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.

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