Monday, August 14, 2017

Sandra Oh

Sandra Oh, Toronto, March 1995

I HAD NO WAY OF KNOWING WHEN I TOOK THESE PHOTOS that Sandra Oh would end up having the career that she has. She was a young actress from Ottawa who'd just moved to Toronto after her first starring role in a movie. Grey's Anatomy was ten years in the future, and Oh was making a big splash in Canadian film and television, which - then or now - is no guarantee of anything like a career.

Oh was to be the subject of NOW magazine's "What I Wear" page - a fashion feature where celebrities, local and otherwise, itemized their everyday wardrobe and where they shopped for clothes. I vaguely remember that we met in Kensington Market because Oh was living there, but I might be wrong. In any case, these photos were mostly taken in a fruit and vegetable stand in the Market.

Sandra Oh, Toronto, March 1995

The usual format for What I Wear was a single, full-length vertical shot of the subject. I had gotten bored with this pretty quickly and began handing in collages instead - close-up shots of faces and feet and bits of clothing, printed different sizes and taped together onto a big sheet of paper that my editor would scan. We had a lot of creative freedom and space to work in NOW back then, and the best part of the job was how supportive my photo editor, Irene Grainger, was to our experiments.

Sandra Oh, Toronto, March 1995

Sandra Oh was a whirlwind of energy that morning, mugging for the camera and doing the old "melon under the shirt" gag. She was 23 years old at the time, dressed in thrift shop clothing (we'd call it "vintage" nowadays) and having far more success as an actor than anyone else in her profession could hope for at that age. I liked her.

Sandra Oh, Toronto, March 1995

I don't think either of us would have imagined the career she'd end up having, which is why I don't have anything like a conventional portrait of her here. If her career had proceeded on the usual trajectory, I'm sure I would have photographed her again in a few years, either for the opening of a play in one of the local theatres or as the star of the latest in a series of Canadian films made without the hope of turning a profit.

Last year, while shooting at the film festival, I ran into Oh in an elevator in the Intercontinental Hotel downtown. She was surrounded by three or four other women - publicists or handlers or agency types - and looked quite glamorous and put together; no more thrift shop velour tops. I introduced myself and mentioned this shoot; she laughed, which prompted her entourage to laugh as well. My oldest daughter isn't usually impressed by what I do, but she's a big fan of Grey's Anatomy, and thinks that my long-ago shoot with Oh is a big deal.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017


Pond, Washington, DC, Apr. 15, 1993

THE TAXI DRIVER SOUNDED CONCERNED. When he picked me up at Washington National Airport I gave him the address to my motel. "You sure?" he asked. I told him that was where the paper had booked me, so we drove across the Potomac and into Washington DC, past rows of tidy, well-kept townhouses on leafy streets and down broad avenues past imposing buildings housing government agencies and embassies and thousands of lobbyists.

I glimpsed the city's monuments as we drove, and was particularly surprised at how big the Washington Monument was, a gleaming white obelisk that always seemed to be visible above the rooftops. At some point we turned onto a road that took us across a bridge and suddenly it all changed and I was in the ruins of a city. Empty storefronts and long stretches of high chain link fences topped with coils of barbed wire. Men in layers of overcoats pushing shopping carts full of junk. It was almost a caricature of urban dereliction, something dreamed up by a set designer on a bad movie.

We finally arrived at my motel, which was behind yet another high fence and automatic gate and pulled up at the entrance. "Now I'm gonna wait here while you go in and make sure you have a reservation at this place," the cabbie said. "If you don't, I'm gonna turn around and find you a room at a good hotel." My room was reserved, no problem with that, so the cabbie shrugged after he took my money and drove away. I found my room, threw my bags on the bed and turned on the TV to see this:

I was in Washington DC to photograph a band called Pond for the cover of NOW, and the magazine had booked me into the same motel as the band to make hooking up for the shoot easier. Pond were signed to Sub Pop Records, which was flush with cash thanks to the grunge explosion and signing all kinds of bands, many of which hardly conformed to the flannel and hair image of the Northwest music scene - like Pond.

I watched the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas burn to the ground for about an hour while various experts tried to explain why this was happening. The band's van pulled into the parking lot and I introduced myself. I'm not sure if I even mentioned what I'd been watching, but I did remark on the compound-like nature of the motel and the dire neighbourhood that surrounded it.

