Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Potato #1, Toronto, Jan. 2016

A PHOTOGRAPHER RECENTLY SOLD A PICTURE OF A POTATO FOR A MILLION EUROS. Kevin Abosch - an Irish photographer that I hadn't heard of until this week - reportedly sold the still-life print to an unnamed "European businessman" for £758597.73 during a studio visit.

Abosch, whose portfolio apparently includes portraits of Johnny Depp, Yoko Ono, Dustin Hoffman, Bob Geldof, Steven Spielberg and Sheryl Sandberg, said that the print - titled "Potato #345" - was hanging on the wall and that the buyer couldn't resist:
'It's not the first time that someone has bought the art right off my wall,' he told The Sunday Times.  
'We had two glasses of wine and he said, "I really like that". 'Two more glasses of wine and he said: "I really want that". We set the price two weeks later.'
It's the kind of story that makes most photographers wince while spreading the rather fantastical notion that there's real money to be made in the photo business. My reaction probably wasn't terribly different from any other photographer, and like most of them my first thought after that was "Hey - I'll have a go!"

Potato #2, Toronto, Jan. 2016

Mr. Abosch said that the potato in his photo was organic, and since we'd taken delivery of potatoes in our organics box this week, Mr. Abosch and I are on par here. Unlike Mr. Abosch, who prefers to shoot against a black background, I chose my more customary rumpled fabric, and got to work on the kitchen table with the back of a roll of primed canvas while the morning light moved across two windows on adjacent walls. Not bad for a couple of hours' work.

Abosch has done a series of potato still-lifes, and his studio told PetaPixel that he "likes potatoes because they, like people, are all different yet are immediately identifiable as being essentially of the same species."

"He has photographed many potatoes. This is one of his favorites."

Potato #3, Toronto, Jan. 2016

Clearly Mr. Abosch has gotten quite a bit of publicity from the sale of his print, which might lead to suggestions that it was a stunt, especially considering how the final price of the print after two weeks of negotiation worked out to a neat million euros. Not many photographers can command even a fraction of this for prints of their work, and you can't help but wonder about the economics of this transaction, even if you're not a photographer.

Based on his list of subjects Mr. Abosch clearly has a reputation, even if I'd never heard of him until now. The Daily Telegraph story on the potato photo notes that he charges "at least £200,000" for a commissioned portrait, mentions that he was recently invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos, and features a screenshot from someone's Twitter feed of Abosch talking about the photo at SIME, a "leading digital conference" held in Miami last year.

"We are all the potato," Mr. Abosch is quoted telling his audience.

Potatoes #1, Toronto, Jan. 2016

If the story is true - and I have to confess to having my reservations - it's an instructive lesson in the arbitrary pricing and income models in my business. Let's take it as a given that Mr. Abosch has a portfolio as star-studded as is claimed. While I haven't shot Tom Cruise or Aung San Suu Kyi, my resume includes portraits of recognizable names like Tony Bennett, Alan Rickman, Bjork, Ben Kingsley, Daniel Craig, Monica Bellucci, Tim Burton, Cate Blanchett, Salman Rushdie, Tilda Swinton and many others besides. Perhaps not quite as blue chip as Mr Abosch, but credentials enough to put my potato photos reasonably within the €250,000 range, if that's your yardstick.

And as I said before, both our potatoes are organic, if that matters to you.

But it's obvious that I couldn't hope to charge a quarter of what Mr. Abosch reportedly got for his potato print - perhaps not even 1/1000th. Probably not even that. The truth is that on the scarce occasions when I have to price a print for a client, I have to carefully factor in the cost of making a print and think hard about how much to add on the top to give myself a reasonable profit. I don't even bother trying to cover my costs in time and labour at this point, so I simply hope for a figure just tolerable enough to get me a little closer to buying a new lens or maybe even updating my camera in the next year or two.

Potatoes #2, Toronto, Jan. 2016

I can't imagine anyone paying a million euros for a print, though when I allow myself to fantasize about being a rich man, I think it would be nice to buy one of Irving Penn's still-lifes, which have (obviously) always been an inspiration to me. His marvelous "Frozen Foods, New York, 1977" sold last year for US$106,250 - a bargain in my eyes, especially since it's less than a tenth of what Mr. Abosch's potato cost at current exchange rates.

