Monday, April 30, 2018

Gael Garcia Bernal

Gael Garcia Bernal, Toronto, Sept. 2004

I WISH I HAD MORE TIME TO TAKE MY PORTRAITS. I did, briefly - for a few years working for NOW magazine I had the luxury of getting subjects to come to my studio. After snatching shots in a few spare minutes in clubs and hotel rooms when I was starting out, I suppose it was arrogance that made me assume that this was a natural evolution of my career - a dividend from paying my dues. I had no idea that it was just circumstance, and that this privilege would be taken away just when I was given regular access to bigger names than I had ever had before.

Envy isn't a healthy emotion, but I can't help but feel a twinge of it when I look at my friend Chris at work, with time to plan and pre-visualize a portrait. He has, to be certain, earned this privilege. And if I'm honest I sometimes wonder just what I'd do if I was given the opportunity to think about light and props and wardrobe ahead of a shoot with a subject with either the openness or obligation to play along. The vast majority of my thirty-plus years of work has been about snatching moments and focusing on one simple, single portrait - like these shots of Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal taken at the 2004 film festival.

Gael Garcia Bernal, Toronto, Sept. 2004

I don't know if Bernal was at the festival for The Motorcycle Diaries or Bad Education - it might have been both - but two years after Y Tu Mama Tambien he was on his way to what became a major career. He was definitely dressing the part of the guerrilla revolutionary on the day I photographed him.

What I do know is that I shot precisely 21 frames of Bernal in that hotel room, beginning at 9:48am on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 and ending at 9:49am. Would I have preferred to photograph him in a hussar's uniform, or sitting at the bottom of a drained swimming pool? Well, yes, but that clearly wasn't an option, and hasn't been for most of the time I've had celebrities in front of my camera, so I've learned to find a spot of light and walk right into a subject's personal space with a short lens (a 50mm in this case) and hope that their entirely reasonable defensive reaction feels like intimacy.

After thirty years of scavenging portraits from fleeting encounters, I wonder whether I'd even know what to do if I was given time and opportunity. I do know that I'd still love to try.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Robert Evans

Robert Evans, Toronto, Sept. 2004

MY VERY BRIEF SHOOT WITH LEGENDARY HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER ROBERT EVANS was probably the strangest celebrity encounter of my whole career. This isn't admittedly saying much - I spend at most ten or fifteen minutes with any celebrity portrait subject; you would have to be a pretty overweening egomaniac to turn a dozen minutes with a stranger into some kind of drama.

For any movie fan, Evans' reputation preceded him. Even if you squint and ignore his personal history, he was the man without whom the Godfather films and Chinatown would never have been made. Any time spent with either the book or movie versions of The Kid Stays In The Picture will fill in the rest of his very Hollywood story, and I was pretty excited when I was told that I'd be taking his portrait.

I had been shooting in rooms at the old Four Seasons in Yorkville for years, but I'm sure this was the first time either I or Chris Atchison, the writer for the free daily and my constant companion during the film festival, had ever been in one of the penthouse suites. We arrived punctually, and as soon as we walked through the door I was blundered into by then-Hollywood hotshot (and recent #MeToo culprit) Brett Ratner, who neither apologized nor acknowledged my existence.

Trailing his entourage, Ratner bellowed out to Evans that they'd hang later as he left the suite, leaving Chris and I to make our introductions to the legendary producer. Evans was a striking man, dressed in velvet pants and a pair of those slipper-like loafers with some sort of heraldic shield embroidered on them in metallic thread. He wore a turtleneck sweater that was obviously woven from the softest wool you could obtain from the belly of a cashmere goat, and had a bolo tie around his neck. (Chris learned later that the bolo was made from the waist chain of a belly dancer who would later become the wife of Evans' pal, Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash.)

Robert Evans, Toronto, Sept. 2004

But what I couldn't help but notice was his tan, which burnished his skin to a tone that put me in mind of some well-polished antique furniture made of a now-endangered hardwood. I wondered if my new digital camera would be up to reproducing such an unusual skin tone, the likes of which I had never seen before in person.

It was agreed that I'd take the photos after the interview, so while Chris sat down with Evans on one of the big couches in the sunken living room of the suite, I wandered around looking for a nice spot of light. I noticed that every table in the room was piled high with stuff; it looked like Evans had been holed up here for weeks, perhaps months, and hadn't just breezed into town for the film festival.

There was a pile of his book, The Kid Stays In The Picture, next to stacks of screenplays and movie industry trade publications. There were also big piles of DVDs and videocassette tapes, which ran the gamut from VHS movies and screeners, big 3/4" tape cartridges with typewritten labels from editing suites and duplicating houses. and pornography. Lots of pornography.

