Friday, September 30, 2016

Cassandra Wilson

Cassandra Wilson, Toronto, October 1990

I ONCE ASKED MY MOTHER WHAT SHE THOUGHT ABOUT BILLIE HOLIDAY. My mom lived through the big band era as an adult, and saw bands all the time at local dancehalls like the Palais Royale and the Palace Pier. Her favorite singer was Bing Crosby. I was just getting into jazz and had heard a lot about Holiday, so I did something I rarely did as a teenager and asked her what she thought about music.

"I didn't like her," my mother said. "She had a lisp."

As a budding music snob learning about jazz, I'd end up avoiding vocalists, opting for the classic bias toward powerhouse drummers or tenor sax players, so while I eagerly sought out records by Elvin Jones or Coleman Hawkins, I'd vaguely mutter an opinion about how Lambert, Hendrick and Ross were "corny" or some such nonsense. It was probably Coltrane's record with Johnny Hartman that cured me of my silly aversion, but the singer who really brought me around to jazz vocalists was Cassandra Wilson.

Cassandra Wilson, Toronto, October 1990

Wilson came out of Steve Coleman's M-Base collective in the '80s, a group of young jazz musicians trying to navigate a path through the post-fusion, Marsalis-dominated jazz scene without creating retro jazz. She was, as far as I can recall, the only singer in the group, and the album that broke her big time was 1988's Blue Skies, a record of standards that showcased her husky contralto in a standard trio setting.

I played the record constantly in the loft studio apartment I shared with my then-girlfriend and her sister - so much that her versions of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and "My One and Only Love" are still my mental soundtrack to our long break-up. Wilson could have set herself up with a nice career doing standards in front of trios or big bands, but she decided to be a bit more interesting and followed it up with records that featured her versions of songs by Robert Johnson, Joni Mitchell, Hank Williams, U2, Neil Young, Jimmy Webb, and a really remarkable cover of the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarkesville."

Cassandra Wilson, Toronto, October 1990

When Wilson came to Toronto for a gig booked by promoter Serge Sloimovits at the Top of the Senator in 1990, I couldn't let the opportunity for a portrait pass. I don't know if I had a client for this shoot - I have a vague memory of getting my friend Tim Powis, then working at HMV magazine, to assign an article - but I turned up at the club at soundcheck with my lights and set up in a dressing room backstage. Perhaps Serge set it up for me as a favor.

I didn't imagine it would be a difficult shoot. I had a pretty good handle on my single softbox lighting set-up and cross-processed slide film, and Wilson herself was quite lovely, so I had high hopes for the shoot. The frame at the top was my favorite, then and now - the sort of elegant pose that I always struggled to steer my subjects into making, though it never really happened unless they found their way to itself. I know it was in my portfolio for as long as I had one, though I don't know if I ever managed to make a print with the particular warm tones I was able to get with this scan and Photoshop.

Cassandra Wilson has managed to produce an impressive discography in the quarter century since I took this photo, which included a long stint on Blue Note records. If you're anything like me, you'll start with Blue Skies and keep buying from there. At some point in the '90s I began collecting records by jazz singers, and haven't stopped.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Jazz Passengers

Curtis Fowlkes & Roy Nathanson, Toronto, June 1990

AS I SAID IN YESTERDAY'S POST, IT TOOK ME A WHILE TO "GET" JAZZ. Besides a collection of Benny Goodman small band sides with Charlie Christian, the only other jazz record I owned as a teenager was probably the first record by the Lounge Lizards, a band that came out of New York City's punk scene, and who billed themselves with the tongue-in-cheek description "fake jazz."

I bought their first record, which featured a very timely (for the early '80s) mix of moody, film noir-inspired jazz and what we'd later call "skronk," and made me a lifelong fan of guitarist Arto Lindsay. It was probably thanks to his stint in the Lounge Lizards that I was so eager to get a portrait of drummer Anton Fier. Years later, I'd end up at a table in the Knitting Factory in New York sitting next to Lounge Lizards founder John Lurie. I felt like a complete nerd, but I bummed a cigarette off of him, just so I could say I did it. In my defense, I actually did smoke at the time.

Inevitably the fake part of the fake jazz label began to fade, and by the time of their second lineup, the Lounge Lizards were an actual jazz group, playing clubs and festivals all over the world, with great musicians like Marc Ribot on guitar, Dougie Bowne on drums, Roy Nathanson on saxphone and Curtis Fowlkes on trombone. Nathanson and Fowlkes formed a spin-off band, the Jazz Passengers, and in 1990 they came to Toronto for a show.

