Monday, January 15, 2018

Garth Drabinsky

Garth Drabinsky, Parkdale, 1996

I KNEW THE DAY'S SHOOT WAS GOING TO BE INTERESTING when my subject was preceded at my Parkdale studio by his personal PR handler. I recognized the man - a few years earlier he had been a movie critic at a free weekly that had since gone out of business. We chatted a bit while he made sure the subject had a refreshment and that the layout of the studio was satisfactory. About a half hour later Garth Drabinsky showed up to be photographed for the New York Times.

Drabinsky was famous in Canada for being something that we didn't do a lot - he was a showbiz entrepreneur. A lawyer, he'd begun producing movies during the great "tax break era" of the '70s, and had gone on to co-found the Cineplex movie chain. Forced out of that, he turned his attention to musical theatre, and helped turn Toronto into one of the biggest markets for musicals in the world. He was celebrated in all the usual ways (locals will notice the Order of Canada pin in his lapel - an award he'd later have revoked) but he also developed a reputation for being difficult, so I suppose I wasn't surprised by his personal flack showing up at my little studio.

The assignment was simple - the Times was doing a big feature on Broadway producers and I had to do a shot of Drabinsky that would fit into the grid of portraits that were mostly being shot in New York. Simple, high-key, white backdrop - nothing challenging. Not a lot of leeway to do something unique, but I was always happy to get work from Edna Suarez and the Times.

Garth Drabinsky, Parkdale, 1996

After a brief conferral between Garth and his flack, they made their way into my shooting space and I fine tuned the lighting and took a Polaroid, which Drabinsky insisted on seeing. I switched to the first film back, but before I could give my subject any directions, the flack got to work pumping him up for the shot.

"Okay, Garth," he began. "You're outside the theatre, walking down Broadway, The sun is just starting to set. The show is a big hit. You look up..."

I focused all my attention on the viewfinder and the shutter while Drabinsky was giving his performance, mostly to stifle a giggle. Somehow I made my way through at least a couple of rolls of slide film and the shoot was over in a few minutes. Drabinsky and the flack were gone after a couple of quick handshakes - the neighbourhood was a dodgy one and I'm sure they wanted to make an quick exit. At dinner with some friends that night, my story of the shoot got big laughs.

We don't do celebrity particularly well in Canada. Besides the tall poppy syndrome peculiar to provincial places, there's an unofficial consensus that celebrity is vulgar. Drabinsky was at his career zenith when I took these photos, but his downfall - a scandal involving fraud and cooked books that led to a prison sentence - was just around the corner, and it always seemed to me that most Canadians quietly agreed that it was somehow karmically inevitable, that his humbling restored the national landscape to its natural, preferred entropy.


Friday, January 12, 2018

Gerald Arpino & the Joffrey Ballet

Gerald Arpino, Atlanta, 1994

THESE PHOTOS ARE ARTIFACTS. First of all, they're glimpses of a time when dance - modern dance and ballet and everything in between - was still part of mainstream culture. Dance companies could tour with shows that were real events, the sort of things that a free weekly would fly a writer and photographer to cover. I didn't know it at the time, but this assignment was one of the last healthy signs of journalism, thriving right down to the local level.

I was sent to Atlanta, Georgia with Daryl Jung, NOW's dance columnist - yes, there was once such a job - to see the Joffrey Ballet and interview Gerald Arpino, co-founder and artistic director of the company. They were touring with Billboards, a show set to the music of Prince, and were booked into the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, a beautiful old movie palace on Peachtree Street, at the edge of what was still a dodgy area full of vacant lots.

Joffrey Ballet rehearsal, Fox Theatre, Atlanta, 1994

We arrived in time to attend a rehearsal, which I shot with a long lens from my seat. I am not a dance photographer, so these are really just snapshots of the work that goes on before a dance performance, with stagehands setting up while dancers run through steps, tamping down the wiring in their muscle memory. I'd recommend anyone who enjoys dance to watch a rehearsal, just to get a sense of how much hard work - much of it slowly, inevitably damaging to the body - goes into an effortless performance.

I don't think that there are too many performing arts that can move me quite the way a good dance can, and I'll admit being moved to tears watching the performance that night in Atlanta, and again later in Toronto. I have no idea how dancers achieve what they can, or any ability to comprehend the language that creates choreography, so dancing always seems like a miracle to me,

If I knew more I might have become a dance aficionado - a balletomane, even - but my enthusiasm is purely that of an interested amateur. There was one particularly statuesque principal dancer that Daryl and I both appreciated, and I'm afraid we might have acted like stage door Johnnies when we met her at a reception after the show.