The fact is that no one can really say what a photograph is worth without considering a shifting raft of intangibles, and the fact that photographers are famously unwilling to talk about pricing among themselves doesn't make it any easier. News that a photograph of a tuber by a celebrity photographer who isn't nearly as famous as Irving Penn or Annie Liebovitz (reportedly) sold for a million anythings only distorts the market even further.

Perhaps it's simply a matter of supply and demand. I haven't seen a lot of really good photos of potatoes lately, so maybe Mr. Abosch was just responding to a market shortfall. It doesn't quite seem fair, especially if you believe, as Mr. Abosch clearly does, that there's as much to gotten from a picture of a potato as any portrait of a movie star.

With that in mind I'd like to encourage all my photographer friends to fill that market demand with potato still-lifes and encourage others to do the same. Increased supply will only bring the price down and everyone will be able to afford a really nice photo of a potato by a professional photographer. Since social media seems to be the way to spread the message, might I suggest using the hashtag #millioneuropotato when sharing sneak peaks of our work on Twitter or Instagram?

In the meantime, I have some potato photos for sale for anyone interested, at very competitive prices.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Film Festival 1988

Eric Stoltz, Toronto, Sept. 1988

BY THE SUMMER OF 1988 I HAD OWNED A CAMERA FOR JUST THREE YEARS. In that time I taught myself to develop film, got my first photos published and decided that this might be what I could do with my life. By the time I got ready to shoot portraits while covering my third film festival as a reporter, I had been on a steep learning curve from the moment I took a photo from the living room window of my mother's house.

I came across these negatives while scanning my portraits of director Todd Haynes. The 1988 Festival of Festivals was apparently a busy one for me - I also shot Abbie Hoffman there that year - but I don't know who I was working for, and I don't recall any of these photos being published anywhere until now. They're important to me, however, because they mark the moment when my apprenticeship had ended and I was out in the marketplace, competing with photographers with years more experience than myself.

Aki Kaurismaki, Toronto, Sept. 1988

Aki Kaurismaki was a film festival favorite - a Finnish director who made the sort of deadpan films that were once the specialty of Wim Wenders. He'd arrived at his first Toronto festival a few years' previous as a package with his brother Mika and a film version of Crime and Punishment. He'd have a hit of sorts with Leningrad Cowboys Go America a couple of years after I shot this, and is still working today.

My kit for this festival was pretty minimal; unlike the previous year, I didn't bother bringing along lights or a medium format camera. Everything was shot with whatever available light I could find, mostly in some variation of the "Anton light." I can't think of many places I might have sold such a dark, moody portrait like the Kaurismaki one, which is partly the result of very dim window light and a thin negative.

Evan English & John Hillcoat, Toronto, Sept. 1988

Evan English and John Hillcoat were an Australian writer/director team who showed up with a brutal prison movie starring Nick Cave, a particular favorite of mine at the time. I remember them being very dour and cynical but dryly funny; a vague twitch of memory suggests that I might have interviewed them in addition to taking their portrait.

If these photos are a record of anything, it's my frantic search for a style. The shot above wouldn't have looked out of place in a British music paper just a few years' previous; I was carrying around a creative Rolodex in my mind, picking out solutions I'd seen before in response to the challenge of each new shoot. Some worked, some didn't. I'm not sure what Evan English is doing nowadays, but Hillcoat went on to direct music videos for people like Depeche Mode and Crowded House, and movies like the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Dusan Makavejev, Toronto, Sept. 1988

Dusan Makavejev's Coca Cola Kid was a big favorite of mine a couple of years before I photographed him - probably because of Greta Scacchi's very sexy performance - and some Serbian friends had filled me in on his importance as a director in Tito's Yugoslavia. He was at the festival with Manifesto (also titled A Night of Love,) a Golan-Globus production with a mix of Americans, Brits and Yugoslavs in the cast that's almost unknown today.

A lot of my solutions to the hotel room shoot that year were fairly unoriginal, but this is one of the few that would become crucial to developing my own style in the years to come - the full-frame, tight close-up of the face, preferably with a short lens, forcing interaction between myself and the subject by invading their personal space. I also have a suspicion that this was the first film fest I shot with my Nikon F3, having graduated up from my Spotmatics when I decided that I needed to look more professional - the sharpness of shots like this suggests that I was working with much better lenses, in any case.

