Friday, November 27, 2015


Pat Metheny, Parkdale, 1997

WHEN YOU'RE YOUNG AND AMBITIOUS YOU'RE ALWAYS WAITING FOR THAT BIG BREAK that's going to shift your career into overdrive - that combination of luck and persistence that you cultivate by networking and self-promotion. As you get older you realize that there's no big break, just an overwhelming application of hard work that hopefully gets backed up with good work, but you do look forward to those milestones in your career that help mark forward movement - that new client or high profile gig or an unexpected payday that gives you a financial breather.

By the late '90s I was living for those milestones. I was in my '30s now, my long apprenticeship over, with regular photo credits and, even if I still felt like a particular style I could call my own eluded me, I had a hard-earned sense of technical confidence tempered with the knowledge of what was outside of my competence, either through lack of skill or interest or a combination of both. What I did know was that, alone in my studio with a single subject and enough light and film, I was at my best. It was at that point that I was presented with a new potential milestone - the cover of DownBeat magazine, with guitarist Pat Metheny as my subject.

Pat Metheny, Parkdale, 1997

I'm still not sure I know how I got the gig. Several years of work with my friend Jane Bunnett had probably put my name in front of them, but I have no record in the big ledger of sending any work to them before getting this gig - no reprinted shots of Jane or front-of-book "tryout" shoots. Going straight to a cover shoot was flattering, to be sure, but I also felt that, with a solid decade's worth of work behind me, I deserved their trust.

I was also a big jazz fan, and by the mid-'90s I wasn't listening to much else at home. I'd even been writing - under a pseudonym - a regular column on pre-'60s jazz for eye weekly, the local competition for NOW. I was more than aware of DownBeat's long history and reputation as probably the leading jazz publication in English, and while not the world's biggest Pat Metheny fan, I knew that he was as close to a superstar as the music had at the time, and that this was a very big deal.

Pat Metheny, Parkdale, 1997

By 1997 I'd left behind cross-processing and, even though I'd still push for the control and reduced anxiety of colour negatives whenever I could, had finally become comfortable with the demands of shooting on slide film. Which was a good thing because the Metheny shoot came with the condition that I shoot slides to save time and get the transparencies to the guitarist for his approval while he was still in town, so they could be rushed along to the magazine to go through layout.

Metheny showed up at my studio with a guitar, a few changes of shirts, and a generally relaxed attitude; I shot him in the minimal, graphic style that I knew would work well on a DownBeat cover, using a lighting scheme I'd come to prefer - a direct, focused light that mimicked the look of a ring light but without the corona-like shadow. I shot a half dozen rolls, thanked Metheny as he left, then rushed to my lab to get the clip tests and wait for the rolls to be processed. After that I hurried down to the venue where Metheny was playing and delivered them into the hands of his road manager.

I remember feeling very pleased with both the results of the shoot and the brisk, professional way I'd executed it all. I was still looking forward to more work from DownBeat weeks later when I got a call from the art director, but instead of thanking me for my work and offering me another gig, he crossly informed me that Metheny had apparently lost all the slides, and since I hadn't shot anything on negatives, my cover had been scrapped.

What I still remember is how angry the art director was - though not at Metheny and his people for losing my work, but at me, for some reason he never explained, even though (as I desperately explained) I'd done everything I'd been asked to do. I could tell from his voice that there'd be no more work from DownBeat, and I'm pretty sure I probably didn't get paid. One more milestone averted, though I never made the mistake of shooting slides alone again.

A few months later I got a phone call from Metheny's management; the road manager had found my slides in a wardrobe road case and asked if I wanted them back. I said yes, of course - and here they are, in print (or a close digital approximation) for the first time ever.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Sonny Sharrock, Parkdale, October 1991

JAZZ GUITAR HAS AN UNDESERVED REPUTATION AS A WALLFLOWER INSTRUMENT, either quietly comping in time behind soloists and singers or emerging now and then for eight bars of tasteful soloing in a dulcet tone. As an erstwhile guitarist, I remember wondering if there were any jazz guitarists who had the sort of ferocity I'd come to love in musicians like John Coltrane, so I asked my friend and jazz mentor, Tim Powis.

"Oh, that would be Sonny Sharrock."

