Friday, March 30, 2018

Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway, Toronto, March 2004

FOUR MONTHS AFTER THE FREE DAILY HAD PUT ME BACK TO WORK TAKING PORTRAITS, I began to suspect that things were going to be different to what I'd been doing for years. I suppose the light bulb went off with this shoot with Anne Hathaway, who was just ending her ingenue phase when I took these photos in the Spring of 2004.

Hathaway - an uncommonly pretty young woman - had made her name in Disney films like the Princess Diaries franchise, and was in Toronto promoting Ella Enchanted, a fairy tale film that was very much more of the same. Brokeback Mountain would come out a year later, and with it a series of mature roles that would lead to an Oscar in 2012. I caught her on the cusp, which was probably a good thing, since I doubt if I'd have had this sort of access again.

Anne Hathaway, Toronto, March 2004

The shoot wasn't what you'd call challenging. A photogenic subject meets you at least halfway; the biggest challenge is to catch them doing something that isn't merely beauty being witnessed and recorded. Sometimes that means pushing and prodding and creating scenarios that push the subject out of their comfort zone. Sometimes it just involves shooting a lot of photos and hoping for the frames between the winning smile and the coy glance. This shoot was definitely the latter, not the former. I never get much of the former.

Anne Hathaway, Toronto, March 2004

In just four months of shooting portraits for the free daily, I'd done shoots with just as many celebrities. At the beginning of my career, they'd have been rarities, captured by accident during the earliest moment of their rise to fame, and often because I found them interesting. During my decade at NOW magazine, an alternative weekly, I was assigned to shoot celebrities more often, but they were in the paper more out of critical interest than because their celebrity made whatever they were doing worth a feature or a cover story.

The free daily, however, was a mainstream publication, and our new editor had decided that we were going to use our growing national circulation to compete with other big dailies for the big names. I have to give that editor, Jodi Isenberg, credit for recognizing the opportunity and making me the paper's principal photographer, putting more celebrities in front of my camera over the next four years than I'd seen in nearly two decades of work.

About a year before I took these photos, and when Jodi was still just the paper's entertainment editor (taking over for my wife, who'd left the business) I had lunch with my old friend Chris Buck when he was passing through town. I was working as the paper's interim photo editor, processing other people's work and pretty sure that my shooting days were over.

As we said goodbye outside the doors to the building where the free daily had its offices, Chris actually pleaded with me to start shooting again. I was flattered, but didn't see how - or why - I'd find my way to shooting full time again. Within a few months, Jodi had given me the opportunity, and in time I'd rediscover the motivation to imagine myself as a working photographer. The five photos I've posted this week, taken in just four months, record one of the most pivotal moments in my career.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

David Carradine

David Carradine, Toronto, April 2004

I WAS A BOY IN THE NINETEEN SEVENTIES. That means a lot of things, few of them good, including an intimate knowledge of consumer inflation rates using candy bars and bags of potato chips as economic markers. It also means that me and my friends would imitate Bruce Lee's squeals and whoops while pretending to karate chop each other in the playground, and that we watched Kung Fu every week on ABC, beginning with the 90 minute pilot episode that debuted in February of 1972.

"You have a shoot with David Carradine," I was told, probably by Tina, the entertainment editor at the free daily. I won't pretend I wasn't impressed. Carradine had gone through quite a rough patch since Kung Fu went off the air, but he'd just made a comeback with Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films. I'd photographed a lot of celebrities since I'd started shooting nearly twenty years before, but it's a fact that few people ever really seem as big a star as the celebrities who were at their peak when you were very young.

David Carradine, Toronto, April 2004

I knew about David Carradine before I knew about his dad, John, or any of this brothers (even though his dad and brother Robert both had roles in Kung Fu.) He was Kwai Chang Caine, and he'd learned to walk across the rice paper carpet without making a mark, and to snatch the pebble from Master Kan's hand. He was Grasshopper, and even though we'd mock each other by saying things like "Ahh, Grasshoppah, you still have much to learn," David Carradine cast a long shadow in our Watergate era pantheon.