Over on the couch, Chris' interview had taken a very strange turn. I can't remember his first question, but Evans had ignored whatever subject Chris had hoped to hear about and had embarked on a very long story about sitting in a Manhattan diner late one evening with JFK, then just a senator, and a master plan for education he had talked about with the future president. There was no indication that Evans had any intention of answering Chris' question, so he motioned to me to start taking shots while Evans was talking. This was not going well.

Robert Evans, Toronto, Sept. 2004

Suddenly aware of my camera, Evans began pausing his story to pose for me, at which point I'm sure Chris knew that, while I might not get the portraits I'd been hoping for, he was definitely not going to leave the suite with a printable interview. I can't remember whether it was Evans or his assistant who cut things short abruptly, noting that the doctor had arrived.

Sure enough, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a man entering the room who looked exactly like Hollywood's archetypical physician to the rich and famous: A luxurious head of hair and an open-necked shirt, a buttery soft suede bomber jacket, pressed chinos and a big leather doctor's bag, the sort I hadn't ever seen outside of the movies. He was directed towards the bedroom while Evans and his assistant asked if Chris was available to come back the next day to finish his interview. While he talked, Evans walked toward the open bedroom door, his thumbs hooked into the waistband of his velvet trousers, which he began pulling down over his narrow buttocks.

"I've got to get my shot!" he shouted back to us, cheerfully.

A brief moment later Chris and I were standing back outside the closed door of the suite, open-mouthed and speechless. "Did that actually just happen?" we said, before we started recapping the last ten minutes for each other while we waited for the elevator.

The doors opened while we babbled, and among the half dozen people standing inside the elevator were actor Paul Giamatti, who asked us what we were talking about. We told him who we'd just met.

"Evans! Really? Oh my God tell me what happened!"

And so we started the whole story again - Ratner, the velvet pants and the bolo tie, JFK and Dr. Feelgood with his bag. Giamatti and everyone else in the elevator got caught up in the aftermath of our giddy celebrity-induced blubbering, as eager as we were for every little detail confirming that Evans really lived the outlandish life we all imagined he did. Chris showed up the next day for another brief interview with Evans that just barely answered any of his questions, while I got these photos and a story that I've dined out on countless times.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Emile Hirsch

Emile Hirsch, Toronto, Sept. 2004

BY THE END OF THE FIRST WEEK OF THE FILM FESTIVAL things start to fall apart a little bit. Tight interview schedules get blown apart and hotel rooms get scarce for interviews. Which is why I found myself in the courtyard terrace of the Hotel Intercontinental photographing Emile Hirsch, which wasn't the best place for a portrait shoot.

The light, coming down from straight above, was poor, and with nothing but brick walls, foliage and patio umbrellas all around, it was impossible to find a neutral background. I had no choice but to find the least cluttered spot and shoot as tightly as possible. Back when every celebrity portrait shoot was a potential page in my portfolio, this might have broken my heart, but by the time I was at the free daily the idea of hustling for outside photo work was long gone.

Emile Hirsch, Toronto, Sept. 2004

Hirsch had moved from TV to movies a few years earlier, a young actor who projected an onscreen mix of innocence and intensity. He'd been in The Girl Next Door, a romcom, earlier in the year but he was at the festival with Imaginary Heroes, co-starring with Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Daniels. Making small talk before I started shooting, I said that I thought The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys - a box office bomb he'd starred in a couple of years earlier - deserved to do better. This seemed to please him, and the shoot went well, despite the less than auspicious setting.

Hardly earth-shattering portraits. I have a guilty admission to make: I sort of hoped Hirsch's career would go nowhere after I took these, so I wouldn't be haunted by a thwarted opportunity to get a really nice photo of someone famous when they were young. (Even more guilty admission: I used to do this all the time.) Thankfully for him I never got my way; Hirsch started in Sean Penn's very fine adaptation of Into The Wild, the Christopher McCandless story, a few years after I took these shots, and he's nailed down a string of decent roles since then. Good for him.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Maria Bello

Maria Bello, Toronto, Sept. 2004

THE WORST THING - WELL, ONE OF THE WORST THINGS - about doing this blog for nearly four years is realizing how rarely, if ever, my photos arrived in print looking halfway decent. As my scanning and Photoshop chops have improved with every post, photos that I took ten, twenty or thirty years ago are being republished at a quality level I couldn't have hoped for when I shot them.

Most of the reason for this is that I spent most of my career working for newsprint publications, from indie rock mags to alternative weeklies to free dailies. You could make the finest print possible in your darkroom, with a long smooth gradation from black to charcoal to gray flannel, and it would look like mud on the newsprint page, so the first thing you learn when you get a job shooting for newsprint is to hand in flat, dull photos that would look dismal in a frame on your wall.

