Wednesday, January 31, 2018


Bob Rae, Toronto, Jan. 1997

I HAVE NEVER PHOTOGRAPHED A HEAD OF STATE. Neither a prime minister nor a president. Or a king. (Which would be a problem for me, as I'm a republican.) I have photographed a few mayors - if they count - and the people here, all of whom wanted to be premier of Ontario, the province where I live, though only one of them managed it. (And he lived to regret it.)

Bob Rae has the dubious distinction of being one of the few people I've ever voted for who actually won. (The other was Rob Ford.) When the provincial Liberal government led by David Peterson called a snap election and ran a poor campaign, Rae and the left-leaning New Democratic Party won their first ever provincial election in 1990. It was considered a miracle, and Rae managed to squander this historic opportunity by alienating his party's labour union supporters while trying to balance budgets during a recession. When he ran for re-election in 1995, his party was soundly defeated by Mike Harris and the Progressive Conservatives.

Rae was known after that as the man who blew it, big time. He resigned from the legislature and returned to practicing law - a big deal firm with offices in the Eaton Centre where I photographed him for NOW magazine a year before he finally resigned from his party altogether. NOW was a major supporter of the NDP, but its criticisms of his failed term as premier meant that the man who met me in the lobby of his law office was more than faintly hostile.

It was all I could do to get him to sit for a roll in a spot of very nice, flat light in a boardroom, and the eleven frames I have (the shutter on my Rollei misfired on the first shot on the roll) all capture him staring down my lens with the same, practiced half-smile he'd learned to give years earlier. It's a portrait of a man trying - and failing - to show a brave face in the aftermath of a severe humiliation. He'd compound that humiliation for many years afterward by trying - and failing - to win the leadership of the federal Liberals.

Frances Lankin, Parkdale, March 1996
Howard Hampton, Parkdale, March 1996
Peter Kormos, Parkdale, March 1996
Tony Silipo, Parkdale, March 1996

The race to replace Rae as the leader of the NDP produced four candidates. Frances Lankin, a cabinet minister in Rae's government, was The Front Runner and Heir Apparent. Howard Hampton, another cabinet minister, was The Challenger; Peter Kormos - the outspoken socialist on the ballot - was The Spoiler, and Tony Silipo was The Underdog.

I was assigned to shoot all four candidates for a feature story, and asked if I could do them all in my Parkdale studio. My argument was simple - I wanted to shoot them with the same setting and lighting, to give all four portraits an identical look. I also knew that, while pleading for support from party membership, they were at their most abject and vulnerable, and more likely to do the bidding of a magazine overtly identified with the party. I wasn't surprised when they agreed.

What I didn't say was that I had no intention of taking photos that were in any way heroic, or even particularly flattering. By this time, over halfway through my tenure at NOW, my distrust of politicians had become acute, on its way to the overt, principled hostility I feel for them today. I deliberately chose shadowy lighting and uneasy, off-kilter compositions. I didn't give much, if any, direction, and mostly let them react to the hard spotlight I'd trained on their faces.

(A historical footnote: The "No Justice, No Peace" buttons Lankin and Kormos are wearing were the pre-internet equivalent of a hashtag, a popular slogan that the party's union backers had adopted and were rallying behind in their opposition to the Harris government.)

Howard Hampton, Queen's Park, Toronto, May 1998

Howard Hampton ended up winning the NDP leadership, and moved into the office of the Leader of the Other Official Party, where I photographed him for NOW in 1998. It would end up being an embattled thirteen years as head of the NDP for Hampton, as the provincial Liberals under Dalton McGuinty steadily leached away his party's traditional support base in the declining labour unions, and built a strong new one in the public service unions.

I couldn't have known this when I took these pictures of an anxious-looking man in a big office. I didn't dislike Hampton, but I certainly didn't envy him his job, and if anything I felt a bit sorry for him. Pity is about as much of a friendly emotion as I'm willing to expend on a politician, and these days it's rare that I can find much of it for anyone, regardless of party affiliation.

Tony Silipo died on March 10, 2012.

Peter Kormos died in Welland, Ontario on March 30, 2014.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Burke & James 4x5

IT WAS PROBABLY THE RED LEATHER BELLOWS THAT GOT ME. I wasn't in the market for a view camera at the turn of the '90s, but the Burke & James with the gray painted wood, probably built before I was born, was hard to miss among the used equipment at the back of the camera store on Queen Street East. It was an impulse purchase, but the focusing screen was cracked and it was cheap - and it had that fantastic red bellows.

As I said in an earlier post, film technology was in its mature stage when I started my career, so you could use gear built decades earlier. View cameras were really the first cameras, mostly unchanged for a century. In the decade after Richard Avedon used a Deardorff to shoot his American West series, they were being returned to use by portrait shooters after decades as the landscape photographer's camera of choice.