Almost on cue, Sharrock - who had up till the mid-'80s been a fairly obscure figure from the tail end of free jazz, with a handful of very scarce records as a leader - suddenly burst into view as part of Last Exit, a supergroup of sorts that was often described as "heavy metal jazz." Sharrock, who played the classic hard rock combination of a Les Paul Custom through a Marshall stack, contributed sheets of noise and feedback squalls over the pummeling rhythm section of Bill Laswell and Ronald Shannon Jackson, while saxophonist Peter Brötzmann added squeals and foghorn bellows to the din. Their debut album remains one of my favorite records of the '80s.

Sonny Sharrock, Music Gallery, Toronto, Feb. 1988

We snapped up their records and waited (in vain, it would transpire) for the group to pass through town, but one day the Nerve grapevine buzzed with the news that Sharrock was coming to town on a day's notice, as part of a trio with guitarist Henry Kaiser and drummer Charles Noyes.

With the blessing of Nerve editor Dave, we descended on the Music Gallery that night for an interview and startled Sharrock with our enthusiasm. He had a great sense of humour about it all, and doubtless buoyed by his sudden high profile, gleefully posed for my camera hugging the head of his Marshall stack. I wasn't often starstruck, even then, but I remember feeling like I'd had a brush with greatness.

Sonny Sharrock, Parkdale, October 1991

Three years later, after Last Exit had revived his career and resulted in a half dozen solo albums, Sharrock passed through Toronto again for a gig. Tim assigned me to do a shoot with him for, I believe, HMV magazine, where he was editor, and I arranged for him to come by my Parkdale studio.

Fully in the throes of cross-processing mania, I set him up in a crossfire of lights in the studio, one strobe gelled deep blue, and a tungsten fresnel light to the side to give a warm highlight. I let the shutter stay open to catch a bit of blur while he played his Les Paul, plugged into my Fender amp, while he duetted with himself on one of his own records.

Sonny Sharrock, Parkdale, October 1991

I reversed the colours for another couple of rolls and shot two more in black and white, all while Sharrock played. He'd just bought the trenchcoat and insisted on wearing it for the shoot; I didn't protest, since I knew that the shiny black leather would catch the highlights beautifully and add more contrast. I was extremely pleased with what I shot that day, but after they ran with Tim's article in HMV, I don't think they were seen again - until now.

I almost never asked anyone for an autograph, but I was a terrible guitar geek at the time, and had him sign the headstock of my own Les Paul Custom copy - probably the only Sonny Sharrock Les Paul in the world, I suppose. Years later, hard on my luck, I was forced to sell the instrument; I often wonder if it's still out there, and its owner knows its unique value.

Sonny Sharrock died of a heart attack in Ossining, NY on May 26, 1994.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Guitar World

Steve Brown of Trixter, Parkdale, April 1991

PUNK ROCK GOT ME TO PICK UP A GUITAR, and while I was never very good at it, I spent twenty years playing in bands and collecting instruments. I could tell a sunburst Les Paul from a pre-CBS Strat, but that was about as good as I ever got on six strings. The peak of my enthusiasm happily coincided with a brief spell of work for New York-based Guitar World magazine.

My friend Chris introduced me to GW's art director, Jesse Reyes, just after he moved to New York, and for just less than a year I was the magazine's "man in Toronto," which meant catching whatever fell through the net that Jesse's considerable stable of photographers in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere south of the border couldn't get. I was happy with the gig, though, sure that it would help me when I made what I thought was the inevitable move to the States.

Dread Zeppelin, RPM Club, Toronto, Sept. 1990

My tryout gig was a front-of-book shoot with Dread Zeppelin - a rather underwhelming novelty act based on the premise that "D'yer Maker" wasn't Led Zeppelin's only reggae song. (And that Robert Plant was an Elvis impersonator.) I shot Tortelvis and the band's guitarists backstage at the club where they were playing, hauling my strobe kit and light stands with me and shooting cross-processed Fuji 400 slide film to give it Technicolor saturation.

The trick obviously worked because I got another gig shooting a feature for Jesse a few months later. Charlie Baty was the leader of Little Charlie & the Nightcats, a California-based swing blues band that recorded for Alligator Records in Chicago. His tour schedule somehow eluded GW's photographers south of the border and I ended up shooting him in my studio when his band passed through town - a luxury that I hoped would allow me to show Jesse my more polished work.

