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.


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