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.


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