were the moments that convinced me to press on.

I stopped my January ritual many years ago, when my professional accomplishments were too meagre to reflect upon, while a radical change in emotional fortune more than made up for what I can only describe as a sense of failure. The year now passing is the first one in many where I can actually measure some forward motion as a photographer, thanks mostly to the effort this blog has obliged me to put into my work, both past and present.

This year my kids have begged us to be allowed to stay up and watch the ball drop, so instead of calling it an early night as usual, we'll be in front of the TV with some ginger ale and snacks. It's been a good year, amazingly enough. The next one might be even better.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Kenneth Branagh, Chicago, May 1990

IF MY '80S WERE ABOUT MUSICIANS, my '90s were filled with movie people - actors and directors. At the dawn of the decade I began traveling for NOW magazine - taking trains or planes to other cities to photograph cover subjects like Kenneth Branagh, a young British actor and director who'd suddenly become a star a year previous with his movie version of Henry V.

I like to travel. Growing up poor we never did much of it, so when I began hopping on planes almost monthly - even staying overnight in hotels, which was a whole thrilling new experience - I loved every minute of it. I learned to pack light and boil my portrait kit down to a couple of bags and scout out backgrounds and available light wherever I was. I liked to imagine myself as a hired assassin, flying into town carrying my little case with a hotel reservation and a target arranged ahead of me. I still miss it.

Kenneth Branagh, Chicago, May 1990

Branagh was touring with his Renaissance Theatre Company and productions of King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream that hit Chicago before opening in Toronto. I flew down with Jon Kaplan, the paper's theatre critic, and met Branagh and David Parfitt, fellow actor and co-producer of Henry V, at a theatre just near the Loop.

Shooting NOW covers at this time meant sticking to the paper's rigorous template, with plenty of room left for type at the top and one side, so my shots of Branagh have him pushed to the edge of the frame. I was desperate not to screw up, which probably explains why I drilled down to one set-up amidst the theatre's plush red seats.

Kenneth Branagh, Chicago, May 1990

I set up my single light bounced into an umbrella off to the side and high enough to illuminate as many of the seats around Branagh as possible. I've considerably darkened and blurred the background here; there's no way that Irene, my photo editor at NOW, would have been happy with how all this dense black would have reproduced on the paper's cheap newsprint.

It's not a particularly inspired shoot. Besides wishing that I'd imposed a bit more on Branagh's time and shot another set-up, almost every frame is an example of what you get when the main direction you give an actor is "Do something with your hands!"

Branagh looks so young here - he wasn't quite thirty at the time - so perhaps I was trying to get a young man to appear more interesting. Today I'd probably go a lot closer; older subjects react more coolly to a camera lens when it moves in on them, appraising and reacting to the photographer with a lot less artifice; I'm also a lot less intimidated by my subjects, but there are few decisions I made twenty-five years ago that I'd make today.

I don't remember much more about this shoot except that I was anxious for it to end so I could meet my old college journalism buddies Mark and Mary-Liz at a steakhouse near the theatre. They were married and working at a paper in nearby Rockford, Illinois, and I was eager to catch up with my old friends before we had to catch our plane back to Toronto.


Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, Toronto, 1987

HE WAS - AS WE ALL WILL BE - KILLED BY DEATH, THOUGH MORE SPECIFICALLY THE CAUSE WAS CANCER. Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead passed yesterday, having cancelled concerts earlier this year amidst rumours of ill health. I don't know why I always presumed that a man who lived so recklessly for so long would be around forever, but I was sad when I heard the news.

Once upon a time I tried to pretend I was too good for the sort of music - heavy metal or hard rock or just "rock and roll" as Lemmy preferred to call it - that Motorhead played. I was a newly minted punk and in love with the "year zero" ethic of that music, and even though I'd loved that sort of thing for years, it all had to go.

That was until the video for "Ace of Spades" started getting regular play on The New Music, a local TV music show. I doubt that anyone believed that my enthusiasm for the track (and "The Chase is Better Than the Catch," the video for which was obviously filmed on the same day) was merely ironic. I'd quote the lyrics aloud with a laugh ("You know I'm going to lose and gambling's for fools but that's the way I like it baby I don't want to live forever") that did a very poor job of disguising how much I enjoyed everything about the song - and Lemmy's windswept performance of it in the video.