Charlie Baty, Parkdale, April 1991

Cross-processing again, I aimed for something that would have looked right on an Atlantic LP cover in the early '60s. I plugged Baty's guitar into my own Twin Reverb and let him play along with records while I shot, lighting the room and the white seamless behind him with warm gels and focusing a hard spot on his face with a cool gel. It all seemed to come together and I happily sent the shots to New York.

My next job for Guitar World came not long afterwards - an in-house ad shoot advertising GW t-shirts with the new logo Jesse had designed for the magazine. My model would be Steve Brown, the guitarist for Trixter, a New Jersey-based metal band that had just released its first record. This time around I tried to ape Richard Avedon's studio fashion work for clients like Blackglama furs.

Steve Brown of Trixter, Parkdale, April 1991

The song that always ends up doing soundtrack duty when I remember this period is Extreme's "More Than Words" - a huge hit around this time and probably the last gasp of the big stadium metal acts that bands like Trixter were hoping to join. The grunge explosion was just over the horizon, however, and they'd all be swept away like dry husks in a strong wind.

Jesse was a Seattle native and a tireless proselytizer for his hometown bands; one of my favorite memories of him is standing around the Guitar World office with Chris Buck while he extolled the glories of "Beyond the Wheel" by Soundgarden, doing his best Chris Cornell impersonation while explaining to us the song's dynamic changes. I was already on board with Soundgarden - I'd shot them in a dingy club in Toronto not long before - but his enthusiasm was contagious and we let him finish his exegesis.

Steve Brown would be my last gig for Guitar World. There was nothing passing through Toronto that Jesse's stable couldn't catch elsewhere, and he'd end up leaving the magazine just over a year later. Talking to him the other day, he said that he'd definitely have given me more work if I'd moved to NYC, though I'd have been up against stiff competition down there. The New York move obviously never happened, for both good and bad reasons best examined some other time.


Friday, November 20, 2015


Michael Snow, Parkdale, February 1994

PERHAPS IT SAYS SOMETHING ABOUT CANADA that one of our major homegrown celebrities is an avant-garde artist; for me, whether that's a good or a bad thing depends on the day. In fact, I can't remember a time when I didn't know who Michael Snow was - in my fifth decade now, he's been part of the cultural landscape for as long as I can remember, alongside Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, Pierre Berton and Margaret Atwood. The day he came to my studio felt like a very big deal, as he was only the second person from that quintet I'd shoot.

Snow had been the subject of a major career retrospective just a few months previous, with his artwork, films and music showcased at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Power Plant, and collected in a quartet of books. I'm not sure what subsequent occasion put him on NOW magazine's cover, but I got the gig and felt obliged to rise to the occasion.

He was in a playful mood when he stood in front of my camera. Noticing the circular stains on the old wooden tabletop I used to help frame the shots, he cupped them like breasts; holding up a cut out letter 'S' just in front of where the magazine's name would sit above his head. (We didn't end up using those shots.)

Michael Snow, Parkdale, February 1994

I was going through a bit of a classical phase at the time, and drapery ended up being a recurring device in my shoots, in and out of the studio. I hoped that this setup would come across as tongue in cheek - Snow's work ranged over time from suitably gnomic and obscure to iconic and even picturesque and crudely populist, and I wanted to depict him as a heroic old master, honoured and celebrated, and far from the baffling avant gardist he had once been.

For the cover shot I pared it all down to one colour, with a blue backdrop spotlit from below and a wash of low blue light filling the foreground, Snow picked out in a warm spotlight. I had moved on from my obsession with cross-processing and felt confident enough to shoot transparency, though I never felt comfortable with the format; clip testing made it easier to nail exposure, but I was always anxiously aware that there was only one original, easily damaged or lost.

Michael Snow, Parkdale, February 1994

I'd taken over the whole of the Parkdale loft by this point, moving the studio into the empty room where my roommates once lived. It was a luxury having a space devoted to shooting and I indulged it as much as I could, experimenting with lights and gels and trying to bring as much of my business into the studio as possible.

I was making my whole living from shooting by now, and while there wasn't much money left over for vacations or other luxuries, I had the consolation of feeling like I was in charge of my career for the first time in my life. I would turn 30 that year.


