Friday, October 27, 2017


Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba, October 2017

IT TOOK ANOTHER YEAR AND TWO HURRICANES, BUT I FINALLY GOT BACK TO CUBA. Twenty-two years after the last time I was on the island, I found myself on a private jet flying into the part of Cuba hit hardest by Hurricane Irma last month, on assignment with a group of travel writers.

Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean early in September, hitting the resort areas of Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria hardest. Which was exactly where our plane was headed, on a trip meant to showcase the rebuilding efforts in those areas for Canadian tourists who might be planning on vacationing there once the high season starts next month.

Cayo Coco, Cuba, Oct. 2017

Just over a month since Irma, the destruction was still obvious in all the resorts we visited, though the clean-up work had mostly finished and most of the serious damage had been repaired, including the customs hall in the Jardines del Rey airport, which had been completely gutted. Working non-stop after the causeway to the mainland was repaired, workers, engineers and hotel employees had replaced roofs and windows blown out by the storm; by the time we arrived work had begun replacing the beach huts and cabanas that had been blown inland into hotel rooms, pools, bars and lobbies.

Cayo Coco, Cuba, Oct. 2017

On Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria, we were often the only people staying in the hotels, where repairs had been rushed to host our little group. Sun lounges and chairs had been set up again around the repaired and refilled pools, which felt a bit eerie empty of guests. In some places, the only visible evidence of Irma was the occasional tree still listing precariously, or the branches missing from the windward wide of the palms, which you'd find in a sun-bleached pile behind a guest bungalow. In other places it was a ruined pier, or the white columns that once housed the resort spa, now looking like a temple ruin in a jungle clearing.

Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba, Oct. 2017

When we flew into Varadero on the third day, we were met with hotels very much back to business as usual, as Irma had lost a lot of her power by the time she'd torn through Havana and reached the western beaches of the island. Guests in danger of being stranded in Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria had been sent here if they couldn't be evacuated home, and after a brief period of clean-up and repairs, it was hard to tell if Varadero had been hit at all.

Varadero, Cuba, Oct. 2017

I am not a beach person, though I can stare out to sea for hours. This is a Cuba I had never seen before, since the whole of my experience of the country had been Havana during the peculiar circumstances of the "Special Period" over two decades ago. I'm tempted to qualify this little travelogue by saying that this isn't the "real Cuba," though I'm still at a loss to tell you precisely what that real Cuba might actually be. It was nice to be back, regardless of the circumstances, and something of a gift - as both a photographer and a misanthrope - to experience beach resorts in such a unique way.

Thursday, October 26, 2017


Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, spring 1997

THESE PHOTOS WERE TAKEN DURING ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT SHOOTS I EVER DID. I have never printed them, and this is the first time I have published them anywhere. As these things usually go, it's a long story, and I suppose you kind of had to be there.

For over twenty years, I lived near Sunnyside, Toronto's western beach and once home to an iconic amusement park - Toronto's Coney Island, though long gone before I was born, never mind by the time I lived there. It's a place I still return to time and time again for inspiration or as a location for shoots. Sunnyside, more probably than Yonge Street or either of its city halls, is Toronto for me.

Sunnyside pedestrian bridge, Toronto, spring 1997

On some blustery day in the spring of 1997, I left my Parkdale loft with my Rolleiflex cameras and walked west along Queen Street to the pedestrian bridge where Queen, King and Roncesvalles meet. I don't know just what moved me to head out that day, but my obvious intent, based on the single roll of film I shot that day, was to document the lake and the sky and crashing waves that, on a rare day like this, makes usually placid Lake Ontario seem more like an ocean.

Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, spring 1997

For most of my career up till that point, I rarely set out to take pictures just for fun. All of my energies were focused on trying to earn a living, and while film and processing cost money, shooting without a paycheque in mind cut needlessly into my paper-thin overhead. Which means that it must have been something strong - some hard to deny urge - that forced me out of the warmth of my loft into threatening weather to take photos.

Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, spring 1997

While the clouds were heavy and threatening, it wasn't raining, so I made it to the deserted boardwalk and down to the beach to find the waves cresting over the breakwater and rolling heavily onto the shore. I took a couple of photos of the bridge and one of the lake and sky through the branches of a bare tree, just budding. But most of the frames on the single contact sheet I have are of the shore, the waves, the water and the sky. There was something there I was obviously intent on finding.

Sunnyside Beach, Toronto, spring 1997

I remember being pleased when I saw the results on the contact sheet. I definitely looked them over carefully, but I never marked any of them for future reference, and I never printed a single frame. They might have stayed on my desk for a year or two, but by the time I moved out of my loft they had been filed away. Leafing through my archives, I always stopped and looked them over again, but they remained unseen by anyone but me. Until today.

I have had an intuition for years that most serious photographers have an image in their head - perhaps a few, but at least one - that they're always trying to create or find. When I was given my first camera - a Kodak Instamatic - as a boy, I headed out into the snow after Christmas and tried to take a photo I had in my head. It was very nearly abstract, more full of texture than colour, composed with at least one horizon, and roughly based on what I would only learn many years later was the "rule of thirds."

I had an instinct that I hadn't really got the shot, and in any case no one thought my early experiments were worth sending out for developing or printing, since they weren't a record of a person or an event we'd experienced as a family. But that image remained in my mind for at least another decade, until the day I went into that Church Street pawn shop and bought my first real camera. Lack of money - as an adult, just as when I was a child - meant I didn't experiment much if there was no commercial potential, but that image remained in my mind.

It's only now, when digital has made shooting so cheap and commercial downturns have made my time so much less valuable, that I find myself with a camera in my hand so often, on assignment or not, trying to take that photo I still have in my head. This shoot was really the beginning of something, though I didn't know it at the time, as I was increasingly being overwhelmed by what I would soon learn was actually the end of something else.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley, Parkdale, Aug. 1997

THE ACTRESS SARAH POLLEY WAS JUST EIGHTEEN when I photographed her in my Parkdale studio for the cover of NOW magazine. She was, notwithstanding, a celebrity in Canada, having been a child actress for years before I got the assignment to take her portrait for the cover of the magazine's film festival issue. (She had a prominent role in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and was at the festival promoting Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, The Hanging Garden and The Planet of Junior Brown, I think.)

She was tiny, very pretty, and a bit nervous, despite her long experience. I was in the throes of my "Victorian studio photographer" period and managed to rent a suitable backdrop for the shoot, the sort of painted scenery you'd find in the studio of someone who shot carte de visites for middle class customers in any city.

I'd borrowed a few other props, including an old Mitchell cinema camera, hoping to get something that played with the film festival theme. I was clearly ambitious that this session turn out well, as I shot a lot of film.

Sarah Polley, Parkdale, Aug. 1997

My ambition got the better of me at the time, because the shoot never really seemed to measure up to my hopes for it. Still, when Vogue magazine in New York did a small feature on Polley, she apparently declined to do a shoot for them and told them to use my photos, so it couldn't have been a complete failure. Getting a shot in Vogue felt like a big deal, but if it was, I never did much to capitalize on the credit.

I like these shots a bit more today, probably because experience has given me the tools to print them a bit more as I imagined them. I especially like the shot of Polley in her orange jacket, looking a bit wary and hostile - a frame I would definitely have overlooked back then.

They were the kind of studio portraiture I was desperate to do much more often, but this shoot with Sarah Polley was probably the last time I had anyone really notable in my studio. Less than two years later I'd end up moving out of my Parkdale loft.