James Tenney, Parkdale, 1991
Lowest of the Low, Parkdale,1993

I didn't go to school for photography, so I guess I was drawn to the challenge of learning to use a whole new type of camera. I was also a budding Luddite, intent on going into full reverse through the decades for inspiration, so it was probably inevitable that I'd be drawn to this horse and carriage of a camera.

My first shoot with the Burke & James saw me make a classic rookie mistake, failing to compensate for the image circle on my Ilex 165mm/6.3 lens when I'd tilted the lens plane to get the focus shift with my portrait of composer James Tenney. I didn't see the ring of light drop off on the focusing glass at the back of the camera, and wouldn't until the film came back from the developer. A dumb mistake, to be sure, but I didn't really mind it that much then, and have come to like it even more now.

I'd finally figured out lens coverage and tilt shift by the time I shot local band Lowest of the Low in my new, dedicated studio space after my last roommate moved out. Effects like this were precisely why I'd bought the Burke & James, and why I persevered with the technical challenges of shooting with a view camera, prime among which was the mathematical formula required to figure out exposure compensation with the long bellows draw - the distance light had to travel from the lens to the film plane when you shot focused at anything less than infinity. The view camera forced you to work slowly and methodically, taking just a few exposures and planning out compositions carefully beforehand.

Which is why it was such a great camera for still life work. It got used most of all when I shot my fruit and veg series throughout the decade, and this shot of a bundle of leeks was probably the first (and only) photo I ever sold off the wall at a solo photo show - to the chef/owner of the restaurant that hosted the show.

The apple still life was also in that show, and remains a personal favorite. When I saw this bright green Granny Smith glowing and blurred on the ground glass of the camera I froze; racking back and forth, it always looked better out of focus than sharp, an echo - in my mind at least - of the Apple Records LP labels I remembered in my older siblings' record collections. I still have that framed 30" x 40" inch framed print today, hanging in our living room.

Leeks, Parkdale, 1995
Apple, Parkdale, 1995

I never used the Burke & James as much as I would have liked. It never left the studio, and only got used for portrait work on those rare occasions when I had the luxury of time and pre-planning. The ultimate workout for the camera - and test of my technical ability - came when I was assigned to shoot the drummer and conga player of a local band for the cover of one of NOW's music supplements.

I sketched the shot out ahead of time and, while I did use my Bronica to shoot back-ups in case it didn't work out, the real work was done with the Burke & James. The final shot threw in everything - corrected and uncorrected strobe and tungsten light, flash and burn, tilt shift focus and even diffusion, helpfully provided by stage smoke that came in aerosol cans. The only unplanned part of the shot was the detail that really makes it - the oval corona of lens flare that radiates out from the cymbal like a sound wave. I didn't see that until the film came back from the lab.

Percussionists, Parkdale, 1994

I don't think I'd looked inside the camera's case for at least a decade, until I opened it last weekend to shoot it for this post. Everything was just as I left it, including a half-finished box of Polaroids, the film holders, a tape measure for measuring bellows draw, my notebook for exposure calculation and the dark cloth I had sewn up by the tailor across the street from my studio - the same one who made my bespoke trousers.

It's unlikely I'll get rid of the Burke & James - I'm too sentimental - but of all my old cameras, this is the one that still feels like it holds some untapped potential. You can still buy sheet film, and while a digital back would easily slip into the film stage of a view camera, the technical challenges and sheer expense of manufacturing such a thing means that it's unlikely that anyone will ever offer one for sale.

And while you can roughly approximate tilt shift focus in Photoshop, the Burke & James still offers unique creative possibilities impossible with any other digital camera. I can imagine struggling to load those film backs again one day. I might even get the cracked focusing screen fixed.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


THE THING YOU HAVE TO REMEMBER ABOUT FILM PHOTOGRAPHY IN ITS FINAL DECADE OR TWO was that it hadn't seen any really major technological change since the '50s or early '60s. Film emulsions had gotten faster and autofocus lenses would become standard on 35mm SLRs, but a working photographer could - and did - continue using cameras bought at the beginning of their careers or built before they were born without losing any competitive edge.

I don't know precisely when I bought my first Rolleiflex, but it was somewhere around the turn of the '90s, when I got tired of the limitations in the primitive parallax correction system in my Mamiya C330, the first medium format camera I owned. The Rollei was a more elegant, compact piece of equipment, and it was much used by everyone I admired, from Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn to Richard Avedon and David Bailey.