Black backgrounds were to be avoided at all costs when I started work at NOW magazine, and though print quality improved gradually over the decade I worked there, it was always mildly depressed that my photos were never being seen at their best. At the free daily I worked in colour, but since my photos had to compete with columns of type and colour ads, I'd boost the contrast and saturation to the edge of garish.

Maria Bello, Toronto, Sept. 2004

Which is a roundabout way of saying that these portraits of Maria Bello didn't look anything like this when they ran in the free daily. It's nice, I suppose, to get a do-over on all this work I've done over three decades, but it all seems a bit late. Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered if I'd had my photos published on thick, glossy stock, but at least I would have been sure that I was getting the best possible version of my work in front of the public.

I'm not really sure what film Bello was publicizing when she arrived at the film festival; her filmography has two entries for 2004, neither of which are highlights of her career. I do remember that her whole look - her swept back hair, her thick strands of pearls, the collar of her shirt spread against the lapels of her coat - put me in mind of the sort of Hollywood golden age glamour I've always loved. But I never would have handed in jpegs to the free daily processed with such dramatic highlights or muted colours.

That's the enormous irony of living in the bright new digital future: I finally have the venue I always wanted for my work at its best, but it's arrived at the point where photography, new or old, has become an almost valueless commodity.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Joseph Fiennes

Joseph Fiennes, Toronto, Sept. 2004

ANOTHER ENGLISH ACTOR, ANOTHER PAINFULLY BRIEF PORTRAIT SESSION. After playing the playwright himself in Shakespeare In Love, Joseph Fiennes managed to hitch a ride on the subsequent wave of Shakespearean films that followed by playing Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, with Al Pacino at the top of the bill as Shylock.

At roughly its halfway point, the film festival's press schedule starts to get a bit ad hoc, with interview rooms getting scarce and schedules constantly blown. I did this shoot in an empty banquet room at the Intercontinental, with at least one other photographer working in another corner of the space. The best spot I could find to photograph Fiennes was tucked into the curtains next to a big window overlooking Bloor Street.

Joseph Fiennes, Toronto, Sept. 2004

He was not, if I recall correctly, very chatty, and resisted my attempts to make small talk. Which was fine - in the best of all possible circumstances, I like my subject to be as silent as myself, though it's always better to have at least a few minutes to let the effects of the benevolent standoff between photographer and subject produce at least a moment of discomfort or confrontation or something in between.

What I got was Fiennes sedately refusing any possibility of my camera capturing a glimpse of interior life. His face in the top photo puts me in mind of a lens staring back at a lens - a cool confrontation that he's intent on ending in a draw. It's a face not unlike a Jacobean court portrait, with the sitter determined not to give an inch of their status away to some itinerant painter.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Emily Mortimer

Emily Mortimer, Toronto, Sept. 2004

I'VE WRITTEN HERE BEFORE THAT ONE OF THE STRANGEST THINGS ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHING ACTORS is the likelihood - more common with young actresses than anyone else, admittedly - that you might have seen them naked, onscreen, before you ever meet them, fully clothed and in person. It's a forced intimacy that happens with almost no one else, and it has never seemed fair or right.

A couple of years before I took these portraits of the British actress Emily Mortimer, I'd reviewed a movie called Lovely & Amazing, in which Mortimer and Catherine Keener played the unhappy daughters of an equally troubled mother. In one particularly brutal scene, Mortimer's character, an aspiring actress, asks the callow movie star she's dating (Dermot Mulroney) to do a critique of her body.

She stands nude at the foot of his bed while he goes into pitiless detail, after which she meekly thanks him. Watching it, I couldn't help but feel some measure of her humiliation, and I like to imagine that was the intention of director Nicole Holofcener, otherwise the scene is mere pointless cruelty.

Emily Mortimer, Toronto, Sept. 2004

Nude scenes have become a rite of passage for young actresses in and outside Hollywood, with screen captures that will pop up in a Google image search forever afterward. Mortimer has survived hers - they sometimes mark the beginning of the end of budding careers - and has had a very decent career in Hollywood and the UK, often cast as the "brainy but beautiful" character, and voicing a role in a Pixar film.

Besides being a fine actress, Mortimer has the gift of a particular sort of beauty - the "English rose" - that hasn't been sharpened to a fine point by Hollywood glamour. I wish the shots I'd taken during our very brief portrait shoot had been better, but I think it probably would have taken more than a couple of dozen frames to get past her polite reserve, or for me to overcome my own embarrassment.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Selma Blair

Selma Blair, Toronto, Sept. 2004

MY BUSY DAY AT THE FILM FESTIVAL ENDED ON A POSITIVE NOTE when Chris and I interviewed Selma Blair, back in the dim rooms at the Intercontinental on Bloor. She was at the festival to promote A Dirty Shame, John Waters' latest - at this writing also his last - movie, after a summer where her profile had been boosted considerable with the release of the first Hellboy film.