Sarah Polley, Parkdale, Aug. 1997

I was a little let down with the rolls I shot with Polley amidst my studio detritus and the borrowed Mitchell camera, but this frame in particular struck me while I was going over my contacts, mostly because of something Polley wrote for the New York Times recently, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Barely two years after I took these photos, Polley's career had taken off in the U.S. and she found herself working on a Miramax film and called in to a meeting with Weinstein that played out, depressingly, much as any meeting a young actress would have with Weinstein. She wasn't quite twenty, had a publicist with her the whole time, and turned down his "offer." By this point Polley already had ambitions away from acting toward directing, and according to the Times piece, this incident played no small part in her later decision to make her career more in Canada than Hollywood:
Harvey Weinstein may be the central-casting version of a Hollywood predator, but he was just one festering pustule in a diseased industry. The only thing that shocked most people in the film industry about the Harvey Weinstein story was that suddenly, for some reason, people seemed to care. That knowledge alone allowed a lot of us to breathe for the first time in ages.
Sarah Polley, Toronto, Sept. 2005

I'd end up photographing Polley one more time, eight years later, when she was at the film festival doing press for a Wim Wenders film in which she had a role. It was in the middle of the "hotel room" period at the free national daily, and while I'm sure I must have mentioned the NOW shoot, I don't recall if she remembered it at all. I positioned her in front of a window with the light behind me and shot a couple of dozen very, very tight frames.

A year later Polley would release her second feature as a director, Away From Her. In the Times piece she says she hasn't taken an acting job in ten years. (Her last credit is Abigail Adams in the HBO miniseries John Adams.) She recently directed a film about her discovery of her birth father, and has written and produced a TV miniseries based on Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace.

Polley has, I think, done well with her decision to move away from acting and Hollywood, but I can't help but wonder what she might have done with the roles and resources available south of the border, in an industry (almost impossible to imagine, unfortunately) without its Weinsteins.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mike Figgis

Mike Figgis, Toronto, Sept. 1997

BY THE LATE NINETIES I WAS PROBABLY MORE COMFORTABLE SHOOTING IN HOTEL ROOMS than in my own, much-loved but definitely underused, studio. Years of experience had taught me to boil down my kit to the essentials - a pair of Rolleis and a tripod. I could reload my little antique cameras in seconds, and since most of the film studios tended to book interviews into the same trio of downtown hotels - the Four Seasons, the Park Plaza and the Sutton Place (two of which are gone now) - I could anticipate the available light in almost any room.

I have a friend who lives in hotels; it's a peculiar but enviable lifestyle, and everyone who knows him wonders how he keeps his needs boiled down to essentials. Shooting in hotels helps me understand (at least partially) how he does it; when I was in what I remember as my golden age of hotel portraiture, I had to surrender to the anonymity of those spaces, with their solid, practical furniture, never too much in advance of last year's taste, and the quality of light coming through those double-glazed windows.

Mike Figgis, Toronto, Sept. 1997

I'm fairly certain I did this shoot with director Mike Figgis in the Yorkville Four Seasons, though I could be wrong. Figgis had a big hit two years previous with Leaving Las Vegas. He was known as a serious but stylish director. I know that I envied how he could pull off his striped trousers.

It helps when a subject arrives with a visual trademark. In Figgis' case, it was his wild mane of ringlets, and since I was rarely if ever in a position to have enough time or previsualization to come into a shoot intent on working against my subject's public image, I felt obliged to give that hair a very graphic role in my shots.

I have a colour roll in my files, so this was obviously meant to be a cover shoot. I was mostly over my love of cross-processed slide film by this point, but preferred colour neg to transparencies if I had the luxury of some time to make contacts and prints. I loved colour with a cool cast, but since I preferred the grain structure of Fuji film, it meant working a bit harder in the darkroom to correct for the famously warm tones of the brand. As for the black and white shots, I guess the striped pants inspired me to try for something a bit elegant.

Mike Figgis, Toronto, Sept. 1997

I always found it easier to shoot directors and writers rather than performers - which seems counter-intuitive -  but while researching Figgis' recent activities I came across an article written about his sideline as a photographer - a semi-professional, or at least an enthusiastic amateur with enviable access to famous subjects. He took to carrying a camera with him on set, shooting his stars between takes, and the experience led to an interesting observation about taking pictures of actors:
"Actors are terrified of having a single image taken of them, which used to puzzle me. It's because they feel they can't control it and if they can keep moving it will divert you away from some truth. But if you take a good photograph you can reveal something that a movie can't expose," says Figgis. "I found I had a real resistance to taking photographs on film sets, because it was already fake. Unless I could find an interesting angle and go behind the set. Then, of course, I was working with very good-looking actors and I started to ask people to sit for me."
It would be over a decade before he made this observation, but I can't help but wonder now if he was thinking about just how much truth he was willing to project into my Rolleiflex in that hotel room. Every portrait shoot is inherently a power struggle, and at this point in time, Figgis would have had more experience than me with exercising just enough gentle dominance over a subject to elicit a performance.

