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.


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