In the end it wasn't worth the effort, and I had to admit that Motorhead were pretty fucking awesome.

Motorhead, Concert Hall, Toronto, 1987

I only saw the band once, touring in support of Orgasmatron, their Bill Laswell-produced record as they passed through the Concert Hall here in Toronto. I brought along a camera and took some pretty uninspired shots from halfway down the floor, either unwilling to brave the crush in front of the stage or the brutal volume at which they played. I completely pussed out, and my photos are proof.

I didn't even finish a roll, which turned out to be fortunate when I hung out after the show to watch my friend Chris Buck try to do a portrait of Lemmy and his band in the balcony of the hall.

Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, Toronto, 1987

It was a pretty chaotic affair, with roadies and hangers-on crowding around while Chris shot. He also had to endure merciless taunting from Lemmy, who clearly had no intention of giving Chris anything he wanted. I stood on the sidelines and snapped a half dozen or so shots of Lemmy as he mugged and baited Chris. It was as close to bloodsport as portrait photography gets.

I dug these shots out after hearing the news of Lemmy's death. They've never been printed before, and are one of only a few examples of candid shooting by me over thirty years of work. Lemmy was always on my "list" of must-shoot subjects, but we never crossed paths again and I guess I was always counting on him being around. He said he didn't want to live forever, though, and I should have taken him at his word.


Thursday, December 24, 2015


Jameson Avenue, Toronto, December 2001

IT'S CHRISTMAS AGAIN, AND ANOTHER YEAR HAS PASSED. I thought this was a good time to revisit the shots I took on Jameson Avenue in Parkdale almost fifteen years ago, photographing the Christmas light displays there for Toronto Life magazine. I ran a frame from this assignment here a year ago, but I'm still terribly fond of the shots that got rejected from this job for being somewhat abstract and/or excessively moody.

The holidays always put me in a retrospective mood, which inevitably leads to more than a touch of melancholy. Which is probably why I like these pictures so much. I was struggling for something here, at a time when I wasn't getting much satisfaction (or income) from photography. It would take me a while, but I was almost there.

Jameson Avenue, Toronto, December 2001

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Art class

J.M.W. Turner exhibit, Art Gallery of Ontario, December 2015

TURNER LIKED SQUARES. I was excited to learn this at the Turner show currently running at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I'm a big fan of Turner - and of squares, going back to my first medium format camera and especially the Rolleiflexes I used for so many years. One of the great features of my new Fuji digital camera is the 1:1 frame option, which I use all the time. The square is magic, as far as I'm concerned.

I've been spending a lot of time at the AGO lately as youngest daughter has been enrolled in a life drawing class there. Which means that every Sunday afternoon I've had two hours to kill, and since you can only drink so much coffee or eat so many muffins, I've been bringing my camera with me. Photography was allowed at the Turner show, which meant I could capture some of the small details in his canvases, little near-abstract sketches scattered amidst the bigger composition.

Detail, Turner painting, Art Gallery of Ontario, Dec. 2015
Art Gallery of Ontario, October 2015

I never went to school for photography. The extent of my photographic education was the friend who told me the developing times for home darkrooming (and he got those wrong!) Whenever someone asked me how they could learn more about photography, I usually told them to just buy a big box of film, put aside money for developing and shoot, shoot, shoot. Digital imaging has simplified this to just the last instruction, which is probably why the world seems suddenly flooded with photography.

With just two hours, my Lord's Day photo walks were limited to the neighbourhoods adjacent to the art gallery - Chinatown, Alexandra Park and Kensington to the west, the university to the north and the hospital district to the east. I was blessed with good weather almost every Sunday for the last couple of months, so here's a selection of what I saw.

