Monday, May 7, 2018

Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe, Toronto, Dec. 2004

AT THE END OF 2004, AFTER NEARLY A FULL YEAR BACK AT PORTRAIT SHOOTING, I was offered a chance at a subject who had always been on my "list." Tom Wolfe had a new book out, and at probably the last moment when daily newspapers felt an obligation to cover literary stories, I was assigned to interview and photograph one of my favorite writers.

Looking back, I wish I had chosen to just do the shoot, but nearly everyone at the free daily was doing at least double duty. At the time, in addition to being the paper's principal photographer, I was writing a daily TV column along with book, movie and DVD reviews and features. The next year would add TV recaps to that list; the following year added tech columns and restaurant reviews. I remember once telling a good friend who worked at the Globe & Mail how much work I was doing. He told me he had people working for him who made twice what I did for handing in less in a month than I wrote in a week.

Tom Wolfe, Toronto, Dec. 2004

Wolfe was in town promoting I Am Charlotte Simmons, a novel about the chaotic sexual politics of college students at a prestigious American college that feels very dated from the perspective of 2018. History - and society - have moved as quickly from that moment as from the world of single sex dorms and chaperoned dances that Wolfe recalled from his own college days. In my interview with him, Wolfe observed the uneasy sexual climate on campuses that would lead to safe spaces, mandatory consent, self-identified gender and #MeToo:
“The thing with coed dorms,” Wolfe says, “is that anyone can enter these dorms, any time of the day or night. It makes things enormously easier on the one hand, in that there's always a bed available, and it puts unnatural pressure on the women on the other hand, because they don't really have a neutral, easy way out ... And there are many young men and women in colleges today who really don't want to enter into four years of orgy.”
Don't get me wrong - it was a privilege to interview the man who wrote Radical Chic, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and The Right Stuff. Wolfe was a giant of the New Journalism, and if forced to choose between him and his compatriot and competitor, Hunter S. Thompson, I firmly come down on the side of Wolfe. On the other hand, if I'd let someone else do the writing, I might have been able to concentrate a bit more on getting the best possible portrait of someone I never imagined I'd photograph.

Tom Wolfe, Toronto, Dec. 2004

I did the interview and shoot at the Windsor Arms, a venerable old hotel that had recently been torn down and rebuilt so that it looked the same on the outside while the interior was completely updated to the standards of what we would call a boutique hotel today. As nice as it was, the rooms were relatively small and dark, and as soon as I pressed "stop" on my tape recorder, I had seconds to figure out how to light my portrait of Wolfe.

I ended up taking the shades off some table lamps and placing them on the floor by the entrance to the suite's bedroom, a trick I'd tried a few years earlier. There weren't any neutral backdrops, so I figured that posing Wolfe in a bedroom would be appropriate to a story about sexual mores. In the back of my mind, I knew that my Canon digital SLR wasn't stellar at finding an optimal white balance, and that Wolfe's trademark white suit would present no shortage of problems. (Handing in a selection of black and white images simply wasn't an option.)

Today, presented with an opportunity to shoot someone like Wolfe, I'd bring my own lighting and backdrop, forcing my subject into a context where I had that much more control. Back then, I was on the back foot from the start, overawed by my sitter and overcome with a lack of technical confidence that was inevitable after my long lay-off from portrait shooting. It has taken a lot of work to get these frames to looking merely presentable.

On the other hand, there is something more than a little unsettling about these photos. Imagine: You return to your hotel after a long day of work and a bit too much socializing. You find the right room and sigh with relief when your key card works in the lock. You toss the key card on the credenza with the minibar and throw your coat on the suitcase open on its metal stand and note that housekeeping has tidied up and lowered the lighting in the room.

Suddenly, you catch a flash of white on the edge of the bed reflected in a mirror and hear a genteel, Southern-inflected voice call out, "I was wondering when you'd finally make it back..."

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