Thursday, July 19, 2018

Four Years

Self-portrait in an elevator, Art Gallery of Ontario, 2017

THIS BLOG IS FOUR YEARS OLD TODAY. If everything goes according to plan in the next few weeks, there won't be a fifth anniversary. I am running out of old photos to post and, if I'm perfectly honest, getting tired of talking about old work instead of making new work. But it's all good, and I find myself in a much better place than I was when I put up my first post here, four years ago.

On the first anniversary of the blog, I decided to feature some of the by-products the blog had produced, which ended up involving reprinted work that appeared in books and on CDs, and even in The New Yorker magazine. After a while, I started to hope that more new work would get out there than just reprints of old shoots, and with the end of this blog in sight, this has become my goal.

I wanted to talk about this in my last anniversary post but it was still in the works at the time. It turns out that my shoot with Fela Kuti when he came to town for a concert in 1989 - done on my own, without any client and unpublished until I started this blog - had some value after all, and getting my "lost" shoots out into the world had been a big reason to start the blog in the first place.

The blog post found its way to Rikki Stein, Fela's manager, and we began talks about featuring them in the fourth volume of a box set edition of Fela's LPs. Previous volumes had been curated by Brian Eno, Questlove and Ginger Baker; this one would be curated by Erykah Badu. As a huge Fela fan, this was a privilege I couldn't have imagined for all the years I basically sat on the shoot.

My photos ended up all over the big 12" booklet that comes with the box. The cover shot of Fela glaring at me past his cigarette (or was it a joint?) was one I'd never printed before, and I think it has a lot of impact. The rest of the book features live photos and sequences from the portrait shoot contact sheets, all displayed as big and beautiful as I'd always imagined seeing my work, and thanks to the "vinyl revival" my work is featured on a scale I never saw in the age of the CD.

Another big market for reprints of my old work has been documentaries, and the past year saw two or three films feature my photos. There was a documentary about a Canadian music industry figure (which I've never seen) and a French TV documentary about Depeche Mode that bought the rights to use one of my portraits of photographer Anton Corbijn, who had a big hand in creating the band's visual image. (I've also never seen that.)

Most exciting of all, though, was Right Here, a documentary about the Go-Betweens, made for Australian television. This was another shoot I did without a client, and which had never been seen until I posted the photos on this blog. It turns out I captured the band at a crucial time in their very fractious history; I'm a fan of the group, so it feels good to play at least a tiny part in telling their story.

I've frequently gotten requests from people and organizations to use my work for free. I tend to say no, but mostly because people go about asking the wrong way. The truth is that I'm happy to let someone use an image without payment, provided they promise that they'll use it respectfully, that they'll credit me prominently and try to link back to my website or this blog - and that they ask nicely.

In the first year of this blog, an artist did a very nice drawing based on one of my photos of guitarist Rowland S. Howard. I was flattered, and posted her artwork on the first anniversary of the blog. Earlier this year, California designer and teacher Edgar Garcia reached out to me to ask about using my portrait of rapper Ice Cube as part of a series of illustrations he was doing on old school rappers. He asked nicely, I liked what he was doing, and here's the result.

Richard McGrath is a designer, and the proprietor of the Terminal Press, who has been trying for several years to get permission to use my J.G. Ballard photos, which until I posted them here hadn't been seen by anyone since (I think) they were printed by Nerve magazine back in the '80s.

McGrath is a huge Ballard fan who has been putting together and publishing Deep Ends, a hardcover compilation of Ballard material for several years. It took a while, but my photos - and the text of my blog post - ended up in the latest volume of Deep Ends. It all looks pretty great, and it's nice to get these shots out in front of people who want to see them - using the sort of digital custom printing technology that I couldn't have dreamed about back when I took the shots.

Around two years ago Joel Wasson - an old friend of my wife and I from the city's music scene - contacted me about doing photos of his new band. Joel had gone through a rough divorce and had done something amazing to help move forward by forming a punk rock band with two of his sons. I shot promo photos that ended up on their first LP, and not long after Joel came back and asked if I'd do the next record.

He described his concept - "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil," basically - and I worked out a way to execute it with a small, improvised studio set-up in my living room, a composite of separate photos and a lot of digital editing. It turned out to be one of my favorite album covers of all the ones I've done, made more special by being one of the few realized on a full-sized 12" LP jacket.

Just as exciting was seeing the LP design on a t-shirt, only the second time (that I know of) where my photos have ended up on a t-shirt. Mostly, though, it's been nice to have the support of people I've known for years from the local music scene, like Joel and Ian Blurton. I've quietly put it out that I'm offering a special "friends and family" discount for old scene friends like Joel and Ian - a low, low price for a shoot, with the proviso that I can mostly do what I want, though any kind of collaboration is appreciated.

Long Branch, Toronto, Jan. 2018

This offer got out to some more old friends in another local band, Long Branch. My connection is mostly with the rhythm section - bassist Sally Lee is my old roommate from the Parkdale loft, and drummer Don Pyle was our upstairs neighbour (and is now my barber.) They needed promo shots for their next record, so one wintry January day we met at Don's house and did a couple of setups inside before heading out into the snow.

I'm particularly fond of the shot above, which has the simplicity I always wanted in band photos. But even more, I was flattered that they asked, and grateful to be doing new work. Which is the point I'm at now, running out of old photos and eager to make new ones - an outcome I would have considered far too optimistic when I put up my first post here four years ago.

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