I also knew, by the time I took these photos, that Carradine had lived a hard life, with an attempted suicide as a child, multiple wives, a drug bust, several DUIs and an arrest for a burglary apparently committed while he was naked and under the influence of peyote. It was certainly written on his face when he sat down in front of my camera, with my eye particularly drawn to what looked like a broken and badly reset nose that I didn't remember from his close-ups on TV twenty years earlier.

David Carradine, Toronto, April 2004

A face like this is a gift for a portrait photographer, and while he was a little wary during our shoot, he was also unable to slip into any studied poses, or the sorts of masks that celebrities learn to adopt for the purpose of their public image. His eyes, when they met my lens, were startlingly clear, his expressions almost vulnerable. Perhaps he wanted me to be kind, though I'm sure he never said as much.

The sitting was about as short as any I'd do at the time - precisely 36 frames. (Exactly the length of a roll of 35mm film, even though I was shooting with a digital camera. This happened a lot; all those years of shooting film seemed to have put a very precise timer in my head.) I probably didn't give Carradine much more direction than I gave most of my subjects, though in my head I know I was shouting "Omuhgawd holy shit it's fucking Grasshopper!"

David Carradine died in Bangkok on June 3, 2009.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Hilary Duff

Hilary Duff, Toronto, March 2004

HILARY DUFF WAS PROBABLY AT THE APEX OF HER EARLY STARDOM WHEN I TOOK THESE PORTRAITS. That fact didn't mean as much to me at the time as it would later, when my daughters were older and I became aware of the impact and resonance of girl culture. Today, my oldest daughter is far more impressed that I took these shots than pretty much anything else I've ever done.

The free daily assigned me to photograph Hilary Duff a month after the last episode of Lizzie McGuire had aired. Her third album wouldn't be released until September of that year, so I'm assuming she was in Toronto promoting either her latest movie, A Cinderella Story, or more probably Stuff by Duff, her clothing line. I had nearly two decades of shooting professionally by now, and had a lot of famous people in front of my camera, but I think Duff was the first who had her own Happy Meal toys.

Hilary Duff, Toronto, March 2004

Her then-massive fame wasn't readily apparent to me until I showed up for the shoot and had to negotiate a thicket of handlers. The photo call was at the Carlu, a recently renovated Art Deco gem that had opened as a restaurant in what was once Eaton's College Park. I would have loved to have used some of the period details of the room, but I knew that they probably would have been cropped out to fit the photo into one or two columns on the very tight tabloid layouts of the paper.

I posed Hilary Duff by the backlit panels of a stunning bar in the Round Room, using them as huge softbox panels in lieu of daylight. I was still unsure about how to deal with the white balance controls on the Canon Rebel digital camera the paper had loaned me, so I've never really been able to get the colour portraits to look right until now. The black and white shot at the top does a nice job of capturing Duff's persona, or so I am told. Once again, I never would have handed in a black and white shot to the paper, but this treatment just seems to suit the shot better.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Viggo Mortensen

Viggo Mortensen, Toronto, Feb. 2004

THE LAST LORD OF THE RINGS MOVIE HAD COME OUT THE PREVIOUS YEAR when I photographed Viggo Mortensen for the free daily. He was in town promoting Hidalgo, his latest film; A History of Violence would come out the next year, and he was probably at the peak of his matinee idol status.

I wasn't particularly overawed by the shoot or my subject. I'd photographed plenty of celebrities during my decade with NOW magazine, and was probably more concerned about the unfamiliar new digital camera I was using. What I didn't know was that this was just the beginning of five years of shooting more celebrities in more hotel rooms than I'd ever done at NOW.

Viggo Mortensen, Toronto, Feb. 2004

The Mortensen shoot was really business as usual as far as I can tell. He was, by any regular standard, a good looking guy who probably knew it, and knew well enough how to present himself to a camera. I'm sure this was the old Four Seasons in Yorkville (it had most favoured hotel status with the movie companies) and I posed him in the pocket of  flattering light made by the little alcove by the window, the same basic spot where I'd photographed Joel Schumacher four years previous, the last time I'd been shooting portraits.