Alexandra Park, Toronto, Nov. 2015
Alexandra Park, Toronto, Nov. 2015
Dundas West alleyway, Toronto, Nov. 2015
Hospital district, Toronto, Dec. 2015
University Avenue, Toronto, Dec. 2015 
Santa Claus Parade, University Avenue, Nov. 2015
Hospital district, Toronto, Dec. 2015
Kensington Market, Toronto, Nov. 2015
University of Toronto, Nov. 2015
University of Toronto, Nov. 2015

The one thing that never changes about a city is that everything always changes. Last year, when my daughter was enrolled in a cartooning course at the AGO, I brought along a camera, and ended up taking a few shots of this bit of late '60s modernism at the corner of University Avenue and Dundas West:

Modernism, Toronto, November 2014

This is the future of my childhood - a future that was probably intimidating until the weather began wearing at it; sharp eyes will notice the metal straps bolted to the thin upright sections between windows, little band-aids holding together a sick building. Nothing looks sadder than an old future gone sour.

A year later, that monolithic monumentalism was being peeled away as the building is transformed into an office/condo complex, with a new exterior and some additional storeys:

Deconstruction, Toronto, Dec. 2015

The building is literally being skinned alive.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth, Montreal, February 1991 

I WAS NERVOUS AS I BEGAN SETTING UP MY LIGHTS to shoot Sonic Youth in their Montreal hotel room. Guitarist Lee Ranaldo almost leapt across the room when I opened my camera case, and began inspecting my gear.

"What do you have in there?" he asked. "Is that a Rolleiflex?"

Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore seemed to be eyeing me warily from the bed by the far wall. We'd met before, and I was going to see if they remembered, but before I could say anything they had a question for me.

"Hey, you're from Toronto," said Thurston. "Do you know this guy Chris Buck? He keeps wanting to take our picture. He's pretty weird."

Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, 84 Eldridge Street, NYC, October 1985

The last time I'd been in a room with Kim and Thurston was over five years previous, when I went to New York City for the first time. Dave from Nerve magazine told me that I should try to set up an interview with this band, Sonic Youth, while I was down there.

"I don't like them, but I think they could be important," he said. He arranged for me to borrow a copy of their latest record, Bad Moon Rising, from CKLN, the college radio station at Ryerson, and I took it home for a listen. There was all this stuff about Charles Manson and a guest vocal by Lydia Lunch, who always made me uncomfortable. It was droney and noisy and dark. I though it was sort of scary.

An interview somehow got arranged with their record company, and I met half the band - Kim and Thurston - at their apartment on Eldridge Street in the Bowery. I have a vague memory of Thurston's impressive record collection, and none whatsoever of my interview with them, but when it came time for the photos, Kim and Thurston suggested we go to the roof of the building.

It was a pretty mediocre shoot. This is the best frame. I must have been intimidated by them because this is the closest I ever got. At one point they jokingly posed like Run-DMC, so I suppose they were trying to get me to loosen up, but I was probably still spooked by the whole Manson thing.

Sonic Youth live, Diamond Club, Toronto, Nov. 1988

The next time I saw Kim and Thurston again their band had become one of my favorites, thanks to the release of Evol and Sister, which are still among my favorite records of the '80s. The Manson thing still go to me, but I'd come to tentatively embrace the whole culture of morbidity that was a big part of indie rock at the time.

They played the Diamond Club (now the Phoenix Concert Theatre) and I shot the show for Nerve. I've been over the whole roll and a bit I shot of the show and for some reason I have a lot of shots of Lee and Kim, a few of drummer Steve Shelley, but none of Thurston. I don't know why. Perhaps I was already feeling put off by his rather relentless hipper-than-thou persona. Maybe I was just stuck on the wrong side of the stage.

Sonic Youth, Montreal, February 1991 

Just over two years later I was assigned by my friend Tim at HMV Magazine to shoot the band in Montreal while they were on tour supporting Neil Young. As recalled in Kim's recent autobiography, Girl in a Band, it was "grueling; the dead of winter, a frozen ocean of endless arena locker rooms."