Roy Nathanson & Curtis Fowlkes, Toronto, June 1990

The club, the Bermuda Onion, was located in what was once a high end dim sum restaurant on the city's most expensive shopping street, in a landmarked modernist building. It was always a strange place to see jazz acts, but the music was undergoing a brief resurgence at the turn of the '90s, and whenever this happens there's always some noble soul who thinks it would be a great idea to open a jazz club.

I opted not to try and shoot the whole band - frankly, they didn't seem like they were too enthusiastic about the prospect - so I asked Fowlkes and Nathanson if they'd like to step outside the club, to a marble-lined stairwell that was deserted after the shops downstairs had closed. It looked good as a background texture, and had the added appeal of forcing my subjects - literally - into a corner, which is always a good portrait tactic, as Irving Penn will tell you.

Curtis Fowlkes & Roy Nathanson, Toronto, June 1990

To be frank, I was relieved when the band expressed their disinterest in a photo, since Fowlkes and Nathanson - tall and short, black and white, serious and comic - provided such a great visual contrast together. I was pretty pleased with how these shots turned out, but I don't know that anyone has seen them since they were shot, over twenty-five years ago.

The Jazz Passengers went on to have a fairly high profile career for a jazz group in the following years, after they teamed up with a variety of sympathetic vocalists including Elvis Costello and Blondie's Debbie Harry. With jazz as an art music becoming increasingly obscure, they understood how it could provide the setting for a competent singer and a worthwhile tune, and made records that clicked with mature listeners with more catholic tastes - perhaps even old punks who knew how noisemakers from lower Manhattan clubs could end up making smart sounds for sophisticated adults.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ronald Shannon Jackson

Ronald Shannon Jackson, Toronto, June 1991

I WASN'T ALWAYS A BIG JAZZ FAN. It took me years to really understand the music, starting when I was a teenage punk and heard the Benny Goodman small groups playing over the speakers in a vintage clothing shop on Queen West. I remember buying the first Lounge Lizards record, mostly because I liked their look, A few years later a college friend patiently tried to nudge me along, encouraging me to buy Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, taking me to see Wynton Marsalis at Convocation Hall.

It wasn't until I was working as a music critic at Nerve magazine, where I met Tim Powis and Howard Druckman, who told me about a whole school of noisy, aggressive, funk and punk-affiliated post-fusion jazz happening mostly in New York City - artists like James Blood Ulmer, Joe Bowie and Defunkt, Material, John Zorn, Jamaladeen Tacuma and Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society.

While some part of me wishes I'd become a jazz fan thanks to Coleman Hawkins or Lee Morgan or John Coltrane, I have to admit that I was only completely won over when Shannon Jackson joined forces with Material's Bill Laswell, German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann and guitarist Sonny Sharrock to form Last Exit - a poundingly loud, noisy "supergroup" that made rank and file jazz fans recoil in horror (and probably still does.)

Ronald Shannon Jackson, Toronto, June 1991

Which is why I was thrilled when Ronald Shannon Jackson came to Toronto in the summer of 1991, playing at the Bermuda Onion, a short-lived jazz club on the city's toniest shopping street, with his band. My enthusiasm was such that I don't remember if I had any kind of backing for this shoot, which I probably did on spec, nudged along by the probability that I knew the promoter or booker.

I did the shoot in a hallway behind the club - the only large space with enough clean white wall to set up my lights. I did a roll with Shannon Jackson and his whole band - not scanned or posted here because it was exactly the sort of messy composition you'd expect with six or seven people in a clump - and a few where Shannon Jackson insisted on being photographed playing his flute.

Ronald Shannon Jackson, Toronto, June 1991

I didn't include those, either because, hell, why take a picture of one of the most powerful drummers you've ever seen playing a flute? I mostly did it to be nice.

There are pretty OK portraits, but probably not the best I've ever done. As with anything I was shooting at the time, I always imagined them becoming album covers, if I was lucky. And I'm pretty sure that anyone who's seen it knows how much this photo had to do with the one at the top of this post.

Ronald Shannon Jackson died in Fort Worth, Texas on October 19, 2013.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Claude Ranger

Claude Ranger, Toronto, July 1988

A CAREER IN JAZZ CAN BE A VERY FRAGILE THING. Gigs are scarce and recording dates scarcer and whole careers can come and go with only glimpses captured in a handful of records and a few photos or newspaper articles. I suppose the precedent for this was set right at the beginning of the music with Buddy Bolden, a hugely influential, even legendary New Orleans trumpeter for whom no recordings exist.

