Friday, June 29, 2018

Emilio Estevez

Emilio Estevez, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2006

THE HARDEST PART OF TAKING PHOTOS OF EMILIO ESTEVEZ WAS NOT TALKING ABOUT REPO MAN. He looked tense - not surprisingly, since making Bobby, the film he was at the festival to promote, would almost bankrupt him. It showed on his face, and in his body language, and it seemed a very bad time to bring up how much I loved his breakthrough role twenty-two years earlier as Otto, the punk who teams up with Harry Dean Stanton to repossess cars.

It was an important film during the listless, halcyon summer just after I'd dropped out of college, alongside Apocalypse Now, which (probably not coincidentally) starred Estevez' father, Martin Sheen. I've lost track of how many times I watched both films that year - often high when I did. When I wasn't watching Estevez and Stanton trade what seemed like classic dialogue ("Look at those people over there. Ordinary fucking assholes. I hate 'em"), I was listening to the soundtrack album, full of L.A. punk and hardcore. I would have loved to have talked about all of this with Estevez, but I could tell in my gut that it really wasn't the right time.

Emilio Estevez, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2006

With all my personal history about Estevez, I'm sure I entered the room with a few ideas of what I'd like him to do, but they all got thrown away as soon as I picked up on my subject's mood - not unfriendly, but definitely nothing like playful or open to suggestion. It was probably for the best - the style I was slowly working towards during my time at the free daily was very stark and formal, and while I would have loved to make at least a few feints in another direction, it felt like the appropriate approach to take with Estevez.

These are not portraits of a relaxed man. I guess that makes them honest, but I certainly didn't have to try hard to capture my subject's mood. While Bobby didn't end up making back its budget, Estevez has continued to write and direct, and recently worked with his father again on The Way, a film about a man dealing with the death of his son (psychoanalyze that in the light of Sheen's relationship with his other son, Charlie Sheen) by walking the Camino de Santiago, the Catholic pilgrimage route through France and Spain. It's not a bad film, with an unfashionably serious view on spiritual redemption, and if I photographed Estevez today, it might have made for a better icebreaker than my drug-addled memories of Repo Man.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Joshua Jackson

Joshua Jackson, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2006

THE FILM THAT BROUGHT JOSHUA JACKSON TO THE FILM FESTIVAL is only twelve years old, but it's already a snapshot of another time. Bobby was a star-studded ensemble picture about the day that Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, directed by Emilio Estevez (more of him tomorrow) and starring Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Helen Hunt, Laurence Fishburne, Lindsay Lohan, Elijah Wood, Shia LaBoeuf, William H. Macy (another future post), Anthony Hopkins, Sharon Stone, Harry Belafonte, Heather Graham, Christian Slater, Estevez' father, Martin Sheen - and Joshua Jackson, Canadian-born and exactly the sort of local-boy-made-good that the film festival loves to host.

The film was produced by Harvey Weinstein, and was only the latest in a long line of Kennedy hagiographies that Hollywood seemed contractually obliged to produce - at least until Chappaquiddick came out this year. Of all the Kennedys, RFK's reputation is the least tarnished by time, but the film wasn't a success, either critically or at the box office. Kennedy fatigue is palpable now, but it seems like it might have been building for at least a decade.

Joshua Jackson, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2006

Jackson was a celebrity, but I knew almost nothing about him - five years on a hit TV show will make your reputation, but it was still possible in 2006 for a pop culture refusenik like myself to live in passive indifference, even to a multiple nominee of the Teen Choice Awards.

Yes, I'm being irreverent, mostly to avoid saying that I don't remember much about this shoot - not even where it was shot (though I suspect it was the Intercontinental on Bloor.) The metadata on the jpegs I shot that morning tell me this was done bright and early, so Jackson might have been fresh, at the start of a press day. I did what I knew worked and got in tight with my 35mm lens; it delivered one good head shot and another decent candid frame of Jackson, likely talking to a publicist or Chris, the writer. That sort of thing usually doesn't work, but there's enough intensity in his expression here to make it worthwhile.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

John Cameron Mitchell

John Cameron Mitchell, Toronto, Sept. 13, 2006

YOU WOULDN'T KNOW FROM THESE VERY SIMPLE, EVEN FORMAL PORTRAITS just how outrageous Shortbus was - the movie that the subject was at the festival promoting. Maybe that's for the better - I'm not sure what I could have done in two minutes to tease that director John Cameron Mitchell's film contained a scene where a man sings the American national anthem into another man's asshole. And I'm not sure if that was the most outrageous scene.

