Friday, March 27, 2015


Natalie Merchant, Toronto, 1998

I CAN COUNT ON TWO HANDS THE PEOPLE I'VE SHOT MORE THAN ONCE. Most of them were friends or local artists, but one of them is Natalie Merchant. On both occasions it was simply work - a job I took on without particular enthusiasm since I can't say that I've ever been much of a fan.

It's hard to be scientific about a career, especially if it's a "creative" one, but having the same subject years apart offers a benchmark and a control that gives a snapshot of technical achievement and taste. For fans of the subject, I suppose it provides a document of how the same pair of eyes saw someone at different stages of their career.

In my case, these photos are bookends to the zenith of my career as a photographer, taken just before it began in earnest and just as it was subsiding steeply.

Natalie Merchant, Toronto, December 1, 1987

I don't remember who I shot Natalie Merchant for in the fall of 1987, backstage at RPM, the huge waterfront club that was just recently demolished. Since I can't find anything in my collection of Nerve magazines, I have to assume it was for Graffiti, the glossy rock mag that snapped up most of Nerve's writers when it moved to Toronto from Montreal.

In my circle of friends, Merchant was mostly known for being the closest thing to a girlfriend associated with Michael Stipe from R.E.M. I was grateful that I didn't have to interview her, and all I remember is that we didn't exchange many words, and that her demeanor was demure and awkward - Ally Sheedy from The Breakfast Club.

I set up in one of RPM's bright but drab dressing rooms with my portable studio - the Mamiya C330, a flash bounced into an umbrella and the white painter's drop cloth I carried around in a gym bag, secured to the wall with gaffer tape. The slightly telephoto lens on the Mamiya gave a flattering "portrait" depth of field, which I've enhanced in Photoshop years later. I shot at least a couple of rolls but this is the best of the bunch, though it has more than a bit of the "actor's first headshot" vibe about it.

Natalie Merchant, Toronto, 1998

Over a decade would pass before I'd find Merchant in front of my camera again. The client was the National Post's Weekend magazine supplement, where I did quite a lot of work in its first year, before the inevitable staff purge and downsizing. Things were being run fast and loose, so I was able to convince the editors that I could be both writer and photographer for my stories.

A more established newspaper with a staff of salaried photographers would have frowned on this, and most of the time it was an uphill battle convincing two different departments of any newsroom that, yes, it's actually possible to write and shoot with equal competence. (The irony is that today, in the "do more with less" world of journalism, this is actually encouraged, though you're also likely to get paid an awful lot less.)

I was still in the thrall of cross-processing when I photographed Merchant using what was by then my standard kit - two Rolleis, film and accessories in a small Pelikan case and a small Manfrotto tripod. Outside of the studio I'd come to prefer Fuji's 400 ASA slide film, rated normally and processed through negative chemistry, which gave an inevitable colour shift to the yellow/green but provided a much less contrasty negative than their slower slide films.

Ironically, after scanning the shots above I've desaturated them quite a bit in Photoshop; it was the only way of coping with the colour shift, but I suppose my taste in colour has changed after over fifteen years. I was a lot more confident giving directions to my subject after a decade's passing, thankfully, and I think the shoot's a testament to both of us being a lot less timid in a situation where there's a camera between us.

As for the interview, I don't recall much except her apparent confusion when I suggested that I picked up a few Bowie influences on her album, and that I could understand since we were about the same age and part of a generation that was effectively "Bowie-damaged" in our formative years. To be frank I didn't much care how well the interview went, since even then I just considered it a way of getting one of my portraits in print.


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