Viggo Mortensen, Toronto, Feb. 2004

I'm honestly surprised at how much I managed to get out of Mortensen - in addition to slightly smouldering headshot in the middle, I got him to put on just enough of a little performance to get the other two shots. I was still treating the Canon Rebel the paper had loaned me just like I would my old Canon Elan 35mm SLR; it would actually take me a few years to really grasp the big differences between film and digital images, prime among which was how much detail, both in the shadows and highlights, could be mined from a frame.

Viggo Mortensen was only the second celebrity I'd shoot after the free daily put me back to work as a photographer. I had no way of knowing how many more celebrity portraits I'd end up doing in the next five years, and probably assumed this was just a bit of a lark. I had also, for all intents and purposes, stopped thinking of myself as a professional photographer and more usually referred to myself as a "writer with a camera," so I'd forgotten about portfolios or getting other work, and shoots like this would end up forgotten on a hard drive after I'd filed my edited jpegs. This is the first anyone has seen of them for nearly fifteen years.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Emily Perkins

Emily Perkins, Toronto, Jan. 2004

THE ERA OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY REALLY BEGINS FOR ME WITH THESE PHOTOS. I had only done one portrait shoot in over three years when I was assigned to photograph actress Emily Perkins for the free daily with a Canon Rebel digital camera the paper had just bought. An awful lot had changed in that time, not the least of which - for me, certainly - was becoming a father.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I had been working as the free daily's interim photo editor for at least two years, where I'd had a ringside seat for the digital revolution as it finally overwhelmed photography after several false starts. I had begun the job with a Reuters feed on my computer and a Nikon Coolpix scanner on my desk. Over the course of those two years I needed the scanner less and less, until finally someone put a truly workable digital SLR in my hands and told me to get to work.

Emily Perkins, Toronto, Jan. 2004

Perkins was a former child actress who was one of the co-stars of Ginger Snaps, a Canadian-made horror film that had done well on the festival circuit and would become a cult hit when it was released in cinemas. It has to be understood that Canadian cinema is such an underdog industry - organized and funded on the assumption that little of it will make any money - that any success creates a feeding frenzy, as the media rush to celebrate the occasion and the industry scramble to take credit.

I don't know if it was her usual look, but Perkins showed up for the interview and shoot in full Goth makeup and wardrobe. This would be both convenient and misleading for me, shooting my first digital portraits, since her unnaturally perfect skin in these shots wouldn't prepare me for the startling detail that a well-exposed jpeg - never mind a big, uncompressed RAW file - presents you when you open it up in Photoshop.

Considering that I was using a brand new camera and hadn't really shot much in over three years and would have been very rusty, I managed to cover the bases in my shoot with Emily Perkins, shooting both close-ups and some sort of dramatic scenario suitable to the genre of her film. I've brought out the horror movie still conceit in the latter shot today by processing it in black and white - I doubt if I would have bothered doing this when I handed it in to the free daily.

If my shoot with Maggie Cheung at the film festival in 2000 was the end of something, these photos of Emily Perkins are very definitely the beginning of a whole new phase in my career - one that just happened to coincide with the move from film to digital. My life had seen so many changes since the Maggie Cheung shoot that this technological shift didn't seem quite so momentous at the time as it does today.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Funeral Home

Steven Duquette, funeral director, Bates & Dodds Funeral Home, Toronto, 2000

EVERYBODY IS FASCINATED BY DEATH. At the turn of the millennium everyone was reading Boom Bust & Echo, one of those applied big ideas books, like Freakonomics or The Tipping Point, that seemed to explain nearly everything in one easy-to-grasp conceit. The big idea in Boom, Bust & Echo was that demographics were the key, and that if you wanted to predict the future or make a lot of money, all you had to do was figure out the largest number of people who were going to be in school, buying homes, having kids, retiring or dying.