Eric Stoltz, Toronto, Sept. 1988

American actor Eric Stoltz was one of the stars of Makavejev's film, and he was thoroughly wired for my brief shoot with him, mugging and pulling faces and performing for my camera. At the time I was a bit put off by this - for some reason it made me feel like he was doing most of the work, not me - but I like the energy in these shots today. Stoltz was a young actor vaguely associated with the "Brat Pack" a couple of years' previous, who'd go on to have much more of a career than many of his peers, appearing in a wild variety of films and on Broadway, and on TV as both an actor and director.

While going through these negatives I noticed that I was still being parsimonious with my film, devoting just half a roll to each subject. I was a lot more careful with the shutter, re-framing and focusing with each new shot, a working style that was a lot more like medium format work than the rapid-fire shooting that I'd adopt when I finally got a motor drive for my 35mm SLR.

Fernando Solanas, Toronto, Sept. 1988

The film festival must have had a focus on South American or Argentine films in 1988, because I have portraits of two directors from Argentina in my files, and no memory of how they got there. Fernando Solanas was a very political director who had only returned to his country a few years previous after living in exile in Paris. Three years after I took this photo he was shot six times in the legs but survived and went on to run for government several times, winning office twice.

I must have known something about his story as I gave Solanas a very heroic treatment for this portrait - the 3/4 profile and thousand-yard stare in full effect.

Fernando Birri, Toronto, Sept. 1988

Fernando Birri was considered a key figure in Latin American cinema, and was at the festival that year with a film called A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, based on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story. In 1959, he appeared at the Cannes film festival with a short film with probably the world's longest title: Vera historia de la primera fundación de Buenos Aires como también de varias navegaciones de muchas partes desconocidas, islas de reinos, también de muchos peligros, peleas y escaramuzas, tanto por tierra como por mar, que nunca han sido descriptos en otras historias o crónicas, extraídos del libro 'Viajes al río de La Plata', original del soldado alemán Ulrico Schmidl, miembro de la expedición capitaneada por don Pedro de Mendoza, quien publicó por primera vez estas memorias, bien anotadas para utilidad pública en la ciudad de Francfort el año 1567.

My portrait of Birri is another example of how mostly undigested influences were all over my work at this time - I knew as I was focusing my lens for this shot that I was echoing a Roman Vishniac portrait that had appeared on the cover of his book A Vanished World, which had come out a couple years before.

Sasha Mitchell, Toronto, Sept. 1988

Sasha Mitchell arrived at the festival as the star of Paul Morrissey's film Spike of Bensonhurst (also released as Mafia Kid.) I probably would never have taken this photo if it wasn't for Chris Buck - Morrissey's connection to Andy Warhol meant that Chris was desperate to get a portrait of the director, and I tagged along, somehow ending up in a hotel corridor with Chris doing tag team portraits of the young actor, who had previously been a model for Bruce Weber; I think that influence more than amply comes through in this shot.

A year later Mitchell would end up with a role on Dallas, and starred in a series of kickboxing films.

I did an awful lot of shooting at the 1988 film festival, and even if I can't remember any of it being published, it was probably the best week of work I might have done that year, if only because it made me shoot at least once a day for at least a week, responding to different subjects and situations and working through my influences on the way to trying to create my own style.

The film fest would continue to be my big week every year for almost two more decades. During the '90s I'd refine my festival shooting, working with medium format cameras and a tripod to get much more formal, carefully composed portraits, but the arrival of digital and the steady erosion of time for shooting with each subsequent year meant the fast, off-the-cuff shooting I did in 1988 would become the norm again, and I'd have to re-learn the lessons I first had here.


Friday, January 22, 2016

Bjork, revisited

Bjork, Toronto, Jan. 1997

THERE ARE DAYS WHEN WORKING ON THIS BLOG CAN BE PAINFUL. As I've confided to friends, re-visiting my old work is too often a reminder of missed opportunities, and a career that began with energy and optimism then seemed to falter and stall. There are occasional minor triumphs, though, and revisiting my 1997 shoot with Bjork just over a year ago was one of them.

The shots I scanned for that post ended up being one of the first real "hits" here, and did a lot to encourage me to keep going when, to be honest, the urge to put everything back into binders behind the analogue wall and let painful memories fade could be quite compelling. As last year began, I tried setting myself a goal: See if some of this work is interesting enough to get on the wall of a gallery. To that end, I promised myself that I'd enter some photos in a group show of music photography that the Analogue Gallery holds here every year.

