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.

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