Friday, July 29, 2016

Chris Buck

Chris Buck, Parkdale, Oct. 1989

IT'S MY FRIEND CHRIS BUCK'S BIRTHDAY TODAY, and in keeping with a tradition at this blog, I'm posting some more photos of him. As I wrote in the first birthday post, Chris was my subject more than anyone else in our early years as photographers, and I have this surplus of photos of him, back when we were under the influence (of Irving Penn.)

The shot at the top was taken in my Parkdale loft not long after we moved in, after I'd bought my first roll of white seamless paper and a set of strobes and started trying to figure out high-key lighting. If it looks like an album cover shoot outtake, that's probably because a lot of the photography I looked at was on record jackets and CD booklets; at this point in my career getting my work on an album sleeve was a cherished ambition.

I suppose you'd call this sort of pose "mock heroic." we tried on a lot of poses while shooting each other for our lighting and film tests; just how heroic or mocking we looked was usually a hit and miss matter.

Chris Buck, Toronto, Sept. 1988

This shot was taken a year earlier, in the hallway of a hotel (I'm guessing the Park Plaza, now the Park Hyatt) while Chris and I waited around to shoot actors and directors at the film festival. A pretty smoldering look, don't you think? It didn't have anything to do with me.

Chris Buck, Parkdale, Oct. 1989

Back in my Parkdale studio again, and another shot from the same session that produced the photo at the top. These were attempts to solve two problems - capturing action, and copying the look of Robert Longo's "Men in the Cities" series. I was a big fan of Longo at the time, and knew that this series of drawings had begun with photos he took on the roof of his New York City apartment, and I wanted to see if I could catch the halfway point - photos that looked more like the drawings.

What can I say - it was the '80s.

Chris Buck, Toronto, Sept. 2015

The final shot is more recent - part of a portrait session we did last year to go with an interview I made with Chris (still unpublished.) He was in town for a job, staying at an Airbnb in the east end, and I sat down with him for an hour-long chat, inspired mostly by a similar interview we did twenty-five years earlier, just before Chris moved to New York City.

After the interview and shoot, Chris and I went for lunch and he showed me his rough edit of photos for Uneasy, the retrospective collection of his portraits that he's publishing later this year. His Kickstarter for the project did very well, and after teasing us with a book of portraits of invisible celebrities, we'll finally get a chance to see the best of Chris' portrait work collected in one place.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Two years

On the Beartooth Highway, Montana, July 2016. (photo by Callum Snape)

SOMETIME IN THE LAST MONTH THIS BLOG CELEBRATED ITS SECOND ANNIVERSARY. Thankfully I was too busy to put up a post on the day, which is something I'm grateful to note; the whole impetus for starting this blog was that I wasn't too busy doing anything, particularly photography, and that was something I was desperate to change.

The photo at the top is from roughly where I was when this anniversary passed. A return to travel writing - and the chance to travel with my cameras - is obviously the biggest thing that's happened to me and my "career" in the last year. If you know anything about travel writing you know that the money isn't great, but the opportunity to wander the world and take photos makes up for it, at least for me.

There were some other happy developments in the last year, the earliest of which was my second photo on a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion record. As I recalled it last year, with my return to live music photography, the shoot that produced this band portrait was very spontaneous and ad hoc, but the results exceeded my expectations and a few months later Jon called and asked if he could use the shot on their live record, to be released on Record Store Day. Thanks Jon, Judah and Russell!

The next big project this year was already in the works when I shot Jon and his band. After posting my photos of White Zombie in their pre-stadium days, I got in touch with J. Yuenger, who was guitarist in the band after this lineup. He posted a shot on his blog, then told WZ bassist Sean Yseult about the shots. We had a nice back-and-forth on Twitter about it and I felt like that post had gone very nicely.

Not long afterward I got a call from the nice guys at Numero Group in Chicago; they were working with J. and Sean on an epic box set retrospective of the band's scuzzy, lo-fi New York period, and wanted to use some of my shots. Of course I agreed - Numero is probably one of the best reissue record labels in the world, and a chance to work with them was hardly something an old record geek like me could turn down. Thanks J. and Sean!

The biggest project of the last year, though, was the 25th anniversary reissue of my friend Jane Bunnett's Spirits of Havana record. After I'd posted a bunch of photos from our trip down there at the turn of the '90s, Jane and her husband Larry called and asked if I'd work with them on the package for the reissue, which would turn into one big photo essay from our time in Havana.

It also gave me an opportunity to work with my old high school buddy Joe Gisini's company, Pagewave, who put together the package. It came out last month and looked great, but the biggest surprise was when I cracked the shrink wrap and saw the following paragraph down among the production credits:

To be honest, I was a little choked up. Two years ago, when my wife encouraged me to start going through my old negatives and put them online, I had a vague hope that the work would create some sort of momentum that would give my old work new life, and encourage me to take new photos.