For the longest time I considered sitting them by a selected window or in front of a bank of lights, bounded by my framing, was enough to forcing a response for my camera. I was well out of my apprenticeship when I took these photos, but I still had a lot to learn about the brief, peculiar and sometimes intense relationship between a photographer and a sitter. Unfortunately, there would be a hiatus in my career just over the horizon, and I would slip off that learning curve.


Friday, October 6, 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro, Toronto, April 2005

but most of a day had passed after the news broke before I remembered that I had portraits of Kazuo Ishiguro, shot for the free national daily back when I considered myself just a writer with a camera. Perhaps that's why I forgot I'd taken them - they were just an add-on to the interview I did with Ishiguro when he passed through town on a book tour.

(An interview, I should add, that I also forgot I'd done until I was writing the paragraph above, and thought I should check to see if there was anything besides these photos in my files.)

To be fair, I was working very hard for the paper, writing columns and interviews and reviews and features and shooting other writers' stories in addition to my own. Work that was done in a rush, by someone who was resigned to having blown his chance at a career and was now, simply, doing a job to support a family. (My youngest daughter was born a few months before I took these photos.)

Kazuo Ishiguro, Toronto, April 2005

These photos were shot on the paper's Canon EOS Digital Rebel - otherwise known as the 300D, an entry-level, second generation SLR that took a 6.3 megapixel image, half that size if shot as a jpeg. It was the first digital SLR I used professionally, and I was still struggling with the difference between digital and film, and ascending a steep learning curve with Photoshop.

I was, to be frank, working on autopilot most of the time. Knowing that most photos would be cropped and run a single column wide, I didn't strive for much more than tight, graphic compositions. I was also out of the habit of imagining anything I was doing being portfolio work; every shoot was a job, often done in a scant minute or two at the end of an interview, and destined for disposable newsprint and a website that regularly scrubbed older stories.

Posterity was the last thing on my mind, never mind the possibility that a subject could become a Nobel Prize laureate.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Toronto, April 2005

I don't think I'm the only person who regards the Nobel prize with skepticism. Ishiguro is actually the first winner in years that I've actually read with pleasure - most years the winners have been utterly obscure: Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano, Mo Yan, Tomas Tranströmer, Herta Müller and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio are just the most recent recipients who made me wonder if the jury was just making up names.

But then again, who has heard of the first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, back in 1901 - Sully Prudhomme? The long century since then are just as rich in authors with reputations lost to time: José Echegaray y Eizaguirre and Frédéric Mistral, who shared the award in 1904; the improbable duo of Henrik Pontoppidan and Karl Adolph Gjellerup, who shared it in 1917; Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont, who won the prize in 1924, between George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats; Grazia Deledda (1926), Roger Martin du Gard (1937) and Salvatore Quasimodo (1959), who really deserves to be more famous with a name so delicious.

It's often seemed like the award was really just the Nobel Prize for Obscure Nordic Literature: What happened to the reputations of Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen (1902), Bjørnstjerne Martinus Bjørnson (1903), Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (1909), Sigrid Undset (1928), Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931), Johannes Vilhelm Jensen (1944), Pär Fabian Lagerkvist (1951) and Halldór Kiljan Laxness (1955)? Is it remotely possible that they could have been the peers of Kipling, Tagore, Thomas Mann, Eugene O'Neill, T.S. Eliot, Faulkner, Hemingway or Camus, who all won the award at the same time?