I was also a committed Luddite in that first real decade of digital technology, home computers and the early internet, holding back the tide of transformation as long as I could in my studio full of gramophones and old records, vintage tailored suits, antiques, rotary dial phones and cast iron typewriters. It was a lifestyle I could manage as long as Macintosh computer systems for digital imaging cost as much as a new car and the first really usable digital cameras were somewhere on the other side of 9/11.

Helena Bonham Carter, Toronto, Jan. 1996
Robert Altman, Toronto, Sept. 1990

I had three Rolleis briefly, but my mainstay portrait cameras for most of the '90s were a pair of 75mm/3.5 models - a Schneider-Kreuznach Xenotar and a Zeiss Planar. They made their home in a very sturdy Pelican case with their lens hoods and a collection of bayonet filters, a Sekonic light meter and a cable release. Along with a lightweight Manfrotto tripod, they went with me into nearly every hotel room portrait session during that decade.

Most of my best portraits were taken with the Rolleis, either locked off on the tripod with a cable release or held close to my subject in a patch of nice window light. Working with the waist-level finder, with its dark, vignetted focusing screen and left-to-right reversed image, became second nature. The Rolleis were my babies, my comfort zone, my weapon of choice.

Their one major flaw was a minimum focusing distance of around three and a half feet, but that could be overcome with a close-up set - a pair of bayonet mount lenses, one for the taking lens and one with parallax correction for the viewing lens. If Irving Penn didn't have a problem with the slight distortion they created (very visible in my portrait of Robert Altman, above) then I wasn't going to complain, and I made them part of my shooting style.

If my Bronica SQ studio camera was a precision instrument, the Rolleis were like paintbrushes, and I always felt much more creative with them. They inspired me to do outlandish things, like the year or two I spent shooting a favorite local band with them, eschewing the fast shutter speeds and telephoto lenses most concert photographers favour for wild blurs and multiple exposures on the big, square negative of the Rollei.

Pure, Toronto, Oct. 1990

Most of all, I adored the square format of the Rollei, and found composing in it intuitive and satisfying. I didn't really feel at home with digital cameras until very recently, when I switched to the Fuji X series, which allows me to frame and shoot in the 1:1 ratio of the Rollei. I'll even use the tilting rear LCD screen on my Fujis like a waist-level viewfinder, swinging them around like the Rollei when I'm doing candids and street photography.

When editorial portraiture hit the rocks at the end of the '90s, I turned to my Rolleis for comfort, taking them out into the parks and streets and in my luggage when I traveled. Without a studio or steady clients, I went back to groping for that elusive image of the world I'd had in my mind's eye ever since my mom bought me a Kodak Instamatic for Christmas, long before I ever imagined anyone made a living taking photos.

High Park, Toronto, 1999
Hotel Place Bonaventure, Montreal, 2000

It goes without saying that I could never part with my pair of Rolleis after all we've been through together, and they still reside in their Pelican case, as if waiting for me to take them along the next hotel room portrait session.

I did dust off my "A" Rollei - the Xenotar - last year and took it along to my portrait shoot with the legendary conga player Candido Camero. It seemed appropriate - this was the sort of camera you'd have used to take his portrait back when he played with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and Stan Kenton.

To my dismay, I found it awkward to use - dim and difficult to focus and even counterintuitive. I had, in the decade-plus since I last ran a roll of film through it, lost the knack of the camera. The shoot was a success, but I still felt depressed when I got home and unloaded the Rollei. I felt like I had somehow let an old friend down.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Bronica SQ-a

GEAR CAN BE THE DOWNFALL OF A PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER. Acquiring and upgrading it will siphon off the profits of anyone with a less than thriving business. Luckily, I invested in most of the gear I really needed early in the '90s, and used it hard pretty much until my business finally collapsed and the digital revolution made much of it obsolete - whichever came first. This post is the first of a trio devoted to the stalwarts of my camera gear during that decade.

Last week I featured three posts shot in my Parkdale studio during the heyday of my career as a portraitist. Looking them over, I realized that they were all shot with one camera - the Zenza Bronica SQ-a, a modular medium format camera system that I bought used when I realized that, as content as I might have been with my Rolleiflex TLRs, I needed something that had a) interchangeable film backs for quick reloading without switching cameras and b) a Polaroid back for testing exposures and (probably even more important) showing for client approval.

Savoy Cabbage, Parkdale, Oct. 1995

The Bronica was known as the "poor man's Hasselblad" and as a favorite of wedding photographers, and the one I acquired had seen some hard use. It worked beautifully, though, and while renting extra lenses could occasionally be a problem, I came to rely on it as I began experimenting with cross processing and refining my lighting.