Nineteen ninety-one would prove to be, as Sonic Youth would later dub it, "The Year Punk Broke," but just two months into that year, Kim didn't recall her band going over too well with either Neil's crew ("Throughout the tour, we were almost never allowed a sound check...") or Neil's fans:
"Neil always drew big crowds, including legions of hippies loyal to his music. Those same crowds were incredibly put off by us, to the degree that if fans sitting among them appreciated or applauded one of our songs they were aggressively shouted down."
After I told them that, yes, I knew Chris Buck and that he was a friend, we got down to the shoot, which I did with a combination of cross-processed 120 film - both slide and negative - and two rolls of black and white shot with my Nikon. I did nothing to disguise the hotel room location - it was where I did most of my shooting for so many years, and there were only so many white walls you could stick someone against.

Sonic Youth, Montreal, February 1991 

Two days later, for some reason, I found myself backstage at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto after their show with Neil. As Kim would remember in her book, the tour passed through Canada in the depth of winter, and Toronto had just been hit with a big snowstorm.

The band were only staying a half block away at the Westbury Hotel (now a Marriott Courtyard) and Kim and I were among the last people who left the Gardens. Both before and after that, I'd talked with Chris and his friend Dave about how Sonic Youth - and Kim in particular - seemed to be afflicted with a kind of Canuckophobia, based on frequent remarks they'd made about the place. Kim's aversion to Toronto seemed to go back to a year she spent here at York University. I spent a year at York; I can understand why you'd hate Toronto if it was your home base in the city.

With this in mind, I noticed that Kim wasn't particularly dressed to navigate the huge snow drifts between the arena and her hotel, so I made myself conspicuously helpful, gallantly holding her arm as we navigated the drifts. I figured that if she was going to have such a bleak take on my hometown and Canadians, I'd might as well do my best to provide a counterpart - the chivalrous Canadian lad, courtly and respectful of ladies who might be unprepared for our bitter climate. (Think Mountie Constable Benton Fraser from Due South.)

I remember getting an actual smile from Kim when I saw her to the door of her hotel. I might actually have bowed from the waist.

I suppose I was a shocked as anyone when Thurston's infidelity a few years back spelled the end of not just Kim and Thurston's marriage but Sonic Youth. Some of my generation seemed genuinely saddened, even disillusioned, by the news. I had always seen Thurston as a bit of a boy-man, so once I was past the shock it all made sense - or about as much sense as any divorce does.

My reaction felt a bit more personal than it would at just any bit of celebrity gossip, though, because of my long, if fleeting, acquaintance with the band, and the couple at its heart. It was like learning that some old college friends who seemed perfect for each other had busted up, with obvious acrimony. It felt very adult, but the second part of Sonic Youth's name had always been ironic, as their fans knew all too well, though it took something really grown up to make the joke finally stick in everyone's throats.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Lush, Toronto, Feb. 20, 1992

LUSH ARE TOURING AGAIN ALMOST TWENTY YEARS AFTER THEY BROKE UP. This comes after the reunions of at least two other British bands that either thrived or suffered under the label "shoegazers" a quarter century ago, after a long-in-coming reassessment and retrospective appreciation for a sound that I loved to death, during what I still remember as a bleak period in my life.

Thanks to my friend Tim and his gig at HMV Magazine, I was able to shoot a few of the bands who arrived here on the crest of a musical movement the British music press hyped and decried all at the same time. I was frankly grateful that the whole thing had a name, and happily picked up anything that got stuck to it - bands like Slowdive, Moose, the Boo Radleys and Curve; if it had a monstrous, effects-laden guitar sound I was there.

Ride, Parkdale, March 1991

Ride were the first to catch my attention, and I ended up shooting them in my Parkdale studio, thanks to my better-than-average relationship with their Canadian record company. I'd already become spoiled by the control a studio session offered, especially when I was in the thick of cross-processing mania. The supersaturation and colour shifts of cross-processed slide film is the look I associate with the shoegazing moment, a stylistic serendipity that I find myself missing lately, when photography seems to be passing through a monochrome phase.

Ride were co-headlining tour with Lush, the other big name in shoegazing, and I arranged to shoot them at their hotel just after they arrived in town for the show. They were tired and a bit put off at the news that they had a photo shoot, but I managed to corral the band into a corner of one of their hotel rooms where my friend Robin had helped me set up a bank of studio strobes in record time.