Claude Ranger's career wasn't nearly as obscure as Bolden's, though he was a legendary figure in Canadian jazz, made more so by his mysterious exit from the scene and the fact that he left without any commercially available recordings of himself as a bandleader. When I took these photos of the Montreal-born Ranger in the summer of 1988 he was hardly obscure; after living in Toronto for many years he'd moved to Vancouver, but was still in demand here as a sideman, and had come back to do some dates with my friends Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer, just after having played on Jane's debut record, In Dew Time.

Claude Ranger, Toronto, July 1988

I photographed him twice, and thanks to my friend Mark Miller I've been able to figure out that one shoot - a dim, shadowy set of photos - was taken at Sneaky Dee's, a little Mexican eatery/club that was located at Bloor and Bathurst before it moved down Bathurst to College and became a legendary punk rock dive. I shot a whole roll tucked into a corner of the stage, trying to get a good shot of Claude in the shadows near the back.

Claude Ranger, Toronto, July 1988

The other shoot was apparently at Clinton's, where I was so desperate to get some good photos of Ranger playing that I brought my own lighting - a single flash on a light stand, bounced into an umbrella - and shot him during soundcheck. Drummers are notoriously the hardest people to get decent shots of during a show, since they're usually at the back of the stage, in the worst light, and moving constantly. I suppose Claude knew this, which is why he agreed to let me do this little staged setup - halfway between a live shoot and a portrait.

Claude Ranger, Toronto, July 1988

Claude was a monster of a drummer, famous for his stamina and energy and love of improvisation, but also for his ability to keep a cigarette lit in the corner of his mouth for a whole set, lighting each new one off the old butt without breaking stride, even during a solo. My good friend and jazz mentor Tim Powis, also a drummer, was a huge fan, and was probably my inspiration for trying to get some really decent shots of Claude playing.

Claude Ranger, Toronto, July 1988

Claude lived pretty hard, and ended up with health issues that saw his public appearances get scarcer in the late '90s. He played a lot of shows with a lot of people, but few of them ended up becoming records, and so Ranger's career ended up being one recalled only in glimpses and stories. It probably didn't help that he lived in all three major Canadian cities, each with their own discrete, sometimes insular scenes, and seemed to care more about playing concerts than negotiating record deals.

There are more than a few jazz careers like Claude Ranger's here in Canada, and while a lot of them have a tragic component, none of them end so mysteriously as his. It's confounding that someone who made such an indelible impression on the bandstand could simply vanish from the country's musical scene and then from the world.

Claude Ranger disappeared near the Abbotsford area of British Columbia in late 2000.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Dewey Redman

Dewey Redman, Parkdale, June 1990

MY PORTRAITS OF JAZZ MUSICIANS WERE MOSTLY TAKEN when I desperately wanted a career that nobody could have anymore. Basically I wanted to be William Claxton or Francis Wolff or William Gottlieb or Herman Leonard; the time when it was even possible to have that career had ended at least twenty years before I took most of my jazz photos, so what I ended up doing was documenting a brief period in the history of jazz music, after it had given up all hope of becoming anything like popular music again, and just as it started turning into a kind of museum music, either practiced by enthusiasts for meagre pay or performed by a dwindling group of "legends," in nothing remotely like the context where it once lived and thrived.

And I know this sounds bleak. It isn't meant to be. I remember the shoots where I made these photos with real fondness, and can savour the enthusiasm that I brought to them, often without the expectation of ever seeing payment. I was truly a fan of the music, and of the people I was photographing, many of whom I met through Jane Bunnett and her husband Larry Cramer, who were making their own way up the first steps of their careers and were often as thrilled as I was to be working with these musicians. And it was through Jane that I met tenor sax player Dewey Redman.

Dewey Redman, Parkdale, June 1990

Dewey was one of my favorite people, ever. Born in Texas, he made his name playing with Ornette Coleman during the revolutionary period of free jazz in the late '60s. Through the '70s and '80s he played with Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, and with fellow Coleman alumni like Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell and Charlie Haden. My friend Jane asked him to play with her on her first record, In Dew Time (the title track was a tribute to him) and he'd pass through Toronto frequently over the next decade or so to play with Jane or with his own band.

Dewey was one of the funniest men I knew, a natural comic who loved keeping rehearsals, soundchecks and recording sessions light and cheerful. At a soundcheck for a big concert Jane held at St. Lawrence Town Hall in the early '90s, he reduced Don Pullen - a man whose attitude to playing music could generally be described as serious as cancer - to helpless tears of laughter as he pretended that the blasts of feedback through the sound system made him incontinent. At the same show he raucously chided Charlie Haden for his taste in large-breasted women. It was hard to take yourself too seriously with Dewey.