I doubt if I would have felt as confident with my still life work without the Bronica's Polaroid back, or the prism I bought to make it function like a true SLR. The bellows style lens hood might have looked like overkill, but it had the great advantage of a slot for stacking filters, and I slowly built up a collection to help correct for colour shifts in cross-processing. Most of all, fully accessorized with bellows and prism, it looked like a serious piece of gear, which went a long way with with impressing dubious clients.

Jane Bunnett, Parkdale, 1996
Melissa Burns, Parkdale, 1996

It lived most of its life on a tripod, locked off and plugged into my Profoto strobe kit and a shutter release cable. I would never have considered the cost of the optional motor drive, as the quick wind grip was all I needed to advance film quickly when a shoot picked up speed. It was the machine at the heart of my studio system.

While I occasionally rented lenses - mostly the 50mm/3.5 in Vistek's rental inventory - I rarely needed more than the 80m/2.8 that came with the package I originally bought. It was no Zeiss Planar, but it was still an underrated chunk of glass, and I never had any complaint with the results, either when shooting album covers for clients like my friend Jane Bunnett (the shot above is an outtake from the session we did for her Cuban Piano Masters CD) or when I finally perfected my high key lighting with my pal Melissa as my model.

I probably haven't run a roll of film through my Bronica since the turn of the millennium. The case it's lived in since then is a time capsule now, complete with unexposed film, batteries and a box of Polaroid pack film. It was the epitome of a really useful piece of gear, but I doubt if I'll ever use it again, since there's almost nothing it does that my new Fuji XT-2 can't do as well. I'm a sentimental idiot, though, who has a hard time parting with gear that's served me well, so it will probably sit in its case, fondly remembered but unused, for the forseeable future.


Friday, January 19, 2018

Greg Dulli

Greg Dulli, Parkdale, Oct. 1998

CONTROL IS A WORD PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHERS USE A LOT. We spend years trying to learn how to achieve control over all the variables that can enter into a portrait shoot - technical ones such as lighting, but also personal ones that start with the subject and radiate outward to their setting and, in the case of celebrity portraiture, the often arbitrary demands of handlers and publicists and even an entourage.

The key, of course, is to grab as much control as you can and then, almost by intuition, realize when you have to let it go.

I've shared some of the results of my 1998 shoot with Greg Dulli before, but it's only as I've worked my way through the decade plus of work that preceded it that I've seen how I tried to exercise control over portrait sittings. The shoot with Dulli was a NOW cover, and I must have had some time to really plan, because I was able to not only prepare a backdrop but run my idea for the shoot past Dulli and his management - a rare (for me) example of not only pre-visualization but (reluctant) collaboration.

Greg Dulli, Parkdale, Oct. 1998

I became a big fan of Dulli's group, The Afghan Whigs, years earlier, around the time of their Gentlemen record. I was still recovering from a bad breakup and cycling my way through a series of sporadic and brief, mostly pointless relationships that slowly transformed me from maudlin and heartbroken to something on the verge of callous. Dulli became famous - notorious, even - for writing about bad relationships and unhappy, self-loathing men, embodying his characters in songs like "This Is My Confession," "What Jail Is Like" and "Debonair."

I listened to their records over and over.

I knew he liked movies, almost obsessively, and was trying to kickstart a career in Hollywood on and off. I wanted to do something graphic and literary, so I told his record company that I was going to cover a black backdrop with a series of phrases, repeated over and over - things like "I have an honest face," "I will be a good boy" and "The only woman I have ever loved is my mother." They sent the list along to Dulli's people, who got back to me and said that Greg was fine with it - as long as it was in Italian.

Luckily most of my best friends from high school were Italian, so I asked one of them to translate for me, and got to work writing the results in my best cursive on a roll of black seamless. When Dulli arrived for the shoot, I proudly pointed out that I had fulfilled my end of the bargain and indicated the backdrop hanging at the end of the studio. He turned to his handler from Sony, then laughed a bit ruefully.

"Italian?" he said. "Shit, I don't remember asking that at all."

Greg Dulli, Parkdale, Oct. 1998

Dulli sat down and gave the sort of performance I always hope to get from someone with at least a bit of a public persona. He snarled and leered, sulked and brooded. I kept him in front of the backdrop - All that work! Why waste it? - but changed film and tweaked lighting setups, moving from straight to cross-processed slide film and finished with black and white. I had the luxury of a subject who had to at least feign cooperation with the promise of a cover story, and the rare circumstance of a sitting I could design and stage manage far more than my customary five minutes (or less) in a hotel room.

This was exactly the sort of studio portraiture I had spent over a decade trying to do, but it came my way rarely and, looking back at my account books from the time, was getting even rarer. I've written recently that my memories of the last half of the '90s are often full of creative frustration, but the results of jobs like this prove that I might have felt stymied but, when circumstances were in my favour, I could still rise to the occasion.