We agreed that we should do the shoot downtown, near the monuments. I'm sure I probably insisted on it - if I'd been flown all the way down here I was sure the paper wanted me to deliver something that didn't look like I could have shot it in an alley behind a bar in Toronto. I think this was my first time in Washington, DC, and I was pretty overwhelmed by the scale of the buildings on the Mall - a reaction captured, I think, in the photo at the top.

Pond, Washington, DC, Apr. 15, 1993

Looking back, I think it was a pretty successful shoot - a departure from my usual close-up style, encouraged by the light on the Mall that day, bright but not harsh, with just enough haze in the air to fill in the shadows cast by the sun. The band were terribly nice guys, a bit stir-crazy from living in a van for the last month and grateful for a real bed that night. I went along to the gig that night at a club in downtown Washington and took photos of the show.

I still like the records Pond put out in the '90s, and I suppose I'd have shown these photos off a bit more if they'd gotten bigger. They left Sub Pop and recorded a record for Sony that wasn't bad at all before they finally broke up five years after I took these photos. They reunited for a gig in Portland, their hometown, seven years ago. It's a measure of their obscurity that a band from Australia is using the same name today.

I keep thinking that, once the lens of nostalgia finally turns full force on the '90s and record collectors start mining for obscurities, a band like Pond will get rediscovered; perhaps these photos will show up in some retrospective book or box set. Until then, they remain permanently bookmarked with the memory of that very strange day in Washington, DC with my motel behind the barbed wire and the burning compound in Texas.

Pond at the 9:30 Club, Washington, DC, Apr. 15, 1993

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Einsteurzende Neubauten

Einsturzende Neubauten, Toronto, July 23, 1991

IT'S EASY TO REMEMBER YOUR SUCCESS STORIES. If we're halfway sane, we try to forget about our failures, but some of them linger in our memory if they're particularly instructive or humiliating. This is what makes obscurity a gift: My failures were rarely witnessed or a matter of public record. In one case, though, I managed to get one of my failures documented.

I was a really big fan of the German industrial band Einsturzende Neubauten. It was easy to snicker at their very German image and avant-garde flamboyance, but their records were great and they could reach a peak of intensity live that most bands should have envied (in my opinion.) It went without saying that I always wanted to get a really good photo of any band I liked, so when the band came through Toronto for a gig at the cavernous dance club/concert space RPM down by the lake, I pitched hard for a chance to do the shoot.

Einsturzende Neubauten, Toronto,  July 23,1991

Shooting bands is difficult at the best of times; it's hard to get the same level of intensity from everyone in front of the camera, and group dynamics dictate that the band will go into any shoot subconsciously united against the photographer/outsider, whose motivations are presumed suspicious. In this case, I made it harder by choosing to shoot only with cross-processed slide film, but you have to try to understand my decision.

I'd shot enough bands by this point in my career that I knew I needed something to add some visual interest to what was, after all, going to be simply a photo of five men standing in close proximity to each other. I chose to use Agfa slide film for this shoot instead of the Fuji stock that I knew would deliver a fairly predictable result. Perhaps I did it because it was German, but I knew in advance that the results might be fairly difficult to print. I guess I was hoping that a chance element might produce an original result.

The band were more than usually obstreperous, and I spent most of the shoot being mocked or baited by lead singer Blixa Bargeld, whose very theatrical disdain only encouraged the rest of the band to treat the shoot as a bonding exercise just before they went onstage. It's not like I hadn't experienced this before, but for some reason I'd made the decision to ask whoever assisted me for this job - I wish I could remember who it was - to shoot a roll of me at work with a nice wide angle lens.

Shooting Einsturzende Neubauten, RPM Club, Toronto, July 23, 1991

This is one of the only documents I have of one of my shoots, and it's mostly a record of humiliation. I can see the frozen smile on my face, even from the back, as I'm cajoling Bargeld and the rest of the band to cooperate enough to present themselves to my camera with something less than boredom or contempt. I don't know why I expected anything less.

The results, when they came back from the lab, were mostly unprintable. Cross-processed film had a tendency to produce contrasty, saturated images, but the shadows on the Agfa film clotted like spilled ink and the usual green-blue colour cast overwhelmed almost everything else. It was difficult to remediate these flaws in Photoshop, so I can't imagine how difficult they were to correct in the darkroom. I'm reminded of why, even after relentless testing, I'd end up abandoning cross-processing, overwhelmed by the inconsistency of the results.

