Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Philip Glass

Philip Glass, Toronto, February 1989

NOT ALL PHOTO SHOOTS CAN BE SUCCESSES; SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO FAIL. Sometimes you know you're going to fail before you take your camera out of the bag, and the best you can do is salvage some lesson, technical or creative, from the experience. I suppose this is why I've always gone back to the photos I took of composer Philip Glass, back in the early years of my career.

Glass was someone I'd always wanted to photograph, but I didn't have the pull to get anything like a portrait session with the man when he showed up in Toronto in the winter of 1989, so I had to content myself with a small press conference held in the back room of the Rivoli, a restaurant and club on Queen West.

Philip Glass, Toronto, February 1989

I don't know too many photographers who long to shoot press conferences. There's nothing you won't get that any other photographer standing over your shoulder won't get as well, and any chance of getting the subject to interact with you only happens with either luck or your willingness to make a pest of yourself.

For some reason, though, I don't recall many other photographers being at the Glass press conference, and since the room was half empty I was able to wander around, trying to get something interesting under the dim stage spotlights. Unwilling to take a risk with slow film, I loaded my camera with Kodak TMZ, a film rated at 3200 ASA, knowing that I'd get grain and contrast and not a whole lot else.

Philip Glass, Toronto, February 1989

I was - and remain - a big fan of Glass and what was very loosely called the minimalist school - Steve Reich, John Adams, Ingram Marshall and Arvo Part. As soon as I saw the scant light and knew what the film would likely produce, I decided to try and treat the whole shoot as an exercise in minimalism - not as much a portrait shoot as an excuse to make something more like an illustration.

I don't know if I had a client when I shot these and I'm not sure they were ever published, but something from this shoot ended up in my portfolio for at least a few years, until I had enough conventional portraiture to take its place. I keep coming back to these negatives, though, as they made me think about stripping down a portrait to its most basic elements, and how photography in practice is very much a graphic art.

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