Bjork, Toronto, Jan. 1997

I did, and of the five photos I entered, Bjork ended up making the cut. I went back to the original negatives and, with my new and much better scanner, created a fresh digital file for printing, polishing up the image a bit more with the benefit of an intense year's worth of new Photoshop skills. The result is shown above, and for the next two weeks you can see it - and perhaps even buy it - at the gallery.

While I had the Bjork negatives out, I decided to revisit the shoot and scan a few more frames. As I wrote over a year ago, the Bjork photos (much like my Patti Smith shoot) were a frustrating memory as my skills at the time didn't match my ambition. I knew that I'd gotten some really good images, but it was only now that I could unlock what I saw in my mind's eye when I set up in that hotel room almost twenty years ago.

Bjork, Toronto, Jan. 1997

Even though we barely said a dozen words to each other, Bjork provided me with a performance for my cameras that produced more really worthwhile frames than I'm used to getting from a portrait session. It was a bit of a gift, albeit one that I couldn't really use until now. 

When I was working on the shoot a year ago, one particular image seemed to stand out, and it's the one that ended up on the wall at the Analogue Gallery this week. Going back over the negatives recently, though, I found another frame nearby that looked promising, and so I put it in the mount, made a scan and got to work.

Bjork, Toronto, Jan. 1997

My inspiration, then as now, was Cecil Beaton's early work, where he draped his studio in swags of clear cellophane to create a sort of fairyland setting for portraits of his sisters, friends, socialites and movie stars. I only had the back of a hotel curtain, which I needed to obscure enough to make it look less like fabric and more like something more ethereal.

With a heavy hand on the layers and blur filters and some judicious tweaking of the colour balance and desaturation tools, I found myself getting even closer to my inspiration this time than I had before. And I almost feel guilty saying it, but this might be the image I should have entered into the show instead.

In any case, I have one more reason to be cheered at what I can produce today, at the start of my fourth decade as a photographer, and one more reminder of the creeping disappointment I felt twenty years ago, as my ambition began to dull and bend against my insufficient skills and my poor choices. They were ponderous obstacles, to be sure, but they were just half of what would sap the momentum out of my career; the other half were factors that I couldn't anticipate or even describe until they'd taken their toll, not only on my career but on the whole business of photography.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Patti Smith

Patti Smith, Toronto, June 1995

I WAS TERRIFIED ABOUT TAKING THESE PHOTOS. I'd had almost twenty years to think about Patti Smith and my mind had prepared several possible outcomes, most of which weren't happy. I left my apartment the morning of this shoot with half of my studio in the back of a cab, steeling myself for the worst outcomes. And it turned out I was completely wrong.

Patti Smith was just emerging from years of silence and had recently been widowed when her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5, had died of a heart attack. She'd been booked to appear at NXNE, the music festival that the weekly I worked for helped organize, so she was a natural for the cover, which I was assigned to shoot. It was a very big deal.

Patti Smith, Toronto, June 1995

Back in the day, I was a much bigger fan of Television, the band led by her boyfriend Tom Verlaine, than the Patti Smith Group. I liked "Piss Factory" and "Gloria" and "Because the Night," but I didn't know how to read the whole poet/shamaness thing and often found myself put off by the ardour of some of her fans. (I avoided Dylan for the same reasons, and needed my wife to turn me around on him years later.)

I had a mental picture of Patti being very intense and self-obsessed - the whole New York art diva thing - and waited, bracing myself for this imagined persona in the hotel room of NOW's publisher, Michael, in the Toronto Hilton.

She arrived, very small and almost frail looking, smiling and shaking hands with everyone. I pointed to the chair I'd set up in front of my rented backdrop, next to the biggest soft box I had - the closest approximation of a big, cool window light I could create with my strobes. Patti sat down and turned to me.

"Okay, what do you want to do here? What's your idea?"

I stammered for a second and then said that I was very interested in Victorian portrait photography and Pictorialism, nervously name-dropping Nadar and Stieglitz and Clarence White.

"So you mean Julia Margaret Cameron and that sort of thing?"

Yeah, I said - exactly. Patti looked down for a second, as if she was making a decision, then looked up with a smile.

"Right," she said. "Great. You get it. You'll get more than I usually give most people."

Patti Smith, Toronto, June 1995

From that moment on the shoot was as nearly perfect as any I've done. I didn't need to coax or describe, as we both had a common catalogue of photos in our heads, and Patti did her best to strike a balance between her own image - created many years ago in front of the camera of her friend and former lover Robert Mapplethorpe, principally - and those old portraits of Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt that we both had in our minds.