I was particularly taken by the last point, and for years I'd tried to sell editors on a story about young people entering the funeral business, anticipating the massive boom that would commence as soon as the baby boomer generation started dying off. I was also interested in how the funeral industry, one presumed to be basically conservative in nature, would handle the demands of a demographic who were used to getting what they'd wanted their whole lives, and who had led massive social and cultural changes based on that combination of demands and numbers.

Stanley Chung & Steven Duquette, Bates & Dodds Funeral Home, Toronto, 2000

At what I perceived to be a critical point in my career, Saturday Night magazine bit at my story pitch, and I spent most of 2000 following around Steven Duquette and Stanley Chung, the proprietors of Bates & Dodds, a small, independent funeral home - the oldest operating one in the city - with a very interesting location, on Toronto's Queen West shopping district and across from the gentrifying streets around Trinity Bellwoods Park.

Steven and Stanley were very gracious with their time, and let me document their work with my cameras - provided I dress like them in a somber black suit and expressly request permission wherever I went. Steven, young and articulate, would be the focus of the story, and I shot portraits of him in the casket sales room at the funeral home and sitting on his Honda Shadow by the rear garage door where they took delivery of flowers, coffins and bodies.

Steven Duquette, funeral director, Bates & Dodds Funeral Home, Toronto, 2000

One of the first things I learned was that being a mortician involved an awful lot of paperwork, to comply with the almost infinite number of regulations that applied to the funeral business. I was desperate to get them to talk about the abiding myths and preconceptions about their profession, and to wax philosophical about the nature of what they did, dealing with one of life's most profound and - to most people - terrifying absolutes.

They were remarkably casual and offhanded about it all, as were the many undertakers, young and old, who I interviewed for the piece, as I tried to create a compelling and resonant story for the magazine. I spent most of the year reading, researching, and spending time with the men from Bates & Dodds, accompanying Stanley on a Buddhist funeral one sunny day, and killing time (no pun intended) with Steven in the queue at St. James Crematorium, waiting for our turn to commit a body to the flames.

Stanley Chung & Steven Duquette, funeral directors Toronto, 2000

I shot a lot of film, did hours of interviews and took a lot of notes. This was the sort of story I thought I was uniquely suited for, as a writer and photographer; with every new draft and conversation with my editor, I imagined how it might look in the glossy pages of the venerable - over a century in print! - and award-winning publication. I was a devoted magazine reader, and at one point read over thirty a month, though most of my career had been spent working for newsprint publications. I was desperate for a change, and this story potentially showcased the best of what I did.

It was hard not to be fascinated by the more morbid aspects of the funeral business, and Stanley and Steven let me spend a lot of time and a few rolls of films shooting in their embalming room. But even more poignant was a dusty cabinet in a storeroom next to their office, where they kept cremains - cremated ashes - that had never been picked up after funeral services were bought and paid for. Some of these packages had been there for decades.

One dusty box, the earthly remains of Isobel MacFarlane, had been unclaimed since 1968. The label was from the (now-closed) crematorium at Prospect Cemetery. Today I live in a house right next to Prospect, and as I write this I can look out my office window over the wall of the cemetery to its veteran's plot and cenotaph. In retrospect, perhaps not everyone is as fascinated by death as I am.

Bates & Dodds Funeral Home. Toronto, 2000

There were so many stories I could have written about Steven and Stanley, Bates & Dodds and the funeral business, but in the end I didn't write any of them. I'd hand in several revisions of my story, even more unsure every time as to what my editor was looking for. He was young, and from Montreal - a detail he never tired of pointing out - and seemed to want to spend more time at our meetings way up in Don Mills talking about music and music journalism. (A job and a world that I was desperate to leave behind in my past.)

Saturday Night was one of only two or three national general interest magazines in Canada, with a long history and a reputation that made it like a combination of the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, Harper's and The Atlantic all rolled into one - a role that fell to it mostly because Canada is a big country with a very small publishing market, and barely able, even when publishing was healthy, to support four magazines when one would do.

The magazine was in trouble, however. Under a previous owner, I'd tried in vain to get a friend of my fiancee who worked as an editor there to assign me a story. We'd spend endless phone calls talking through pitches and getting one after another tantalizingly close to an assignment letter before they'd be shot down at one of their many editorial meetings.