Mitchell, an actor and writer in addition to being a director - had made his name with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a film about an East German post-op transsexual touring America with her punk band seeking revenge against the rock star who stole her songs. It's a bit Warholian and a bit Rocky Horror and has a cult following, which includes one of my most adamantly conservative friends. Which just goes to show that, in the end, the persistence of personal taste makes us all individuals, united against everyone else.

These portraits of Mitchell are pretty much where my work in the digital era finally started to coalesce around something like a new personal style - albeit one dictated by the brute circumstances under which I'd been working. It's simple and (often) symmetrical and all about the subject staring down me and my lens in the brief moment we had to make a portrait.

John Cameron Mitchell, Toronto, Sept. 13, 2006

The rooms are dark and so are the pictures - although I doubtless tried to lighten up the versions I sent into the free daily, since newsprint hates shadows. Which means that the photos that I'm posting now, over a decade since they were shot, are being seen as I imagined them for the first time ever. I'm making some kind of point about delayed gratification, which is suitable, I suppose, when talking about a film featuring a character desperate to have their first orgasm.

In my capacity as DVD columnist at the free daily, I ended up reviewing Shortbus when it came out on disc. I dug up the review the other day, and ended up quite liking this sentence:
Almost everybody ends up doing someone else during the course of the film, in varying combinations, but as John Cameron Mitchell’s film wears on, it becomes obvious that no amount of sex will cure their problems, and a thick sadness starts to saturate what started out as a gleefully outrageous tale, complete with a snide transvestite, a surly dominatrix, and a dim but beautiful male model.
The really funny thing is that my review reads as far less prudish and put off than the one that ran in the Guardian around the same time, where reviewer Philip French quotes Bertrand Russell's cringing dismissal of D.H. Lawrence's celebratory sequence of poems about his sexual liberation. Which seems noteworthy when you remember that I'm supposed to have a reputation as a social conservative. Once again, taste is what makes us individuals, not ideology.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Ellen Burstyn

Ellen Burstyn, Toronto, Sept. 12, 2007

ELLEN BURSTYN'S CAREER BEGAN IN TV IN THE LATE '50S but it wasn't until the early '70s and the "Raging Bulls" era of Hollywood that she became a star. She had major supporting roles in films like The Last Picture Show and The King of Marvin Gardens before getting an Oscar nomination for The Exorcist and winning for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

Just typing the names of those pictures sends me back to the early '70s, when they were the sorts of movies people talked about before bowdlerized versions might make it to TV years later, where they'd play in the late evening slot when kids were supposed to be in bed. They were very adult films, and Burstyn was a very adult actress, playing moms, widows and former beauty queens losing their grip.

Ellen Burstyn, Toronto, Sept. 12, 2006

I photographed Burstyn twice, exactly a year apart, at the film festival. I'm not sure what she was promoting the first time; she had roles in four films in 2006, including Darren Aranofsky's The Fountain and the (now-)camp classic remake of The Wicker Man. I'm certain, however, that she was in Toronto doing press for a movie version of Margaret Laurence's novel The Stone Angel in 2007.

For both shoots, I focused on Burstyn making a gesture - running her hand through her hair the first time, then putting her chin in her hand the following year. I'm sure the 2006 shoot was at the old Four Seasons in Yorkville, while the following year's photos were shot around the corner at the Intercontinental.

I've had very few brushes with Golden Age Hollywood apart from my strange afternoon with Mickey Rooney back in the '90s, so actors like Burstyn are the closest I've come, and it's hard to deny that she brings very palpable presence to these photos. The light is much better the second time around, and my camera more direct in its address of Burstyn, so they have an intensity that the first shots lack.

It was shoots like this that got me to slowly realize that, while I might have missed the chance to shoot a lot of major personalities in their prime, there was something rewarding about capturing them later, when they have earned the ability to look down a lens with candour.

Ellen Burstyn, Toronto, Sept. 12, 2007

Monday, June 25, 2018

Tim Robbins

Tim Robbins, Sept. 12, 2006

FIRST, LET ME SAY THAT I DIDN'T ASK TIM ROBBINS TO PUT ON THE TINTED SHADES, and I don't think I asked him to take them off. I give very few directions during a portrait shoot, and I know I would never discourage anyone from adding such a colourful - and unusual - accessory to a shot.