I shot colour slide - both straight and cross-processed - and black and white. I did as many rolls as I thought she had the patience to sit for, and then put down my camera and thanked her. She stood up and took my hand with both of hers and thanked me back, then collected her bag and coat and said goodbye to Michael. For a moment, I stood there in the hotel room, ashamed of my trepidation of so many years.

Patti Smith, Diamond Club, Toronto, June 1995

I brought my camera along to her show and took what I thought were some very good live shots, but it was the portraits that I sweated over. I had a very clear image in my head about what they should look like, but two things were letting me down. The first was the backdrop; I'd have preferred something darker or less mottled, but this was the closest thing they had in the rentals at Vistek, and my favorite backdrop - a canvas roll painted with clouds - was out.

The second problem was my own lack of skill in the darkroom. I worked hard to recreate the narrow focus and painterly effects that inspired me in the old photos Patti and I had talked about, but I was defeated by the sharpness of my lens and the brightness of my strobes. Stieglitz and Nadar and Cameron were working with view cameras, of course, and between their long lenses and slow film and the ability to tilt the focal plane, they could create effects that my modern equipment was designed to avoid.

Patti Smith, Toronto, June 1995

I did my best with what I had and the cover story ran as scheduled. A few weeks later I got a call from Raymond Foye, a friend of Patti's and the publisher of Hanuman Books; he was helping organize her concert in Central Park and asked if they could pay to use one of my photos for a t-shirt to be sold at the event. Of course I said yes.

At around the same time I got a call from Patti; she was waiting to do a shoot with Bruce Weber but needed some publicity shots fast and asked if Arista, her record company, could pay to use mine in the meantime. Of course I said yes. I was, I had to admit, flattered to be Bruce Weber's placeholder.

(This turned into quite an ugly situation, through no fault of Patti's. I sent Arista the shots and an invoice, which they took months to pay. I began calling my contact there and was given the usual excuses until I informed them that, as per my usual terms laid out on the invoice, I'd be sending them updated invoices charging interest until I got the money I was owed. Cash flow was a constant problem for me.

The PR person at Arista called me on the phone and things got harsh. She expressed some outrage that I was even pressing the issue, and said that she had a lot of influence in New York and that I'd have a hard time getting work there if I kept making a stink. This might have scared me a few years previous, but by this point my dreams of a New York career were pretty nearly extinguished, so I laughed and said that for all the work I got from south of the border she could go ahead and knock herself out.

Patti called me again around this time about sending me some t-shirts, and asked how I was doing. I said I didn't want to bother her, but that there was this little problem with Arista and my invoice. She apologized sincerely and said she'd see what she could do. Not long after that I got my cheque.)

These photos of Patti have sat in my files for twenty years. I wanted to put one of them in my portfolio but was unable to achieve the effects I longed for until just recently. Thanks to a very nice new scanner and Photoshop this shoot finally feels like it's finished. I'm particularly fond of the black and white portrait, third down from the top. Thank you for your patience, Patti, and for being so much nicer than I ever could have imagined.


Friday, January 15, 2016


Rachel McAdams, Toronto, June 7, 2004

IT'S OSCAR SEASON AGAIN, AND AS GOOD A TIME AS ANY to rummage through the archives for portraits of some of the nominees. It was obvious that Cate Blanchett was going to be among them, just as it was clear that Todd Haynes wouldn't - I think he still freaks the Academy out a bit. Like last year's lucky dip, it's mostly from this side of the analog wall - portraits shot on assignment for the free national daily while I worked there, mostly at the film festival.

These are classic three (more like two) minute hotel room shoots, shot either at the end of an interview I did with the subject (Miller) or after politely waiting for the writer to finish up, one eye on my watch and the other on the hair-trigger publicist eager to shoo us all out and get the next interview started. It's not a great way to get a photo, but it was all the only game in town near the end of my last sustained stint shooting celebrity portraiture.

George Miller, Toronto, Nov. 13, 2006

George Miller was in town promoting Happy Feet, his animated penguin film. It's easy to forget that the man behind Mad Max was also responsible for the Babe and Happy Feet films. This wasn't a studio shot, or even one done with a flash in an umbrella on a stand, but relied on some weird mix of practical and window light in the room where we did our interview - plus a bit of judicious burning in Photoshop.

One major retouching job involved his shirt. Miller was fond of sporting one of his own design - a black double-breasted number with a trio of chili peppers embroidered on the front. I'm sure it must have had some significance for him, but it was distracting as hell in every shot so I've had the capiscum "disappeared" here.

