Friday, November 3, 2017


Unknown model, Parkdale, 1994

MY CAREER AS A FASHION PHOTOGRAPHER WAS BRIEF AND SPORADIC. Which is to say that I didn't really have a career as a fashion photographer at all, though I have always loved really great fashion work, and had no shortage of ambition to make some of my own.

The reason was simple enough; my favorite photographers shot fashion in addition to portraits and whatever else was their specialty, and some of their most iconic images came from their fashion work. Avedon with Dovima and the elephants. Penn's photos of his wife Lisa in pretty much anything. I wanted to take a lot of great photos, so I wanted to work in as many places that would let me take them.

My first problem, however, was that I was not working in New York City in the mid-50s. It would take me a while to actually grasp that inescapable fact.

My first proper fashion shoot was for NOW magazine, early in my time there. We were doing a special section and the idea was to have the city's fashion luminaries wear the clothes instead of some model. Dierdre Hanna, the paper's fashion editor, made the arrangements and on a day I distinctly remember as cold, wet and miserable Dierdre, the clothes and a hair and makeup artist arrived at my Parkdale loft.

Catherine Franklin, Parkdale, Feb. 1990
Jeanne Beker, Parkdale, Feb. 1990
Ray Civello, Parkdale, Feb. 1990

Jeanne Beker had moved from hosting The New Music - a program I'd watched avidly as a teenager sniffing out the last smokey vapours of punk rock - and had helped start Fashion Television, which became a big deal in the industry. Ray Civello was the owner of some high end salons and had launched his own line of product, and Catherine Franklin was the fashion director for Toronto Life Fashion, one of the two big fashion magazines in the country.

We shot on a day when the thugs hired by our landlord to harass the tenants out of the building went on the offensive, knocking on my door while I was shooting to issue vague threats that I should "get out." Explaining the situation to Dierdre and everyone else in the studio meant that I was more than usually tense while I worked.

I wanted desperately to make a good impression on these people, as they seemed to hold the keys to work I longed to do. I felt like a nervous kid, working at the edge of my technical competence and besieged in his apartment by guys with names like Dwayne and Harry. In hindsight, it's a colourful anecdote. At the time it felt humiliating. Does all of this show in the photos? You be the judge.

Sally, Parkdale, 1991

The results of my first real fashion shoot - which never translated into work with any of these people, by the way - convinced me that as a fashion photographer, I took okay portraits. I needed practice, and the nearest person I could practice on happened to be my very pretty roommate Sally. I'd never lived with a woman who wasn't my mother up till then, so Sally's makeup ritual was something I couldn't help but notice. I was looking at a lot of old fashion magazines, and one day I had an idea.

Left: Erwin Blumenfeld, 1950. Right: Irving Penn, 1959.

I'd finally bought a proper medium format studio camera - a Bronica SQ-A - and after picking up a close-up filter to give the standard 80mm lens some vaguely macro function, I asked her to sit under my little set of strobe lights and set about with her lipstick and mascara. I had come to the conclusion that sharp focus was an arbitrary thing, and likely overrated, so I dialed back the lights and shot with cross-processed slide film rated two stops below the ISO on the box.

I ended up getting something more than vaguely like what I had in mind, which felt like success. (Though it was only while scanning these shots over 25 years later that I decided the bottom shot actually looks better in black and white.) I put one of these shots in my portfolio, hoping someone would respond to what I was trying to do. No one did.

My next kick at fashion shooting came when my old Nerve boss, Dave Macintosh, phoned and said that his new girlfriend was a model whose agent told her she needed more work in her portfolio. He asked if I was interested. Sally had moved out by that point, and I was desperate for a new model, so I eagerly said yes.

Teri Walker, Parkdale, 1992

I rented my favorite sky and clouds backdrop for good luck and explained to Teri my idea for something slightly evocative of surrealism and Magritte. We shot for a while with one simple black dress and then Teri went out to the living room to get the hair and makeup person to give her a new look. I came out and saw the candy-coloured curlers, thought "Eureka!" and said she had to get back into the studio for another setup. I shot negative film cross-processed into slide; it was a trick that didn't often work, but this time it turned out exactly as I'd hoped.

Teri Walker, Parkdale, 1992

We shot for the rest of the afternoon, finally heading outside to get something a bit more "street," which led us to the less salubrious of Parkdale's two diners. I ordered a Labatt's 50, set dressed the table with my own Zippo and Lucky Strikes (Teri didn't actually smoke) and took a couple of rolls. At the end of the day I had a lot of film. I'm not sure if the results were what Teri had in mind, but I'd had a glimpse of what it was like to work with a real model.

It would be two more years before I'd have that experience again. I'd met a young fashion designer at a party somewhere who knew my work from NOW; he asked if I'd be willing to shoot some promo work featuring his clothes. He'd take care of the expenses of models and makeup and I could do what I wanted. It seemed like a good deal, and I knew that I'd never get a chance shooting fashion if I couldn't show off something that featured models and actual clothes.

Unknown model, Parkdale, 1994

We shot with two models and three or four outfits. A set of shots with a model in a bathing suit never did much for me, but the photos I did with the other girl turned out much better. She was young but Eastern European so she looked much older than her age; I recall that she was married, and that she couldn't stop playing with Nato, my very friendly kitten. I honestly wish I remembered her name, because the setup we did at the end of the shoot was probably the closest I ever got to work that looked like the fashion photos I wanted to make.

These shots have Penn all over them, there's no hiding that. But I was able to use props that I liked - a scarred and stained tabletop, an old fan from the attic of my mom's house, and a pair of lemons from my kitchen to set off the model's blue jacket. I shot on slide film, which is unforgiving with exposure, but I was at the top of my game in the studio by then, and everything came out just as I'd imagined. I was eager to work with the designer again, but somewhere along the line he'd gotten some good press and, imagining he could get a better deal, blew me off rather callously. It's why I always remember my favorite fashion shot with some bitterness.

A footnote: The shot just above is not the best one from the shoot. My neighbour across the hall in the Parkdale loft was a set designer/opera singer, and he loved that shot when I showed it to him. He asked if he could borrow it to have it turned into a painting for a show he was doing. It was sent off to an artist to be copied, who then sent it back to his studio, the original slide taped in an envelope to the paper wrapping. An assistant signed for the delivery, quickly unwrapped the painting - and then threw away the paper, with my original slide still attached.

This is why I love digital so much, and why I'll never shoot another roll of slide film again.

Lost slides, ungrateful designers, a generally sour feeling. My attempts to shoot fashion pretty much ended here. I could never find the energy or the resources to throw myself into the cycle of testing and promos and mailers that were required to get a shot at doing paid fashion work. And it would be years before I learned the dirty secret of fashion shooting - that no one really makes money at magazine work, which is just a ritual for gaining favour with the editors who assign the really lucrative jobs in advertising campaigns. Models and stylists and makeup people and photographers work together in a web of mutually exploitative relationships pro bono, hoping that one person's break will buoy a few of them upward. Perhaps I never would have been a decent fashion photographer, but I would have loved to have had a shot.

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