You know you're getting old when you watch an actor go from playing the callow youth (Nuke in Bull Durham) to the authority figure (Senator Hammond in Green Lantern.) Robbins' career has spanned most of my own, which had occasionally involved writing about movies, and while I've never regarded him as a peer, I've certainly regarded his work as up front in the cultural narrative I've been following as more than a spectator, starting with Robbins' role in Robert Altman's The Player.

Tim Robbins, Sept. 12, 2006

Robbins is an actor who likes to play the heavy, and he was at the film festival for Catch A Fire, playing a police torturer in apartheid South Africa. (I've never seen the film but I don't envy any actor trying to do a role with a South African accent - it's one of the hardest to nail.) While I certainly don't share his politics, I have a lot of respect for his choice of roles and apparent unwillingness to relax into an onscreen persona.

Perhaps this is why I felt more relaxed than I usually do when I photograph a big name, and once I found the nice light in the press suite at the old Four Seasons (usually an easy job) I took got up close and let my camera study Robbins' face. As I said before, my directions were minimal - little more than "look at me" and "look away." I might have asked him to close his eyes, but that's not usually something I tell people to do unless I think I've gotten what I want and think I can afford to "waste" a frame. (Nobody - and certainly not mass market newsprint like the free daily - prints portraits of celebrities with their eyes closed. That's just my little obsession.)

Tim Robbins, Sept. 12, 2006

Friday, June 22, 2018

Zach Braff

Zach Braff, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

WHILE RESEARCHING THIS POST, I LEARNED THAT ZACH BRAFF HAS OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER. This is not the sort of information about a living celebrity that would have been anywhere in their biography when I was a boy; I am not certain, in fact, that I would have known what OCD was before I was in my thirties. Knowing it now, however, makes me retroactively apply the information to my (scant) memory of this shoot.

Braff was nervous. I don't know why - it was the end of a press day and I can't have been his only photo shoot and, besides, Scrubs had made him a star five years earlier and he should have been at least a bit at ease in front of cameras by then. But he wasn't. His immediate urge was to mug, but I'd had enough of that at the festival by that point, so I did my best to try and channel his urge to make faces into something a little more focused.

Zach Braff, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

The light was terrible. I'm not even sure there was a daylight window in the room where I was shooting; the colour files are certainly a mess for colour temperature, which - now, years after I took these photos, and with much more experience in Photoshop than I had at the time - means abandoning realistic colour and playing with the sliders until something interesting happens. Or converting to black and white.

Braff was at the festival to promote The Last Kiss, a film he'd co-written (with Paul Haggis) in addition to starring in, alongside Rachel Bilson and Jacinda Barrett. Braff's career is full of multiple credits on films, writing, directing and producing in addition to acting. (He even produced the soundtrack compilation of his film Garden State a couple of years previously.) I imagine that being OCD would probably be an advantage for someone exercising that much control over a project, but this is a level of psychoanalyzing that I'm only tempted to do with shoots like this, where I never really clicked with my subject.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


Summer (after Hoyningen-Huene), Parkdale, 1994

TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF SUMMER. With that in mind, I'm posting this photo, which I scanned ages ago and have been waiting - and forgetting - to post when the time was right. With the end of this blog in sight, it feels like it's now or never.

I shot this for the cover of NOW magazine's annual Hot Summer Guide, the year after I'd taken over the whole of my Parkdale loft and had a dedicated, full-time studio space. This was precisely the sort of work I'd always dreamed of doing, and when Irene, NOW's photo editor, assigned me the job, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

I'd had this iconic George Hoyningen-Huene photo bookmarked for years, and I'd studied it constantly. What I did know was that it wasn't shot on the terrace of a hotel on the Riviera, but on a balustrade on the roof of Vogue magazine's Paris offices, with the photographer's protege (and lover) Horst P. Horst and a model wearing Izod bathing suits.

Divers, George Hoyningen-Huene, 1930

My challenge was shooting it in the studio, and not in the full sunlight that Hoyningen-Huene had used. I decided to take a few liberties and update the photo to somewhere in postwar North America - my favorite time and place - and shoot it with cross-processed colour slide film. I rented my favorite clouds and sky backdrop from Vistek and went shopping for old pop bottles and did a few tests until I was sure I'd nailed the light.

For models I chose the best-looking couple I knew at the time - Sloan drummer Andrew Scott and his girlfriend (later wife), actress Fiona Highet, two recent transplants to Toronto from Halifax. Fiona had a suitable vintage bathing suit, they understood exactly what I was trying to accomplish and took their places on my old weathered barn board table top perfectly. After a coupe of Polaroids and a roll of film I knew I'd nailed the shot to the best of my current ability. (In retrospect, I wish I'd taken a roll of black and white.)