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

Alejandro Iñárritu was in my Oscar post last year, and reappears again this year with a nomination for The Revenant, his "Leo DiCaprio versus Yogi Bear" film. Once again, a very fast shoot done in one of the rooms in a festival suite, just next to a room filled with ringing phones and busy publicists.

It was one of the first shoots where I realized how forgiving the new digital SLRs could be - in this case the paper's Canon EOS Rebel, a consumer-quality camera that still had a remarkable tolerance for low light conditions that might have meant grainy prints and a lack of shadow detail when I was still shooting with film. The next challenge, I knew, was not to start relying on the camera to fix my mistakes.

Mark Ruffalo, Toronto, Sept. 13, 2007

Mark Ruffalo also makes a return appearance in this year's Oscars post, nominated for his role in The Spotlight. I was lucky to have some very nice - but very faint - light for this shoot, and going back to the files I discover that I shot quite a few frames to make sure that at least a few of them were sharp. A year later, I guess I'd learned that there were still things that a digital camera couldn't fix.

Last year's Ruffalo shot was smiley; this year I went for something more somber, with a mood boost provided by going grayscale. It looks like this is the year that I finally part with what's left of my darkroom - my enlargers and trays, reels, tanks and easels. I can't say that I'll miss them, considering how much easier it's been to get results from my raw shots these days. Just turning a colour negative into a black and white print would have once involved special paper or internegatives, and I can't say that I miss any of it.

Rachel McAdams, Toronto, June 7, 2004

Finally, my Rachel McAdams shoot from 2004 sees the light of day again thanks to her best supporting actress nomination, also for The Spotlight. Another hotel room, a lovely spot of light, a "Penn corner" and a subject willing to do more than just stare at the lens - what could be better?

McAdams was in town promoting either Mean Girls or The Notebook, and must have been in a good mood, based on my shots. Backing someone into the corner of a hotel room isn't a bad way of making them interact with you, whether you have a camera or not, and I'd do it whenever I could if the light favored any corner of a room at the old Four Seasons.

Whoever did her makeup that day had a heavy hand with the eyeliner, but I'm grateful - it makes a face more graphic, and helped the shot at the top, once transformed to black and white, take on a nice retro feel. It was a good shoot; if I'd even bothered having a portfolio at this point it definitely would have ended up in there.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Cate Blanchett

Cate Blanchett, Toronto, September 1998

I CAN'T PRETEND MY SHOOT WITH CATE BLANCHETT WAS A NOTABLE SUCCESS. I remember it even now as more than slightly awkward, with neither of us really sure of what we wanted to do on either side of the camera. At the time, she was a young actress with her first really big roles and a reputation as someone to watch, and I wanted to get something nice, but the late '90s were also a period of no small creative exhaustion, coming at the end of a long decade of hotel rooms and available light and increasingly brief shoots in long days of press junketing.

Blanchett was in Toronto publicizing her starring role in Elizabeth, playing the young Tudor queen in a film that would lead to an inevitable sequel and a high profile career that has produced a sixth Oscar nomination for Todd Haynes' Carol. She's won twice now, once for playing Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator, and I won't be the first person to suggest that her career is more like Hepburn's than any other movie star.

Cate Blanchett, Toronto, September 1998

I shot Blanchett for NOW magazine, and since I did three rolls of colour I presume it was for a cover. In these situations I'd have shot a roll of black and white as well, but I can't find any in my files, so perhaps we were running the cover spread with colour as well by this point. As I've said before, my memories of this period are vague, at best.

After a brief hiatus I'd returned to cross-processing, doubtless trying to throw some random element into these hotel room shoots. Instead of looking for blocky, oversaturated colour, though, I was using 400 speed slide film (usually Fujichrome) and shooting it as rated, which resulted in negatives with only slight colour shifts and a faintly retro look, like old Kodachrome.

The top and bottom shots are cross-processed, while the one in the middle is regular colour negative film. The frame below gives some idea of what I'd come to bank on with cross-processed 400 ASA slide film after nearly a decade of experimenting - warm skin tones, vivid primaries, and a slight green cast in the shadows. The frame at the top, though has been heavily manipulated in Photoshop to look like a hand-coloured black and white photo - something I couldn't have done in the darkroom back then, and a look that I think has some potential.