Thursday, November 19, 2015


James Tenney, Parkdale, January 1991

I DID TWO PORTRAIT SESSIONS WITH THE COMPOSER JAMES TENNEY on either side of the turn of the '90s, and they were both pivotal moments in my development as a photographer. The first was a simple affair at an uncertain time that gave me a benchmark for what I'd learned about composition. The second was an exercise in colour and lighting that opened up the possibilities of studio work. That they happened to involve the same subject probably wasn't a coincidence.

I didn't know much about James Tenney when my old Nerve boss Nancy Lanthier assigned me to photograph him for Music Scene magazine. He was an American teaching at York University, a student of John Cage, Harry Partch and Edgard Varese who'd performed in the ensembles of minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass. (He was one of four musicians who performed Reich's Pendulum Music at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969, alongside Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman and Michael Snow.)

If I'd known this beforehand it might have been why I chose to shoot him in front of the stark blackboard with its staff lines and the cluster of music department metal chairs, but I probably didn't, and just saw really great backgrounds.

James Tenney, York University, Toronto, January 1989

I did this shoot not long after Nerve had gone under and I found myself without a steady creative outlet; my apprenticeship over, I was out in the world now trying to make a reputation and a living, and the success of this shoot gave me a needed confidence boost. Tenney must have been pleased with the results as well, because the big ledger records him receiving a pair of prints from me two months after this shoot.

Perhaps this is how I ended up shooting Tenney again, two years later, for the cover of Ear magazine, an avant-garde music monthly being published out of rooms above Manhattan's historic Ear Inn. I'd been shopping my work around New York since my girlfriend had moved there, so perhaps I'd approached them with my portfolio, or maybe Tenney told them about me. In any case it was my first magazine cover on glossy stock and a very big deal, so I put everything I'd learned so far into the shoot.

James Tenney, Parkdale, January 1991

Tenney showed up at my Parkdale loft where I'd set up my studio in my bedroom, with a white seamless, my new ProFoto strobe kit, a whole bunch of coloured gels and my Bronica SQa medium format camera. I wanted the richest colours possible, so I cross-processed Fuji RDP slide film. I'd been experimenting with cross-processing my floral still-lifes, trying to boost saturation as far as possible and boil my shots down to primary colours.

Tenney was an accommodating subject, and seemed to understand what I was trying to do. He had a great face, and with his denim and bolo tie (he was born in New Mexico) sported a manly kind of cowboy style that pre-dated Sam Shepard or Ralph Lauren. After I finished my colour rolls, I put a close-up filter on the Bronica's 80mm lens and took some very, very tight head shots with the hard, focused light.

James Tenney, Parkdale, January 1991

I was very happy with the results, and I'd like to think that Ear was as well, but 1991 would prove to be a very difficult year for the magazine. My cover turned out to be one of their last; after a boost in circulation that came with sponsorship from Absolut vodka, their costs went up and their printer refused to release their last issue. After losing money on a benefit concert, Ear went under at the end of the year.

James Tenney died of lung cancer in Valencia, California on August 24, 2006.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Allen Toussaint, Diamond Club, Toronto, Feb. 1993

ALLEN TOUSSAINT DIED LAST WEEK of a heart attack after a concert in Madrid. I won't try to add to the chorus of elegies that rose up with the news - everyone knows what an important figure he was in the history not only of New Orleans but of American music. Suffice to say that I'd have been grateful to him for his work with the Meters alone, never mind everything else the man accomplished in an effortlessly musical life.

My favorite anecdote about Toussaint came from my friend Barry, who lives in his hometown. You could often spot Toussaint driving around town in one of his fine cars, but occasionally you'd get a real treat, like the time last year when he sat in on a street musician's piano just outside of Barry's work. Helpfully, someone caught it on video:

Selfishly, my first thought when I heard the news was that there went another legend I'd never get a chance to photograph. And then I remembered - I had shot Toussaint, many years ago, when he passed through Toronto as part of a songwriters tour with Texans Guy Clark and Joe Ely and singer Michelle Shocked. They were just live photos, I recalled - not the portrait I would have loved to have gotten - but now was, sadly, as good a time as any to dig them out.

Allen Toussaint, Guy Clark & Joe Ely, Toronto, Feb. 1993

When I finally found the negatives I discovered that I'd done a dozen frames at the end of a roll with Toussaint, Clark and Ely in the lobby of the club. I was on assignment to shoot the show live for NOW so I don't know why I bothered - perhaps it was because the lighting was particularly dark and I wanted some kind of backup in case the live shots were too dim. (Shooting film forced you to make contingencies, as knowledge of the outcome was always delayed.)