I hope I enjoyed it. There wouldn't be many opportunities like this again for many, many years.

Dulli and the Whigs were touring the 1965 record at the time, and would break up not long afterward. Dulli already had another band, The Twilight Singers, waiting in the wings, and later in the '00s would perform with Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan as The Gutter Twins. I've liked almost everything he's done, right up to the new records by a reformed Whigs. He's kept at it despite the frustrations - he never really got that Hollywood thing going - and I can't help but admire his long access to whatever inspires him creatively. It offers hope to those of us relying on a second (or third) wind.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Kenny Robinson

Kenny Robinson, Parkdale, 1998

I LOVED MY STUDIO, BUT WHEN I TOOK THESE PICTURES I HAD BARELY A YEAR LEFT TO ENJOY IT. Not that I knew it at the time. This probably explains why I've been loathe to scan and post this shoot until now: It reminds me of the last time I still felt like I had the means and the opportunity to do the work I really wanted to do.

Kenny Robinson is an actor and comedian, and I was assigned to shoot him for a NOW cover on short notice. My schedule was hardly overbooked, but with just enough time to set up the studio, I quickly put together my favorite lighting setup at the time - a tight cluster of small soft boxes on either side of my camera, aimed directly at the subject - and grabbed the blue seamless backdrop.

Kenny Robinson, Parkdale, 1998

We were both surprised when Robinson arrived at my studio dressed in a suit almost exactly the same shade as the backdrop. Commercial photography is really just graphic art with a few reasonable variables, and even before I had my first Polaroid I knew these shots were going to look great no matter how they got cropped by the layout people.

Kenny Robinson, Parkdale, 1998

Robinson was a great subject, striking just the right balance between comic mugging and a more subtle performance for the camera. I'm sure it helped that he was able to imagine how he looked so easily, his face the only patch of colour in what was an essentially monochrome setting. You might have imagined a week's worth of planning with a stylist and a wardrobe person to get something this clean, instead of a moment of pure luck.

While I remember this stretch of my career as mostly frustration and waning inspiration, shoots like are evidence that when circumstances were right, I was able to draw on over a decade of experience and rise to an occasion. It has taken me nearly two decades to get back creatively to where I was that afternoon.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Garth Drabinsky

Garth Drabinsky, Parkdale, 1996

I KNEW THE DAY'S SHOOT WAS GOING TO BE INTERESTING when my subject was preceded at my Parkdale studio by his personal PR handler. I recognized the man - a few years earlier he had been a movie critic at a free weekly that had since gone out of business. We chatted a bit while he made sure the subject had a refreshment and that the layout of the studio was satisfactory. About a half hour later Garth Drabinsky showed up to be photographed for the New York Times.

Drabinsky was famous in Canada for being something that we didn't do a lot - he was a showbiz entrepreneur. A lawyer, he'd begun producing movies during the great "tax break era" of the '70s, and had gone on to co-found the Cineplex movie chain. Forced out of that, he turned his attention to musical theatre, and helped turn Toronto into one of the biggest markets for musicals in the world. He was celebrated in all the usual ways (locals will notice the Order of Canada pin in his lapel - an award he'd later have revoked) but he also developed a reputation for being difficult, so I suppose I wasn't surprised by his personal flack showing up at my little studio.

The assignment was simple - the Times was doing a big feature on Broadway producers and I had to do a shot of Drabinsky that would fit into the grid of portraits that were mostly being shot in New York. Simple, high-key, white backdrop - nothing challenging. Not a lot of leeway to do something unique, but I was always happy to get work from Edna Suarez and the Times.

Garth Drabinsky, Parkdale, 1996

After a brief conferral between Garth and his flack, they made their way into my shooting space and I fine tuned the lighting and took a Polaroid, which Drabinsky insisted on seeing. I switched to the first film back, but before I could give my subject any directions, the flack got to work pumping him up for the shot.

"Okay, Garth," he began. "You're outside the theatre, walking down Broadway, The sun is just starting to set. The show is a big hit. You look up..."

I focused all my attention on the viewfinder and the shutter while Drabinsky was giving his performance, mostly to stifle a giggle. Somehow I made my way through at least a couple of rolls of slide film and the shoot was over in a few minutes. Drabinsky and the flack were gone after a couple of quick handshakes - the neighbourhood was a dodgy one and I'm sure they wanted to make a quick exit. At dinner with some friends that night, my story of the shoot got big laughs.

