Thursday, March 31, 2016

J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard, Toronto, October 1987

THEY'VE MADE A MOVIE OUT OF J. G. BALLARD'S NOVEL HIGH RISE. Back when I took these pictures the idea of a motion picture based on a Ballard book seemed outlandish, even though Steven Spielberg's adaptation of his Empire of the Sun would come out that year. Up until that autobiographical novel, Ballard's work was simply too dark, too strange, too forbidding to cast with movie stars and project on a screen in some multiplex.

If Ballard was to be seen onscreen, it would be something suitably odd and marginal, like the 1971 short film based loosely on Crash, starring Ballard and the lovely Gabrielle Drake, sister of doomed folk legend Nick Drake. I couldn't predict - and still scarcely believe - that David Cronenberg would make a feature film out of Crash barely a decade after I took these photos. Even more shockingly, someone made a film of The Atrocity Exhibition after that and then, with suitable absurdity, a Swede directed a Portuguese movie version of Ballard's short story "Low Flying Aircraft."

And now High Rise. From the looks of things, the world is catching up to J. G. Ballard. And perhaps that's not such a good thing.

J. G. Ballard, Toronto, October 1987

Ballard was a literary star when I took these pictures for (I think) Nerve magazine - Empire of the Sun had been a bestseller, the Spielberg movie was imminent, and he had a new novel out, The Day of Creation. I remember being quite overawed by having him in front of my camera; I'd shot a few movie directors and a lot of bands but Ballard was a major writer whose reputation - at least in my circle of morbid deviant friends - was stellar.

The shot just above was a very early attempt at making a high-key portrait, well before I actually knew how to do such a thing with technical precision, so I simply placed him in front of a window in the (I think) Park Plaza Hotel and ended up with what was a painfully difficult negative to print, given my limited skills. I don't know why I didn't print the photo at the top of this post; I can't even tell you if I asked him to close his eyes or whether I just snapped the shutter when he did. Scanning it after picking it out from a very dark contact sheet the other day yielded a very pleasant surprise; I like it a lot.

I don't think anyone has seen these shots in nearly thirty years.

J. G. Ballard, Toronto, October 1987

Ballard was quite charming - hardly the stern, even lugubrious counterculture figure I expected, he was very much the middle class English gentleman, remarkably tolerant of a fumbling young photographer. I do remember him being a terrible flirt with the female publicists from his publishing house - a widower when he was just 34, he had a rakish ease with women that probably impressed me as much as his celebrity.

James Graham Ballard died of cancer in London on April 19, 2009.


Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Scarborough, December 2015

THE SHOW HAS MELTED AND SPRING IS HERE and it looks like I'll finally be able to get out and wander the city with my camera again. Just before winter set in late last year I was spending a lot of time wandering the transit and hydro corridors in Scarborough, just by the RT line between Midland and Lawrence East stations.

I am a third generation west end Torontonian, so Scarborough, at the far east of the city, is alien territory for me. Perhaps that's why I've found it so inspiring to wander around out there - it's strange and unfamiliar, like visiting a different city. The houses look different and the topography is strange and the fact that downtown is to the west and not to the east makes it feel like someone has messed with my internal compass.

Scarborough RT, November 2015

Wandering the RT is interesting; like most things that were once futuristic, it looks more than a bit dystopic now - a shopworn, patched-up future that never fulfilled its promise. The line's future is in doubt as well; the city's various transit plans all call for it to be replaced with something else, so it's a future with an expiry date.

The land underneath the elevated tracks is strange - overgrown infrastructure, a thin sliver of wilderness growing in the shadow of concrete pylons. I've come to love places like this. As I've said before, raw nature makes me uncomfortable, so I like those bits of circumscribed wilderness hemmed in by cities - parks and transit right-of-ways and lately, especially, hydro corridors.