Perhaps I wanted to get a portrait of the musicians together. If this is the case, why didn't I get a photo with Shocked as well? Had she already left the club? I'll never know. I'll also never know why I didn't try to get individual portraits of each musician, except that I might have already been pushing my luck with this little grip and grin.

Today I'd probably try harder; age and time have taught me that there usually isn't a next time, and while we're always short of time, we're never short of regrets.


Friday, November 13, 2015

Toronto: Distillery District

Distillery District, Toronto, November 10, 2015

CHANCES ARE YOU'VE SEEN THE OLD GOODERHAM & WORTS PLANT in a movie shot in Toronto - maybe in Chicago or X-Men or Three Men and a Baby. Construction began on the liquor distillery's lakefront site in 1859, and most of the old buildings were still around when it closed in 1990, by which point it was already a big favorite for movie productions looking for some Victorian industrial streetscape or a posh vintage shopping district.

I wandered around the edge of the fenced-in site nearly a quarter century ago with my friend Michael Ventruscolo, on the same day that I took my skyline photos. Thanks to an economic downturn or two it would be a few years before work started on turning Gooderham & Worts into the Distillery District - the posh vintage shopping destination that everyone, especially film location scouts, knew it was destined to become.

We ended up training our cameras on the walls of the old Stonehouse Distillery building, built from limestone shipped all the way from Kingston and a curiosity in a city built mostly from red brick.

Gooderham & Worts, Toronto, February 1991
Distillery District, Toronto, November 10, 2015

The southern edge of the G&W plant was bordered with railway sidings, long disused when I took my original picture, and replaced with a parking lot during the area's revitalization. The ground was raised up to meet the stoop of the archway door in the middle of my shot, once a loading dock and now the door to a building full of galleries and offices.

They kept the sign, which made it easy to find again. It wasn't much harder to find the next shot on my roll, where I tried to fill up the frame with the arched windows and iron anchors for the floor ties in the Stonehouse, which was gutted by a fire in 1869 and rebuilt from the inside. I remember thinking as I took these photos that there was no way these lovely old buildings would remain empty.

Gooderham & Worts, Toronto, February 1991
Distillery District, Toronto, November 10, 2015

The trucks parked where the old railway tracks once ran were probably from the crews setting up the Christmas Market nearby. The Distillery District features a theatre, several theatre and dance companies, a craft brewer, a chocolatier and a branch of Balzac's, an indie cafe chain. It's very nice.

It had a shaky start, but the Distillery District is a great example of heritage preservation and urban renewal - a thumbs-up I rarely give my hometown but in this case it's well deserved. The real challenge has been extending the city's downtown south and east into what were once the industrial precincts by the railway tracks, but a billion dollar redevelopment of the area adjacent to the old distillery for this year's Pan Am Games might finally bring the whole project off.

Gooderham & Worts, Toronto, February 1991
Distillery District, Toronto, November 10, 2015

It was a little harder to find this little stump of machinery, which had been helpfully retained in place, despite the ground beneath it being raised almost a foot when the area was paved with old bricks. The red bricks on the outside of Balzac's cafe are a lot more typically Toronto - the terracotta walls, stained with age, that I see in my dreams.

But let's pull back a little, why don't we, and get a bigger picture?

Distillery District, Toronto, November 10, 2015

Churlishly, though, I have to admit that I miss the old, abandoned Gooderham & Worts, much as I do Massey-Harris, the Inglis plant and all the other derelict and semi-utilized industrial sites left over from Toronto's nose-down, six-day-work-week, closed-on-Sunday, beauty-is-for-fairies-and-Catholics past. You have to travel a lot further and look a lot harder to find the bits of the city that have been left out in the rain.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Toronto: Remembrance

Old City Hall Cenotaph, Toronto, Nov. 11, 2008

I AM THE SON OF A WORLD WAR TWO VETERAN. Like many similar sons and daughters, Remembrance Day is a way of honouring the memory of those fathers, even if they survived the battlefield - or, as in my father's case, never went near it, spending the war on this side of the Atlantic, servicing bombers converted into cargo planes. I have taken countless photos of cenotaphs and veterans' graves, but I've only shot Remembrance Day ceremonies twice, at three different places where Toronto honours veterans, living and dead.

