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.


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