Scarborough, hydro corridor, Dec.2015

A hydro corridor runs into and alongside the Scarborough RT, so I spent another day late last year exploring it with my camera. Parkland runs around and under the pylons, next to the RT tracks and up against industrial areas and backyards. Trees are planted and pruned with scenic prerogatives a distant secondary priority, while swathes of grassland will grow alongside the paths. It's nature managed by bureaucrats and engineers.

Back on the RT, it's hard not to pull out the LCD screen on the Fuji and shoot waist level, sneaking pictures of fellow passengers as they nap and daydream and worry and peck at their phones. I know it's not strictly legal, but I can't help myself; even on a hunt for landscapes, the urge to make portraits is still overwhelming.

Scarborough RT, November 2015


Friday, March 25, 2016

Toronto Hip Hop 1989-1996

Dream Warriors, Parkdale, April 1991

IT'S HARD TO BE A MUSICIAN IN MY HOMETOWN. It's not like there's no audience here - the biggest city in the country has more than enough people to fill everything from a tiny club to a community centre to a stadium, all on one night. And it's not like you can't get attention - with much of the national media and almost every major record company renting office space here, if you're worth noticing, someone will let you know.

The problem is more than just numbers. Once you have a following, it's likely that your fans will always find a way to turn out, whether it's a few people in a cafe or a full house at Massey Hall. You can keep playing for those people over and over for years, and their kind words and occasional dollars will keep you going on a sort of life support, long after you've lost momentum.

But the worst part is that even if you're the cover story in the weekend arts section or signed to the Canadian branch of some multinational entertainment company, it doesn't take long for coverage to look like hype, and for the A&R rep who signed you to either lose their job or move up to the big league in New York or London (if they're lucky.) That album that got four stars in NOW will eventually get remaindered, and you might find it in the buck-a-disc bin at your favorite used record shop.

I've seen it happen. Many times.

Michie Mee & L.A. Luv, Toronto, 1989

At the end of the '80s, just as hip hop had finally staked its claim on the airwaves all over the world, Toronto produced a handful of rappers and DJs and - most importantly - a local audience that made it hard to ignore. Mainstream radio plugged its ears, but thanks to college radio and disc jockeys like Ron Nelson, a scene grew up, with a distinctly local sound that drew on the Caribbean roots of many of the scene's performers and fans.

I was sent to photograph Michelle McCulloch - aka Michie Mee - and her DJ L.A. Luv (Phillip Gayle) by a music industry publication; she'd already signed a deal with a U.S. label though her debut album wouldn't come out for almost two years. We met in Grange Park behind the Art Gallery; she was articulate, well-mannered and pretty, and I remember thinking that it was typical of Canada to break into the hip hop market with such an affable artist.

Maestro Fresh Wes, video shoot, Toronto, April 1990

Wesley Williams - Maestro Fresh Wes - was the other major front in Toronto's hip hop scene. He'd already released an album when my best friend from high school invited me to come along to the set of the music video he was shooting for the record's second single, "Drop the Needle." "Positivity" was already emerging as a major trend in hip hop, and the Toronto scene embraced it big time - Wes wore evening dress on his record sleeves and cultivated a serious, dignified image.

There might have been a scene and an audience and plenty of momentum, but radio was still ignoring local hip hop and black music in general. In 1991 rap and R&B musicians banded together under the name Dance Appeal to record a single, "Can't Repress the Cause," pleading for their share of airtime. This was probably the reason I was assigned to shoot a "family portrait" of the local scene for another music trade publication.

Toronto hip hop "family portrait," May 1991

I set up my backdrop in a courtyard at Ryerson Polytechnic, a downtown community college, but found that there were too many subjects to fit neatly in the black square I'd rolled out. Michie and Wes are here, along with the Dream Warriors, Thrust and HDV. (I reached out to Michie and Thrust to help me ID everyone in this shot but never heard back from them.) It's not a great photo but it might be a valuable document - a snapshot of a scene coming together, if only to protest their exclusion.

At around the same time the Bar B Q became a regular feature in downtown clubs - a night where hip hop artists and fans (the distinction was never clear) would get together to freestyle and dance to records. I was sent along by yet another music publication - there were once quite a few in Toronto; what did I tell you about no shortage of media or attention? - and spent the night shooting away at the Rivoli on Queen West with my Nikon and a flash mounted with a big reflector.

