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.

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