It was her - and our - last interview of the day, and she asked if I could take the pictures first. The suite at the hotel had been stripped of most of its furniture, with the exception of a couple of Biedermeir style chairs and a love seat. It was mid-afternoon and there was just enough light in the room for something more than just a head shot.

Selma Blair, Toronto, Sept. 2004

Blair was dressed and made up for a day of photo shoots, with a makeup artist in attendance. (Actresses of a certain age and expectation of glamour usually have makeup artists on press days; actors never do. I think some of the actors might have appreciated having one.) The challenge when presented with a subject done up just so is not to treat them like a model.

Unfortunately not a lot of photographers - or art directors or photo editors - can resist this temptation, and any Google image search of a movie star will turn up selections from these expensively produced spreads, which inevitably look like they're shot in the same industrial loft or boutique hotel. In many cases you can barely recognize the star in question, which defeats the whole purpose of a portrait. At least that's the way I see it.

Selma Blair, Toronto, Sept. 2004

The walls at the Intercontinental were painted with a warm middle gray, a hue that made every room like a little photo studio - if you could find the sweet spot of light. It was easy to find that afternoon, so I placed one of the chairs a few feet from the window and told Blair to perch on the edge of the seat. It was about as much direction as I think I've given anyone.

I imagined that my portraits of Blair might actually turn out elegant - it's a hope I harbour for almost any shoot - though I can't imagine I actually used the word, but she understood what I was aiming for and obliged. The only flaw in the shots that I could see was an electrical outlet on the wall; I had only been shooting with a digital camera since January, so I wasn't used to the idea that a few minutes in Photoshop would erase it forever.

The shoot over, Blair kicked off her heels and stretched out on the love seat for the interview. I remember that she was sharp and funny and irreverent and clearly happy that the press day was almost over. In the last year Blair and Rachel McAdams - both of whom I photographed in 2004 - have accused notorious sleazeball James Toback of sexual harassment, as the #MeToo movement reached its crescendo. Looking back at all the years I worked on the furthest fringe of Hollywood and celebrity, even there it was assumed that this sort of thing was happening, a dirty secret nobody ever talked about.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Stuart Townsend

Stuart Townsend, Toronto, Sept. 2004

MY PENULTIMATE SHOOT ON SEPT. 11, 2004 WAS BACK AT THE FOUR SEASONS ON AVENUE ROAD. Chris Atchison and I had been bouncing back and forth between the Four Seasons and the Intercontinental, and would for the next few days, always arriving just before our scheduled time, unsure if we'd have to wait or even have our interview slot cancelled. If everything was fine, we'd be let into the room and - unless the publicist or subject insisted on getting the photo out of the way - I'd scout the room for a nice spot to shoot while Chris did his interview.

My first subject just after lunch was Stuart Townsend, a handsome young Irish actor who had jumped from British theatre and television to big budget Hollywood films like Queen of the Damned and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where his talent for smoldering was put to good use playing vampires and Dorian Gray. Somewhere along the way he became involved with Charlize Theron, one of his co-stars, and arrived at the film festival in 2004 to promote Head in the Clouds, their second film together.

Stuart Townsend, Toronto, Sept. 2004

I doubt if I had to look around very much to find a spot in the room at the Four Seasons, and it looks like I simply took Townsend to a spot just past where the light from the windows dropped off and became soft and diffused. I don't think I gave him much direction, though I'm fairly certain I didn't have to bother saying "Just smolder a little bit for me, OK?" It would, judging from the results, have been unnecessary.

At the height of his career Townsend found himself in the unusual position of being the junior partner in a relationship with a movie star whose fame far eclipsed his own. The year after I photographed him he was terribly miscast as Carl Kolchak in a short-lived reboot of The Night Stalker, one of my favorite TV series of the '70s. Theron's fame didn't seem to supercharge Townsend's career much, though he did manage to direct a film, Battle in Seattle, while they were together.

Since their breakup in 2010, he's only made one film, and according to his brother, Dylan, Townsend has quit acting and moved to Costa Rica, where he's started a family with a local girl and runs his own garage.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Rhys Ifans

Rhys Ifans, Toronto, Sept. 2004

RETURNING TO PORTRAIT WORK IN 2004 WAS A LOT LIKE GETTING BACK ON A BICYCLE. They say you never forget how to ride a bike - I learned that's actually true a few years ago - and the surprising thing about the photos I took when I was put back to work shooting was how quickly I picked up old habits.