Bar B Q, Rivoli club, Toronto, May 1991

Hoping to get something different from the usual flash-lit shots in a club, I cross-processed my film to get big colours and a lot of contrast. Obviously I also slipped into default mode for this sort of shooting, which meant channeling Larry Fink and Lee Friedlander. Looking at these shots for the first time in twenty-five years, what strikes me is how mixed the crowd is - it has to be remembered that a big part of what brought hip hop into the mainstream at the turn of the '90s was a huge audience of white suburban kids.

Toronto hip hop looked set to go big time in 1991, or at least that's how it seemed to me when I set up a big shoot at my studio with the Dream Warriors, Their first album, And Now The Legacy Begins, had just been released and I was doing double duty - shooting a cover story for NOW and a feature for SPIN in New York. I filled about a dozen rolls, many of them cross-processed like the shot at the top of this piece.

Dream Warriors, Parkdale, April 1991

Desperate to get something unique, I also shot a couple of rolls of Konica infrared 120 film without the deep red filter, which made for some subtle colour shifts that rendered their black t-shirts in medium gray. As the shot above proves, I was also keen to get something that echoed Richard Avedon's cover for Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends.

As I said before, though, momentum doesn't last, and I found it hard to watch local hip hop artists struggling against the local brand of entropy over the next few years, especially since I'd already spent years watching my friends in bands struggling against the same obstacles. The local rock and hip hop scenes seemed to find common cause eventually, and Michie Mee would join a collective of indie rock musicians going under the moniker Raggadeath.

Thrust, Parkdale, 1996

After a frenzy of shooting local hip hop, it would be a few years before my next assignment. Christopher France is an MC who goes by Thrust, and while he was in my "family portrait" and appears several times in my Bar B Q crowd shots, he didn't get an album out until 1996, at which point NOW hired me to shoot him for the cover.

I did a lot of "flash and burn" motion blur shots for the cover, but opted for something more formal and composed for the inside, which included this frame, of which I've always been quite proud - it sums up the sort of clean, careful, introspective look I was always aiming for in the heyday of my '90s shooting. (He brought the mic prop, by the way.)

Two years later, Thrust would appear with Choclair, Checkmate and Kardinal Offishall on the Rascalz' "Northern Touch" single, which was a kind of bookend to "Can't Repress the Cause" celebrating how local hip hop had survived the years of industry and media indifference that followed that brief period of activity and interest.

Nowadays, after the success of K'naan and especially Drake, we like to pretend that Toronto has always fostered its hop hop scene, but everyone knows it's just a polite story we tell to make ourselves feel good - one of many, to be honest. Michie Mee and Maestro are still around, though they both branched out into acting in films and TV.

The Dream Warriors broke up after releasing their last album in 2002, though they reunited for a '90s tribute night five years ago, when the Junos - the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys - held a series of concerts celebrating the award's 40th anniversary. At the time, though, King Lou - aka Louis Robinson - gave an interview to the Toronto Star where he was honest about his group's relationship to the sort of back-patting that the Junos dispensed:
"For me, personally, the Junos never really seemed like something that kind of furthered what I was doing."
Thrust is still at it as well, teaching at a technical school for music and recording. I think they all would have liked it if Toronto's newfound reputation as a major centre of hip hop had arrived just a few years earlier, but this is a city that really hates making anything happen too easily. Just ask us about our subway.



Thursday, March 24, 2016

Ice Cube & Yo-Yo

Ice Cube, Toronto, 1990

WEST COAST RAP WAS OFFICIALLY THE NEXT BIG THING when I did these portraits of Ice Cube and Yo-Yo in late 1990. I'd bought a bootleg cassette of NWA's Straight Outta Compton on the street in NYC a couple of years previous - the illegal download of its day, and a sure sign that the audience for a new record was both large and eager. After the record hit big and caused all the usual controversy with "Fuck tha Police" there was a contractual disagreement between Ice Cube, the group's main writer, and their management, and he was soon on the road promoting his first solo record, Amerikkka's Most Wanted.

