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.


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