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.



  1. Beautiful photos and interesting information! Two questions: 1) What lenses/techniques did you use? I'm interested in knowing how you achieved the very low depth of field in these protraits. 2) What would be that documentary with Greenaway you cite? Thank you!

    1. I can't be sure what camera I was using at this point - it was either a Nikon F3 or a Canon EOS Elan. The lens was probably either a 50 or 35mm, probably fully open. The narrow depth of field was accentuated further in Photoshop, by creating a layer, blurring it with a filter and painting in the areas of focus. I hope that helps.