The concert was at the Concert Hall, aka the old Masonic Temple, and I did these shots in the same room where, a year before, I'd done my portrait session with Fela Kuti. The client, according to the Big Ledger, was Network magazine; I have no memory of Network at all, the internet remains mute on its existence, and the Big Ledger doesn't record any other jobs for them, though I did apparently send some prints to Edna Suarez at the Village Voice several months later.

(UPDATE: My friend Marc Weisblott tells me that Network was a magazine published by Sam the Record Man, one of Canada's now-defunct big record retailers, as a copy of Tower Records' Pulse.)

Ice Cube, Toronto, 1990

Cube - born O'Shea Jackson - arrived with a big entourage, and I have a whole contact sheet of pictures of him and locals and members of his posse posing together. I did the shoot with my Rolleiflex and a new toy - a 12"x24" soft box that I'd just bought, hoping to get a more focused light from my single Metz flash on a stand. I sat my subject in the middle of a row of old seats against the wall of the basement room, just a few feet from where my Fela shoot had happened. He didn't need much direction, having already mastered the art of a burning, confrontational stare that allowed him to dispense with the usual corny hand gestures and rap poses.

As I worked on my prints in the darkroom, I kept burning down the edges of the frame to create a sort of halo that radiated from Cube's face; it took a few test prints before I realized that I was trying to copy the look of an old religious icon, the kind I associated with the early Church and Eastern Orthodoxy.

We didn't have a lot of books in our house growing up, and the closest thing I can recall to an art book was the family Bible - a gilt-edged old volume with a loose cover and several sets of colour plates bound into it at intervals. These were devoted to reproductions of ancient religious art and old master paintings of scenes from the Old Testament and Christ's life. They were the whole of my art education for many years.

DJ Chilly Chill & Yo-Yo, Toronto, 1990

Ice Cube, like most rappers, was hit with accusations of sexism from his first records on, and his answer was to sign Yo-Yo - 19-year-old Yolanda Walker of Compton - to his record label. Her first record wouldn't come out until the following year, but she toured as his opening act and I made the session a two-fer by shooting her portrait for an upcoming piece in HMV magazine.

Yo-Yo launched herself at the head of something called the Intelligent Black Woman's Coalition and it would have been nice to have featured a solo portrait of her, but my favorite frames from my shoot with her feature her DJ, Chilly Chill, regarding her in the background. Once again I was using the sorts of details I loved in Renaissance history and Biblical paintings - the little interactions you see in groupings of background figures. Shot with cross-processed slide film, it has a vivid tonality that I've tried to emphasize by desaturating the colours in the background.

Yo-Yo is still around; she released four albums before her fifth was shelved by her record company in 1998, dated Tupac Shakur and appeared in two of hip hop's most iconic movies - Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society - before moving on to television. She's married to the former mayor of Highland Park, MI and runs her own hip hop school, and appears in GTA: San Andreas. In 2013 BET announced that she'd star in Hip Hop Sisters, a reality show about female rappers trying to re-launch their careers, alongside MC Lyte, Monie Love, The Lady of Rage and Smooth, but I have no idea if it ever aired.

Ice Cube has had a long career in music, TV and film, producing TV and movie series like Barbershop and Are We There Yet? He's written seven movies and produced at least a dozen, including last year's Straight Outta Compton, based around the early history of NWA. He's released fewer records as his Hollywood profile has grown, though like Ice T the onetime scourge of law enforcement has played police officers with increasing regularity.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Queen Latifah

Queen Latifah, Baltimore, May 1990

I LOVE TO TRAVEL. We didn't do much of it when I was growing up, so any opportunity to go somewhere different - a day trip on a bus to a small town, a couple of days away on business, a week in a new country - becomes a highlight in my year. My first few years working for NOW magazine coincided with what was probably the last boom time in publishing, and with budgets to send photographers on cover shoots, I ended up on a plane at least once every few months.

