Friday, May 27, 2016

Jay McInerney

Jay McInerney, Toronto, Oct. 1988

I'VE BEEN WATCHING CNN'S DOCUMENTARY MINISERIES THE EIGHTIES where one of the talking heads called upon to reminisce about and analyze the decade is author Jay McInerney. I couldn't imagine a more perfect choice - McInerney is a quintessentially '80s figure, and I photographed him back in his heyday, a portrait shoot that has never seen the light of day as far as I can recall.

McInerney was in town for the Harbourfront Author's Festival - a year that included Jerzy Kosinsky, Kathy Acker and Andrei Bitov. I still don't remember how I blagged access, but I submitted my list and the publicist duly paraded the authors through my ad hoc studio - a beautifully-lit little space off the lobby of what had just previously been the Harbour Castle Hilton.

It was a good year for McInerney. He'd just published The Story of My Life, his third novel and one whose good reviews had muted the disappointing ones that greeted Ransom, his sophomore book, three years earlier. A movie version of his debut novel Bright Lights, Big City starring Michael J. Fox came out that year, and he was in a relationship with Marla Hanson, a model whose face had been slashed by thugs hired by her landlord.

Jay McInerney, Toronto, Oct. 1988

Hanson stood on the sidelines trading glances with McInerney while I took these photos. Their relationship, a seemingly perfect New York City mix of tabloid, society and culture, summed up the decade so far. He had managed to be two things - a writer and a celebrity - that don't often go well together, and seemed to be succeeding.

As I've written here before, by 1988 I felt my apprenticeship was over; I'd spend just over two years working hard at Nerve magazine to learn how to use my camera and when the paper had gone down earlier that year it seemed like now was the time to get out and compete for the sort of work professional photographers did. I only needed a portfolio of portraits that didn't just feature rock bands, which might explain why I talked my way into this hotel lobby and my little group of author subjects.

Jay McInerney, Toronto, Oct. 1988

The second and third shots featured on this post would be the sort of photos I went in hoping to make - competent, conventional but moody portraits, the sort that would work on the back of a book jacket or the pages of a newspaper books section. The one at the top, however, was the kind of frame I would look at over and over before rejecting, afraid that it seemed a bit "off." My instinct might have pushed for me to look at it again, but my problem for most of my career has been that I didn't trust my instincts.

In retrospect it's hard to deny, and it catches a glimpse of the anxiety behind the swagger of someone like McInerney and the time in general. The stock market had started to slide after Black Monday the previous year, and the money-mad ride of the go-go decade was running out of steam and heading back into recession. (Not that I'd seen much of the coke, caviar and BMW excess of the '80s, which I spent either in school or living in roach trap apartments and working retail.)

McInerney looks a bit tired and deflated despite his haircut and nice suit, and maybe he's already gotten an intimation of the years ahead for him - a couple of decades where he'd deal with divorces and writer's block, the long hangover that follows early success and a period where he'd be better known as a wine columnist than a novelist. He persisted, however, and seems to have landed on his feet, and has a new book coming out this summer.

I wish I'd had the nerve to do something with the portrait at the top. I also wouldn't mind getting another crack at McInerney today.


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