Dewey Redman live with Jane Bunnett, Toronto, June 1990

He had endless great stories about the places he'd been and the people he played with. He remembered doing benefit gigs for the Black Panther's children's breakfast program in San Francisco, but admitted that he mostly did it because Angela Davis looked "so fiiiiiiine."

I visited him at his apartment in Flatbush once. Scrutinizing the door buzzers for his name to no avail, I walked outside again and called his name. Two older ladies stuck their heads out a window overhead and asked me who I was looking for.

"Mr. Dewey Redman, ladies," I said.

"DEWEY! What in hell kinda name is that? You ever heard of a Dewey living here?"

"I ain't ever heard of no Dewey," the other woman bellowed back, before Dewey's head suddenly popped out through another window and he told me which buzzer was his. He was apparently home so little that no one in the building knew who he was; he didn't even bother putting his name on the mailbox.

Dewey Redman, Parkdale, June 1990

I shot these photos when Dewey was in town playing a show with Jane. I was desperate to get his portrait, so I asked if he'd come by one day after rehearsing around the corner at Jane and Larry's house. He dropped by with his Australian girlfriend; I took their photo together. When I visited him in Flatbush he proudly showed me where he'd taped it in the corner of his television set.

The live shot was taken at the concert; I don't remember where it was, but I shot it on medium format with my Rolleiflex on a tripod, hungry to get something different than the usual jazz club shot, grainy and dimly lit. The studio portraits were done with a big softbox in front of the only backdrop I owned, a big roll of gray seamless paper.

I wanted something simple and classic and dignified that caught Dewey's humour and soulful nature. At the time I dreamed that they might have ended up on the cover of an album, maybe on Soul Note or Black Saint records. I don't think anyone has seen these photos until now.

Dewey Redman died of liver failure in Brooklyn, New York on Sept. 2, 2006.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 1998

THERE'S AN ASSUMPTION YOU MAKE DOING CELEBRITY PORTRAITURE that every shoot is the only chance you'll get to capture a subject. This is probably a good thing - you might not strive to get the best in whatever time or circumstances you have if you know you'll get a mulligan at a later date. Which is why it's always interesting when chance puts someone in front of your camera more than once.

I shot Paul Schrader the first time at the film festival in 1998, when his career had one of its cyclical revivals with Affliction, a movie based on a novel by the then very fashionable Russell Banks and a critical hit. The film was shot in Quebec, and one of my best friends was its cinematographer, so I had that, at least, to break the ice when I set up my Rolleiflex and tripod in the hotel room (the old Four Seasons, I think) after draping a hotel curtain over a floor lamp to create a backdrop for what was obviously intended to be a NOW cover. (One of my last, it would turn out.)

Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 1998

The setup wasn't a million miles from the one I'd used to photograph Bjork a year previous, though the subject couldn't have been more different. Anyone who's ever used a Rolleiflex knows that it has a minimum focusing distance, and that if you want to get tighter, you have to fit it with one of a trio of close-up lenses. I own a couple of these lenses, which makes me wonder why I didn't reach for them to get a more intimate portrait of Schrader.

The truth is that I was intimidated by him. Schrader has done a lot of things in his career, but he's probably best known for writing the script for Taxi Driver, in addition to a raft of other films as either director or writer (Raging Bull, Blue Collar, Hardcore, Mishima, Bringing Out The Dead) of uncomfortable intensity and pitiless subject matter. His preoccupations always suggested a rather tortured psyche, and even while he sat, visibly basking in the warm glow of a festival hit film (I think there's more than a hint of self-satisfaction in his expression in these photos) I still felt moved to keep my distance.

Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016

Nearly twenty years later I met Schrader again, at another film festival with another violent and intense film to promote. Dog Eat Dog arrived in Toronto with advance word that it was a pretty grim piece of work, and some of the early reviews were equally grim, but Schrader's reputation was such that there was a lineup of critics and interviewers who wanted to talk to him, regardless of what they might have thought about the film.

I set up in an upstairs room in a building converted into a media lounge for the festival. He seemed to be at a table in the restaurant downstairs most of the day, dealing with an endless lineup of interviewers, and I was told to get ready and hang on until he had a break in his schedule. I put up the black backdrop - it seemed appropriate - and positioned the two umbrella bounces to create the bubble of light and waited.

Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016

I am an older man than I was when I took the photos at the top of this post, and the gulf in age today between Schrader (70) and myself (52) feels a lot narrower than it did when I was 34 and he was 52. I might not be able to sit through a Paul Schrader film nowadays, but I certainly feel more moved to get up close to the man with my camera and try to see if I can get a glimpse of something behind his eyes that gives a key to what is often a harrowing vision of the world.