One of my first ever cover shoot trips for NOW took me to Baltimore to shoot Dana Elaine Owens, aka Queen Latifah, a nineteen year old rapper from New Jersey who had just released her first album on Tommy Boy, one of hip hop's iconic labels. She was playing a concert at a black fraternity event at the University of Maryland, so I was given a plane ticket, a hotel reservation and a per diem and told by James, the paper's music editor, to go directly to the main campus of the U of M without stopping at my hotel, as time was of the essence.

Queen Latifah, Baltimore, May 1990

There are several campuses for the University of Maryland, but in an age before Google this wasn't easy information to acquire, so I gave the cab driver instructions to take me to the main campus at College Park, and watched Baltimore recede behind me on the long car trip that took me down a tree-lined parkway and closer to Washington D.C., where I discovered that there was no black frat concert happening there.

I'd used up nearly the whole of my cash on hand and per diem, so I had to persuade another cabbie to take me back to my hotel, where the concierge advanced me money to pay the driver while we called NOW's financial controller at his home to get him to wire money to the hotel. We also discovered that the fraternity concert was actually happening at the U of M's nearby Baltimore campus. I had been in crisis mode for several hours now and I still didn't have my portrait; this is how things got done in the age before e-mail, web searches and cell phones.

Queen Latifah, Baltimore, May 1990

I arrived at the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus and the arena where the frats were already putting on step-dancing performances; "stepping" wasn't anything new, but it was getting a lot of media coverage back then thanks to the "Greek Sings" that black frats were sponsoring. I found Latifah in her dressing room on the balcony of the arena, a bland, fluorescent-lit white room where I set up using the single-flash-into-an-umbrella setup that I relied upon for cover shoots in my early years at NOW.

I shot my rolls of colour slide into the strict cover template NOW forced on photographers, carefully angling the light to blow out as much of the wall behind Latifah as it could. She was at pains to avoid typical rap poses and hand gestures, preferring to signal a wary thoughtfulness by glancing off to the side and playing with her glasses. The teal of her jacket should be enough to date this picture to the turn of the '90s if you lived through the era.

Queen Latifah has gone on to have a long career, crossing over from music to movies and TV, and transforming herself into a jazz and R&B singer along the way. She's released a fragrance and written an autobiography and held her own onscreen with Steve Martin in a hit comedy film. Last year she played one of her idols, Bessie Smith, in an HBO biopic.

When I returned from my Balitmore trip there was apparently an acrimonious editorial meeting where the music editor tried to blame the University of Maryland snafu on me, but Irene, the photo editor, and several other staff came to my defense; if he'd managed to sway everyone at that meeting, there's a good chance that my career at NOW would have come to an end right there. It didn't, and I'd end up traveling with my cameras a lot more over the next few years.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ice T

Ice T, Toronto, June 1989

UP UNTIL THE LATE '80S HIP HOP WAS ALMOST ENTIRELY AN EAST COAST BUSINESS. It became bicoastal at the turn of the '90s with the arrival of a more aggressive, stridently controversial group of artists from Los Angeles, and one man was essentially the bridge between the two.

Ice T was born Tracy Lauren Marrow in Newark, New Jersey, a middle-class child who lost both his parents before he was thirteen. Living out the real life, non-primetime version of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, he moved to L.A. to stay with an aunt, got involved with the fringe of the Crips, joined the army, returned to a life of crime after his discharge and decided to go clean after an auto accident.

He was in his first movie before he made his first album, which would set a trend for west coast rappers who shifted easily between the studio and the soundstage. By the time I photographed him for NOW he'd released two albums and had appeared in three movies, which is probably why, with the second of my two rolls of film, I used a big window draped in sheer swags in the lobby of a suburban hotel to try to create something that looked like a film still.