Bob Dylan's Nobel last year makes me wonder if there hasn't been a changing of the guard at Nobel headquarters - a coterie of t-shirt wearing, cable TV binge-watchers who've joked with each other that they're just softening up the public for the day they give the Nobel to Stephen King.

Mostly, though, I'm wondering all of this aloud because I can't remember much about my interview and portrait shoot with Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro except how I kept challenging him about the improbable motivations of the characters in his then-latest book, Never Let Me Go. For posterity, his response:
I think it’s fair to say that, like any metaphor, there’s a weak point, and that’s probably the weak point here - when you ask ‘Well, why don’t they run away?’ That’s the point where I have to come back and say, look, that’s beyond the point that I was interested in. I tried to do what I could by portraying a world that just didn’t contemplate the possibility of escape.
Today it might look like audacity; at the time, I was trying to keep myself engaged while spending most days writing recaps of episodes of The Amazing Race, Canadian Idol and The Apprentice.

Thursday, October 5, 2017


Montreal, Sept. 2017

TRAVEL WRITING TOOK ME TO MONTREAL LAST MONTH, a city that wasn't at all strange to me. Montreal is Toronto's madcap, irresponsible, profligate cousin - the one that has all the fun but needs to be bailed out every now and then. It's an older city than my hometown, and much prettier, but I've never had a chance to wander around it with a camera.

I was in town on a food trip, but with a few hours of free time in the itinerary, I was able to wander up St. Laurent early in the morning when only the only customers were bleary-eyed and looking for coffee. (Montreal also parties much harder than Toronto.) It was also the only time I've ever seen Schwartz's Deli without a line-up.

Montreal, Sept. 2017

I've tried to get a shot of the Biosphere before - once the U.S. Pavilion at Expo 67, it's the signature architectural leftover of Canada's self-defining world fair. Third time's a charm, I guess. I also managed to attend mass at Marie-Reine-du-Monde, the Catholic cathedral; I was one of just a few dozen in the cavernous space. I think St. Patrick's, just down Blvd. Rene-Levesque, is a prettier church, but the cathedral had the advantage of being next to my hotel.

Montreal, Sept. 2017

That hotel, the Queen Elizabeth, had just reopened after a massive renovation, which included Suite #1742, the rooms made famous by John Lennon & Yoko Ono's 1969 Bed-In for Peace. As a travel writing perk, I got to spend the night in the room, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to sleep in the bed under the window. No matter - the bathtub in the other half of the suite was huge and luxurious.

Montreal, Sept. 2017

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch, Toronto, Sept. 1997

BACK WHEN I WAS A SOPHOMORE IN UNIVERSITY, BEFORE I OWNED A CAMERA, my best friend - a film student - told me that he had tickets to an advance preview of an interesting little low-budget film from New York City. His professor had told him it was exactly the sort of thing film students should look at when trying to make their films. We went to a private screening room set up in some mid-rise office tower downtown and saw Stranger Than Paradise, the second feature by director Jim Jarmusch.

I'd read about Jarmusch in magazines like the New York Rocker a couple of years before, when he was part of a wave of so-called punk cinema coming out of Manhattan. It would be years before I saw Permanent Vacation, his first film, which was probably a good thing; if I'd seen it first, I doubt if I'd have had an open mind going into that screening of Stranger Than Paradise.

Jim Jarmusch, Toronto, Sept. 1997

We loved it. It wasn't just the kind of small, intimate, awkward film that a novice should try to make - it reflected something of our own aimless, wheel-spinning lives at a time when the future looked far too intimidating, so we sought solace in the nearly-worn-out relics of the recent past that were still everywhere. Jarmusch seemed like a kindred spirit, and I did my best to keep up with him over the years.

I finally met and photographed Jim Jarmusch over fifteen years after that screening, when he was at the film festival promoting a concert film he'd just done with Neil Young. While I hadn't been a big fan of everything he'd done since Stranger Than Paradise, I was more than a bit in awe, and took photos that reflected my apparent unwillingness to push my subject - a series of headshots that look like a cross between mug shots and studies for a sculpture.