I was downtown on another assignment on the morning of November 11, 2008 when I realized that it was a short walk to the cenotaph at Old City Hall. I called the free national daily where I worked and told them I'd head over with my camera and get some shots, hopefully for the next day's front page. We had a new editor and I was eager to be useful; I also wanted to try and document a cenotaph ceremony at a time when it was becoming painfully clear that the generation that fought in World War Two was beginning to leave us as quickly as the veterans of World War One.

Old City Hall Cenotaph, Toronto, Nov. 11, 2008

The city puts on a very nice Remembrance ceremony, with soldiers in period uniform, minimal speechifying and very well-managed laying of wreaths. The minute's silence in the centre of the city is a truly moving moment, and I never cease to be amazed at how such a large crowd responds to the occasion with real dignity.

Old City Hall Cenotaph, Toronto, Nov. 11, 2008

There are always classes of schoolchildren at the cenotaph. I can't help but wonder what they're thinking, and how much they really know about the wars being remembered. As the son of a veteran, growing up with Rat Patrol and Hogan's Heroes in after school syndication, I'm part of a generation that still felt the shadow of World War Two amplified by the geopolitical hangover of the Cold War. Perhaps these kids are luckier than we were; I don't get the feeling that 9/11 casts the same shadow over their lives. I hope my anxiety about what sometimes seems like either indifference or amnesia is unfounded, but I have a bad feeling about it all.

And then there's always this guy:

Old City Hall Cenotaph, Toronto, Nov. 11, 2008

Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Nov. 11, 2010

There's a cemetery behind the wall at the back of our house, and from my office window I can see its centerpiece - processional rows of veterans' gravestones leading up to Edwin Lutyens' Cross of Sacrifice. A remembrance ceremony is held there at sunrise every November 11th, and a year after I was laid off from the national free daily, I covered it for blogTO, taking my daughters along on the way to school.

It's a modest ceremony, in a place full of men who died, often from lingering wounds, weeks or months or years away from the battlefield. This is probably the highlight of the year at what remains of the local Legion Halls, and the old men in their blazers and medals always move me. My father never joined the Legion or even talked about his war, but I always scrutinize each old veteran and scan their lapel and cap badge for some sign of the 168 Heavy Transport Squadron, imagining that one day I might finally meet one who knew my father.

Prospect Cemetery sunrise ceremony, Toronto, Nov. 11, 2010

After dropping the kids off at school I headed to Old Fort York, where the dead of not just the World Wars and Korea but the War of 1812 as well are remembered with redcoats and drummers and a short march from the old fort's walls over the common to the nearby garrison cemetery. It's the only remembrance ceremony that acknowledges that the city was once a battlefield, although the bright coats covered in braid might as well be chain mail or Roman armor, as distant as that past feels now.

Old Fort York, Toronto, Nov. 11, 2010

I met this quartet of friends at the end of the ceremony, old pals who celebrate November 11th together. It's been five years since I took this photo, and I wonder if there are still four of them today. The old soldiers are passing, joining the young ones, leaving us with the difficult task of remembering without witnesses.

Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Nov. 11, 2010


Monday, November 9, 2015

Toronto: Skyline

Toronto, looking north from the Art Gallery of Ontario, Oct.2015

I WILL NEVER KNOW ANOTHER CITY AS WELL AS I KNOW TORONTO. That I wasn't born here is a mere technicality; I was raised by native Torontonians and have lived here all my life. I may have dreamed of living in other places and will continue to do so, but even in the (probably unlikely) chance that I make another city my home, Toronto will remain the landscape of my dreams.

Having said that, I have lived long enough to see my hometown change, and the city in my mind less and less resembles the one I travel through every day. This fact makes me uneasy. I suppose it's a story that most old Torontonians can tell, but I have photos as evidence.

Toronto, looking northeast from the foot of Bathurst Street, Nov. 2015

Toronto, a once-dreary, Presbyterian town known as the "Belfast of Canada," has been booming for at least two decades, with construction cranes sprouting everywhere along the main roads and up and down the lake shore. I maintain that this hasn't diminished the city's essentially provincial character - and please don't interpret that as a criticism - but the dusty, lonely feel at the outskirts of the old downtown has been banished, along with the sight lines I can still see in my mind.

