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.

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