I photographed the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans in the Four Seasons in Yorkville, that much I know for sure. The particular quality of light in those rooms, unimpeded on almost every side through the large windows, was a gift that year, since I'd spent so much time shooting there during the NOW years. The latest renovation had simplified the decor, with subtly textured, cool white wallpaper and equally plain draperies that bounced the sunlight around the space, an almost perfect shooting space.

Rhys Ifans, Toronto, Sept. 2004

It was immediately clear that Ifans had a great face, and a clear, unerring gaze that's very likely a gift when he's being shot in close-up. I had my 50mm lens on the paper's Canon digital SLR and went right in, doing a few simple headshots before moving in as close as I could, giving his face half the frame for a few shots - it had worked years ago with Bruce Dern in the same hotel and there's no shame in copying yourself - before switching to a horizontal, cinema frame and giving Ifans the sort of tight close-up that he obviously knew how to address.

Ifans, introduced to North American audiences with his scene-stealing role as Hugh Grant's roommate in Notting Hill - was at the festival to promote Enduring Love, a small but wrenching little tragedy where he had second billing to Daniel Craig, a year before he became James Bond. Ifans would join the cast of the Harry Potter films, and even play a comic book villain in a Spider Man film. He had, in the brief encounter we shared, an almost unnerving way of engaging with my camera, a stare that managed to be both intimate and confrontational.

Rhys Ifans, Toronto, Sept. 2004

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Zhang Ziyi

Zhang Ziyi, Toronto, Sept. 2004

BY 2004 HOTEL ROOM PORTRAIT SHOOTING WAS A RUSHED AFFAIR. When I began photographing directors and actors for NOW magazine over a decade earlier, interview times could be as long as twenty minutes or more, and a sympathetic writer would give you as much as half of that to get your shot. Many photographers brought lighting that they'd set up during the interview; I used a pair of Rolleiflex cameras and a tripod, and most of the time I'd get to reload both cameras after finishing off the dozen frames on the rolls I'd loaded. It seems like a long time ago.

Returning to the film festival in 2004, I discovered that interview slots were fifteen minutes on paper, though that would get cut down to ten minutes or less if the talent was behind schedule, if a bigger media outlet came after you and demanded more time, or if the publicist was simply impatient. My shoot with Zhang Ziyi started precisely fifteen minutes after I'd photographed the director of her latest film, Zhang Yimou, and lasted for just one minute and a dozen frames on the free daily's digital Canon. I can recall all of this with authority thanks to the Exif files embedded in my camera files.

Without needing to consult the camera files, I can tell you that I wasn't able to find the same sweet spot of light that was in the adjacent hotel room where I'd photographed Zhang Yimou. I wish I had - my subject was certainly lovely enough and in the right light I might have been inspired to try something more than just frame her face tightly.

Zhang Ziyi, Toronto, Sept. 2004

But this is all just an excuse. Even in the Hotel Intercontinental's dim, cramped rooms it was possible to find a bit of light that was flattering if not exactly bright. It's possible that I was feeling pressure to just get it over with and start shooting without moving my subject from the spot where she'd just finished her interview with Chris, the writer for the paper. But I have to admit that I didn't have much motivation; the risk of being known as particular or difficult was to avoided in the frenzy of film festival press schedules, and ultimately I knew that a clear, sharp, simple head shot was all the paper needed for its tight layouts, and that whatever I was shooting probably wouldn't run much larger than a single column.

As for my subject, Zhang Ziyi was at the start of a career that's seen her hopscotch back and forth across the Pacific, working with some of the biggest directors and stars in Asia - John Woo,Wong Kar-Wai, Seijun Suzuki, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung - while taking leading roles in Hollywood films like The Horseman and Memoirs of a Geisha. She recently appeared in The Cloverfield Paradox and is featured in the upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

She's probably one of the public faces of an international cinema market that came into being after the late '90s renaissance of Chinese film developed an audience here, and Hollywood began looking to focus on its markets in Asia as primary ones, key to their ultimate box office numbers and not just a dividend to be collected later. As such, I wish I'd tried a bit harder to get a better portrait of her, but I obviously couldn't summon either the foresight or audacity.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou, Toronto, Sept. 2004

IN 2004 I RETURNED TO SHOOTING PORTRAITS AT THE FILM FESTIVAL. Technically it had been three years since my last festival, but really it was more like four - the results of my first weekend's shoots at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival had been lost when the Kodak/Nikon digital camera on which I'd shot them had been corrupted, and the rest of the festival was a write-off after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington that happened the following Tuesday morning.

The free daily sent me to cover the festival with Chris Atchison, a young writer recently hired at the paper. We did an enormous amount of work at TIFF that year, including the five portraits featured this week on the blog, all of which were shot in one day - Sept. 11, 2004, precisely three years since my hiatus from festival shooting began. Among our subjects was Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who was in town promoting House of Flying Daggers, the director's second martial arts epic after Hero, released the previous year.