Lush, Toronto, March 1991

By the time I started running film through my camera I was both nervous and adrenalized and broke out in what can only be described as a torrential, heroic sweat. (Think Albert Brooks anchoring his first newscast in Broadcast News and you'll have some idea.) Choosing a frame to scan from this shoot meant rejecting shots where the band's obvious amusement at my catastrophic perspiration is hard to miss.

From the distance of over two decades, I'll admit that these cross-processed negatives meant hours of brutal darkroom work, especially if it was (as showcased here) 100ASA Fuji or Agfa slide film overexposed by two stops. Thick and colour-shifted almost to the edge of what the average colour enlarger could correct for, I've only now found myself able to deal with them, thanks to many years of printing experience and the wonder that is Photoshop.

Chapterhouse, Toronto, October 1991

Chapterhouse were my next subjects, a band that's more of a footnote in the history of shoegaze - undeservedly so, I think. It was another hotel room shoot, and instead of trying to find a neutral wall I decided to let the setting show. I'd also learned to control my cross-processed negatives more, and with a warm amber filter in front of the lens and a few rolls of Fujichrome 400ASA film behind it, only mildly overexposed, I finally started getting results that were less graphic and a bit more painterly.

Of the three bands featured here, Chapterhouse were the ones I got on with best of all, both during the shoot and later that night at their Lee's Palace gig. I never really tried to make friends with my subjects, but when they turned out to be more than polite, even amiable, I find that my memory of the shoot is a bit warmer, and less like a wincing recollection of a short but intense battle of wills that usually ended in a draw. Like Lush and Ride, Chapterhouse also regrouped a few years ago for a short tour that took them through Lee's Palace again.

Lush, Toronto, Feb. 20, 1992

Just less than a year after my first shoot with Lush, I photographed them again, on a tour with Babes in Toyland in support. They were already being worked hard by their American label in an attempt (ultimately unsuccessful) to break them big here, and the strain on the band was already showing, not just in my photos but by the fact that their original bassist, Steve Rippon, had left and been replaced by Phil King in the interim year.

I set up at the back of the venue before sound check, lugging along my full set of studio strobes and stands, a rented backdrop and my Bronica SQa, so I could make Polaroid test shots. The results were far more manageable in the darkroom than my first session with the band, but for me they suffered a bit by looking more like record company promo shots than editorial portraiture; I might have been pleased then at the technical feat, but today there's a still-lingering feeling of disappointment.

It's hard to describe now how much I responded to the sound made by bands lumped together back then under the shoegazing moniker - a deeply emotional identification with the cavernous, often epic soundscapes they made on records like Ride's "Unfamiliar," "Nothing Natural" by Lush, Slowdive's "Morningrise" or "Breather" by Chapterhouse. I loved the way the music rushed over you, both hot and cool at the same time. Still bruised from a bad break-up, I loved the mix of melancholy and ecstasy, and the way that the music almost promised something like obliteration. At the time, it was an attractive idea.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Jane in Havana, 1991

Jane Bunnett, Havana, Cuba, Sept. 1991

AREITO STUDIOS IS IN CENTRAL HAVANA, on Calle San Miguel, just where the colonial old city transitions into the more modern one. It was built by Panart, the biggest record label in Cuba before the Revolution. In the late summer of 1991, when Jane Bunnett recorded Spirits of Havana there, the big room upstairs was out of commission, with its grand piano in pieces on the floor, so we were in the smaller room on the ground floor - not a small space by any means, but very much filled up with the musicians who'd been asked to back Jane up for her first Cuban record.

The first thing I saw every morning when I walked to the studio from my hotel was the musicians hanging out on the street - a sight that had probably been common since Panart began recording there in the late '40s. Combined with the city around it, mostly preserved as it was around the time Batista fled, it had a time machine aspect; this is probably what Manhattan's 42nd Street or RCA Studios on 24th St. was like when jazz was still pop music.

Musicians outside Areito Studios, Havana, Cuba, October 1991 
Jane practices in the courtyard, Areito Studios, Havana, Cuba, October 1991

Jane and the band had spent the first week in Havana rehearsing tunes, but this was still a step into the unknown - the first big step into Latin music for Jane, with musicians from a different tradition, who had grown up and learned in a place that was relatively isolated from the jazz world she'd come up through. Time was short, though, and it had to work - language barriers had to be crossed and musical relationships formed on the spot.