Gerald Arpino, Atlanta, 1994

Billboards wasn't well received by dance critics, but it was a commercial success for the company at a difficult time in their history. It was the sort of thing that used to get called "middlebrow," back when that was both a pejorative and a term that people understood. The decline of middlebrow culture has been disastrous, both as a bridge between low and high culture, and as a space where something like the Joffrey could expand its audience and fill its coffers. Its almost total absence today has made high culture unappealing and mass culture dreary.

I photographed Arpino just up Peachtree from the Fox Theatre, in one of the many vacant lots that once dotted the street. I shot rolls of colour slide for the cover by a set of marble gates that didn't lead to anything in particular, and had him pose for the inside shot in a patch overgrown with kudzu and other weeds that seemed to be taking over the place. A glimpse at Google Street View shows that it's all gone now, disappeared under redevelopment.

Gerald Arpino died of prostate cancer in Chicago on Oct. 29, 2008.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Mark Morris

Mark Morris, Toronto, March 1992

BACK AT THE END OF THE EIGHTIES AND THE EARLY NINETIES, when I was in New York City a lot visiting a girlfriend, I'd try to meet with photographers whose work I admired. While the closest I ever got to Irving Penn was prostrating myself in front of his door, I did meet with Michael Lavine, whose proto-grunge album cover work I admired, and with Lois Greenfield, the dance photographer for the Village Voice.

I recall Greenfield being very wary of me when I showed up at her studio, which I remember being somewhere around Canal Street. She relaxed a bit when I showed her my portfolio and realized that I wasn't doing anything like her stunning, improbable pictures of dancers frozen in mid-air. I wanted to meet her because I loved her work, which has actually gotten better over the years since her time at the Voice.

Mark Morris, Toronto, March 1992

This is a roundabout way of saying that I have always loved watching dance - ballet, tap, modern, whatever. As an essentially static, graceless person, I find it thrilling to watch someone with that rare gift perform. I'm old enough to remember when dancers were celebrities and dance companies were talked about with the same passion and connoisseurship as writers or foreign movies.

Mark Morris was probably one of the last star dancers, someone whose work was talked about in weekend arts sections and profiled in magazines like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Like Twyla Tharp before him, he took ballet's formal language and modernized it. That much I knew; what I didn't know when I was assigned to shoot him for a NOW cover was how I would capture that on film.

Mark Morris, Toronto, March 1992

Photographing him the same year in New York, my friend Chris would somehow talk Morris out of his clothes and capture him in a pose that featured both his compact but muscular build and his testicles. I have always been timid about trying to capture movement - I am a still and graceless person, as I said - so I grounded Morris firmly in a chair in the middle of the empty rehearsal space.

The shots I took on two rolls of black and white 35mm film are about dancers doing what they do quite a lot - sitting around waiting to move. The shot at the top, taken with my Rollei, is a bit more successful, pressing Morris down into the chair in a pool of light provided by my off-camera flash. His slightly defiant expression also helps. It's also imperative to note that the whole thing might have been more forgettable if he weren't wearing those striped socks.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

David Bowie/Two Years

David Bowie, Skydome, Toronto, March 7, 1990

TWO YEARS HAVE GONE BY LIKE WEEKS. As I wrote when David Bowie died, I never seriously imagined that there would be a time when he wasn't around, somewhere, doing something. He was there, doing something, in my earliest memories of the radio, years before I became a fan, and while it's hardly reasonable to rely on that presence, I had never seriously prepared myself for a post-Bowie world.

David Bowie, Skydome, Toronto, March 7, 1990

And so, on the anniversary, I have gone back to that 1990 show I forgot I ever shot to make one last trawl for photos. These are the odd frames - the moments in between and the almost-theres and the shots I never would have submitted to my editor at the end of the assignment. For someone who would forget he was at that show, I seem to have put a lot of effort into getting something in the moment. Or maybe David was simply good at delivering.

David Bowie, Skydome, Toronto, March 7, 1990

This last shot is something I'd only have looked at now - a brief, placid moment in the middle of a frantic performance. A glimpse of the man behind the show? Maybe. Maybe not. It probably didn't look elegiac then, but it does now.

We spent the last night of Christmas vacation last week in the kitchen, listening to the Bowie playlist on my older daughter's Apple Music. There are really few things more enjoyable than embarrassing your children by singing along loudly to the theme from Cat People while doing a jigsaw puzzle of TV dinners. One more thing for which I can thank him.