Cate Blanchett, Toronto, September 1998

Blanchett has had a very nice career, I think. Not a conventional beauty, she's been lucky enough to be spared the cheesecake and nude scenes and has worked with practically every worthwhile director in and outside of Hollywood. It's not to say that she's without her particular charms; she has a great face for period films, though I found her at her most attractive recently playing a highly tailored and psychotic rogue CIA officer in Hanna, which probably says more about me than anything else.

I've never really revisited this shoot until now, so strong was the lingering memory of Blanchett's nervous, unsure demeanor in front of my camera. I don't remember much except that she kept sharing bemused glances with her husband, Andrew Upton, and that she had very big feet and hands. Don't ask me why that detail has lingered.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes, Toronto, Sept. 13, 2007

I'VE BEEN THINKING A LOT ABOUT SECOND CHANCES LATELY, both in terms of my career as a photographer but also when I look back on the scant handful of subjects I had in front of my camera more than once. If you take away friends and acquaintances, it's a tiny group, but I'm terribly grateful for them, since they give me some sort of yardstick for how my competence and that slow, painful crawl toward a personal style evolved.

I shot director Todd Haynes for the first time over a quarter century ago, when he showed up at the film festival to promote a film that, ultimately, no one would be allowed to see. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story was a legend more than a movie - a 43-minute dramatization of the life of the late Carpenters' singer and drummer made with Barbie dolls. It had gotten Haynes a lot of press in addition to a lawsuit that forced him to withdraw it from exhibition two years after I took these photos.

Todd Haynes, Toronto, Sept. 1988

My then-girlfriend was terribly excited about Haynes and his movie; a film and semiotics grad, he was coming from what was, in the late '80s, a very fashionable place for young artists, and seemed to have cracked the formula for making an actually entertaining picture using cultural theory as an inspiration. It would turn out to be a launching pad for a directing career that's occasionally been successful with more than just critics, and has brought him remarkably close to an Oscar.

I have no idea who commissioned me for the photos I took at the 1988 film festival, but I was apparently quite busy. I'll take a flyer and guess that I shot Haynes in a suite at the old Four Seasons in Yorkville, in a room that had apparently been stripped down for press interviews.

I had a lot more confidence in my work as a photographer than as a darkroom printer at this point; these two very clean, stark frames were a challenge to get from my Spotmatic to photo paper, the shot below a particular challenge that I remember failing at the time. I've only now been able to produce something workable from the negative; I particularly like the flickering lady on the TV behind him.

Todd Haynes, Toronto, Sept. 1988

Haynes' first couple of films after Superstar didn't do much for me, but he caught my interest again with Velvet Goldmine, a rock biopic/romance inspired by David Bowie and Iggy Pop. I liked Far From Heaven, his homage to Douglas Sirk's torrid '50s melodramas, even more - a well he's returned to with his latest film, Carol, which has likely gotten star Cate Blanchett an Oscar nomination.

My favorite Haynes film, though, is I'm Not There, an equally fanciful rock biopic of Bob Dylan that put him in front of my camera again when he promoted it at another film festival, nineteen years after I first did his portrait.

Todd Haynes, Toronto, Sept. 13, 2007

The shoot took place in yet another hotel room - it may even have been the Four Seasons again - in yet another sweet spot of available window light. I was shooting for the busy layouts and tight spaces of the free national daily, which had pared down my already no-frills portrait style to simple headshots. I was using the paper's Canon EOS 30D, and had just begun to get really comfortable with shooting digitally.

My second shoot with Haynes is less ambitious, but far more intimate, since I'd been forced to make up for the loss of any attempt at creative composition with the forced interaction you get from a subject in just a minute or two, aided by putting on a short lens and getting as much into their personal space as instinct allowed. I would never have submitted the frame at the top - my favorite - to the paper; it's the most interesting one, and (based on long experience) inevitably the one that photo editors reject.


Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie

David Bowie, Skydome, Toronto, March 7, 1990

I NEVER THOUGHT HE WOULD DIE. It's a ridiculous thing to say, I know, but as far as I was concerned David Bowie was always there and, based on precedent, always would be. Obviously I was wrong. 

The news came out of nowhere; no one but his family and friends knew he was ill and, having stage managed his life with seemingly effortless success for so many years, he made his exit with remarkable discretion.

David Bowie, Skydome, Toronto, March 7, 1990

One of my first entries in this blog was about him. I had maintained for years that, to my everlasting regret, I'd never seen him live, and until I discovered these negatives in my files, I was sure that I hadn't. Which is a very strange thing to do if you're a big fan. A really, really big fan.