Nearly twenty-five years ago I tagged along with friend and fellow struggling photographer Michael Ventruscolo as he drove around the city on a dry winter day taking shots for an assignment. I brought my camera along as well, and the roll of negs I took have sat unprinted until today. My photos aren't any kind of lost masterpiece, but I'm drawn to them mostly because they're snapshots of a city that no longer exists.

Lake Shore Boulevard near Bathurst looking northeast, Winter 1991
Lake Shore Boulevard at Dan Leckie Way looking northeast, November 2015

The Gardiner Expressway traces the edge of the city's shore line with Lake Ontario, and where it marches on concrete stilts by the southern edge of the downtown it once traveled through the empty remnants of our moribund docklands. Nearly thirty years later the roadway is being bracketed by condos and office towers and once unobstructed views of the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre (aka the "Skydome") are disappearing.

The Royal York Hotel was opened just before the Great Depression, and older locals will pedantically tell you that it was once (briefly) the tallest building in the British Commonwealth. By the turn of the '90s a crowd of office towers huddled behind the hotel, but it still had a clear view over the Gardiner down to the lake, and proudly remained a landmark on the skyline.

Toronto, Winter 1991
Toronto, November 2015

The spot where I took my 1992 photo no longer exists; I had a hard time finding a place underneath the Gardiner where I could catch a sliver of the Royal York and at least one of the towers in the original shot. This was the best I could do, and it's obvious that even this fractured perspective won't last long, as the old hotel is walled off from the lake and our skyline transforms utterly.

I'm not complaining. I'd rather live in a city whose problems come from prosperity instead of decline, but the pace - incremental as it is - can be disorienting, especially when you have this catalogue of obsolete views crowding your memory. The thing is, though, that Toronto was never a pretty town, and I have no reason to imagine that all of this boom and prosperity is going to make it any prettier.

Toronto, underneath the Gardiner Expressway near Harbourfront, Nov.2015

And once again, I'm not complaining. I know there are prettier towns. New York is more dramatic, London richer with history, Paris more perfectly realized and almost any city in Europe built on Roman walls is picturesque in ways that Toronto couldn't imagine. I can travel there with my camera and take lovely pictures, secure in the knowledge that someone took very nearly the same lovely picture a week, a year, or a century earlier, and that someone will again, a day or a century from now.

But in Toronto, my unlovely hometown, I'm never tempted by the merely picturesque and, given our history, it's unlikely that some miracle of planning and architectural inspiration will spoil generations of photographers here with a perfect vista, and make our shutter fingers twitch in anticipation.

This week another photographer friend passed through town, and over dinner Chris Buck and I compared notes about shooting cities. We talked about Los Angeles, a city where he keeps an apartment, and how an almost total lack of coherent planning. unique vernacular architecture, drifting pockets of urban decay, a worship of kitsch and an amnesiac sense of history have made it one of the most rewarding places to shoot urban landscapes.

I don't understand Los Angeles; it's an alien landscape, constantly tempting me to capture something both bleak and beautiful underneath that nearly constant noontime sun. Toronto, on the other hand, couldn't be more familiar to me, but they're both cities without vanity, and perhaps that's why they're so inspiring.

And despite their size and importance, they're both provincial places (again - not a criticism) that are too busy pursuing their destinies - real or imagined - to take pride in mere aesthetics or history. They both revel in their indifference, challenging you to take their portrait while they go about their business: "Go ahead," they say. "Discover something beautiful here. Whatever you find will be all yours, and I won't make it easy for you."


Friday, November 6, 2015


Daniel Craig, Toronto, September 11, 2004

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE BOND, a year before he signed on the dotted line. Before he became the sixth movie 007, Daniel Craig was an actor with a serious reputation known for his work on English film and television as well as the odd role in Hollywood films like Road to Perdition and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. I photographed him when he was at the film festival here in Toronto promoting Enduring Love, a small and intensely depressing British drama.

I doubt I'd have this sort of access to Craig today - or that he'd be allowed to present himself so casually to the press, at least as long as he's part of the Bond franchise. Shot in the standard festival hotel room, either at the Intercontinental or the Park Hyatt, I honestly don't remember which. I'd found my sweet spot of light in a corner of the room just past where the window light lost its sharp edges, and I'd shoot my portraits there whenever possible.