David Bowie (aka David Robert Jones) died in New York City of cancer on January 10, 2016.


Friday, January 5, 2018

Flops

Shane McGowan, Toronto, Aug. 1986

WE WATCHED A DOCUMENTARY OVER THE HOLIDAYS ABOUT "FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK," the Pogues' 1987 Christmas hit, and I was reminded of my very brief, very unsuccessful shoot with Shane McGowan back at the beginning of my career. Besides lodging the song in my head for a week, it got me thinking about all the misfires and duds I've had over the years, a few of them rooted permanently in my memory.

I had been assigned to work with fellow Nerve writer Howard Druckman on a Pogues feature, and we'd had a fairly successful interview with Spider Stacy and James Fearnley from the band. But I knew the story needed a portrait of McGowan, who was conspicuously absent backstage before the show. I asked if a quick shoot could be arranged, and was taken out to the band's tour bus in the parking lot.

A minder - one of those tough but professional road crew who've seen it all - opened the door and told me to wait outside. After a few minutes he emerged with McGowan, who looked about as dazed and confused as a human being could be while standing up and drawing breath, his eyes barely holding focus on me or anything in his vicinity. He was maneuvered into a spot just a few feet from the bus and gave a few dutiful smiles that showcased a set of teeth that gave me the horrors.

I shot just over a half dozen frames, two of which featured Shane obeying the sole instruction I gave him: "Look up with your eyes." After clicking the shot above, McGowan put his sunglasses back on and was steered back into the bus by his minder. I'm guessing I'd had more rewarding portrait sessions around this time, since despite this wholly random encounter, I still decided to pursue photography as a career.

Susan Sontag, Toronto, April 1987

Writer Susan Sontag was a major literary figure when my new girlfriend told me that we had to go see her give a lecture at Ryerson Polytechnic. Eager to take advantage of any opportunity to get a photo of someone famous, I brought my camera along and, when we somehow ended up backstage after the talk, asked Sontag if I could quickly take her photo. I don't know why she agreed, but I've since learned that she liked having her picture taken for some reason, perhaps connected with being the author of On Photography.

I will admit to not remembering anything about her lecture. It was delivered with heavy reliance on the jargon of post-structuralist theory, very fashionable at the time and much favoured by my girlfriend and her circle in film studies at the university. I knitted my brow through most of it, and only got a bit of relief afterwards when I ran into my old college theatre buddy Colin Taylor, also there on a date.

"I haven't a clue what the fuck that was all about," he laughed in his big, stage-trained baritone.

I took about half a dozen frames of Sontag just by the proscenium curtain, my flash held at arm's length on one side while I focused and hit the shutter with the other hand. They looked nothing like the really interesting portraits I'd seen of Sontag so I promptly forgot about them, sandwiched on a single roll of film with live photos of The Stranglers and The Nils, a Montreal punk band I loved.

Today, they seem serviceable - the sort of thing Fred McDarrah of the Village Voice might have offhandedly shot on a busy Friday night covering Manhattan cultural events. I'd care about them more if I still held Sontag in high regard, but since her death over a decade ago, her reputation has receded remarkably without the writer or her supporters to keep it tended.

Gene Simmons (& unknown woman,) Toronto, Oct. 1988

I've had a couple of encounters with KISS bassist Gene Simmons in my career, the first on assignment for Graffiti when I had a regular gig shooting in-house ads featuring celebrities and bands holding copies of the mag. While his band's '70s legacy was cherished by most of my musician friends, KISS itself was considered a joke by the last half of the '80s, despite Simmons' tireless efforts at promotion and merchandising.

He showed up at the magazine's offices very heavily made up, and insisted on posing for most of the shots with a prop - a moneybag that was the logo of his new (and never very successful) record label, Simmons Records. When I was able to get a portrait without magazine or props, he gave what I would have to assume was a blank stare from behind his visorlike shades. Gene only came to life when I took candids of him with most of the female staff at the magazine - including the receptionist, with whom he already seemed to be on more than speaking terms.

I'll admit that we didn't hit it off from the start; Simmons' conservative political views were considered an eccentricity of his - it would be a few more years before they'd provoke outrage. (From the perspective of today, the '80s now seem like a much more politically tolerant time, though they hardly seemed so then.) I probably went out of my way to provoke him, scoffing at his enthusiasm for Armand Hammer, who I thought a pretty weak capitalist icon.

"I bet you call yourself a socialist," he shot back at me. I said I did - I was capable of saying stupid things like that all the time back then, in the absence of anything like a real political education. (My positions have changed considerably, to be sure, but I still think Armand Hammer was a bit of a fraud.) A disaster of a shoot, though worth it for the anecdotes for years afterward.