Now under new management as a free weekend magazine distributed through the National Post, it seemed that even getting the assignment was no guarantee that I might ever see the story in print. I began thinking that Saturday Night was in the journalism business much as Hollywood made movies, with the majority of the effort expended in its offices and boardrooms devoted to preventing anything from getting published or filmed.

My editor, maddeningly vague the whole time, had me change the focus at least twice before telling me one day that they were thinking of running it as a photo essay. I went up to the office for one more meeting where I'd talk with the photo editor.

We had a mutual friend in my buddy Chris, and while I hoped that might have worked in my favour, our brief, largely wordless meeting mostly involved her glaring at me with what I can only recall as barely concealed hostility. I returned home upset and confused. This was not going at all well. One final phone call with my editor revolved around the question - mostly posed by me, expecting an answer for some reason - of whether they intended to run my story at all. The answer wasn't positive, and I was told to send in an invoice for a kill fee.

Saturday Night would be sold two more times. It went bimonthly and returned to the newsstands before the final owner ceased print publication in November of 2005, after one hundred and eighteen years. It briefly came to life again in 2008 as a blog, but was abandoned after five posts. The photo editor who seemed to hate me for some mysterious reason left publishing to run an artisanal food business. Bates & Dodds Funeral Home closed its doors a few years ago. The building is now a veterinary business.

Bates & Dodds Funeral Home. Toronto, 2000

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Sunnyside, Toronto, 2000

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY ENDED FOR ME WITH A PAINFUL CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE. The business that I'd entered over a decade earlier was visibly contracting and the market for what I had worked so hard to do well - editorial portraiture, mostly - was disappearing. The frustration made me doubt myself and, despite having reached a level of technical competence I'd only dreamed about when I picked up a camera, I could feel my inspiration and creativity flag with every shoot.

If I wasn't feeling desperate, I wouldn't have taken the advice I'd read in some photo magazine and bought a cheap plastic camera. The logic was sold simply enough: If you'd spent your career relying on technology and gear to help create images - and if inspiration was diminishing despite your skill - it might be useful to eschew all those crutches and habits and try to create images without them.

Sunnyside, Toronto, 2000

I picked up my first Holga plastic camera for $75 - they've actually got cheaper since then - and took it out for a stroll along the lake at Sunnyside, a place I've returned to over and over for inspiration. I loaded it with both colour and black and white film to see what kind of results I could expect, while trying to get used to shooting with no expectation of either precise composition or even sharp focus, which is good, because when the film came back I had neither.

What I did get was weirdly evocative shots that, on the contact sheets at least, looked like frame grabs from an old home movie. The imprecise focus in the centre troubled me, but I loved the way the images blurred out at the edges - an effect that would have been more pronounced if I hadn't bought the 120S model of the Holga, which is fixed to shoot only 6 x 4.5cm frames instead of 6 x 6cm squares, so the full effect of the camera's fuzzy optics is lost on two edges.

The Holga was invented in China in the early '80s, a cheap camera meant for the masses. It was built almost entirely out of plastic except for a few tiny metal parts in the shutter mechanism and the clips that hold the back on to the body. Thanks to its very basic construction and the plastic lens, it was prone to light leaks, spherical and chromatic aberration and practically every other flaw that's supposed to be designed out of a quality camera.

It never caught on in China, probably because it took inconvenient 120 medium format roll film instead of 35mm cartridge film, but even more probably because cameras got cheaper and better and made the many faults built into the Holga - its very approximate focusing mechanism, its even more loose rangefinder for composition, its single fixed aperture and shutter speed that makes it almost useless anywhere but on bright days - unendurable for the average buyer, even in communist China. Here, however, it developed a cult following that, a few years later, would coalesce around the Lomography movement.

Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, 2000
View over the rooftops, Macdonell Ave., Parkdale, 2000

I became hooked on the Holga, and took it out again to shoot a stroll through Mount Hope Cemetery, looking for the graves of my grandparents, then again to shoot across the rooftops from the deck of our apartment on Macdonell. It's been over a decade since we lived there, and I haven't been on that rooftop deck since before our youngest daughter was born, so this is how I remember it now - sky meeting asphalt shingles and roof gables, a vivid flash of the past fading as soon as it's recalled.

There was something about the frames on the contacts that evoked images from memory - indistinct and hazy, but with only some small random plane in reasonably sharp focus, like the mind trying to engage some fleeting moment of clarity but falling just short. I'd been experimenting with effects like these in the darkroom for years, using soft focus filters and tissue paper. With the Holga, however, this look presented itself with an added, and very seductive, element of chance.

Spain, 2000

I took it with me again to Spain, tucked into my camera bag along with my trusty Canon SLR and a Kodak disposable panoramic camera. Thanks to the locations - and my choice of subject - the results were even more pleasing. I'd spent almost a decade trying to force sharp, modern lenses, film and printing papers to look like fading Victorian snapshots or the sort of  Pictorialist gallery prints that Ansel Adams formed a movement to rebel against.

But thanks to a cheap Chinese camera I finally got the look I'd been striving for - abetted today (and quite ironically) by digital tweaking in Photoshop. These frames - and especially the photo at the top of this post - are pretty much the best of my first year with the Holga. At the time, I couldn't be sure if they were helping me recover my inspiration for the rest of my work, especially since, within a year, I'd pretty much stop shooting professionally. But the Holga did make shooting fun again, even when I wasn't sure if I could truthfully call myself a photographer any more.

Avila, Spain, 2000

Monday, March 19, 2018

John C. Reilly

John C. Reilly, Toronto, Dec. 1999

JOHN C. REILLY WAS KNOWN MORE AS A CHARACTER ACTOR WHEN I SHOT HIS PORTRAIT for the National Post just before the turn of the millennium. I had worked for the paper since its launch - a relationship that I had hoped would turn into something more than it did. These photos were taken just when that relationship was diminishing.

Reilly was in four films released in 1999, but I'm guessing he was in Toronto for Magnolia, one of the big buzz films of the year. I'm pretty certain I interviewed him in addition to writing the story - one of the privileges of working for a start-up newspaper where editorial roles weren't as written in stone and keenness was rewarded.

John C. Reilly, Toronto, Dec. 1999

Since Reilly was more known as a character actor, I went in a more dour direction with these photos than I would have several years later, after he'd become as a comedy star with roles like Dewey Cox in Walk Hard or Cal Naughton Jr. in Talladega Nights. I've become a big fan of Reilly's since then - he occupies a rare position between straight man, comic foil and holy fool, often moving between the three easily, as he does in Talledega Nights.

John C. Reilly, Toronto, Dec. 1999

My daughters know him as the voice of the title character in Wreck-It Ralph, which he's reprising in a sequel this year. I suppose my fondness for Reilly is why I'd nearly forgotten about these photos - they're merely OK, taken when I was struggling for inspiration with my portrait work (and so much else besides.)

I began work at the Post with a lot of hope - I got in on the ground floor and had bylines and photo credits in the paper right from the first weekend edition, which was run as a separate entity from the daily paper at the launch in 1998. The Post blew through a ton of its start-up money during its first couple of years, and would be sold on to new owners the year after I shot Reilly.

By this point the weekend edition had lost its autonomy and the people I'd worked under during the launch had moved on. Additionally, the Post began functioning like a "normal" paper by now, and staff photographers began edging out freelance assignments. This might have been the last job I did for the paper, at least until nearly a decade later, when I was back to freelancing and the Post briefly took me on again after my time with the national free daily had ended.

But that's a whole other story.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Cecil Beaton

Cecil Beaton by Irving Penn, 1950

I OWNED A BOOK OF CECIL BEATON'S PHOTOGRAPHY BEFORE I OWNED A CAMERA. Beaton's work - or the collection of images in photography dealer James Danziger's 1980 collection, bought from a remainder table - was probably as important to me as a photographer as the family Bible with all the colour plates of old master biblical scenes - the only art book we had in the house for the whole of my childhood.

