Monday, September 3, 2018

Village Voice

Voivod, Montreal, December 1989

THE VILLAGE VOICE IS DEAD. If you've never read, or even heard of the Village Voice, I doubt that you care; one more newspaper gone in an age when newspapers go out of business every month. Even for people who care, it's hardly news - for fans or readers or former employees the paper essentially died last year when it ceased print publication and went completely online.

My first proper assignment for the Voice was nearly thirty years ago, when photo editor Edna Suarez phoned me and asked if it would be too much trouble to hop up to Montreal to shoot the Quebec prog metal band Voivod for the paper's next Rock & Roll Quarterly supplement. I'm not sure Edna was aware of the distances involved getting from place to place in Canada, and even before I did the math in my head I knew that whatever I made probably wouldn't cover the cost of a return ticket on the overnight train.

But I didn't mention that and of course I said yes. This was my first real gig shooting for an American publication and I couldn't blow it, so I packed nearly my whole studio - my ProFoto strobe kid and light stands and two cameras - and hauled it all down to Union Station and onto the VIA Rail train. I arrived in Montreal the morning after a blizzard and went upstairs from the Gare Central to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel for breakfast, stowing all my gear by the wall next to my table in the fancy restaurant across from the Marie, Reine du Monde Cathedral, where I waited for the band's manager to meet me. The cost of breakfast ate up the last of whatever I'd make from the shoot.

Aki Kaurismaki, Toronto, Sept. 1988

I think I sold my first photo to the Voice nearly two years earlier. Preparing for his big move to New York, my friend Chris Buck had already started doing work for them, and he arranged for me to send the Voice a print of my shoot with Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (a big deal at the time, at least in film fest circles) on spec. They might have used it, but I can't be sure; I've never been good at keeping tearsheets, so what got sent and what got printed is sometimes hard to match up.

Another big assignment for the Voice was one of the only examples of sports photography I've ever done. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson had been a gold medalist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but had the medal taken away when he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. He attempted a comeback three years later, which began at the Hamilton Indoor Games. Edna called me up and asked if I'd do the shoot. I had never shot a sporting event and knew I'd have to rent something like a 300mm/2.8 lens to pull it off, but of course I said yes.

Ben Johnson, Hamilton, 1991

I only remember a couple of things about the shoot. The first was Johnson's visible disappointment when he learned that he'd finished second, which I was lucky enough to capture in a few barely-sharp frames. (I actually think the slight camera shake enhances the shot of that heartbreaking moment, and in any case strict focus and sharpness is overrated.) The other was a phone call from Edna.

I was working with a local writer on the gig - a friend I'd known for a few years. A few days before the Hamilton track meet Edna called me to firm up details, then said "I thought you said the writer was a friend of yours." I insisted that he was, but Edna told me that he'd been calling the paper trying to get me taken off the job so his sister could shoot Johnson.

"Of course I said no," Edna told me.

I never said anything about it to him, not in the car there and back to Hamilton, and not in the decades since, but I don't think I was ever able to trust him again. It was a sobering moment for me - the  first time I realized that loyalty is situational for many people.

James Tenney, Toronto, January 1989
Ice Cube, Toronto, 1990
Sonic Youth, Montreal, 1991
William S. Burroughs, Toronto, 1991

Much of the work I sold to the Voice was reprints - portraits from my files bought to illustrate stories. I could see why they might turn to me for a portrait of James Tenney - an American composer who lived in Toronto and taught at York University. What I never understood was why the Village Voice would have needed my pictures of a New York band like Sonic Youth, or someone like the writer William S. Burroughs, who must have been photographed by the Voice countless times since the paper was founded in 1955.

I liked to think it was because my shots were good, but I was probably flattering myself. In retrospect, it might have been because they were different - nobody in New York or the U.S. had seen them since they'd appeared in whatever publication assigned them up here. Getting assignments to shoot for U.S. media like the Voice was difficult in Canada - almost anyone would either live or perform or do something in New York City before they'd show up in Toronto. But work done up here at least had the advantage in the pre-internet age of being obscure and unseen by art directors and photo editors in Manhattan.

Joe Kramer, Toronto, 1991

This shoot with gay erotic massage therapist (and former Jesuit seminarian) Joe Kramer is a pretty good example of the sort of work I might get assigned by the Voice. It's really the kind of subject anyone who shot for an alternative weekly might find themselves shooting back in the '80s and '90s. I'd photographed people like Kramer for NOW - no surprise since the alternative weekly probably wouldn't exist if there was no Village Voice.

I don't know when I started reading the Voice - probably since before I owned a camera. I know that I bought it religiously every week for over a decade, which is why this shot of Joe Kramer is of a piece with the kind of work the Voice printed. It's not too different from something James Hamilton might have shot at around the same time - a piece of mimicry, for a client I desperately wanted to impress.

Vikram Seth, Toronto, May 1993

The last assignment I ever did for the Voice were portraits of the writer Vikram Seth. By this point Edna Suarez had moved on to the New York Times and Tom McDonough was photo editor. I don't know why I never got another shoot from the Voice, but it's not surprising - I was no longer making trips to New York City with my portfolio to push my work and I never had the same personal connection with Tom that I had with Edna.

My Voice connection was probably the key to whatever success I had outside Canada; when Edna moved to the Times she assigned me whatever work she had that could be done here. It was through Edna that I met art directors Robert Newman and Jesse Reyes, who were responsible for assignments I got for outlets like Guitar World and Entertainment Weekly. The brutal truth is that, despite the size and competition, people in New York publishing were far more helpful and friendly than almost anyone in Toronto, which helped keep the illusion alive that I might one day have a career down there - at least for a while.

Vikram Seth might have been my last Voice assignment, but he was not the last portrait of mine published by the Voice. Late last year, after the last print edition of the paper had hit the newsstands, the Voice website ran a story about the new Fela Kuti box set featuring my 1989 portrait of Fela from the cover of the booklet. They obviously got the shot as a handout, so I didn't see money for it (though I was, thankfully, credited.)

Ironically, it was Chris Buck who told me about the photo being used, three decades after he got me my introduction to the paper. Ultimately, this is my only tearsheet from the Voice.

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