We don't do celebrity particularly well in Canada. Besides the tall poppy syndrome peculiar to provincial places, there's an unofficial consensus that celebrity is vulgar. Drabinsky was at his career zenith when I took these photos, but his downfall - a scandal involving fraud and cooked books that led to a prison sentence - was just around the corner, and it always seemed to me that most Canadians quietly agreed that it was somehow karmically inevitable, that his humbling restored the national landscape to its natural, preferred entropy.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Gerald Arpino & the Joffrey Ballet

Gerald Arpino, Atlanta, 1994

THESE PHOTOS ARE ARTIFACTS. First of all, they're glimpses of a time when dance - modern dance and ballet and everything in between - was still part of mainstream culture. Dance companies could tour with shows that were real events, the sort of things that a free weekly would fly a writer and photographer to cover. I didn't know it at the time, but this assignment was one of the last healthy signs of journalism, thriving right down to the local level.

I was sent to Atlanta, Georgia with Daryl Jung, NOW's dance columnist - yes, there was once such a job - to see the Joffrey Ballet and interview Gerald Arpino, co-founder and artistic director of the company. They were touring with Billboards, a show set to the music of Prince, and were booked into the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, a beautiful old movie palace on Peachtree Street, at the edge of what was still a dodgy area full of vacant lots.

Joffrey Ballet rehearsal, Fox Theatre, Atlanta, 1994

We arrived in time to attend a rehearsal, which I shot with a long lens from my seat. I am not a dance photographer, so these are really just snapshots of the work that goes on before a dance performance, with stagehands setting up while dancers run through steps, tamping down the wiring in their muscle memory. I'd recommend anyone who enjoys dance to watch a rehearsal, just to get a sense of how much hard work - much of it slowly, inevitably damaging to the body - goes into an effortless performance.

I don't think that there are too many performing arts that can move me quite the way a good dance can, and I'll admit being moved to tears watching the performance that night in Atlanta, and again later in Toronto. I have no idea how dancers achieve what they can, or any ability to comprehend the language that creates choreography, so dancing always seems like a miracle to me,

If I knew more I might have become a dance aficionado - a balletomane, even - but my enthusiasm is purely that of an interested amateur. There was one particularly statuesque principal dancer that Daryl and I both appreciated, and I'm afraid we might have acted like stage door Johnnies when we met her at a reception after the show.

Gerald Arpino, Atlanta, 1994

Billboards wasn't well received by dance critics, but it was a commercial success for the company at a difficult time in their history. It was the sort of thing that used to get called "middlebrow," back when that was both a pejorative and a term that people understood. The decline of middlebrow culture has been disastrous, both as a bridge between low and high culture, and as a space where something like the Joffrey could expand its audience and fill its coffers. Its almost total absence today has made high culture unappealing and mass culture dreary.

I photographed Arpino just up Peachtree from the Fox Theatre, in one of the many vacant lots that once dotted the street. I shot rolls of colour slide for the cover by a set of marble gates that didn't lead to anything in particular, and had him pose for the inside shot in a patch overgrown with kudzu and other weeds that seemed to be taking over the place. A glimpse at Google Street View shows that it's all gone now, disappeared under redevelopment.

Gerald Arpino died of prostate cancer in Chicago on Oct. 29, 2008.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Mark Morris

Mark Morris, Toronto, March 1992

BACK AT THE END OF THE EIGHTIES AND THE EARLY NINETIES, when I was in New York City a lot visiting a girlfriend, I'd try to meet with photographers whose work I admired. While the closest I ever got to Irving Penn was prostrating myself in front of his door, I did meet with Michael Lavine, whose proto-grunge album cover work I admired, and with Lois Greenfield, the dance photographer for the Village Voice.

I recall Greenfield being very wary of me when I showed up at her studio, which I remember being somewhere around Canal Street. She relaxed a bit when I showed her my portfolio and realized that I wasn't doing anything like her stunning, improbable pictures of dancers frozen in mid-air. I wanted to meet her because I loved her work, which has actually gotten better over the years since her time at the Voice.

Mark Morris, Toronto, March 1992

This is a roundabout way of saying that I have always loved watching dance - ballet, tap, modern, whatever. As an essentially static, graceless person, I find it thrilling to watch someone with that rare gift perform. I'm old enough to remember when dancers were celebrities and dance companies were talked about with the same passion and connoisseurship as writers or foreign movies.

Mark Morris was probably one of the last star dancers, someone whose work was talked about in weekend arts sections and profiled in magazines like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Like Twyla Tharp before him, he took ballet's formal language and modernized it. That much I knew; what I didn't know when I was assigned to shoot him for a NOW cover was how I would capture that on film.

Mark Morris, Toronto, March 1992

Photographing him the same year in New York, my friend Chris would somehow talk Morris out of his clothes and capture him in a pose that featured both his compact but muscular build and his testicles. I have always been timid about trying to capture movement - I am a still and graceless person, as I said - so I grounded Morris firmly in a chair in the middle of the empty rehearsal space.