Zhang Yimou, Toronto, Sept. 2004

I knew Yimou from his earlier films, like Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern - historical films set in pre-Communist China that had been huge hits at film festivals like TIFF. I knew he had a taste for the epic, and that he liked stories with bitter, tragic endings. I also knew that he had arrived at his profession in circumstances that would be unimaginable outside of a place like China.

Yimou was nearly thirty when he pleaded to be accepted into a film school reopening after the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution. He lacked the necessary qualifications, having left school to work as a farm labourer and mill worker when intellectuals, professionals and their children were forced out of the cities by the regime and the Red Guards. He sold blood to buy his first camera, and used the photos he took with it to make his case for a spot at the Beijing Film School.

Zhang Yimou, Toronto, Sept. 2004

I had this story somewhere in my mind when I met Zhang in a room at the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor Street, which had become the main festival hotel. Unlike the Four Seasons around the corner with its big windows, the rooms in the Intercontinental are dim and the small windows look out either onto a courtyard or face north onto a parking lot. I had to find my sweet spot of light carefully there - or find a way to work around the lack of light.

I obviously found that spot with Zhang, and just enough light to get a dozen or so relatively sharp frames. It's unlikely that the shots I handed in to the paper looked anything like these ones; I never would have processed anything in black and white, and shooting for newsprint obliged me to emphasize highlights over shadows and boost colour saturation. I suppose that's why I never really discovered how good this shoot actually was until I dug out these files last week and tailored them to look much more like my idea of the sort of portrait Zhang's story seemed to dictate.

I definitely never would have handed in the shot of him with his eyes closed. I don't know why I like to take portraits of people with their eyes closed. Maybe it's a way of letting their facial features reveal their character instead of the notional confrontation of the viewer staring into a subject's eyes, which obliges our instinctive human reading of their mental health and sincerity. Or maybe I like to create the illusion that I've captured them in a private moment of reverie or contemplation. One day I should try and figure that out.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Holga 2

Lunenberg, NS, Summer 2003

MY HOLGA PLASTIC CAMERA SAT ON A SHELF FOR THREE YEARS. As much as it had pointed me in a new direction just when I needed inspiration, life had not been so generous. I guess I needed a bit more than inspiration, because those three years were full of changes, not all of them positive. The worst was that no one wanted to hire me to take photos any more.

Ten years earlier I had been an emotional wreck, but I had plenty of work, and that doubtless helped me get through what I can only describe as a five year depression. At the beginning of the new millennium, I became a husband and a father but could no longer describe myself as a working photographer. With no one but myself as a client and an audience, I took the Holga down from the shelf again.

Brockton, Toronto, 2003
Junction, Toronto, 2003

I've always looked to photography's old masters for inspiration, and in 2003 it was Eugene Atget, the photographer who documented a Paris that was being modernized out of existence. Not coincidentally, he worked in obscurity for almost all of his life, and achieved recognition after his death. I figured that since nobody wanted to hire me any more, I was free to take the photos I never had the time to make.

I have lived in Toronto my whole life, and my family's been here since World War One. Except for two brief periods, I have always lived in the west end of the city, within walking distance of the lake, High Park or the old Grand Trunk train lines. The city I grew up in, much like the one Atget set out to document, was changing rapidly, and I wanted to fix my own memories of the place while I could, and that mostly meant the alleyways that run behind the streets and the industrial districts bordering the rail lines.

High Park, Toronto, 2003

The only place I couldn't imagine changing was High Park, probably the biggest green space I ever saw as a kid, and one where I was taking my own kids almost weekly. It was the best part of the city I knew intimately, and the Holga captured it like I saw it in my mind - dreamlike and timeless, like a memory's flawed snapshot.

I also took the Holga with me on a summer trip to visit my wife's family in Nova Scotia, and her grandmother's cottage on the Bay of Fundy. This was a landscape I didn't know from either my childhood or my memories, so it felt much stranger to me when I framed it in the Holga's ad hoc viewfinder.

Harbourville, NS, Summer 2003

I had a lot of pent-up creativity the year when I took these pictures, which wasn't getting much of an outlet while I sat a desk at the free daily processing other people's photos. After using Nikons and Rolleis, Bronicas and Canons for so long, the Holga became my main camera for a year, and pretty nearly my sole outlet for whatever images I wanted to make, though I doubt if many of these shots ever made it off a contact sheet.

Finally, as the year ended, I was sent on a strange, unexpected press trip to cover a mining fair in Peru, and brought the Holga along in my bag, along with what would end up being my last film SLR. (More on that later.) In a place so far from either Toronto or Harbourville, the Holga was the perfect camera to seize on what I was seeing - truly alien landscapes to my eye, ancient and overwhelming.