I discovered Beaton in college, when I was in thrall to Evelyn Waugh and the story of the Bright Young Things of London in the Twenties. It was that Brideshead Revisited TV miniseries moment at the beginning of the '80s, as significant culturally to the decade as the election of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA was politically, and his photos often illustrated magazine features explaining the era.

I found the book on sale at Edwards Books & Art (now long gone) on Queen Street West, and stared at his portraits of everyone from Stephen Tennant to General Carton de Wiart to Augustus John to Jean Shrimpton - many of whom I had never heard of until I bought the book. The first photographer whose name I recognized was probably Boris Spremo, the daredevil newspaper photogapher at the Toronto Star whose byline accompanied pictures taken hanging from ropes and construction cranes, but Beaton was the first photographer who I understood as an artist, creating work that had a style and a career-long trajectory.

Love, Cecil, a feature length documentary on Beaton's work and life is opening this week at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs theatre here in Toronto, and I spoke to the director, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, on the phone last week to share my thoughts about the man with someone who's spent at least as much time as I have thinking about him and his work.

Nancy Cunard by Cecil Beaton, 1927
Cassandra Wilson, Toronto, 1990

I have had Beaton's photos pasted to the inside of my head for over thirty years, so it's not surprising that they've found their way out many times in work I've shot, like this portrait of jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. I definitely recalled Beaton's very early portrait of Nancy Cunard as soon as Wilson brought her hand up to her face, with its thick beaded bracelet. Beaton's photo is dim and blurred, but it helped him make his early reputation as a society photographer, even at a time when there were plenty of other photographers who could be relied upon to hand in a technically superior portrait.

"He was no great master," Immordino Vreeland says over the phone. "He wasn't a photographer's photographer. He just did it."

"He's always been put down a bit because he wasn't in the darkroom, and he did so much more. Because he wasn't just a photographer - he was so much more than that."

Edith Sitwell by Cecil Beaton, 1927
Tilda Swinton, Toronto, 1992

I was an English student taking a minor in theatre when I discovered Beaton, which probably explains why I responded to strongly to the theatrical aspect of his work - the little stage sets he'd build or simply discovered, like the massive tapestry that he used for the background of his portrait of poet Edith Sitwell. I had the Sitwell photo in the front of my mind when I posed actress Tilda Swinton in front of one in the lobby of the Sutton Place hotel for a film festival shoot, another homage to his influence I was daring people to see.

"I love the portraits of the Bright Young Things," Immordino Vreeland says when we talk about his best work, "and the immediacy of him coming up with these fantastic backdrops out of nothing, but you see what I've chosen in the film. So much of it you'd recognize because it's so iconic, but the portraiture that I didn't pick that much was English society, because that doesn't interest me as much."

"It was incredible to me that you had this character, this personality who was vibrant and creative for decades, he found a way to fit into everything and every new trend that was going on. And he found a way to have a vernacular with all these different people, which isn't surprising because he made these things happen."

Serge Lifar by Cecil Beaton, 1938
Jane Bunnett, Parkdale, 1994

I've read Beaton biographies and diaries and it's hard to ignore how insecure he was, from the beginning of his career to the end of his life. He was hardly born poor, but he had little money or support despite his ambition, and the lush effects he achieved in his early work were often achieved on the cheap.

He often painted or built his theatrical portrait backdrops, and while I don't have a fraction of his talent as an artist, I was inspired by his resourcefulness for the session I did for the CD cover of my friend Jane Bunnett's The Water is Wide. The title gave me a pretty clear cue, and while I definitely drew on the look of an old Pacific Jazz or Contemporary album cover from the '50s, I can credit Beaton with the inspiration to create the backdrop with paint left over from the living room of my Parkdale loft.

T.S. Eliot by Cecil Beaton, 1956
Shyam Selvadurai, Parkdale, 1995

Right from the start, and before I had any inkling that I'd pursue a career in photography, I was impressed with the portfolio of people Beaton built up over his decades of work. Aside from his long access to the royal family, there are politicians and artists and writers (including his old nemesis, Waugh) and movie stars and the Rolling Stones, shot in styles that varied from studio glamour portraits to snapshots.