The shots I took on two rolls of black and white 35mm film are about dancers doing what they do quite a lot - sitting around waiting to move. The shot at the top, taken with my Rollei, is a bit more successful, pressing Morris down into the chair in a pool of light provided by my off-camera flash. His slightly defiant expression also helps. It's also imperative to note that the whole thing might have been more forgettable if he weren't wearing those striped socks.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

David Bowie/Two Years

David Bowie, Skydome, Toronto, March 7, 1990

TWO YEARS HAVE GONE BY LIKE WEEKS. As I wrote when David Bowie died, I never seriously imagined that there would be a time when he wasn't around, somewhere, doing something. He was there, doing something, in my earliest memories of the radio, years before I became a fan, and while it's hardly reasonable to rely on that presence, I had never seriously prepared myself for a post-Bowie world.

David Bowie, Skydome, Toronto, March 7, 1990

And so, on the anniversary, I have gone back to that 1990 show I forgot I ever shot to make one last trawl for photos. These are the odd frames - the moments in between and the almost-theres and the shots I never would have submitted to my editor at the end of the assignment. For someone who would forget he was at that show, I seem to have put a lot of effort into getting something in the moment. Or maybe David was simply good at delivering.

David Bowie, Skydome, Toronto, March 7, 1990

This last shot is something I'd only have looked at now - a brief, placid moment in the middle of a frantic performance. A glimpse of the man behind the show? Maybe. Maybe not. It probably didn't look elegiac then, but it does now.

We spent the last night of Christmas vacation last week in the kitchen, listening to the Bowie playlist on my older daughter's Apple Music. There are really few things more enjoyable than embarrassing your children by singing along loudly to the theme from Cat People while doing a jigsaw puzzle of TV dinners. One more thing for which I can thank him.

David Bowie (aka David Robert Jones) died in New York City of cancer on January 10, 2016.

Friday, January 5, 2018


Shane MacGowan, Toronto, Aug. 1986

WE WATCHED A DOCUMENTARY OVER THE HOLIDAYS ABOUT "FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK," the Pogues' 1987 Christmas hit, and I was reminded of my very brief, very unsuccessful shoot with Shane MacGowan back at the beginning of my career. Besides lodging the song in my head for a week, it got me thinking about all the misfires and duds I've had over the years, a few of them rooted permanently in my memory.

I had been assigned to work with fellow Nerve writer Howard Druckman on a Pogues feature, and we'd had a fairly successful interview with Spider Stacy and James Fearnley from the band. But I knew the story needed a portrait of MacGowan, who was conspicuously absent backstage before the show. I asked if a quick shoot could be arranged, and was taken out to the band's tour bus in the parking lot.

A minder - one of those tough but professional road crew who've seen it all - opened the door and told me to wait outside. After a few minutes he emerged with MacGowan, who looked about as dazed and confused as a human being could be while standing up and drawing breath, his eyes barely holding focus on me or anything in his vicinity. He was maneuvered into a spot just a few feet from the bus and gave a few dutiful smiles that showcased a set of teeth that gave me the horrors.

I shot just over a half dozen frames, two of which featured Shane obeying the sole instruction I gave him: "Look up with your eyes." After clicking the shot above, MacGowan put his sunglasses back on and was steered back into the bus by his minder. I'm guessing I'd had more rewarding portrait sessions around this time, since despite this wholly random encounter, I still decided to pursue photography as a career.

Susan Sontag, Toronto, April 1987

Writer Susan Sontag was a major literary figure when my new girlfriend told me that we had to go see her give a lecture at Ryerson Polytechnic. Eager to take advantage of any opportunity to get a photo of someone famous, I brought my camera along and, when we somehow ended up backstage after the talk, asked Sontag if I could quickly take her photo. I don't know why she agreed, but I've since learned that she liked having her picture taken for some reason, perhaps connected with being the author of On Photography.

I will admit to not remembering anything about her lecture. It was delivered with heavy reliance on the jargon of post-structuralist theory, very fashionable at the time and much favoured by my girlfriend and her circle in film studies at the university. I knitted my brow through most of it, and only got a bit of relief afterwards when I ran into my old college theatre buddy Colin Taylor, also there on a date.

"I haven't a clue what the fuck that was all about," he laughed in his big, stage-trained baritone.

I took about half a dozen frames of Sontag just by the proscenium curtain, my flash held at arm's length on one side while I focused and hit the shutter with the other hand. They looked nothing like the really interesting portraits I'd seen of Sontag so I promptly forgot about them, sandwiched on a single roll of film with live photos of The Stranglers and The Nils, a Montreal punk band I loved.