Unfortunately, I decided to take a couple of extra setups just in case - prudence always being as much a vice as a virtue with me. They were much more "fun" and conventional, and I don't think anyone who's worked as a magazine photographer will be surprised that, in the end, the paper went with one of the "just in case" shots instead of my meticulously planned homage to Hoyningen-Huene.

THAT is a mistake I will never make again.

Fred Willard

Fred Willard, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

LIKE BOB BALABAN, WHO I PHOTOGRAPHED EARLIER THE SAME DAY, I have probably been watching Fred Willard in something all my life. As with Balaban, he was doing bit parts on shows like Get Smart, The Bob Newhart Show and Laverne & Shirley when I was a TV addicted pre-teen, before he came upon his avuncular but slightly addled onscreen persona on Fernwood 2-Nite as Jerry Hubbard - Ed McMahon to Martin Mull's Johnny Carson.

Like Balaban, he was at the festival to promote Christopher Guest's latest ensemble comedy, For Your Consideration. (I also did portraits of Jane Lynch the same day but, alas, they aren't worth sharing here, which is a regret.) I remember all of the talent from Guest's film being somewhat bemused by the ritual of press days, but none more than Willard.

Fred Willard, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

There's a smirk on Willard's face in nearly every frame I shot that day. It's one of the challenges of shooting comedians, which usually begins with their urge (I think some regard it as an obligation) to mug for the camera - "playing the clown" is often a full-time job, and it sometimes requires some magic combination of words or an intervention to head it off. Clearly, I had neither the time nor the words to do it with Willard.

Fred Willard is still as ubiquitous on the big and small screen as ever. He has the unusual distinction of playing one of the few live action roles ever in a Pixar movie when he was cast as the head of the Buy-N-Large corporation in WALL-E - the sort of glibly untrustworthy authority figure that he's made his specialty, and since authority of all kinds hasn't made itself any more trustworthy in the decade-plus since I took these photos, I don't imagine Willard will ever have a shortage of work.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Jacinda Barrett

Jacinda Barrett, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

IT WAS A BUSY MONDAY, AND IN MY MEMORY IT WAS BARELY A MINUTE after Rachel Bilson had left the hotel room before Jacinda Barrett walked in and introduced herself. Chris, the writer, and I must have visibly reacted because the first words out of her mouth were:

"Yeah, I know - tall, right?"

Indeed, she was tall where Bilson had been tiny - an Australian and a former model who had become famous as part of the cast of MTV's Real World: London ten years previous and turned that into a springboard for a movie career. There had been a few small films and a couple of slasher pics before she landed a prestige role supporting Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman in the movie adaptation of Philip Roth's The Human Stain.

Jacinda Barrett, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

That was followed by the Bridget Jones sequel and Wolfgang Petersen's remake of The Poseidon Adventure before the film that brought her to Toronto on this day - a remake of an Italian romantic comedy directed by her co-star Zach Braff, with Bilson making up the third leg of a triangle. Since I was already in place to take a photo, it was a simple matter of having Barrett step into the spot where Bilson had just stood for a quick portrait shoot.

Her model's training made Barrett even more at ease in front of the camera, and it didn't take much to coax a little performance from her. It was one of those shoots that you knew had worked before it was over. Neither of the shots above would have looked like this when I handed them into the free daily; I would have been asked what was wrong with my camera if the top shot had such a warm ochre cast, and there was no way I could have submitted anything in black and white.

Bilson has continued to have a career in movies and on TV, where she recently had the lead role in Bloodline, a Netflix series. She also played a recurring character in Suits, alongside her husband Gabriel Macht, which burnished her celebrity status by putting the couple on the guest list for the recent royal wedding.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Rachel Bilson

Rachel Bilson, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

I HAD NEVER BEEN CLOSER TO MAINSTREAM ENTERTAINMENT CULTURE IN MY CAREER than in my years at the free daily. I was not - still am not - a very mainstream person by taste or inclination, so I often needed someone to explain to me just why the person I was about to photograph was a big deal. For that, I relied either on Tina, the paper's entertainment editor, or Chris, the writer with whom I worked for much of my time at the free daily.

I had heard of Rachel Bilson while writing the daily TV column for the paper, but since the vehicle that made her famous was a prime time soap, I had never seen an episode and had no idea what she looked like. The young woman who walked into the hotel room at the Intercontinental where I did this shoot was best described as pixie-like - tiny, and with huge eyes only slightly emphasized by the makeup person in close attendance.