Two years on I'm shooting again, enjoying it, and finding new homes for old work that might otherwise have faded away on my office shelf. And for that I'd like to thank my patient wife, my children, my friends and the people who take time to visit this blog. I hope I can continue with that momentum, and produce new work worth your time and patience.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Honda Indy 2016

I'VE COVERED THE HONDA INDY EVERY YEAR FOR FIVE YEARS NOW. At first I did it because I'm a bit of a gearhead, and wanted to challenge myself to shoot motorsport. This year - possibly my last one if I can't find someone new to write for - I tried to do more formal portraits on the spot, a challenge I've been anxious to bring to everything I shoot lately.

Daniel Morad, IMSA Porsche GT3 driver
Jean-Francois & Louis-Philippe Dumoulin, NASCAR Pinty's Series drivers
Sara Price, Stadium Super Trucks driver
Neil Campbell, Andretti Motorsport mechanic
Alexander Rossi, Indycar driver
Simon Pagenaud, Indycar driver

While shooting the Indycar race, last year's winner Josef Newgarden lost control and hit the wall just in front of where I was standing. This shot of his car, wheel busted, hanging from the recovery vehicle's tow winch, might be a little symbol of where my own motorsport photography ambitions are, just at the moment.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Marianne Wiggins

Marianne Wiggins, Toronto, Oct.1990

I HAVE TO MAKE A GUILTY ADMISSION: I didn't know much about writer Marianne Wiggins when I added her to the name of writers I wanted to photograph at the author's festival back in 1990, when I also shot Richard Ford and Edmund Wilson, Elmore Leonard and George Higgins. What I did know was that she was the wife - soon to be ex-wife - of Salman Rushdie, and had been living for almost two years under police protection after Rushdie had been sentenced to death in a fatwa by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

She had a new novel, John Dollar, which had been published the previous year, though she'd only been able to publicize it after months in hiding. The Rushdie affair was a deeply uneasy intimation of a world yet to come, and I suppose I wanted to get a portrait of Wiggins as someone very much part of a major news story. It would be a long time before I came to appreciate her as a writer, distinct from her then-husband (who I would much later interview and photograph - twice.)

Marianne Wiggins, Toronto, Oct.1990

I don't recall any visible security detail traveling with Wiggins when I met her at the Harbour Castle Hilton, in the little spot off the lobby where a generous skylight had created a pool of richly flattering light - discovered a couple of years previous when I'd shot Kathy Acker and Jay McInerney in the same spot. I faintly remember more than the usual number of handlers and publicists surrounding her, and that, despite all the attention she was getting for something that had little or nothing to do with her books, she was more than cooperative with me and my camera. She acted like a woman enjoying freedom of movement after being denied it for some time, or perhaps I'm just projecting.

I broke from habit with this shoot and shot much of it of Wiggins, seated in the centre of the little hotel lobby annex, full figure instead of in a close head shot. Perhaps I wanted to challenge myself; probably it was because she had nice legs (and knew it,) and featuring them wasn't the sort of thing you usually did with an author portrait.

Marianne Wiggins, Toronto, Oct.1990

Wiggins' marriage to Rushdie would officially end three years later, with no small amount of bad blood on his part at least. I've finally had a chance to read Wiggins, who has lived a much more quiet life since then, and now teaches writing in California. Photography and photographers feature regularly in her books, from Eveless Eden to Evidence of Things Unseen to The Shadow Catcher, which features Edward S. Curtis, the photographer who captured the last days of the Indian tribes living freely in the American West, as a main character. Her daughter, Lara Porzak, is a photographer.

Wiggins is a better writer than her famous ex-husband; her characters feel more vivid, her stories take startling, sometimes lurching turns and changes of pace that feel more like the writer was led there, and not dictated by the altered compass of an overriding idea, or their reputation for controversy. I have always liked these photos, but I don't think they ever left their contact sheet, and this is probably the first time they've been published anywhere.


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Neil Jordan

Neil Jordan, Toronto, Sept. 1992

IN THE FALL OF 1984 I SAW A FILM AT THE FILM FESTIVAL that took my breath away. The Company of Wolves was the second film by an Irish filmmaker, an adult re-telling of the Little Red Riding Hood story with elements of horror and fantasy and a strong feminist undertone, back when that wasn't yet the sort of thing that would have set off warning bells for me. I was a 20-year-old virgin when I saw the film, and its depiction of the onset of adolescent sexuality (albeit from a female perspective) as full of danger and terror rang true, especially for someone who'd grown up in the '70s.

Looking back, it's a very '80s film, lush and romantic and more than a little bit overwrought, with acres of artifice and production design and a newly confident reliance on practical special effects that would have looked corny or tentative even a decade earlier. Even the pointedly feminist perspective - the male director had collaborated on the screenplay with Angela Carter, the author of the original short story that inspired the film - seems very much of its period, which is to say that it holds the main character's budding sexuality like a primed hand grenade, capable of immense collateral damage when it goes off.