Macchu Picchu, Peru, 2003
Cusco, Peru, 2003

As simple as a snapshot camera, the Holga produced images that looked like hundred year old plates from a bellows camera. That timeless quality felt more like something I found than a job I'd sketched in a notebook and created using tools and technology it took years to master. In the final years of film, with a new technology about to overwhelm that old chemical process, I rediscovered the magical quality of photographic imagery that makes it far more than just a visual transcription of a scene. A cheap plastic camera made image making fun again at a point where I didn't imagine it would ever be more than a hobby.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


Holy Family Church, Toronto, 2000

IN THE SUMMER OF 1997, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH A FEW BLOCKS FROM MY PARKDALE LOFT BURNED DOWN. I was not a churchgoer, so it didn't really register with me except as something to rubberneck for the months when the charred remains of the building were on view, and during the subsequent demolition. To be honest, I had a lot going on in my life at the time, including some big changes in my business and the early stages of a new relationship with the woman who would later become my wife.

I didn't think about what was going on with Holy Family until reconstruction began two years later. It's not often you see a new church being built, and I was curious about what form it would take as a tall steel frame quickly took shape over the newly excavated basement. My fear that some sort of ugly modern "worship venue" would replace the homely old 1902 building was allayed as the new building began to take the form of what looked like a basilica. (Even as a lapsed Catholic - or perhaps because of it - I was an awful snob about church architecture.)

Holy Family Church, Toronto, 2000

I don't know when I became fascinated with the process of creating a new house of worship, but I somehow managed to get access to the interior of the new Holy Family while I was working on a story about iconic Toronto architecture for eye weekly. I took less than a dozen frames of the interior of the church at the end of a roll, shooting the apse without its altar or tabernacle, with a ladder propped - significantly, I thought - against the wall where a crucifix would soon be hung.

I came back home with an idea to write and illustrate a story about the consecration of a new church, hoping to sell it as a story about a unique kind of space in a city full of construction cranes and redevelopment. I contacted the Fathers of the Oratory, who were in charge of Holy Family and the seminary attached to the building, and got permission to come back again, where I took another roll of the progress that had been made. The crucifix had been hung behind the new wrought iron screen and the unfinished base of the unconsecrated altar, and the organ was being assembled in the choir loft.

Holy Family Church, Toronto, 2000

I interviewed the architect, who told me that he had based his design on the Church of the Gesu in Rome, and several of the workmen, who stunned me by saying that they looked at what they were doing there much like any other job. I found it hard to believe; even in my lapsed state, I imagined something inherently spiritual in the creation of a sacred space, even if it was being put together with the most modern of materials - structural steel, engineered concrete and prefab components like the cupola, slotted into space on the roof like a building kit.

At the end of my shoot I had a nice chat with Fr. Dan, one of the Oratorians, then came home, where my girlfriend quizzed me earnestly about what had happened down at the building site. She seemed unusually curious about it all, and said she'd like to go talk to one of the Fathers; I told her that Fr. Dan seemed nice enough, so she made an appointment to see him within a couple of days. It would turn out to be life changing, for both of us.

I never wrote my piece about the rebuilding of Holy Family; my own curiosity had made me overlook the indifference, even hostility, to commissioning stories about religion at any of the small number of magazines or newspapers in the city. My girlfriend's chat with Fr. Dan, however, drew her back into the Church after years away, and pulled me back in her wake. A year later we'd be married - in Latin - by Fr. Dan at Holy Family, and three years later our first daughter would be baptized there.

Monday, April 9, 2018


Joe Bowie, Toronto, 1988

THE DEATH LAST WEEK OF PIANIST CECIL TAYLOR GOT ME THINKING ABOUT discovering jazz, back when artists like Taylor were still regulars at jazz festivals. Digging through my negative files, I found my shots of Taylor's solo concert at the DuMaurier Jazz Festival - just a few frames at the beginning of a roll, taken on a sweltering summer evening in an intimate, recently opened theatre built out of a former ice house by the lake.

The shutter on my Spotmatic rang out like a gun cocking in the darkened space, attracting dirty looks from audience members. I only barely knew what I was doing, so I'm still amazed my film caught Taylor's shirt sticking to his back in the heat, and the thumb of his outstretched hand targeting a single key of the piano. I had only just discovered the music after several false starts, and I could only barely understand what Taylor was doing, but I was enthralled with all these wild, unpredictable new sounds and intent on capturing as much as I could with my camera.

