Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Three years

Selfie in front of Irving Penn's backdrop, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, July 2017

IT'S BEEN THREE YEARS SINCE I STARTED THIS BLOG, after my wife noticed that I was moping around the house a bit too much. As a make-work project, she told me that I should start digging through my old negatives to see if anything was worth scanning and putting online. I frankly dreaded the thought, but my wife is usually right about most things, so I swallowed hard and got to work.

Three years later I'm shooting more than I have in a decade, and feeling a lot better about my work than I imagined I would when I cracked open that first binder full of negatives. I know, however, that I'm entering the home stretch with this blog project - there are only a few dozen worthwhile shoots worth digging up from my old negatives before I hit the dawn of digital photography, and once I've gone through whatever was worthwhile from my time shooting at the national free daily, the project of discovery and appraisal will be over. I'll be surprised if there's a fourth anniversary post in a year.

In front of framed Bjork print, Analogue Gallery, 2016. Photo by Steve Stober
In front of framed Patti Smith print, Analogue Gallery, April 2017

One of the milestones of the last year or two was my decision to enter my work in a juried competition and see what happens. In late 2015 I entered five shots into the Sound Image show at Analogue Gallery, a Toronto photo gallery that specialized in music photography. My portrait of Bjork made the cut so, when the next Sound Image show was announced after Analogue moved its premises, I sent in another five entries.

My Patti Smith portrait made the cut, and to my surprise won the Photographer's Choice award this year, which felt very gratifying. Neither print sold, however, which reminded me of something I learned over twenty years ago: Gallery shows are mostly pointless. The walls of our house are full of framed prints from gallery shows I've done since the early '90s, and I can count my sales from all of them on one finger.

Steve Lacy print, ready to mail, Dec. 2016
Montana print, framed, 2016

Which doesn't mean I haven't sold any photos. Far from it - thanks to this blog I've managed to sell a few prints, which is a big ego boost (and far more economical than shouldering the expense of printing and framing without a guarantee of a sale.) I should probably try and think of a way to sell prints more aggressively online, and maybe I will, but I do know that it will take a lot to convince me to do a gallery show again.

I've also returned to something I haven't done in at least twenty years - band photography. It began with a Facebook message from Joel Wasson, an old friend and compatriot from the Toronto music scene. He'd done something really remarkable and basically grown his own rhythm section - he'd started a punk band with two of his sons and wanted me to take the album and publicity photos.

I met Joel at Ian Blurton's studio in the Portlands and headed out for an hour of shooting in the August sun. There were a few shots I liked, but my favorite was the one at the top, shot by the entrance of the go-kart track just down the street from Ian's studio. In my mind, this would have been a fantastic picture sleeve for a 45, but people don't do that sort of thing much anymore. It was a pleasure working with Joel who, bless him, was the first person to actually bother to ask if I wanted to shoot their band in ages.

The biggest coup of the last year was getting a photo in the New Yorker, at least judging by the reaction when I announced it. It would never have happened without this blog, but I was loathe to tell anyone it was happening until the issue was in my hands, as this was the second time the magazine had wanted to use one of my photos.

Thea Traff, a photo editor at the New Yorker, had contacted me about a year previous about using one of my Spalding Gray photos but it had fallen through. She e-mailed me very soon after my Jay McInerney post had gone up, and after an anxious wait told me that she was pretty sure my shot had made the cut. I'd thought the McInerney shots looked like they belonged in a magazine like the New Yorker when I shot them; I only had to wait thirty years for it to happen.

A highlight of the year was Seth's Dominion, a graphic autobiography published by Drawn & Quarterly to go with a documentary on my old friend, the comic book artist Seth. My very Irving Penn-esque portrait of Seth with Chester Brown and Joe Matt has always been one of my favorite shots, and after the contact sheets from that shoot ended up forming a two-page spread in D&Q's 25th anniversary book, Seth asked if he could use one of the better frames in his new book.

As the project grew, a portrait I'd taken of Seth and his then-fiancée Tanya was added, as well as the wedding photos I'd shot for them. I was happy to help Seth out with the book, though everyone involved was shocked when the print run ended up stranded at sea in a container when the shipping line that was bringing it back from the printers went bankrupt.

Another big project this year was a set of photos for Natalie Merchant's career retrospective box set. It was another job that wouldn't have happened without the blog, and I spent several long nights scanning and re-scanning my portraits of Natalie, taken for the National Post almost twenty years ago, to get them to the quality she wanted for the package.

There's another box set I'm very excited about working on, but I don't have a finished product to show yet, so it'll have to wait, perhaps for that fourth anniversary post.

While I was hanging around Ian Blurton's studio with Joel and his sons, Ian asked if I'd be available to shoot a reunion of his old band, Change of Heart, for some shows organized around the 25th anniversary reissue of the band's most ambitious album, Smile. I met Ian and the core band who made that record (bassist Rob Taylor, keyboardist Bernard Maiezza and drummer Glenn Milchem) at his studio and after shooting inside, we headed out into the inclement April weather and the same go-kart track where I'd shot The Discarded.

The band ended up using the shot I did there with a fisheye lens, but my favorite was the one just beneath it, deep in the building's basement by the freight elevator. I can see why they might not have thought it the best choice for a publicity shot, but I can't help but like it as a portrait of four men I've known on and off for over three decades. I've since worked with Ian on another project, but the results of that collaboration will probably have to wait for that putative fourth anniversary post.

It's been a great year. I've traveled to some great places, worked with people I like and taken photos I'm proud to show here. There's some good stuff coming up just over the horizon, God willing, and I'm cautiously hopeful that, once I've exhausted my stock of old photos in my archives, I might continue to showcase what I'm still in the habit of referring to sarcastically as my career's "second act."

Selfie at Calgary Stampede with cowboy hat, July 2017

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