Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year

NOW magazine New Year's Eve Guide cover shoot, Nov. 1996

I USED TO DREAD NEW YEAR'S EVE. When it rolled around for most of the '90s I was single and lonely and bracing myself for the annual January retrospective summing-up of my progress so far in life. For non-masochists, it's simple enough: Look back on the previous year and add up your accomplishments, personal and professional (I didn't bother much with the spiritual back then,) to decide whether the total merits holding the present course for another year.

For much of the decade my professional accomplishments seemed solid enough to push ahead with the photography business. There was always some technical milestone reached or a handful of really solid images added to the files, and even if I had this nagging feeling that I was increasingly just spinning my wheels, I was paying my rent and covering my bills and enjoying the peculiar benefits of the freelance lifestyle, setting my own hours and staying as far away from office work as possible.

I could almost ignore the turnover of the calendar year except that, a couple of times, I was called upon to shoot the cover of NOW's New Year's Eve Guide.

Sally, NOW magazine New Year's Eve Guide cover shoot, Dec. 1993

If you know much about old school dead tree publishing then you'll know how big a deal these supplements - New Year's or Summer Patio or Reader's Best Of - were in terms of ad sales. Landing the gig to shoot one meant that you had the confidence of both the art and ad sales departments that year.

For my first New Year's Guide I prevailed upon my roommate Sally to act as my model, and broke the bank at the dollar store buying props. Sally - the sister of my by-then-ex-girlfriend - was probably one of the people I photographed most at the turn of the '90s, either holding up colour cards for film tests or helping me with some new lighting experiment.

She was both photogenic and generous with her time. Which is still remarkable to me considering how awkward our living arrangement was, especially in our last year as roomies, after her sister dumped me long distance.

One thing these shoots bring back is the struggle I had with NOW to print high-key studio work in their pages. When I arrived at the paper they were still stuck on their self-image as the city's radical "alternative" paper, and it took a long time to sell them on the possibility that a slick, clean, well-lit studio photo didn't compromise that image. (Which was, by then, wearing a bit thin with NOW's growing financial success and the simple fact that the longer you survive the more like some kind of establishment fixture you become.)

NOW magazine New Year's Eve Guide cover shoot, Nov. 1996

By the time I got my next New Year's Eve Guide assignment the paper had wholly embraced the sort of studio photography I loved doing. At this point I was roommate free, and had converted the space where Sally had once lived into my studio - a cherished and much-missed space I'll write about a bit later. My grasp of lighting had also improved, and I relished every new chance to shoot in the studio, in thrall to the kind of work I was studying in old magazines and Hollywood promo glossies.

My model for this shoot was the paper's lovely receptionist, and my prop budget was pushed further with a bottle of bubbly and a couple of glasses from a restaurant supply store. Scanning these frames today reminds me of that, no matter how dismal my personal life was for the better part of the Clinton administration, I could forget about it for a few hours every week while working in my studio. When the annual summing up rolled around, these were the moments that convinced me to press on.

I stopped my January ritual many years ago, when my professional accomplishments were too meagre to reflect upon, while a radical change in emotional fortune more than made up for what I can only describe as a sense of failure. The year now passing is the first one in many where I can actually measure some forward motion as a photographer, thanks mostly to the effort this blog has obliged me to put into my work, both past and present.

This year my kids have begged us to be allowed to stay up and watch the ball drop, so instead of calling it an early night as usual, we'll be in front of the TV with some ginger ale and snacks. It's been a good year, amazingly enough. The next one might be even better.


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