James Blood Ulmer, Toronto, 1986
Cecil Taylor, Toronto, 1987

I got into jazz in a roundabout way, starting with Charlie Christian's sessions with Benny Goodman's small groups as a teenager, and then the funk-influenced, punk-approved post-Ornette Coleman records of Joe Bowie's Defunkt and James Blood Ulmer. I photographed Ulmer at a mini festival held in a Queen West club like I was shooting a punk band, all harsh flash and kinetic blur slammed together.

Working from recommendations made by my friend Tim Powis and each month's new issue of The Wire, I began listening to a lot of the more challenging artists touring and recording at the time, veterans of R&B groups and free jazz and the New York loft scene. At the same time I tried to play catch up with all of the music that had come before that when artists like Jimmy Smith or Lee Konitz or Clifford Jordan or Dizzy Gillespie would pass through town. I almost always brought along my camera.

Hamiet Bluiett, World Saxophone Quartet, Toronto, 1987
Charlie Haden, Toronto, 1987
Jimmy Smith, Toronto, 1987

It's hard to believe, but the old arguments about "traditional versus avant garde" were still being fought over then, even while the veterans of the free improvisation movements of the '60s were becoming as established and venerable as the musicians who'd made their name playing bop after the collapse of the big bands in the '50s. Sometimes those arguments would be embodied in a single musician like Archie Shepp, who had traded in his dashiki for a tailored suit to play blues, spirituals, ballads and standards.

Archie Shepp & Horace Parlan, Toronto, 1988
Lee Konitz, Toronto, 1989
Abdullah Ibrahim, Toronto, 1990
Oliver Jones, Toronto, 1988
Miles Davis, Toronto, 1990

This was the last long moment when jazz musicians got signed to major labels and jazz concerts were reviewed in daily newspapers. It was serious music, taken seriously, and every major city worth its tourism bureau had a jazz festival sponsored by a major corporation, featuring actual jazz artists and not blues groups, aging pop singers or oddball rock acts. I might have missed the last tours by giants like Ellington and Basie, but there were still legends around, though they could be as inaccessible as rock stars.

I had my obligatory Miles Davis experience, on the trumpeter's last tour before his death. Waiting with the other photographers backstage at Massey Hall to be ushered out to shoot our half song, I heard Richard Flohill, the promoter, warn us that we'd better put on our long lens. I knew what he meant, and as soon as we were in front of the stage Miles retreated to the back, to hide behind the guitarist with his trumpet or stab at a rack of keyboards to puzzling effect. Miles hated the media, and hated making our jobs easier.

Joey Baron, Bill Frisell Quartet, Toronto, 1988
Bobby Previte, NYC, 1990
Ronald Shannon Jackson, Toronto, 1989

Shooting live jazz was never easy - the light was invariably dim, vantage points hard to find, and audience members predictably hostile to a photographer blocking their view or competing with the music with their shutter. (After the Ulmer experiments, I never shot with a flash, knowing how most musicians hated having their concentration shattered with the bursts of light.)

The biggest challenge of all was shooting a drummer - they were at the back of the stage, often in the poorest light, and moving constantly. With Claude Ranger, I worked around this by bringing my own lights and shooting him at a soundcheck. The rest of the time I had to work at the edge of acceptable film speeds and my own competence as a printer to get decent shots of drummers. Some of these shots have only become worth seeing today, with three decades of experience and the wizardry of Photoshop.

Sun Ra Arkestra, Toronto, 1987
Craig Harris, Toronto, 1989
Randy Weston, Toronto, 1989
David Murray, Toronto, 1988

I was on the steep side of a learning curve when I took these photos, both as a photographer and a jazz fan, and every new show was a challenge for my ears and my eyes. I like to think that some of that excitement and energy comes through in these photos, most shot thirty years ago or more, at the last moment when jazz had a place somewhere adjacent to the mainstream of the culture, where it could riff on what was happening there and have its running commentary heard.

Several of these photos ended up on the wall of a gallery - my first group show, organized by the late Paul Hoeffler for the 1988 jazz festival. It was an encouraging moment, and might have had something to do with my decision to pursue photography as a career. I gradually stopped shooting jazz shows, however, preferring to try and get portraits of musicians and not hunching around on the floor annoying other patrons instead of enjoying the show.

It was a long time ago, or at least it seems so today. Looking back, I caught many of these people either during their last stretch of robust personal and artistic health, or not long before they were gone. A deep breath, and here we go...

Cecil Taylor died in Brooklyn on April 5, 2018. Charlie Haden died in Los Angeles on July 11, 2014. Jimmy Smith died in Scottsdale, AZ on February 8, 2005. Horace Parlan died in Korsør, Denmark on February 23, 2017. Ronald Shannon Jackson died in Ft. Worth, TX on October 19, 2013. Miles Davis died in Santa Monica, CA on September 28, 1991. Sun Ra (aka Herman Blount) died in Birmingham, AL on May 30, 1993.