Rachel Bilson, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

As I've written here before, it's hardly a challenge to get a decent photo out of a photogenic person - someone whose livelihood, in fact, springs from their camera-friendly appearance - who is years past sitting down in front of a photographer and apologizing for feeling awkward. Bilson - whose family worked in the movie industry, and whose Los Angeles high school classmates included Kirsten Dunst and Remi Malek - had likely never been at liberty to use that excuse.

Looking at these photos from over a decade's remove - during which Ms. Bilson has starred in her own series, had a child, ended a relationship with another big name actor and prepared to debut another TV series - I can't help but think that my photos of Rachel Bilson are slightly anthropological in nature.

This young woman was very much a creature of Hollywood, and my portraits of her aren't dissimilar to pictures I might have taken of some rare, semi-tame but wholly exotic subject. She probably wouldn't have been put in front of a photographer without wardrobe, a stylist and a small team of handlers to approve setups, but she was at a film festival promoting her first starring role in a movie, so the usual apparatus had been put away for the moment, in the interest of propagating publicity.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Bob Balaban

Bob Balaban, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

THE FIRST FILM I REMEMBER SEEING BOB BALABAN WAS CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, but I'd probably caught him in episodes of TV shows like Room 222, Maude, The Mod Squad or Love, American Style, back when I was a kid who watched way too much television. By the time he seemed to show up regularly in movies such as Altered States, 2010, Bob Roberts or Ghost World, he had become a comforting presence - "Hey - it's that guy," your mind would mutter.

Balaban's onscreen presence overlapped with another character actor, Wallace Shawn, as the nebbish, and occasionally the antagonist to the leading man. Like Shawn, Balaban's background taught him about power and celebrity - Shawn's father had been a longtime editor of The New Yorker, while Balaban came from a family of movie industry pioneers.

My theory is that their indelible presence onscreen, even in the briefest of roles, comes from being able to project an insider's knowledge - a confidence that they might not be the most formidable or charismatic character in the plot, but they know how things really work, and their opinions are ignored at the peril of the leading man or heroine. They were representatives of real world authority, embodied in unprepossessing men.

Bob Balaban, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2006

Balaban was at the film festival as part of the cast of For Your Consideration, his fourth appearance in the company of actors who helped Christopher Guest make his ensemble comedies, which  previously included Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. He's subsequently joined the regular troupe of actors who appear in Wes Anderson's movies - proof that Balaban is probably a reliable team player who inspires loyalty. Balaban's also worked as a director, writer and producer (Gosford Park) so that expression of quiet authority likely comes from knowing more about the whole process of moviemaking than most people on set at any time.

I like character actors, so I arrived for my shoot with Balaban with a few thoughts about the man already in place. This is probably why I didn't bother shooting an awful lot of frames of him, once I saw the self-contained, bemused look on his face through the viewfinder of my camera. He delivered the expression of the persona I'd already formulated about him almost immediately, and without the luxury of time to play with or push against that expression, I knew I had the basic minimum of what I needed for a portrait.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Jodie Whittaker

Jodie Whittaker, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

THE NEW DOCTOR WHO. To be fair, I couldn't have known this when I shot these portraits of Jodie Whittaker, a young English actress promoting her first role onscreen at the film festival. The show had only been revived a year earlier with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, and people were talking more about his northern accent than the possibility of a female Doctor.

Whittaker was just twenty-four when she arrived at the festival with Venus, and she couldn't have asked for a more noteworthy debut with Peter O'Toole as her co-star. I might have been a bit disappointed that I wouldn't get a chance to photograph O'Toole - he'd been on my "List" since I'd first come up with one, but I'm not sure if he even bothered making an appearance at the festival that year.

Jodie Whittaker, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

I didn't know anything about Jodie Whittaker when she walked into the press suite at the Intercontinental on Bloor, but I remember that she was tall and taking the whole film festival thing in her stride. If she reminded me of anyone, it was probably Cate Blanchett, when I'd photographed her at the film festival eight years previous, though Whittaker was far more confident in front of my camera.

