Monday, March 5, 2018

eye weekly

Graffiti artist, Toronto, August 2000

THE MILLENNIUM ENDED WITH BIG CHANGES IN MY LIFE AND CAREER. While a lot of people around me - too many, it seemed, both now and then - were worried about Y2K, I was going to start a new century with considerable new circumstances in my career and personal life. I had left NOW magazine after a busy decade, and had moved out of the Parkdale loft where I'd had my studio for just as long.

Additionally, after many years as a lonely single, I was living with the woman who would become my wife. There were a lot of changes to deal with, prime among them - lesser but by no means insignificant - was a new client, eye weekly, to which I had jumped ship from NOW in the hopes of finding the same sort of home base.

It seemed a reasonable expectation - I had a lot of friends on the masthead at eye, and while I knew that the heyday of editorial work I'd enjoyed at the beginning of the decade was probably over, I felt optimistic. (As always, my first mistake.)

Gina Ocaranza Munoz, activist, Toronto, Nov. 1999
Andreas Siebert, lawyer, Toronto, Dec. 1999

My first few jobs for eye were promising - portraits for news features at the front of the paper, and very much the sort of thing that I had learned to do over my years at NOW. My first assignment was with Gina Ocaranza, a political activist and refugee from Chile, where she'd been imprisoned and tortured in 1975 by the Pinochet regime, a brutal story that saw her give birth in prison.

I photographed her in her apartment townhouse on Queen Street East, moving several table lamps into the dim room where we were shooting to give just enough light for my Rolleiflex, locked off on its tripod. I thought the shots had just the right mix of gravitas and humanity, and have always been fond of the results.

(Gina Ocaranza won an apology from the Chilean military in 2004, which opened the way for her to pursue a legal claim against the government. She died in Toronto in February of 2006.)

Andreas Siebert was a lawyer for a firm leading a class action suit against the big tobacco companies. I posed him in his office with some of the paperwork required for the case. I must have had my tripod extended to its maximum height to get this shot, which was obviously shot in another dim room with available light. (Siebert's suit would be thrown out by the Ontario Superior Court in 2004.)

Dr. Charles Tator, neurosurgeon, Feb. 2000
Graffiti artist, Toronto, August 2000

While I was working for eye, I tried moving toward a new look for my portraits - or at least a refinement of my previous style. Without access to a studio for the foreseeable future, I had to make the best use of available light possible. I also had to produce much better negatives, since my new darkroom - a dingy little room in the unfinished basement of the Victorian townhouse where K and I were renting a floor and a half - was nowhere near as pleasant to work in as the one I'd left behind in my studio.

I decided to pursue a flatter, less complex approach to composition and lighting, which are most obvious in the two shoots above. I photographed Dr. Charles Tator in his hospital office, and the young, unnamed graffiti artist - a rare colour shoot for eye - in a railway underpass beneath Dundas Street West near our apartment. All my work refining my studio lighting for so many years were on the backburner now, and in any case there seemed to be a trend away from that sort of work to something a lot more artless at the time.

I forced myself to embrace the change, but it was a difficult new direction to pursue after all that loving effort in the studio that had become my refuge.

Darren O'Donnell, writer & performance artist, Toronto, June 2000
Ben Hutzel, lawyer & political fundraiser, Toronto, Nov. 2000

Occasionally, when I knew that a shoot wouldn't be given the same play in a layout, I'd slip back on the sort of quick, 35mm portraiture I'd done at NOW for years. Darren O'Donnell was a playwright and performer who had adopted the persona of "boxhead" for a show, and I shot him "in character," working by the window of his apartment.

Ben Hutzel was a fundraiser - a "bagman" as the eye story described him - for the Liberal Party of Canada. As ever, when shooting someone connected to party politics, I opted to make them look as uneasy and even shifty as possible. Photos like these make me realize why my career at business magazines was so short and abortive.

Pico Iyer, writer, Toronto, May 2001
Niall Ferguson, economist & writer, May 2001

Toward the end of my scant two years at eye, work became even scarcer, so I started generating photo assignments by illustrating stories that I'd write myself. I had begun the '90s determined to move away from writing, but as the new decade started I was doing more of it than ever. I interviewed and photographed Pico Iyer in Hart House, once my favorite place during my brief university career. Iyer had been swept into prominence curing a vogue for a new school of travel writing, embodied in his book Video Night in Kathmandu.

My interview with him was combative; I began by pointing out inaccuracies in the chapter devoted to my hometown in his latest book, The Global Soul. He'd wrongly described Toronto as a city shaped in early years by the Anglican Church - it was really Methodists and Presbyterian merchants who transformed the city into a mercantile hub and promoted the Orange Lodge politics that gave it the nickname "Little Belfast." Working from this initial error, he misidentified the current Catholic archibishop of Toronto as an Anglican. We complain today about the inaccuracies of books and journalism in a world without fact-checkers and copy editors, but this was obviously already a problem nearly twenty years ago.

Despite the tone of our conversation, I think the portrait I took turned out remarkably affable. Re-reading the interview again today, however, is more than slightly embarassing; I couldn't imagine saying that "my city is worthy of his optimism" today.

I did my interviews and portraits with Iyer and Niall Ferguson, writer and economic historian, just months before 9/11. In hindsight this seems significant; the very much more open, free world that Iyer imagined and described in his books would look a lot less so by the end of that year, while Ferguson's vision of global history defined by empires and conflict turned him into an in-demand pundit, tasked with trying to explain how the old wars existed in a continuum with the new ones.

“I love that phrase ‘the untied nations’," he told me during our nearly twenty-year-old interview. "It seemed to capture what was going on in the last twenty years. It’s a paradox that the world is getting more integrated economically, and more disintegrated politically. Where does that end - in every little state being ethnically homogeneous? It seems highly unlikely. But some people dearly believe that’s the direction we’re going."

Ferguson was identified - then as now - as a "conservative" writer. (As if to underline this, ten years later he would divorce his wife and marry ex-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.) I was pleased that I was able to get an interview with him in eye, which might have been in competition with NOW but very much shared its left-of-centre politics, albeit slightly less stridently. That might explain the haughty, confrontational look I got from Ferguson for my favorite shot.

I never left eye weekly as definitively as I did NOW magazine. Ultimately I just drifted away from the paper as assignments dried up and my drive to keep suggesting story ideas evaporated. I remember it as a dispiriting time for my career, despite the upturn my personal life had taken. I might have misread the situation, but it turned out in the end that there wasn't as much enthusiasm for me to join eye's stable of photographers as I'd been led to believe. In any case, by the end of the year I'd get a job offer that would change the direction of my career entirely.

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