Good hotel room celebrity portrait shoots are always as much a matter of luck as skill. With no time to convince the subject to play a role or take part in a concept, you're basically doing a still life with a living subject, hoping that they'll meet you halfway at best, and able to summon enough life in their eyes to hide their exhaustion or indifference.

Pulling back to anything less than a head shot with a short lens usually means they lose their focus; not surprisingly, invading a subject's personal space with a camera forces them to engage with you, even if just defensively. In the assembly line of a press junket, it's imperative that you elicit something from your subject that can be read in the eyes, even if it's surprise or irritation.

Of course it always helps when your subject has eyes of an arresting, icy shade of blue.

Daniel Craig, Toronto, September 11, 2004

There would be a great hue and cry when Craig was cast as Bond - apparently he was too blonde, or not conventionally handsome enough. I didn't get it, but the protests melted away about halfway through the pre-credits bathroom fight scene in Casino Royale. The first Bond film with Craig was fantastic - easily the best Bond since Goldfinger, and if the next two were as good I'd probably be saying that Craig had done the impossible and edged out Connery as the best 007 ever.

But Quantum of Solace and Skyfall were grim and, despite the pyrotechnics, even a bit dreary, and while I still have a lifelong Bond fan's high hopes for Spectre, Craig's very public statements that he's tired and probably done with Bond suggest that the trend hasn't been reversed. And so Craig might vacate the role short of Connery and Moore's tally of appearances, beating Lazenby and Dalton and matching Pierce Brosnan's run as 007.

Which is fine, really. After all, Bonds are far more dispensable than we imagine - there have been more actors playing 007 than filling the roles of M, Q and Moneypenny - and part of the ongoing drama of the franchise is the ritual recasting, roughly every decade.

Perhaps Craig's Bond was a victim of the success of Casino Royale; maybe the new coarse, damaged 007 got too dark, too fast and it's time for the pendulum to swing back again to a lighter, more antic Bond. I'm trying to imagine who might fill that role - top contender Idris Elba could fit the bill nicely - but it'll take a really radical, misguided reinterpretation of Bond to stop this lifetime fan from adding each new film to my collection.

And with luck I hope to get a Bond villain in front of my camera one day.


Thursday, November 5, 2015


Pierce Brosnan, Toronto, Sept. 15, 2005

PIERCE BROSNAN WAS ALREADY AN EX-BOND WHEN I PHOTOGRAPHED HIM, joining Connery, Moore, Lazenby and Dalton in rather select ranks. Daniel Craig's debut as Bond in Casino Royale would be announced a month after I took these photos, so for all intents and purposes Brosnan was still James Bond in the eyes of the public.

He was already moving past the role with films like Matador, the movie he was promoting at the film festival where I shot him - a comedy thriller where Brosnan plays a dodgy hit man past his prime. Wisely, Brosnan had decided to use his undersung talent for comedy to subvert the Bond typecasting. It would end up working, giving his career the reboot that neither Roger Moore nor Timothy Dalton were able to manage.

I photographed Brosnan on the courtyard patio at the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor - the major festival press venue at the time. He had just finished doing an interview with Xtra!, the city's biweekly gay magazine, when he sat down at our table. Chris, the writer, asked him how it had gone.

"Oh, you know, cocks, cocks, cocks! Ass, ass ass!" Brosnan said ruefully.

Pierce Brosnan, Toronto, Sept. 15, 2005

This set the tone for the interview and photo shoot that followed, as Brosnan smirked and wise-cracked his way through the afternoon, with no intention whatsoever of treating a round of festival press with any of the dignity it probably didn't deserve.

Brosnan had no interest in smoldering or looking dashing for my camera, so the shoot was a distracted one, as my subject chatted with Chris and the publicist while I worked, or idly scanned the other tables in the restaurant, occasionally looking toward my lens but never focusing on it. I don't resent him for it; his priority at that point in his career was to leave James Bond behind, so he didn't want to give the press any more suave headshots that would echo the hundreds he'd posed for since Remington Steele.

The Intercontinental courtyard was an unforgiving setting for portrait shoots, between the clutter of chairs and tables and potted plants, and the indifferent light at the bottom of four tall hotel walls. Overcoming it required roughly equal effort from both the photographer and the subject, but that didn't happen here, and so I ended up with what amounts to little more than a set of overworked snapshots.