Monday, February 12, 2018

NOW portraits

Bob Boyer, artist, Rouleau, Sask., Nov. 1994

BOB BOYER MET ME AT MY HOTEL IN REGINA IN HIS CAR, a big, fully loaded Cadillac with all the extras, and a buddy of his sitting in the back. Boyer, a Cree Metis artist, lived in a town a few miles south of Regina and I was in Saskatchewan for the first (and so far only) time in my life to photograph him for the cover of NOW magazine.

"Your seat belt is undone," the car told me as I settled into the passenger seat, in a warm, beguiling female voice.

Boyer's studio was in the old train station in Rouleau - the town that, many years later, would become famous as Dog River, the setting for the sitcom Corner Gas. It had been jacked up and moved from the side of the CNR Soo line and set down on Boyer's property, where he lived with his wife, Ann.

It was my first time in the prairies, and I was blown away by how flat it was - an ominous landscape that, as an easterner, set my teeth a bit on edge. In the distance were lines of smoke and flame where farmers were burning off the stubble from the fields, and it added to the epic unease of the place. I insisted we get out to take some photos at magic hour with the town's grain silo in the background; if NOW was going to fly me all the way out here, I had to deliver something to show what they'd paid for.

As we got back in the car and Boyer drove away, the Caddy's voice informed us that "A door is ajar."

"That's funny," said Boyer's pal from the back seat. "It must be broken. Usually it says 'There is a non-native in the car."'

My shoot with Bob Boyer was just one of the hundreds of portrait sessions I did for NOW in the '90s. It's taken me almost three years to go through the best and most important of them, but I find that, with the end of my NOW work on this blog in sight, I've still got a lot of photos worth scanning and posting, even if I don't really have much to say about the shoots.

What I do remember about my session with Moe Berg from The Pursuit of Happiness at my Parkdale studio is that it was one of my first covers for NOW, and that I still felt like I was on probation with the magazine. This wasn't helped when my editor told me that it was important that I did a good job with this one since Moe was a close personal friend of Michael, the publisher.

Moe Berg, musician, Parkdale, May 1990
Hal Hartley, filmmaker, Toronto, July 1990
Sheldon Rosen, playwright, Toronto, Aug. 1990
Nicholas Goldschmidt, musician, Toronto, May 1991

My first two or three years with the paper were the busiest, as my probation period ended and Irene began assigning me at least two shoots a week. There was a lot of mostly forgettable stuff - restaurants and news stories, live music, local bands and theatre profiles. I'd eventually learn to become more creative with all that work, but portrait shoots were always the highlight.

I already knew American director Hal Hartley through my friend Chris, and his early films about skittish men and confounding women - Trust, Surviving Desire and Simple Men - were a big hit among the very wary single men I was friends with in my twenties. I tried at least three different setups with Hal, but found that knowing him a bit made it hard to establish the formal relationship I relied on during a portrait shoot. The shot above was the best of the lot.

Most of the time, though, I was thrown into shoots with subjects like Sheldon Rosen and Nicholas Goldschmidt, about whom I knew almost nothing except what I was told by Irene or one of the other editors at the paper. (There was, of course, no internet and no quick Google search.) With at least two or three of these portrait shoots a month, I gradually learned to establish a rapport and quietly nudge my subjects to give a performance or react to my camera - skills that were harder to acquire than lighting techniques.

Bob Boyer, artist, Rouleau, Sask., Nov. 1994
AA Bronson, artist, Toronto, Nov. 1995
Debra Plotkin, founder, Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Parkdale, May, 1995
Deepa Mehta, director, Toronto, Nov. 1994
Janet Wright & Diana Belshaw, actors, Toronto, March 1995
Lorraine Bracco, actor, Toronto, Sept. 1993
Maggie Estep, writer, Toronto, July 1994

I always pushed to shoot in my Parkdale studio, but most of my work for NOW was done on the road, either in some hotel room or office or rehearsal space or the subject's home - the trickiest place to do a shoot since you were in their space, after all, and had to try to make them feel just a little bit less comfortable there. (As with filmmaker Deepa Mehta, whose only real direction from me was to be as still as possible.)