My favorite shot from the session today is the one below. The focus is unacceptably soft, probably because I snapped the shutter at the moment when the whole shoot was about to go off the rails, as Blixa had the band rally behind him to lampoon what he obviously saw as the risibly show biz idea of five guys posing for a camera backstage before a gig. It's a moment of almost pure contempt, but it cuts across Neubauten's forbiddingly Teutonic image almost enough to overcome its fatal technical flaws. Consider me humbled.

Einsturzende Neubauten, Toronto,  July 23, 1991

Saturday, August 5, 2017


Screaming Trees, Toronto, 1991

I HAVE SHOT A LOT OF BANDS. Almost none of that work is anything I'm particularly proud of today, but I still have a little backlog of it in my files, and now felt like as good a time as any to scan it and get it out there. Some of it is, I hope, of at least historical interest for fans. The photos in this post are a personal record of something else - failed technical experimentation, mostly.

I shot the Screaming Trees a few months before the release of Nirvana's Nevermind pinned them to the part of the map that said "grunge" - perhaps unfairly, but they might have made just a little more money by being press-ganged on to that particular bandwagon. They'd put out a few somewhat psychedelic records on SST back when I was still at Nerve, but I shot them in 1991, on tour with Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters and after they'd been signed to Epic Records.

Screaming Trees, Toronto, 1991

In a year they'd release Sweet Oblivion, a record I played a lot, but when I took these photos they were just another band who'd survived the indie rock swamp and had scored a chance at a potentially bigger audience. They'd never really get it in the shadow of Nirvana, but the band ended up being a launching pad for their singer, Mark Lanegan, who would turn out to be more interesting than I imagined when I posed them in the alley behind what I'm guessing is the Rivoli on Queen West, with a bunch of colour film I was hell-bent on cross-processing and a flash head in a tiny soft box at the top of a light stand.

fIREHOSE, Toronto, 1991

I shot fIREHOSE a few months later in the same alleyway with the same flash and cross-processed film. They were another bunch of SST veterans now signed to Epic's parent company, Columbia Records, but my history with them went back a lot further.

Mike Watt and George Hurley had been the rhythm section of the Minutemen, a seminal SST band who were credited, along with the Meat Puppets, Husker Du and Black Flag, with breaking hardcore punk out of its stylistic rut and giving birth to what would be the indie rock sound. I was a huge fan, and saw them in New York City just a couple of months before the van accident that killed guitarist D. Boon and ended the band.

fIREHOSE, Toronto, 1991
Minutemen, Irving Plaza, NYC, 1985
It was at the beginning of what I didn't even know then would be a photographic career, and I'd interview and photograph them in the dressing room and bathroom at Irving Plaza. I had a whole roll of photos of the band goofing around for my camera - in the toilet stalls and playing with a big blow-up globe that was somehow on hand, but that roll of photos went missing many years ago and I've never been able to find them again.

The shot above is all that's left - a scan of a print I'd passed on to Phil Saunders, a onetime Nerve colleague, to pass on to Mike Watt. Instead of taking the print, Watt and Hurley signed it (the Blue Oyster Cult logo is, I suppose, a stand-in for the signature of Boon, who was a huge BOC fan) and gave it back to Phil. They look like pretty basic shots, but I'd give anything to find those negatives again today.

This is what makes it poignant that the bottom shot of Watt, Hurley and Ed "fROMOHIO" Crawford - the Minutemen fan who convinced them to start playing again with him taking Boon's place - was shot years later in another dingy dressing room (the Rivoli again, I'm sure.) As with the Screaming Trees shots, probably on assignment for HMV magazine.

Babes in Toyland, Toronto, 1992

The Babes in Toyland shoot was a bit more polished, done once again for HMV when the band were on tour as the opening act for Lush. I'd set up with a rented backdrop and my strobe lights at the back of the Opera House on Queen East, and after changing the lighting setup from the one I'd used for Lush, got the band to pose for yet another batch of cross-processed film.

The Babes were once known as the group who Courtney Love copied nearly wholesale when she formed Hole, right down to singer and guitarist Kat Bjelland's signature look, later dubbed "kinderwhore." They were a pretty raucous bunch of women; drummer Lori Barbaro was famous as a scene fixture, well-liked for her energetic support of anyone she liked. Bassist Maureen Herman had just joined the band, whose new record, Fontanelle, would be released later that year.

A somewhat slick, even characterless shoot, in my opinion. I was far more concerned with nailing down a look I'd seen elsewhere and not with finding something like my own style. It was a mistake I'd make a lot during this hit-and-miss period of my career. Frustrating, to be sure, but at least I was working a lot, which meant that just occasionally something faintly original would make it through all the mimicry.