Neil Jordan, Toronto, Sept. 1992

It would be almost a decade before I was assigned to photograph Neil Jordan, the director of The Company of Wolves, when he was in Toronto for the same film festival where I'd first heard his name. He'd had a very peculiar career in the meantime, directing everything from a neo-noir (Mona Lisa) and an Irish drama (The Miracle) to a pair of comedies with big name Hollywood stars like Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Daryl Hannah (We're No Angels, High Spirits.)

Except for Mona Lisa I hadn't been particularly taken by any of them, and wondered what happened to the director who made a film as lush and unsettling as The Company of Wolves. He was in Toronto to promote his next film, another noirish thriller with an interesting twist called The Crying Game, and it would be the film that made his career. I know a lot of men who found the twist in that film unsettling, for sure, but frankly I couldn't imagine that anyone couldn't see it coming a mile off. ("Oh my Gawd, it's a guy!") But then I guess that living next to Toronto's gay ghetto for two years had primed me to recognize a transvestite - even a very good one - when I saw one.

Now, of course, the word transvestite seems to have become verboten. Times have changed, and I suppose there are a lot of reasons why I find myself missing the '80s and even the '90s more and more these days. I never thought I'd say that.

Neil Jordan, Toronto, Sept. 1992

I didn't have a lot of time for this shoot - the customary five minutes at the tail end of a fifteen- or twenty-minute interview slot. This is either the old Four Seasons in Yorkville or the Park Plaza (now the Park Hyatt) and I spent the whole of this shoot with Jordan next to a bit of soft window light, working with a single hand and the top of a nicely veneered hotel writing table. I'd probably be able to date the photo just by the generous cut of his shirt, with its ample folds of cloth. Then as now, I love drapery, but we're not living in an age of drapery today, alas.

Jordan is known today as both an author and director, and after the success of The Crying Game he made a very star-studded, big budget film of Anne Rice's Interview With A Vampire that should have (but didn't) evoke the same unsettling take on sexuality that I saw in The Company of Wolves. His next film (Michael Collins) did me the very great favour of reminding us why the creation of the Irish Free State was as much a tragedy as a triumph.

Lately, he's retrenched himself as a director of the sort of adult, medium budget dramas that once filled cineplexes and art houses and now go straight to video on demand, orphans of film industry economics mutating into extinction. He's also done some TV. I've always liked these portraits, but they haven't been seen anywhere since they ran in newsprint in NOW magazine, with nowhere near the rich grays and blacks I worked hard at getting here.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Steve Buscemi

Steve Buscemi, Toronto, Sept. 1992

THIS BLOG IS ALMOST TWO YEARS OLD. I may or may not have passed the halfway point of excavated old photo shoots, but now seemed like a good time to revisit some work I posted early on and see if there was more worth seeing. In the first month of posts I put up a scan of a photo of Steve Buscemi I found in a box of 5x7 proof prints, back from when he was still a character actor known for roles with names like "Dead Pimp," "Switchblade" and "Whining Willie."

I didn't think much of it at the time, and concluded that I hadn't done much with my fifteen minutes with Buscemi in the lobby of the Sutton Place hotel, back when his career was getting a sudden boost thanks to his portrayal of Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs. It would be a while before I dug out the contact sheets from the shoot - a sheet of 35mm black and white and another of 120 black and white, shot on my Rolleiflex and proof that I thought enough of Buscemi to try and get something more than just a headshot.

Steve Buscemi, Toronto, Sept. 1992

He looks so young here. I'm sure I looked a lot younger back then, as well. He was in Toronto just a month ahead of the general release of Reservoir Dogs, but it was likely he was really here to promote In The Soup, an independent film that was released at the same time and got lost with the success of Quentin Tarantino's film.

I'd seen Buscemi in a lot of films by then - Mystery Train, New York Stories, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink - and liked him a lot. I like character actors a lot more than romantic leads, and obviously wanted to get something that captured the nervy intensity he'd bring to roles like Carl in Fargo, or Donny in The Big Lebowski.

Steve Buscemi, Toronto, Sept. 1992

He was a lot cooler in person than in his onscreen roles, and my shots capture a young but not inexperienced actor, slightly wary but cooperative enough in front of my camera, and aware that his great physical gift is a pair of large and unusually expressive eyes.

Going through the negatives I realized that I had a lot more here than I remembered, and certainly more than I guessed when I scanned that old proof print two years ago. I know that I couldn't have handed in prints this shadowy to NOW magazine almost twenty-five years ago, given the crude limitations of newsprint, so I never tried to make these shots as moody. Perhaps I've learned a lot more after two years of working intensely with better scanners and Photoshop.

Steve Buscemi, Toronto, Sept. 1992

I do know that it's gratifying to find something in my files I didn't know I had - to be able to go from "Yeah, I think I shot Steve Buscemi way back in the day" to "Oh yeah, I've got Buscemi - you want to see them?"

Mostly I feel vindicated that my hunch about how good Buscemi was turned out to be true, and that he's had a very decent career since his days of playing Whining Willies. My hunches didn't always play out this well, but today I can pull these shots out and marvel to myself that I shot Nucky fucking Thompson.