These are much simpler portraits than the ones I took eighteen years ago. They're also much better ones, I think, and not just because I didn't have an obligation to fit a client's cover format, or an urge to pursue a photographic style that seemed germane to my career. When I sat Paul Schrader down on the ottoman between my lights and my backdrop, I was getting that rarest of things - a second chance to take a better portrait of a person whose work has made an impression on me (although not always a pleasant one.) At this point in my career I can't help but cherish these opportunities.

Friday, September 16, 2016

TIFF 2016

Rebecca Hall, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016

MORE OF MY PORTRAITS WERE SHOT IN A HOTEL ROOM THAN IN ANY OTHER PLACE. More specifically, most of - and frequently the best - of these photos were taken during the Toronto International Film Festival, amidst a hectic week and a half running from hotel to hotel with a writer, setting up, shooting and moving on in brief windows of anywhere from five minutes to ten seconds.

This simple fact has become sharply obvious in the last two years, as I've excavated through my archives scanning images for this blog. I used to think I didn't miss this hectic, barely-controlled frenzy of shooting, but as I've been working away I felt a challenge building up: Could I still pull myself together and produce some decent portraits in the hothouse conditions of the festival?

Last winter, during the Auto Show press day, I approached Andrew Powell, a friend and colleague who publishes and edits The Gate, an entertainment website. I offered him my services - free of charge - to shoot portraits for his site's festival coverage. He could do anything he wanted with them, but the only condition was that I be allowed to shoot them my way - whatever that might be. To my surprise he said yes.

The studio in a bag, in use

I had the whole spring and summer to mull it over. I didn't want to fall back on the informal DSLR working method I was forced to use while shooting the Festival for the free national daily, but I knew I could no longer return to the Rolleiflex-on-a-tripod days of NOW magazine, for the very simple reason that I didn't want to shoot film, and no longer felt like coping with unpredictable factors like whatever light and backgrounds presented themselves in hotel rooms. I'd done that; I wanted a challenge.

I decided to use my studio in a bag. Two bags, actually, one holding my light stands and umbrellas, the other with my cameras and light sources - two cheap, Chinese-made socket and umbrella holders, and a pair of household LED lightbulbs equivalent to about 100 watts of tungsten light. It was as light and cheap a  kit as I could come up with, producing just enough illumination to shoot with digital cameras at relatively comfortable shutter speeds.

As for a backdrop, I slipped a collapsible light reflector into the pocket of the camera case. White on one side and silver on the other, it would be just big enough for head shots. After testing it out on willing audience members at a punk rock club last winter, I got my first bookings from Andrew and set off to cover TIFF again for the first time in nearly a decade.

Erika Linder, Toronto, Sept. 8, 2016
April Mullen, Toronto, Sept. 8, 2016
Natalie Krill, Toronto, Sept. 8, 2016

My first shoot was with the director and stars of Below Her Mouth, a Canadian film about a lesbian romance that premiered on the first weekend of the festival. With the umbrellas set up close to my subjects to create a balloon of flat light, and with some judicious Photoshop retouching to bleach the background to white, I ended up with a trio of simple, even stark portraits that set a benchmark for my first day. This was the sort of work I already knew I could produce, but what could I do next?

Kreesha Turner, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016
Anne Emond, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016
Mylene Mackay, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016

The next day began by shooting Kreesha Turner, a Canadian singer, now living in L.A., who had starred in a musical called King of the Dancehall. She had her hair and makeup people on hand when I showed up the airBnB she'd rented for the Festival, where space was so tight that I opted to use a kitchen wall and a north-facing window, with just one of my LED lights providing fill.

The next shoot was in another hotel room, with the director and star of a Quebec film called Nelly, a biopic of sorts about Nelly Arcan, a sex worker-turned-novelist who was a sensation in Quebec before her suicide in 2009. I shot Anne Emond, the director, with the same flat light I'd used the day before, but when Mylene Mackay, the film's star, walked in I decided to model the light a bit more, pulling the umbrellas away from her to get more shadows and drop off more steeply to turn the background gray.

At work photographing Mylene Mackay, photo by W. Andrew Powell

At the end of the previous day I realized that the little white reflector would quickly get limiting in terms of potential backgrounds and composition, so I made a quick trip to Vistek and bought a bigger collapsible backdrop, black on one side and white cloth on the other. It was the first serious investment in photo equipment I'd made in many, many years.

As I paid with my debit card it occurred to me that this was it - I was taking a serious step back into professional portraiture after walking away many years ago. Hopefully this wouldn't end with the same heartbreak as it did last time.