Photographing someone like Whittaker is a challenge, since they don't arrive with any sort of persona you can work with or play against. You have to look them square in the eye and just let them react to you and the situation of being photographed. Jodie Whittaker held her ground remarkably well, at least according to what I see in these shots. A bit of time-traveling insight would have been useful, of course, as I'm sure I'd have had more ideas about photographing the Thirteenth Doctor.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Alejandro González Iñárritu

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

I USED TO SEE A LOT OF MOVIES. At some point in my twenties I went from enthusiastic moviegoer to cineaste, and the time I used to spend in clubs seeing bands shifted to cinemas, rep houses and video rentals. I've been paid to write about movies for almost as long as I've been taking photos professionally, so I've always had a lot of respect for movie directors, mostly because they have a job that I think I'd hate.

Filmmaking is a collaborative art - everybody knows that - but what that mostly means is that if you're really good and live with the certainty that you know what a movie should look like better than any producer, writer or actor, you're essentially at war with everyone you need to help you make that film. I have a lot of respect for directors who can maintain a personal vision - an aesthetic brand, the mark of the auteur - when they could just as easily choose compromise and have a journeyman career, for which they'd get paid just as well, and probably work more often.

They keep saying that the idea of the auteur is dead, but a handful of working directors still get tagged with the word - like Alejandro González Iñárritu. Part of a wave of visually distinctive directors that came out of Mexico in the '80s and '90s - his peers are Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro - he's made the shift to Hollywood without losing his identity, and along the way has won pretty much every award worth winning: Oscars, BAFTAs, Independent Spirits and Golden Globes, and awards from the DGA, AACTA, the AFI, the PGA and the National Board of Review, and from Venice, Cannes and Palm Springs.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

Iñárritu had made his breakthrough with Amores Perros, and was at the festival with Babel, his second Hollywood film after 21 Grams. He was a big deal, which meant that it was implicit that he didn't have much time for my photos. (Well, nobody ever did, really, but PR and handlers never seemed to tire of letting you know it.) I panicked when I realized that I was in one of the suites in the Intercontinental on Bloor without any usable windows, so I took a quick run around the suite (three small rooms, basically) and found a blank wall behind a door in a room where there seemed just enough light.

There is a level - don't ask me to tell you where it begins - where portrait photography might be about revealing something about your subject (or yourself. Or both.) But on the most basic level, a portrait shoot is much like this one, where you stand there and try to figure out what to do with a good-looking man wearing an expensive-looking grey crewneck sweater and a corduroy bucket hat. It's a matter of colour and texture and geometry, and with years of experience your mind immediately flips through a file of references and short cuts looking for somewhere to start.

The great thing about most photography that isn't advertising or high level editorial is that it isn't really collaborative; you're alone with a subject who, since they can't look at themselves through the viewfinder, doesn't really know what you're doing. You make some decisions based on instinct, like composing vertically with the rule of seconds, letting the texture of that nice sweater take up half your frame.

You make others based on an assumption of technical skill after the fact - like how am I going to balance the colour in this shot that I'm taking in a room with mixed light sources, most of which are hotel bulbs bouncing light all around the walls? A couple of days later, you're on deadline so you just hit the white balance button in Photoshop and let the software give you a rough approximation of proper skin tone. Twelve years later you say "fuck it" to correct skin tone and play with the CMY sliders till you get that burnished golden tone in the highlights you like so much right now. I often think it's a shame no one would ever hire me to teach photography, but then it occurs to me that it's probably not very useful to tell young people that the best creative decision you can make is likely to be "fuck it."

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Carrie-Anne Moss

Carrie-Anne Moss, Sept. 7, 2006

ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER FILM FESTIVAL. I'm not complaining - I wasn't then, either - since the film festival has always been pretty much the only week every year where I got to do as much portrait work as I wanted to the rest of the year. 2006 was even more busy than previous years, while the next year would be my busiest ever at the free daily. I wish I'd known at the time the opportunity I was being given.

My first subject was Carrie-Anne Moss, who'd rocketed to stardom with the Matrix films a few years earlier and was at the festival promoting either Fido or Snow Cake, or both. Moss was probably at the zenith of her career at the time - though she's kept working pretty consistently since then, even finding herself a place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe playing a recurring character across the franchise's TV series.

Carrie-Anne Moss, Sept. 7, 2006

I got access to names like Moss thanks to the free daily, and my editor Jodi's decision to make celebrity entertainment coverage a big part of its package. Previously, working for NOW magazine, I might have occasionally been assigned a movie star, but the emphasis was on art films and directors. Today, access to big names is far more restricted; I don't think publicists were ever enamoured with putting their talent in front of a random selection of photographers in the midst of a hectic press day, and with fewer big publications (but a lot more small, internet-based ones) they've rationed access like this to only the biggest.