Today, they seem serviceable - the sort of thing Fred McDarrah of the Village Voice might have offhandedly shot on a busy Friday night covering Manhattan cultural events. I'd care about them more if I still held Sontag in high regard, but since her death over a decade ago, her reputation has receded remarkably without the writer or her supporters to keep it tended.

Gene Simmons (& unknown woman,) Toronto, Oct. 1988

I've had a couple of encounters with KISS bassist Gene Simmons in my career, the first on assignment for Graffiti when I had a regular gig shooting in-house ads featuring celebrities and bands holding copies of the mag. While his band's '70s legacy was cherished by most of my musician friends, KISS itself was considered a joke by the last half of the '80s, despite Simmons' tireless efforts at promotion and merchandising.

He showed up at the magazine's offices very heavily made up, and insisted on posing for most of the shots with a prop - a moneybag that was the logo of his new (and never very successful) record label, Simmons Records. When I was able to get a portrait without magazine or props, he gave what I would have to assume was a blank stare from behind his visorlike shades. Gene only came to life when I took candids of him with most of the female staff at the magazine - including the receptionist, with whom he already seemed to be on more than speaking terms.

I'll admit that we didn't hit it off from the start; Simmons' conservative political views were considered an eccentricity of his - it would be a few more years before they'd provoke outrage. (From the perspective of today, the '80s now seem like a much more politically tolerant time, though they hardly seemed so then.) I probably went out of my way to provoke him, scoffing at his enthusiasm for Armand Hammer, who I thought a pretty weak capitalist icon.

"I bet you call yourself a socialist," he shot back at me. I said I did - I was capable of saying stupid things like that all the time back then, in the absence of anything like a real political education. (My positions have changed considerably, to be sure, but I still think Armand Hammer was a bit of a fraud.) A disaster of a shoot, though worth it for the anecdotes for years afterward.

Gene Simmons, Toronto, March 2004

I'd meet Gene again over fifteen years later, after Simmons had successfully kept his band in the public eye long enough for KISS to become actually venerable. Gene had also cultivated his own celebrity well, appearing on film and television frequently, though the apex of his efforts were still in the future with his appearances on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice and his own reality TV show, Simmons Family Jewels.

I watched Simmons bait the reporter from the free national daily with his political views, and got a glimpse of how I must have looked years earlier. While they bickered over George W. Bush and his foreign policy, I hopelessly looked for a spot of light in the windowless room, finally dragging a couple of floor lamps over to a corner of the room and taking the shade off one of them.

Once again in front of my camera, Gene gave me an updated version of his media face, which had shifted from haughty indifference to cartoon menace. I was trying to think of a way to provoke him to do something different when he suddenly rolled his eyes back in his head and mugged ferociously. With a shudder I realized that this was probably the most I was going to get from the man, and quickly shot and reframed his face as often as I could until he looked bored again and signaled that we were done.

A further fourteen years on, I think I've managed to salvage one shot by giving it the full black-and-white horror movie still treatment - one which I think Gene might actually approve, though I could never have handed this in to the newspaper. I've never really seen a truly great portrait of Gene Simmons, though my friend Chris tried manfully to force him out of his posing and mugging. I'd like a re-match with Gene one day; perhaps the third time will be a charm.

Julian Schnabel, Toronto, Sept. 2007

The last really disastrous portrait shoot I remember was with artist and director Julian Schnabel, in a room at the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor West while working the film festival for the free national daily. Schnabel, who had a critical hit on his hands and was probably feeling pretty cocky, showed up wearing a pyjama top. These photos give some idea of how dim those hotel rooms were, and how hard it was to find a halfway decent spot of light for these very, very brief shoots.

The room had been stripped of all of its furniture except for the headboards of the beds, which were (in the fashion of modern hotels) mounted to the walls. As I moved the camera up to my eye, Schnabel gave a sidelong glance and a smirk to his retinue and began bobbing and weaving in front of me while I tried to keep him in frame. The camera's autofocus struggled to lock onto him, so almost every photo from this shoot except the one at the bottom was a blur.

I'm sure he thought he was being funny, but I felt like I was being disrespected. I had a simple job, summed up with providing a selection of usable and sharp portraits for my employers, and Schnabel decided to either exorcise his boredom or entertain his entourage with a petulant little performance. I was at what felt like the nadir of my career as a photographer at the time, and this reminded me of how all those years learning how to control a shoot and interact with subjects had been somehow lost.

Thirty years of progress and hard work had reversed back to being at the mercy of a subject's whims, without any tactic or strategy of my own to funnel the situation into a decent portrait - a real low point.