Jim Jarmusch, Toronto, Sept. 1997

I originally printed these shots at the highest contrast filter my Ilford Multigrade paper would allow, aiming for something that evoked the grainy, low-budget aesthetic of his earliest films. That was as much editorializing as I allowed myself with this shoot, and with a subject that seemed to ooze an effortless cool that was more than a little intimidating.

In retrospect, I was at a fork in the road with my celebrity portraiture. Shoot times were getting shorter and shorter, and if I wasn't willing or able to push a subject during my brief sessions with them, it was imperative that I fall back on the basics - some decent light, an iconic pose, and perhaps a hint of engagement when their eyes looked down the lens. I would have just two more film festivals to shoot before a brief recess, after which I'd return to find constraints on portrait shoots even tighter.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Robin Wright

Robin Wright, Toronto, Sept. 1997

FOR YEARS, I DID NOT HAVE HAPPY MEMORIES OF THIS SHOOT WITH ROBIN WRIGHT, or Robin Wright Penn as she was known when I took these photos. It's probably why I forgot I'd taken them for nearly two decades, and only remembered these photos when I came across an entry for this shoot in my ledger a couple of years ago.

It was a difficult shoot, for reasons that are hard to describe if you've never had to deal with celebrity, or the people who handle and - at least from their own perspective - protect celebrities. Portrait sessions are inevitably about trust and control; you have to understand and accept that if you want to try and get the most from your subject, regardless of the situation. But that dynamic is made much more difficult when it involves someone who isn't either the subject or the photographer.

Erin Dignam & Robin Wright, Toronto, Sept. 1997
Robin Wright, Toronto, Sept. 1997

After a break-up, Wright had reunited with and married actor Sean Penn the year before this shoot, taking his name and the burden of a whole new layer of celebrity. Penn - a gifted actor and director but also a political bore and bully - had become the qualifying condition of Wright's newly intensified fame, and it threatened to overwhelm her work in Loved, a small film directed by her friend, screenwriter Erin Dignam, when it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Sean Penn, Toronto, Sept. 1991

I remember going into this interview alongside NOW writer Ingrid Randoja with some doubts about whether I'd actually be allowed to take any photos at all. I remember Wright being visibly wary, and both Dignam and a hovering publicist giving off very protective vibes for the actress. Conditions and warnings were whispered to Ingrid and I as we tried to work, and I expected, at any point, to be told that I'd violated some unstated boundary and ordered to put down my camera. I was certainly relieved when I got the end of my roll, having shot candids of Wright and a handful of portraits of her, with and without Dignam.

Robin Wright, Toronto, Sept. 1997

There were doubts that I'd even be able to shoot portraits at all, which is why I have the candids taken during Ingrid's interview. In retrospect, this seems mysterious to me since - as the shots above show - the candid shots come across like stills from a rather downbeat drama, and show a much more anxious, uncertain woman than the portraits I took when the actress (a model when she was a teenager) could address my camera directly. I'm not sure what image Wright's handlers wanted to project, but I'm sure it wasn't the one I got in these unposed shots.

It left me with a sour memory, so after printing a couple of frames for NOW (I think they ran the shot of Dignam and Wright) I never looked at these photos again. (UPDATE: I've since been told that the shot of Wright above ended up on the cover of NOW. I had no memory of this at all.) Wright endured a difficult relationship with Penn (not surprisingly) and after a rather unremarkable string of roles during the waning years of their marriage, she bounced back at the beginning of the last decade and gold-plated her professional reputation playing Claire Underwood in the Netflix series House of Cards. She's either an exception to or a refutation of the conventional wisdom that women get less interesting roles after a certain age.

They're not terrible pictures. I don't know why I decided to use my Canon 35mm instead of my Rolleiflex; perhaps because I'd been warned that I'd have to work fast, if I was allowed to work at all. The candids come off, as I said, more like film stills - the "little performances" that I would come to  strive to get out of my subjects. And the circumstances of the shoot - a couple of minutes in available hotel room light that could be cut short at any time - would be very much the new normal in the next decade, as we'll see.