Ice T, Toronto, June 1989

He was in his early thirties when I did these photos, hardly a kid, and I remember he mostly saved the attitude for the photos. He traveled with the usual entourage, which included his girlfriend, dancer Darlene Ortiz, whose bikini'd derriere had graced the cover of Power, his most recent record, and who served him serious stick during the whole shoot.

At one point he was talking about a car that he wanted to buy, to her undisguised disapproval. He got defensive, saying that it was "the kind of car the President would drive."

"Uh huh," she drawled back. "The president of the high school."

At least a few members of Ice T's posse had a hard time disguising their smirks.

Ice T, Toronto, June 1989

My main backdrop/prop for this shoot was a big circular chandelier on the ceiling of the hotel lobby, which I turned into a halo behind my subject's head, shifting and weaving with my Nikon and wide-angle lens as I crouched beneath him. It was hardly my only use of religious imagery in my photos at the time, and by the time I got to Thursday's subject in this series, it had become a preoccupation.

Ice T would court controversy over the next few years, provoking the law with singles like "Cop Killer" while crossing the line from hip hop to rock with his band Body Count, and by working with Slayer, Black Sabbath, Jane's Addiction and Motorhead. He's done podcasts, documentary and reality TV, and has taken so many roles as cops and lawmen during his acting career that it might be possible that he's made more money playing cops than singing "Cop Killer."


Monday, March 21, 2016

Chuck D.

Chuck D. Toronto, 1988

THESE WERE VERY IMPORTANT PICTURES FOR ME. Looking back on the first five years of my career as a photographer, they might have been the most important pictures I took. In fact, I might not be here right now, posting all these old photos and writing about them, if I hadn't taken the initiative to find a hotel room and barge in because I really wanted to get a portrait that no one seemed to want to help me take.

Public Enemy were on their way to being the biggest rap group in the world when they came through Toronto between the release of their first and second records. I don't imagine a lot of people would have predicted how big they'd become based on Yo Bum Rush The Show, but I know that music critics like myself had been singing their praises since we heard the first single. I'm sure it was because they were a sensation with music geeks and rock critics like myself that I would have never predicted how huge they'd be.

Carlton Ridenhour - aka Chuck D - was a unique front man in hip hop, then and now, with a stentorian delivery that he partially cribbed from sports announcers. He didn't rap about rocking the mic or getting paid; he wanted to challenge his audience and tease out that strand of protest that went back to early rap tracks like "The Message." He flattered you that you knew what he was talking about, and that would end up being a winning strategy for at least a few years as the Reagan years transitioned into the first Bush administration.

I don't know if I was strictly on assignment for Nerve when I was wandering the hallways of a charmless downtown hotel looking for Chuck D's room, but I knew that I wanted to get his portrait. I do remember that the publicists at CBS records had been singularly unhelpful, but that a friend had tipped me off that he would be talking to a group of local fans and reporters at his hotel, but he wasn't sure about either the time or the room number.

I finally found the room, and the informal press conference in session, with Chuck on a couch in the corner while about a dozen or more young men hung on his every word. I introduced myself and leaned back against the wall by the door, scanning the room for a good backdrop. The space was as generic as the hotel itself, and tiny at that, but it didn't matter because by the time everyone started clearing out and I began setting up my single light stand, Chuck had made it clear that he really didn't much feel like getting up off the couch.

Chuck D. Toronto, 1988

When Public Enemy broke big at the end of the '80s, they were considered revolutionary, not just for their black power politics but for their sound, which dispensed with the cyclical drum loops and increasingly smooth-sounding production of rap records in favor of clattering rhythm samples and dissonant walls of noise.

This was shocking for everyone but two groups of people who embraced Public Enemy immediately: rock critics and fans of punk and metal - two demographics that were glaringly white. For my part, years of listening to hardcore punk and bands like Pussy Galore, Sonic Youth, the Swans and Einsturzende Neubaten (alongside my earlier love of funk and Philly soul) had primed me for their sound, and I'm sure that's why it seemed like everyone at Nerve tripped over themselves to write about Public Enemy.