The Skydome, Sound & Vision tour, 1990. As I rationalized in that post, this wasn't how I ideally wanted to see one of my great heroes - two, maybe three songs from a photo pit at the side of the stage - so I erased the memory. Better to have no memory at all than one that reminded me of opportunities missed - Seneca Field House with Iggy Pop, Maple Leaf Gardens in 1978.

And now this is my only memory, so I guess I'd better cherish it.

David Bowie, Skydome, Toronto, March 7, 1990

It was Paul Thurston who turned me on to Bowie, back in grade nine at St. Mike's. I'd heard his hits on the radio all through my childhood - Major Tom, Ziggy, the soul boy and early Thin White Duke  - but Paul insisted I buy a copy of Heroes, his latest record. He said it would change my life.

There's at least a whole generation of us - the "Bowie-damaged" ones. All the punks were Bowie damaged, and at least every other musical genre or social subculture since then has had his fingerprints on it. The man has a hell of a legacy. It just seems strange that he's no longer going to be around to enjoy it.

David Bowie, Skydome, Toronto, March 7, 1990

David Bowie was always on my "list." He was on that list when Chris Buck and I first made ours, and he remained on it even when I knew that my chances of getting him in front of my camera for a portrait - slim even before he was a recluse - became almost completely improbable. Even if there was the barest chance I cherished the fantasy that luck and fortune might somehow beat the odds. No more.

I married a Bowie fan and we've made little Bowie fans out of our children. The man taught me about inspiration and re-invention and going unexpected places when your creativity needs more light and air. I suppose I kept him on my list because I wanted the chance to tell him that. I'm guessing, though, that he'd have heard it before, plenty of times.

David Bowie (aka David Robert Jones) died in New York City of cancer on January 10, 2016.


Thursday, January 7, 2016

Peter Greenaway

Peter Greenaway, Toronto, Sept.1991

MY EIGHTIES WEREN'T LIKE MOST OTHER PEOPLE'S EIGHTIES. The decade might have meant Huey Lewis and Tears for Fears for most folks; it was Steve Reich and Pussy Galore for me. Similarly, the average person who lived through the Cold War's last act might put on Back To The Future or The Breakfast Club to bring back memories. For me, it would be The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Bloody, rotting carcasses, roast cock and all.

I first heard about Peter Greenaway from my best friend from high school, who'd met him at a documentary filmmaking seminar in Kingston, Ontario. Greenaway had been invited on the strength of a string of unconventional films - Women Artists, The Falls - that only looked on the surface like documentary films. He endeared himself by telling everyone that, as far as he could see, there really wasn't any such thing as a documentary film, which went over really well with people who lived on National Film Board grants.

Peter Greenaway, Toronto, Sept.1991

By the time I photographed Greenaway he'd made a reputation for himself with a series of strange, lavish, beautifully-photographed features where his lead actors would inevitably get naked and the story would rely on a methodical countdown instead of some rush to catharsis. They were "art films," to be sure, but art films with big stars that got talked about, even if no one could really say what they were about.

That heady, ambitious, inscrutable love of artifice is the Eighties to me - a period of decadence in more than just the arts, and the last time (if we'd only known it!) when a lot of now-marginal cultural institutions were still part of the mainstream: Art house cinema, difficult novels, classical music. Though he seemed a product of high art, Greenaway's success was really among the last flourishing moments of middlebrow culture, where regular people were invited to ponder canonical art in a pop culture medium.

Peter Greenaway, Toronto, Sept.1991

A documentary made at around the time I shot Greenaway's portrait hints that this outfit - unconstructed jacket, dark shirt, stripey knit tie - was his standard uniform, suggesting an image of the artist opening his wardrobe to reveal a row of hangars loaded with identical items of clothing. He had a clear, knowing control of his image, and conveyed it without variation over the whole roll of 35mm film I shot in my Nikon at that year's film festival.

This might have been the first time I tried to transform the standard hotel room by draping the window curtains over a lamp or a chair. It felt suitable to shoot Greenaway with this sort of backdrop, the curtains evoking drapery in the sort of epic old master paintings that he was constantly recreating in his films. I think one of these shots might have been in my portfolio for a while. I'm not sure I'd have done that today, since I can no longer presume that art directors and photo editors will be at all familiar with the work of someone like Peter Greenaway.