For her part, Moss was a more than cooperative subject. Once I'd found my spot of light - easier to find now, after a couple of years shooting at the Intercontinental on Bloor - it was simply a matter of framing her up close and letting Moss engage the persona that had made her a star: A mature woman, smart and able to beguile with a direct look that made you feel like you might be allowed into her confidence, provided you proved worthwhile. Another example of a portrait that works mostly because the subject knew how they looked, and met my camera at least halfway.

Carrie-Anne Moss, Sept. 7, 2006

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

World Trade Center

Oliver Stone, July 17, 2006

THE RUBBLE WAS STILL SMOKING ON MY TV SCREEN on the morning of September 11, 2001 when I wondered to myself how long it would take Hollywood to start turning out 9/11 stories. It wasn't the most noble or profound thought, I'll admit guiltily, but I had been shooting and writing about entertainment for over fifteen years and I thought that this was the sort of history that would be irresistible as a subject or just a setting.

As the response to the attacks resonated over the days and weeks that followed, I anticipated the stories that I assumed were already in production. I imagined several movies, told from the perspectives of everyone from a passenger on one of the flights or a worker in the towers to an Afghan farmer or a shop owner in Kabul. There would, I thought, be at least one miniseries, attempting to tell the whole, long story of how such a thing could happen, or just anatomize the events of that morning from every possible angle, like an exploded diagram of a timeline that turned minutes into hours.

Sure, there were films that came out in the next year or two that reflected the stunned, anxious mood of the time, like Spike Lee's 25th Hour, one of his better films, and one that pauses for a moment in its build-up to let the camera linger as it looks out a window over the former site of the towers in Lower Manhattan, which seemed like they'd be a crime scene and a construction site forever. But I was surprised when almost five years passed before I found myself in a hotel elevator on my way up to a press junket for the first real attempt at a 9/11 movie.

Michael Pena, July 17, 2006

World Trade Center was, along with United 93, one of two films about 9/11 that would come out that year. It's some measure of the stunning weight of the actual event that both films are straightforward depictions of the events of that day, told from either the land or from the air, without any political editorializing. Even more shocking was that the former film was made by Oliver Stone, a filmmaker happily given to politicized projects and hardly immune to paranoid or even conspiratorial takes on history.

Stone was in Toronto with actor Michael Pena, who played (along with Nicolas Cage) one of two police officers, Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, who were buried alive under the rubble of the towers but survived thanks to the efforts of other first responders and rescuers. Scott Strauss was also there - one of those rescue workers who helped find the handful of survivors in the wreckage (and was played in the film by Stephen Dorff.) The one thing that shocked everyone was how straight Stone had played the story, and when I interviewed him that morning he explained that he was simply trying to respect the viewpoints of the living people he was portraying:
"I did not make this movie pro-American, or anything like that. I made it international. I want to make a movie that works for the world. I want people to respond to people ... Certain people took that day and made it into anger. Other people like John (McLoughlin), in the end, in the voiceover, he made it into a different reaction. He called it goodness."
I took very simple, straightforward portraits of the men in that hotel suite (I'm guessing it was the old Four Seasons in Yorkville), using three different bits of daylight. Pena is usually cast as a sympathetic sort of everyman, a character defined by either naivete or inherent morality, while Stone is a famous contrarian, an intelligent man, but one with an infuriating sympathy for anyone - even despots and dictators - who shares his skepticism about America. I figured they could present themselves to my camera without much direction.

It was my portrait of Strauss that I worried about the most. He wasn't famous, like Stone, or used to facing cameras, like Pena. He was an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary story, asked to join the film's press junket to provide quotes from someone who was there, on the day, where history made an ominous footfall. It was a sign of how much the film's producers wanted to show that they were treating that history - still very raw five years later - with due respect, and I tried to do the same with my portrait of Strauss.

Scott Strauss, July 17, 2006

Monday, June 11, 2018

Jason Reitman

Jason Reitman, March 7, 2006

MEN AND WOMEN ARE DIFFERENT. Some of the reasons are obvious, while others are simply a matter of custom - like how so many of the shoots I've done with actresses or other female entertainers will be preceded by the ministrations of a hair and makeup person. I've written before that I think at least a few of the men I've photographed might have liked the same cosmetic advantage - I never did his portrait, but I can't imagine that anyone did a portrait session with Prince without one person each to deal with hair and makeup, with a stylist at work as well.