As befits a man who was as known at one point for his drawings as his photos, and who probably achieved his greatest fame as a film and theatre designer, Beaton had enormous creative resources to draw upon. Despite his avowed lack of technical expertise, he used multiple exposures many times in his career, as in his portrait of T.S. Eliot, which was definitely an inspiration when I was assigned to shoot Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai. While not an exact copy of Beaton's Eliot shot, it gave me the guts to try the only in-camera multiple exposure I ever attempted, if only to say that I'd followed Beaton's prompt and done it.

Nancy Beaton by Cecil Beaton, 1926
Norma Shearer by Cecil Beaton, 1930
Bjork, Toronto, 1997

The first photos that really struck me in Danziger's book were Beaton's dreamy tableaux from the '20s and '30s, featuring yards of draperies, scavenged props and crumpled cellophane - cheap materials meant to give the impression of fantasy and luxury. While similar effects were achieved by a more technically accomplished photographer like Angus McBean - a contemporary whom Beaton pointedly ignore in his many diaries - I couldn't help but be taken by the pantomime surrealism achieved in an early picture of his sister Nancy, or the much more modernist feel he gets from crumpled plastic sheeting in the Norma Shearer portrait.

I had Beaton in mind every time I pulled back the window curtains in a hotel room and draped them over a convenient floor lamp. I don't know how many times I resorted to this trick over the first decade of my career, but the best result was probably my portrait session with Bjork, probably because the singer was exactly the sort of quirky personality that Beaton would have responded to, if he'd ever gotten her in front of his camera.

Audrey Hepburn by Cecil Beaton, 1954
Liane Balaban, Toronto, 2004 

Years after I'd first opened the Danziger book, I began finding inspiration in the work Beaton did mid-career, shooting celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford and Garbo in his custom-designed suites at the Sherry-Netherland, St. Regis or Ambassador hotels in New York City. They were much more informal portraits than the high style glamour and society work he'd been doing a couple of decades earlier, and often did little to disguise the setting.

Working exclusively in hotel rooms during the 2000s, I drew on Beaton once again, using ad hoc or natural light in cramped, rushed conditions much as I imagined he might have. I didn't have the luxury of building up a rapport with subjects like Beaton did with Audrey Hepburn, star of My Fair Lady, the film that made his name as a set and costume designer. But when actress Liane Balaban entered the hotel room during the 2004 film festival looking very gamine - a word I probably learned from reading Beaton - I instinctively put her in a far corner of the room hoping to get something remotely like Beaton's 1954 portrait of Hepburn.

I've written before that I was disappointed with the portrayal of Beaton as a graying court toady in the Netflix miniseries The Crown, and Lisa Immordino Vreeland agreed with me.

"That character they chose - God, he was such an oldie! He looked so stodgy, didn't he?"

"At the same time," she reflects, "it's amazing that he was mentioned in four episodes. I was not happy with the portrayal. I loved the historical aspect of it, and then sometimes they'd show the real archival footage, like when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were with Hitler and Goebbels in Germany, it was fantastic. But I don't think we think of Beaton like that because, well, I think of him as one of the Bright Young Things. I think of him as the younger Beaton, and he was kind of frumpy when he was old. For some reason Snowdon is seen as more attractive."

I think Cecil Beaton is long overdue for rediscovery, and Lisa tells me that she's heard rumours of a biopic in the works. Rupert Everett, who reads Beaton's letters and diaries on the soundtrack of Love, Cecil, would have made a perfect young Beaton, but by the time the film actually gets made he might be more appropriate as the aging photographer, worried about his reputation and legacy and, even more sadly, haunted by loneliness and regret.

For her part, Immordino Vreeland says that she felt fortunate with her choice of a subject, who left such a massive visual legacy in addition to an in-depth written record of his life.

"We had all this material to be able to talk about his emotions, his insecurity, his sadness over love, his different friendships, his creativity. You're fortunate when you have material like this right from the start."