Robbie Amell, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016
Tony Elliott, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016

My next shoot was with the star and director of ARQ, a sci-fi film produced by Netflix. We were back at the old Intercontinental on Bloor, where I'd shot so many of my TIFF portraits for the free national daily, and I let the new backdrop spring out of the bag with an uneasy flourish, unsure if I knew how to get it back in again.

I placed my umbrellas in a crossfire on either side of my subjects' faces, wanting to get something dramatic (and, well, sci-fi) with the black backdrop. Still conditioned to shoot tight by my little reflector, I stuck to close-ups with Robbie Amell, the star, but let myself move back a bit for Tony Elliott, the director, exploring the unexpected new space.

Rebecca Hall, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016
Craig Shilowich, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016
Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016

Several days passed before my next shoots. Andrew had to go out of town and the weekend didn't turn out to be as subject rich, so it was Wednesday before I was back at TIFF with my studio in a bag. I arrived early at the media suite just off of King West intending to set up with plenty of time, and was given a nice big spot on the top floor. I was just clipping together my last pieces of gear when the publicist came back and asked me if I wouldn't mind moving downstairs as the talent were on a tight schedule and couldn't spare the extra minute required to travel between floors.

And then I remembered what shooting at TIFF was like. I rushed downstairs and was still putting the studio in a bag back up when the publicists asked me if I was ready to go. Now sweating, I hurried to get everything back in place and motioned for British actress Rebecca Hall to sit down, trying to break the ice by complimenting her on her role in a BBC miniseries of a Ford Madox Ford novel a few years previous. She seemed surprised that anyone here had seen it.

I had less than a minute, but I think these were my best portraits of the festival - simple, direct, and maybe even a bit elegant. This was exactly the sort of work I'd been longing to do as soon as I approached Andrew about taking another shot at TIFF after my long break. I was under the gun and barely able to get her to swivel her head around a few times while I shot, but everything looked good in the viewfinder.

As the film's writer and producer was motioned to take Rebecca's place, one of the publicists leaned in and whispered to me, "You have ten seconds." I captured one pose in colour and black and white, hoped Andrew wouldn't mind the lack of choice, and thanked my subject for his time.

My last shoot of the day was in the same building, just after lunch, with writer and director Paul Schrader, the man who wrote Taxi Driver. I'd shot him before, nearly twenty years previous, in my last Festival working for NOW, which also felt like something between an omen and a milestone. But more about that later.

As I broke down the studio in a bag I couldn't deny feeling some satisfaction with the week's work, with the small but significant creative challenges I'd been presented and my ability to deal with the sometimes infuriating demands of festival shooting. Very well, I thought - so what next?

Arnold Oceng, Toronto, Sept. 16, 2016
Noel Clarke, Toronto, Sept. 16, 2016
Jason Maza, Toronto, Sept. 16, 2016

CODA: It was on and then it was off and then it was on again. On the next to last day of the festival I had a shoot with actor/director Noel Clarke - Mickey from Dr. Who, as my daughter knows him - and the cast of Brotherhood, the last film in a trilogy Clarke began ten years ago.

They were jokey and blokey and a little punch drunk from doing interviews and waiting around in hotel hallways - pretty much typical of everyone at the end of the festival. I didn't bring the big black backdrop and set up the little white reflector instead, wanting to see what my photos would look like using the same setup as the first day of shooting, but after a week of taking pictures.

Everything was a little looser, mostly due to the rapport between the three men - who gently but persistently insulted each other while they were being photographed - but also since I knew I hadn't done anything lighthearted all week. Time to let someone really smile, I thought.

(POSTSCRIPT: Andrew at The Gate published a nice gallery of my shoots at TIFF here.)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Melanie Doane

Melanie Doane, Parkdale, June 1998

I HAVE ALWAYS LIKED THESE PORTRAITS. They were made a decade after I moved into my Parkdale studio, and represent the point at which I'd achieved what I jokingly call a rudimentary mastery of studio portraiture. They also mark the beginning of an end, though I wouldn't have known that at the time.

Melanie Doane was a singer and songwriter from Nova Scotia who'd gotten signed to Sony Records Canada on the strength of an independent record she'd put out. I was assigned to shoot her for the cover of NOW, at the point when we no longer did black and white shots for the inside cover, having graduated to full colour interior pages.

Melanie Doane, Parkdale, June 1998

She was very nice. Her father was famous as a music educator back in the Maritimes - "Mr. Ukelele," thanks to his championing the humble, cheap stringed instrument - and Melanie had inherited his missionary attitude about music in schools. The lighting scheme I favoured at this point - strobes ringed tightly around the camera lens with carefully positioned modifiers to soften the light without blunting its specular quality - had the advantage of being flattering to most subjects, but that wasn't a problem I obviously had with Melanie Doane.