Unless you had a cover story or a spread in a special section, your photo was always competing with at least a column full of ads, so the challenge was to make it as graphic as possible. That was always harder on location than in the studio, where I could control everything from the background to the lighting to the mood, as with my portrait of the late Debra Plotkin, which began as a notebook sketch in search of a suitable subject.

Famous as part of the General Idea conceptual art collective, AA Bronson had lost Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal - his artistic partners for a quarter century - to AIDS the previous year. I tried a few different shots during a somber session in his apartment in the Colonnade, but the most obvious success was the one in front of a print of Playing Doctor, one of their last collaborations.

Shooting as often as I did for NOW, I slowly moved out of my own comfort zone - tight, close head shots - and began including more and more of the room where I was shooting. Occasionally the setting would be the star, as with my shot of actors Janet Wright and Diana Belshaw. I remember being disappointed with the results of my shoot with Lorraine Bracco, taken in a hotel room at the film festival - I was a fan of hers from Goodfellas, and probably had something entirely different in my head. But I'm a better printer today, and finally rescued the frame I took of her tucked into the sheer curtains that I took twenty-five years ago near the end of my roll, desperately trying to find something.

I've always liked this shot of Maggie Estep, photographed during her heyday as a "grunge poet." It's right in my comfort zone, of course, but she was a more than cooperative subject. Estep was a contemporary, barely a year older than me, so it was a shock when I heard about her sudden death a few years ago. Poignantly, the blog on her website is still online, featuring an entry written just three days before she died.

Maggie Huculak, actor, Parkdale, Oct. 1995
Allegra Fulton, actor, Parkdale, 1997

Going through my old photos has sometimes been melancholy work, especially when I see shoots done in my old studio. One of the most ambitious NOW covers I shot there was with actress Maggie Huculak, who I'd been seeing in local theatre since my college days. Assigning me the shoot, Irene encouraged me to do something dramatic, so I took her literally and created a little stage set by renting a pair of vivid red velvet curtains.

I'd just bought the art deco style love seat - the most serious furniture purchase I'd ever made in my life - and made it the center of the shot. It had been picked out for its sculptural qualities, to do double duty as a studio prop and as the place where I'd spend my copious free time between shoots, reading in the north light from the windows at the end of the room.

The love seat made an encore appearance in a cover shoot with another local actress, Allegra Fulton, only by this time the cushion had begun developing a serious ass groove from hours of downtime reading. I lit the hell out of these shoots; they're a record of the peak of my time as a studio photographer, and while I'd hate to be the lonely, anxious man I was when I did them, I'd love to have that studio back again.

Marion Woodman, Jungian analyst & writer, Parkdale, May 1996
John Southworth, musician, Parkdale, Dec. 1996
Rolf de Heer, director, Toronto, Sept. 1996
Paul Campbell, actor, Toronto, Sept. 1999

Putting together this post let me rediscover shoots I'd overlooked or forgotten. I don't remember much about the four shots above, except that they were all done when I was no longer worried about my technical competence as a photographer. If I have a style, they're examples of whatever that might be. I haven't printed any of them since I shot them for Irene, and I'm pretty certain that these probably look a lot better now than whatever 5" by 7" prints I handed in to NOW all those years ago.

My only memory of Marion Woodman was shooting a lot of film, hoping that I'd push her just enough to get something more than a very bright, confident smile. Local musician John Southworth and Australian documentary filmmaker Rolf de Heer are from sessions that don't look a million miles from something I'd shoot today. The film festival portrait of Paul Campbell, now apparently Jamaica's most popular actor, was one of the last jobs I did for NOW, and I can't help but see it today as the place where I dropped a thread I've only recently picked up again.

Bob Boyer died in Macy, Nebraska on Aug. 30, 2004.

Nicholas Goldschmidt died in Toronto on Feb. 8, 2004.

Debra Plotkin died in Oakland, California on Nov. 7, 2000.

Maggie Estep died in Albany, NY on Feb. 12, 2014.

Janet Wright died in Vancouver, BC on Nov. 14, 2016.

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