For at least a handful of years at the turn of the '90s, I could call myself a fan of hip hop without a smirk or a qualification. When I pulled out my camera in Chuck D's hotel room, I'd already done a pretty decent shoot with Eric B & Rakim and a couple of forgettable ones with the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. I'd been to enough rap concerts to know they were generally dismal affairs that started late, ended too soon, and featured acts rapping over their own records - performing a ghost duet in unison with themselves.

Chuck was polite enough but obviously didn't want to put too much effort into my session with him, so I set up my flash and umbrella and hoped that I'd be able to shoot tight enough and blast in enough light to blow out the wallpaper behind him. He ran through a catalogue of what were already becoming standard hip hop poses and hand gestures, and I'm damned if he wasn't making duck lips in nearly every shot.

Chuck D. Toronto, 1988

The shot at the top was right next to the frame that ended up being on the cover of one of the last issues of Nerve. I managed to dodge the background to white with some effort and some contrast filters. Looking at the shots now, the wallpaper doesn't bother me as much, especially now that I can blur it a bit in Photoshop.

Nearly two years later, after It Takes A Nation of Millions and Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing took the band mainstream, I'd just begun selling photos to NOW magazine while working on the classical floor at A&A's Records on the Yonge Street strip. I was on probation with Irene Grainger, the photo editor at NOW, while she was figuring out whether she wanted to take on a new photographer, but one day my girlfriend (who was working there as a music critic) told me they needed shots of Public Enemy, and that no one - much to my shock - apparently had any.

I printed up the shot at the bottom pretty much as you see it, clean and stark with the background blown out, and took it in to Irene. A couple of weeks later they were on the cover of the magazine, which was fortunate since it was the same week I got fired from A&A's - my last ever real job until I ended up as photo editor at the free national daily over a decade later. Irene decided I was worth the risk, and I was suddenly a full-time freelance photographer, making the whole of my income from pictures.

The busiest years of my career as a photographer happened to overlap with what looks now like a golden age of hip hop, and I ended up documenting a bit of it - a series of shoots that I'll be featuring this week on the blog.

As for Public Enemy, I don't think I'm the only one whose affection for the band soured a bit when their onstage security chief and Minister of Information, Professor Griff, gave an interview where he echoed the rote Protocols of the Elders of Zion antisemitic conspiracy boilerplate he'd just absorbed from a Nation of Islam publication. The group's public ties to Louis Farrakhan made this pretty much inevitable, and while that led to Griff's exit from the group for a few years, it gave notice that an old (blood) libel was back, and would insinuate itself into leftist politics with increasing vigor over the next quarter century.

Does that cast a shadow over my old photos of Chuck D? Yeah, probably, but it doesn't change the fact that this very simple shoot, executed at the edge of my youthful competence, ended up being a turning point in my career. 


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Art class

Art Gallery of Ontario, March 2016

I HATE WINTER. Which is why, having two hours to myself on Saturday mornings while my daughter was at art class, I didn't head out onto the streets with my camera but haunted the Art Gallery of Ontario for the last couple of months. Not that it was a particularly brutal winter, but I simply wasn't made for the cold.

It's hard to believe that I didn't even know my hometown had a major municipal art gallery until well into my teens; for some reason it was never a destination on school field trips and, apparently, not the sort of place my family went. It's very different now - we have a family membership and daughter #2 is a big fan of their cartooning classes, so we spend a lot of time, together and apart, in the galleries at the AGO, behind the glass carapace and blue metal skin of Frank Gehry's recent renovation.

Art Gallery of Ontario, winter 2016

There's art on the walls, of course, but it's hard not to look at the rooms themselves, and every space, as something worth contemplating. I always feel a bit self-conscious in the scant handful of rooms - sometimes just one, big white space - in private galleries, but there's something really freeing about a maze of galleries, frequently reconfigured, and the little game of running across the same group of fellow gallery-goers and security guards the longer you linger there.