My bedside manner as a photographer had also improved by this point to where I could stage direct subjects through stock poses to those fascinating expressions people make when they're trying to think about what to do next. The shot at the top was a perfect example of that; I'm not sure if it was picked for the cover, but I know it's the one I lobbied for the hardest.

She also arrived with the resources of the record company behind her, which included a hair and makeup person and a choice or wardrobe. I didn't mind, as long as they didn't get in the way of a good shot, and I even squeezed of a frame when the makeup artists leaned in for a quick touch-up.

Melanie Doane, Parkdale, June 1998

For the interior shot I swapped in a big piece of fake grass I had sitting around from another shoot, which provided texture and colour and nicely set off her skin tone and camisole. Overall my memory of this shoot is how calmy competent I felt about it all, underlined in hindsight by the fact that I shot it all on transparency instead of colour neg, either straight or cross-processed. Shooting slide, which had far less leeway or forgiveness for mistakes, meant that I could judge the colour temperature of the film ahead of time and use filters to nudge the finished shots to something pleasing.

The shoot must have gone well because several months later I was hired by the record company to take promo photos for Melanie. This time Sony called the shots, and had a menu of images they wanted to see - a few of which were clearly outside my comfort zone, and some very much more like the work I'd seen other photographers doing. To this day I don't understand why you'd bother spending your career developing a style, only to be hired to ape someone else's.

Even more regrettable, though, was the wardrobe they'd picked out for the shoot - a sort of schoolgirl deal, complete with the knee socks, which I thought was rather inappropriate for a grown woman. The whole thing made me intensely uncomfortable, and I suppose it followed through in the work, which didn't please Sony at all, and I never bothered asking for them to return it, which is why none of it appears here.

Melanie Doane is still performing and recording - self-financed releases, of course, in the absence of any meaningful support from the much-diminished major labels - and has continued her father's work by setting up a foundation for music education.

This would be the last record company promo shoot I would do, which is deeply ironic in hindsight considering how badly my first one, with Crash Vegas, had turned out eight years earlier. I suppose I've never had much respect for major record labels, which probably didn't finesse my attitude, but they always seemed to opt for the worst choice of any possible number of options.

My long working relationship with NOW magazine would also end not long after this, as would my tenancy in my Parkdale studio. By the time the '90s ended I was no longer doing anything I had been working so hard to achieve at the start of the decade, and my time as a studio photographer was all but over.

Friday, September 9, 2016

John Bottomley

John Bottomley, Toronto, April 1995

WHEN YOU MAKE A LIVING DOING PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY, you sometimes anticipate some subjects more than others. There are always a few people you admire, and every portrait photographer I ever knew had a "list" of subjects they were aching to get. After a while you learn that it's not a great idea, usually because any situation that produces a less than ideal shot is a huge disappointment. Sometimes you just have to let yourself be surprised.

I knew John Bottomley from Tulpa, a band he led with his brother Chris in Toronto in the '80s. Even in a scene full of unique, even oddball groups that conformed to no particular genre, never mind to each other, Tulpa stood out. Ambitious, odd, even mystifying - frankly they intimidated me, and it would be years before I'd come to appreciate them.

By this point they'd broken up and John had gone on to a solo career, re-inventing himself as a singer/songwriter in a slightly melancholic folk-rock vein. Just as he was releasing Blackberry, his most successful record, I was assigned to shoot him for a profile in NOW magazine.

John Bottomley, Toronto, April 1995

I did these profiles all the time, and usually expected to get through them in a single roll. I showed up at what I remember as a downtown office for the interview to find Bottomley decked out in a silver suit, clearly willing to meet any photographer more than halfway, which is always inspiring.

I found a nice patch of north light in the office, flat and clean, and shot him there first asking him to do things with the suit. Looking through the viewfinder at the way the silver fabric was reflecting in the cool window light, I couldn't help but wonder why everyone didn't wear silver suits all the time.

John Bottomley, Toronto, April 1995

I finished a couple of rolls with John in the office and asked if he'd be willing to step outside for another one. We were right off Queen West, near a hydroelectric facility I'd passed for years and always wanted to use. The light was the perfect overcast for what I wanted to do, and I posed John underneath one of the big carved stone signs outside the building, and by one of the enormous service doors.

John Bottomley, Toronto, April 1995

John was a great subject, and understood instinctively how to strike the right attitude; the shoot was that rare thing - a collaboration, with people on both sides of the camera working toward something like the same goal. I ended up with plenty to choose from, and felt bad that NOW could only run a single shot. At least one of these frames would end up in my portfolio for as long as I had one.