This got me thinking when I found these photos of director Jason Reitman in my files. As a "behind the camera" personality, someone like Reitman would never have the services of hair and makeup people for anything but a shoot to go with a feature in a high end glossy mag like Vanity Fair or Entertainment Weekly, while almost any actress I shot for the free daily had a professional with a black canvas apron loaded with hair brushes, styling spray and makeup wedges in attendance.

Jason Reitman, March 7, 2006

These are very middling photos, to be sure, so I thought it would a worthwhile experiment to give Reitman the same treatment I might give an actress of a certain age in Photoshop, after the fact of the shoot and even with the cosmetic assistance provided and paid for by the movie distributor. For the top photo in particular, I went to town with the full battery of retouching, dodging, burning and digital burnishing that I'd feel obligated to employ if some flattering light and a generous application of concealer didn't quite do everything they needed to do on the day.

They look pretty strange, I have to admit.

I'm not exactly sure why Reitman - a Canadian by birth, but a Hollywood kid by upbringing, the son of director Ivan Reitman - was in town doing publicity. His hit debut film as a writer and director, Thank You For Smoking, had come out the previous year, and it would be another year before he released Juno, the film that established his reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the industry. I'm not even sure what hotel he was in, since the best spot of light I could find - and it wasn't a great spot, to be sure - was by the bed. Whatever the circumstances, here's what he looked like if he'd been Charlize Theron on a bad day.

Friday, June 8, 2018


Grant Park, Chicago, winter 1999

AFTER BARCELONA, THE SECOND TRIP MY FUTURE WIFE AND I TOOK WAS TO CHICAGO. She had to cover a housewares convention and I decided to tag along; I'd been to the city at least a couple of times before, shooting covers for NOW magazine, and I liked it. Chicago occupied some sort of middle ground between Toronto and New York City, in terms of size and scale and urban density, and as a result felt very familiar from the first time I went there.

We decided to take the train - VIA Rail from Toronto to Windsor, then Amtrak once we'd crossed the border at Detroit. Along the way we got a nighttime glimpse of the horror that is Gary, Indiana, and an up close encounter with the gentle manner of pre-9/11 American Customs and Border officials. ("Next time you're here ya should learn English," bellowed the lady with the badge and gun at the pair of frightened Japanese grandmothers in our train car. Seriously America, I love you, but you've got to find better people to work as your greeters.)

Amtrak from Toronto to Chicago, winter 1999
View from Marina Towers, Chicago, winter 1999

Our accommodation was provided by a novel precursor to Airbnb - a (now defunct) service that rented out spaces in heritage buildings for tourists. We managed to snag the home of one of the owners of the service - an apartment in the iconic Marina Towers building right on the river in downtown Chicago. (Soon to be made even more iconic by the cover of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot record.)

I brought just two cameras with me for the trip - a Rolleiflex, and a disposable Kodak panoramic camera. I'd been a fan of the FunSaver panoramic camera since Kodak brought them out in the late '80s. I'd always wanted to own a proper panoramic camera - a Widelux or a Linhof Technorama or a Fuji GX617 or a Noblex - but I could never afford more than a rental, so I mostly had to console myself with the Kodak. The FunSaver wasn't a true panoramic; it just shot a cropped 35mm frame instead of a stretched negative, but its grainy results were intriguing, and in 1990 I was in a group show - my first ever - featuring photos taken with the FunSaver.

Under the El, Chicago, winter 1999
Grant Park, Chicago, winter 1999

Chicago was in the depths of winter when we arrived, under a fresh snowfall. While K went off to the convention centre for her show, I headed out to Grant Park with my cameras, detouring via the El and the old downtown. Down by the lake the city seemed deserted, and I ended up with some pretty somber shots on my roll. The view at the top of this post, by the way, isn't there any more - the Harrison Hotel is a Travelodge now, and the view to where its sign would have been has been filled in by a big, glass-fronted building.

These photos might make our Chicago trip seem like a bleak affair, but we actually had a lot of fun. We ate dinner at the old Berghoff and Rick Bayless' Topolobampo, and spent an amazing afternoon at the Chicago Historical Society's museum - a model for any city museum. We had dinner at my super successful cousin Donna's massive loft near the El and - at K's insistence (she was writing a story) - did high tea at American Girl Place.

The latter was apparently a test; K wanted to see how I'd deal with such a hyper-girly experience; what I remember isn't the strange looks I got as a man in the very male-free room, but us as a couple eating there without a child. Notwithstanding, I apparently passed the test, which would prove useful a few years later when we became parents to daughters.

View from Marina Towers, Chicago, winter 1999