I couldn't help but turn my camera on them. My new Fuji X-30 has been a godsend, especially since I can not only set it up to shoot 1:1 square format like my beloved Rolleiflex but, thanks to a pivoting LCD screen on the back, I can shoot it waist level, with a completely silent shutter as it's mirrorless.

Art Gallery of Ontario, winter 2016

I love living in a big city.

Art Gallery of Ontario, Feb. 2016


Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Greg Dulli, Parkdale, 1998

I'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR AN EXCUSE TO RUN THIS PICTURE OF GREG DULLI FOR A WHILE. He's playing here tonight, though I'm too broke to go, but it's as good a time as any to put this up. The picture itself is just an excuse for me to talk about something that seems to have become scarce in photography lately - something I once strove mightily to get into my shots: Colour.

This shot of Dulli was done in my studio - one of my more carefully constructed portraits, and is from the single roll of colour film I shot that day. I had a box of colour gels in the studio that were well-used - sheets of primary colours that I employed with a set of acrylic filters to pump as much saturation into my shots as possible. When a client asked for colour work, I liked to deliver just that, in wholesale amounts.

Dream Warriors, Parkdale, 1991

This shot of the Dream Warriors, a local hip hop group that very nearly made it, is from some scanning I've been doing for a post going up next week. Like most of my colour work in the '90s, it's cross-processed - slide film run through negative chemistry to pump up the contrast and saturation. i relied on the technique for most of the first half of the '90s, using trial and error to figure out the films that would deliver the most punch.

If cross-processing had a drawback it was the colour shifts it introduced, usually casts of green and blue that couldn't be corrected out, but I learned to welcome this "flaw" because it brought in an element of chance, as well as forcing you to forgo the assumption that there was any "correct" colour.

cover shoot for Grasshopper, Stereovision, Toronto 1994

By the time I shot this outtake from a CD cover shoot for Grasshopper, a local stoner rock outfit, I was known for my aggressively-hued work. (Inspired, admittedly, by Chris Nichols here in Toronto and Michael Lavine in NYC.) Derrick, the band's leader, wanted something vivid, and with the album's title as my cue, I rented a camera with a fisheye lens and shot the tableau that Derrick had carefully set up with a crossfire of magenta and green gelled strobes, as close as possible to the ones used in the lenses of primitive 3D movie glasses.

I was very proud of the results, though when the record came out, whoever did the art direction had not only laid in lettering onto the TV screens but tinted the whole shot a dismal gray-green. It was an enormous disappointment after all that work.

Feet, Parkdale, 1997

I started pulling away from cross-processing in the latter half of the decade, but kept it in my arsenal for the right occasion - like this shot, commissioned by the Globe & Mail for a lifestyle section cover story on pedicures. It was the first and so far only time I've required the services of a foot model and a special makeup person to do her buffing and nails.

The flowers are real, and by this point I could control my cross-processed work to a much finer degree than the lurid shoots of a few years earlier; several years studying old Hollywood and commercial photography helped. I felt I'd finally mastered squeezing as much colour from my film as possible, well past the standards set by Kodachrome or Technicolor cinema stock. And like most of the hard-won knowledge in my life, it would prove mostly useless in the long run.

At some point in the last few years colour seems to have been drained not only from commercial photography but from the world at large. For someone who grew up in the '70s and '80s, the average crowded street seems a very drab place now, with most people kitted out in monochrome shades, with only the tiniest splashes of colour accenting their wardrobe - a scarf or hat, or a bit of lettering on a t-shirt.

Similarly I find myself reaching for the "desaturation" slider in Photoshop more often lately, just to get my shots to look in tune with our contemporary palette. (Take a look at the colour portrait of the Dream Warriors I'll be running next week; it's far more tonally neutral than the shot above, which I purposefully corrected to look like the original prints I sent to SPIN magazine twenty-five years ago.)

I have no way of explaining this. Perhaps its merely fashion, or some expression of a timid, anxious zeitgeist. If so, I long for the inevitable correction that might bring colour - real, eye-popping colour, and not the muted, bruised tones of some Instagram filter - back to our streets, and to our photos.