As I said, the record John Bottomley released when I took these pictures did well for a Canadian release, but that's always more a curse than a blessing, and between the industry's general inability to understand a really creative and idiosyncratic musician like him and the freefall collapse of the whole business in the digital era, John ended up like a lot of other musicians, living from release to self-funded release. Some artists can endure this rough independence; some even thrive on it. Others are worn down by the effort and the diminishing returns.

John Bottomley committed suicide in Brackendale, BC on April 6, 2011.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Suzie Ungerleider

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale, Nov. 1996

I MET SUZIE UNGERLEIDER FOR THE FIRST TIME WHEN SHE ARRIVED AT MY STUDIO for a NOW magazine cover shoot. She had come highly recommended by Tim Perlich, one of the writers at the paper and someone whose taste most closely matched my own.

He said she was a singer/songwriter from British Columbia who went by the moniker Oh Susanna; she had recently moved here and Tim thought she was very, very good. He'd pushed to put her on the cover, which was the sort of thing that NOW, to its credit, was willing to do - devote precious cover space to a largely unknown musician from out of town with just one EP to her name.

I had, by the mid-'90s, begun boiling my studio shooting style down to a very stark template, using simple backgrounds and focusing my light tightly on the subject, tinkering with modifiers - reflectors, soft boxes, grids, bounces, gels - in the most minute variations. I wanted to produce the most graphic photos I could, and I was still using cross-processing to boost contrast and colour saturation in shots like the one above.

The flowers were props left over from another shoot that Suzie picked up and decided to use. Like a lot of photographers, I'd become fond of the look of my Polaroid tests, and laboured mightily to make the final shot look as much like them as possible. This required more work than might seem obvious.

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale, Nov. 1996

At this point the inside shots for NOW's cover stories were still in black and white. I did a couple of rolls of Suzie posing on the love seat that lived in my studio - the spot where I did most of my reading in the north light that came from Queen Street through my windows. I'd come to love this flat, soft light, and decided to use it, turning my seamless stand around, loading it with a four and a half foot roll instead of the customary nine foot wide one and placing it halfway down my shooting space with the windows behind me.

I liked to think of these shots as full-body mug shots, and intended them to run full frame, with all the studio detritus visible on either side of the shot in plain view. The fact is that I loved my studio space, and liked to showcase it whenever I could. Maybe I knew that I wouldn't be here forever, and that I should celebrate it as often as possible. My subjects - people like Suzie, who arrived on my doorstep with barely an introduction - were really just an excuse to do this.

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale, Nov. 1998

I was quite fond of my shoot with Suzie, and after running into her socially a few times, she ended up asking me if I'd be interested in shooting the photos for Johnstown, her first album, recorded with members of Blue Rodeo. We started at my studio, and moved down to an old warehouse on Liberty Street where the album was recorded.

I'd pared down my studio lighting even more by this point, grouping my lights in a tight ring around my lens, carefully balancing them to put a clean, specular spotlight on the face while adjusting the intensity of the background colour by simply moving it nearer or farther from the subject. I had books of diagrams and measurements and ratios to keep track of the tiny variations from shoot to shoot, trying to hone down to a perfect, magic formula.

Suzie Ungerleider, Toronto, Nov. 1998

Since I'd shot her for NOW's cover, Suzie had cut her hair into bangs that reminded me of a film noir actress, so I said I wanted to make the shots outside and in the warehouse to look like stills from a '50s B-picture. As with any shot at this sort of thing, there was probably more than a bit of Cindy Sherman implicated in taking this kind of photo, but that didn't bother me.

Suzie Ungerleider, Toronto, Nov. 1998

I shot a few rolls of cross-processed colour and several more in black and white, a couple by the loading dock at the back of the building that had, by this time, become an iconic location for band shoots in or around Dale Morningstar's Gas Station studio and the Liberty Village area in general. I know I'd used it at least a couple of times before this; since the wholesale redevelopment of the area it's been stripped away.

I was pretty pleased with the shoot, and was a bit disappointed when the record was released with artwork and not a photo on its cover - even though I did quite like the artwork Suzie chose. My shots ended up somewhere inside the booklet, though I'm not sure how they turned out since I never got sent a copy of the album.

Suzie Ungerleider still tours and records, under the usual modest circumstances that this country's best musical acts contend with. She's definitely rewarded the confidence Tim Perlich had in her twenty years ago, when he sent her to my studio to undergo my somewhat obsessive photographic ministrations.