The musical backbone of the band was Yoruba Andabo, a group of singers and percussionists formed in Havana's docks in the early '60s. A mix of older and younger musicians, they made the whole affair seem epic - an orchestra of men and drums who either filled the studio or the courtyard and street outside for most of the recording sessions.

At one point during the week I took them out into the courtyard to take a series of portraits; with my film supply running low, I budgeted three frames for each man - framing them each on the left and right hand side of a horizontal frame, then once in a vertical shot. Here are a few of the best:

Yoruba Andabo portraits, Areito Studios, Havana, Cuba, October 1991

Jane's biggest asset during the recording of Spirits was percussionist and arranger Guillermo Barreto, a legendary figure from the golden age of Cuban music. A veteran of Afro-Cuban bands who once filled Buddy Rich's drum chair for a night in Stan Kenton's band, he was the bridge between the two musical traditions, a whirlwind of sound and movement as he helped set Jane into the sound being produced by Yoruba Andabo and a trio of pianists - Frank Emilio Flynn, Hilario Duran and Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

I found it hard not to like Guillermo. An insistent, cajoling chatterbox, he'd acquired the nickname "El Loro" ("The Parrot") from singer Rita Montaner back the '50s. He was a theatrical presence, shouting and scowling and hammering out rhythms on his timbales to make a point, hell bent on getting everyone on the same page. Like the studio and the street outside, he was a relic of a time when recordings were live and nothing got fixed in the mix.

Guillermo Barretto, Areito Studios, Havana, Cuba, October 1991

If you've ever spent time in a recording studio, you learn quickly enough that it's only slightly less painful than a movie set. I had the luxury of being able to absent myself for a few hours or a day if I thought I'd gotten needed photo coverage, but Jane, her husband Larry, Guillermo and producer Danny Greenspoon had to be there every day, and occasionally the stress of making a whole record with a huge band in barely a week was palpable even after a brief absence.

Spirits of Havana sessions, Areito Studios, Havana, Cuba, October 1991

Glamour was provided by Guillermo's wife, singer Merceditas Valdes, who Jane had met when she'd toured Canada a couple of years previous. A tiny woman, she was as lively and charismatic as her husband and seemed to draw the considerable energies in the packed studio around her when she did her vocals.

Jane Bunnett & Merceditas Valdes, Areito Studios, Havana, Cuba, October 1991

I did a couple of cross-processed rolls of portraits of Merceditas and another with her and Jane, though they never ended up getting used on the record package when it finally came out almost two years later. I was in the thick of my cross-processing period in Havana, and did the shoot for the record's cover with 400 ASA Fujichrome the previous week, taking Jane around to Cathedral Square and the park-lined boulevard outside my hotel, just down the street from the old Capitol and the Gran Teatro.

Spirits of Havana, original Denon Canada CD cover

The frame at the top of this post is the one just adjacent to the one that ended up becoming the cover of Spirits of Havana. I've lost track of how many different releases the record's been through, but the original Denon Canada cover is still my favorite.

Jane Bunnett in Cathedral Square, Havana, Cuba, September 1991

If there was ever another contender for the cover shot, it was probably this one, taken in Cathedral Square back when it was usually empty and not a market or performing space. There's talk of a new version of the record on its 25th anniversary next year, so I might get another shot at the cover; in any case, some more of the work I did during those two weeks in Cuba could end up being seen for the first time.

Spirits of Havana was a pivotal record for my friend Jane. She was a pioneer - one of the first North American musicians to record in Cuba with Cuban musicians since the '50s, and you could argue that she created a new network that would eventually go overground with Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club recordings. She's still at it today, playing with musicians like Hilario Duran, who now lives here in Toronto, and with new ones like the young women in Maqueque, with whom she's currently been recording and touring.

I'd end up back in Cuba myself, not long after this, with my camera and on assignment for Jane. This time, though, I was alone, and the work would look very different.

Guillermo Barretto died in Havana on December 14, 1991, two months after he finished recording Spirits of Havana.