Thursday, March 12, 2015


Groovy Religion, Toronto, 1986

THE SHOT ABOVE IS FROM THE FIRST ROLL OF FILM I shot with my Mamiya C330 medium format camera. A more prudent photographer would have done a couple of test rolls to familiarize themselves with their new gear, but I was either too heedless or too cheap (or both) to bother, so I brought it along with me on assignment for Nerve on a late fall day in 1986.

I should have been less confident. I still had a lot to learn - about composing in a square format frame, about posing groups, about available light and depth of field in dim rooms - but the thing I most needed to learn was that the C330 had a design flaw: When you cocked the shutter your thumb would graze the little lever that adjusted the shutter speed, and you'd accidentally end up with shaky, overexposed frames. I would mostly ruin several shoots before I figured out what was happening.

Groovy Religion were a mainstay band on the local scene - a literate and sometimes gloomy group who ended up releasing three records over twelve years and a few personnel changes. William New - the lead singer, on the right - has fostered two generations of Toronto bands by booking his Elvis Mondays series almost non-stop for three decades. Scott Bradshaw - on the left - was actually a better guitarist than bassist, and still performs weekly with his band Massey-Harris. I still know both men today.

The Woodentops, Toronto, 1986

I learned on the job with my new camera, carting it to every interview I did for magazines like Nerve and Graffiti, teaming it up with a flash (a Vivitar 285 at first, then a Metz) to try and get enough light in the clubs and hotel rooms where I did all my work. Working with individuals was always easier than working with a group, so my success rate during the first year with the Mamiya was inverse depending to how many individuals were in the bands I shot.

The Woodentops were a particular favorite of mine. Bandleader Rolo McGinty (on the right) had played bass on "Revolutionary Spirit" by the Wild Swans, and the early Woodentops singles were of a piece with the sometimes elegant and often ecstatic sound I liked in my favorite English bands during this post-post-post-punk period. (They've actually re-formed and released a record, though keyboardist Alice Thompson left the band not long after this was shot and became a novelist.)

They'd come through town with a North American deal for their debut record and played the venerable el Mocambo, where I set up backstage and managed to fill two-thirds of a roll of 120 with some very sloppy portraits of the band. It was just the third roll I ran through the Mamiya, and I ruined some of the frames because I was still unsure how to load the camera. One of them still made it into Nerve - it was no small encouragement that, even when my work was substandard, it usually still made it into print.

Meat Puppets, Toronto, 1987

The year 1987 probably encompassed the steepest learning curve of my career. By the summer I'd become a lot more confident with the camera and its square format, and had invested in a light stand and umbrella for my flash, which produced far more professional results. Armed with a white painter's drop cloth for an ad hoc seamless backdrop that I carried around in a gym bag, I was striving to get the studio lighting effects with the most minimal gear and whatever power a handful of AA batteries could provide.

The Meat Puppets were a very big deal at Nerve, mostly because key members of the editorial staff had begun smoking an awful lot of dope. By their third record they'd graduated from a bleary, anxious-sound thrash band to the closest thing to the Grateful Dead we'd admit to liking. I shot them backstage at RPM, a cavernous dance club/concert space by the harbour, with an old Mexican blanket my sister had passed on to me, and which I'd been using to cover my sofa.

I knew - and the band were quick to point out - that it wasn't a particularly original backdrop choice for a group from Arizona, but I didn't care; I was happy to do the obvious until such point as I knew enough to attempt something more subtle.

Redd Kross, Toronto, 1987

By the time I shot L.A. hardcore-turned-glam band Redd Kross passing through Toronto touring their Neurotica album, I knew that I wanted a studio more than anything else, but had to content myself with whatever white wall or clean corner of a club I could find. For this shoot I placed my flash and umbrella close to the band to get the softest bounce light I could - the burned-in shadow in the lower right corner actually hides a leg of the light stand that made it into the frame.

I even found a fan in the room and trained it on the band for the windswept look that was all over fashion magazines. Being from Los Angeles, they responded enthusiastically, posing up a storm while I shouted "More hair! More hair!"

I haven't a clue who I shot this for; there's nothing in the stack of Nerve magazines I've managed to keep, so I have to assume that it either ended up in Graffiti or that I had hoped to place the shoot there. In any case, it's doubtful this shot has been seen anywhere since I took it nearly thirty years ago. Amazingly enough, Redd Kross are still at it.

The Primitives, Toronto, 1988

The Primitives were an English group whose sole hit - "Crash" - is doubtless somebody's favorite song of the '80s. Guitarist Paul Court and singer Tracy Tracy - basically the band - were doing publicity rounds and I ended up shooting them for Graffiti magazine in some hotel room, long forgotten.

I had scored a steady gig at Graffiti, shooting promos for the magazine that featured bands passing through town - or the office - reading copies of the magazine. It was some awful lame shit, but it was a gig and, more importantly, it paid. I'd set up with my Mamiya and light stand and the C330 and try to get a clean, focused shot of everyone from Faster Pussycat and the Mighty Lemon Drops to Buckwheat Zydeco and Gene Simmons engrossed in a garishly slick little Canadian music magazine.

I'd try to save a few frames at the end of a roll for portraits of the band without the magazine, in the hope of getting a reprint or another sale in the future. It usually didn't happen, but it was valuable practice, and less than two years after buying the Mamiya I was able - provided I found a clean white wall and aimed the flash and umbrella just right - to produce a portrait that might fool someone into thinking I had a nice, bright studio at my disposal. By 1988 there was nothing I longed for more.



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