Gene Simmons, Toronto, March 2004

I'd meet Gene again over fifteen years later, after Simmons had successfully kept his band in the public eye long enough for KISS to become actually venerable. Gene had also cultivated his own celebrity well, appearing on film and television frequently, though the apex of his efforts were still in the future with his appearances on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice and his own reality TV show, Simmons Family Jewels.

I watched Simmons bait the reporter from the free national daily with his political views, and got a glimpse of how I must have looked years earlier. While they bickered over George W. Bush and his foreign policy, I hopelessly looked for a spot of light in the windowless room, finally dragging a couple of floor lamps over to a corner of the room and taking the shade off one of them.

Once again in front of my camera, Gene gave me an updated version of his media face, which had shifted from haughty indifference to cartoon intensity. I was trying to think of a way to provoke him to do something different when he suddenly rolled his eyes back in his head and mugged ferociously. With a shudder I realized that this was probably the most I was going to get from the man, and quickly shot and reframed his face as often as I could until he looked bored again and signaled that we were done.

A further fourteen years on, I think I've managed to salvage one shot by giving it the full black-and-white horror movie still treatment - one which I think Gene might actually approve, though I could never have handed this in to the newspaper. I've never really seen a truly great portrait of Gene Simmons, though my friend Chris tried manfully to force him out of his posing and mugging. I'd like a re-match with Gene one day; perhaps the third time will be a charm.

Julian Schnabel, Toronto, Sept. 2007

The last really disastrous portrait shoot I remember was with artist and director Julian Schnabel, in a room at the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor West while working the film festival for the free national daily. Schnabel, who had a critical hit on his hands and was probably feeling pretty cocky, showed up wearing a pyjama top. These photos give some idea of how dim those hotel rooms were, and how hard it was to find a halfway decent spot of light for these very, very brief shoots.

The room had been stripped of all of its furniture except for the headboards of the beds, which were (in the fashion of modern hotels) mounted to the walls. As I moved the camera up to my eye, Schnabel gave a sidelong glance and a smirk to his retinue and began bobbing and weaving in front of me while I tried to keep him in frame. The camera's autofocus struggled to lock onto him, so almost every photo from this shoot except the one at the bottom was a blur.

I'm sure he thought he was being funny, but I felt like I was being disrespected. I had a simple job, summed up with providing a selection of usable and sharp portraits for my employers, and Schnabel decided to either exorcise his boredom or entertain his entourage with a petulant little performance. I was at what felt like the nadir of my career as a photographer at the time, and this reminded me of how all those years learning how to control a shoot and interact with subjects had been somehow lost.

Thirty years of progress and hard work had reversed back to being at the mercy of a subject's whims, without any tactic or strategy of my own to funnel the situation into a decent portrait - a real low point.


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Local

Barn, Elora, Oct. 2017

FOR A FREELANCER, EVERY NEW YEAR FEELS LIKE A LEAP INTO INSECURITY. The start of a new year is a wholly arbitrary milestone, of course, but with fiscal year budgets wrapping up and employers on holiday, the slight interregnum can feel like a shifting of mysterious gears. I already know that this year begins with some changes, some of them potentially major.

I used to have a holiday ritual at the end of every year: I'd look over my account books and tearsheets and try to justify spending another year living with the bottomless anxiety of freelance work. For much of the early '90s it wasn't a hard choice to make - I was covering my rent, keeping my equipment in working order and paying for small luxuries, though bigger ones like travel were beyond my means.

Even more importantly, however, I was still coasting near the top of a learning curve and making work I liked - even if it was harder to get new clients as excited. As that decade came to a close, however, my earnings were declining and - worse still - the learning curve had plateaued; I was feeling frustrated and uninspired. It looked like I'd have to make a serious decision soon enough, though events would soon make that decision for me.

Don Valley, Toronto, Oct. 2017

As this new year begins, the apparent end of my travel writing gig - one of the best I've ever had - is a big and unwelcome change. While I try to find new travel assignments, I'll be staying very close to home. In anticipation, I spent much of the fall and early winter looking to shoot every outing and excursion or bit of dramatic weather.

I have to make my hometown feel like a foreign place, as strange and disquieting as anywhere else in the world I might have been sent. Coming upon a dead deer - hit by a car on the nearby expressway but looking so peaceful - on the grass at Todmorden Mills was an unsettling gift, found while killing time during my daughter's playdate with a friend. A family outing to the Elora gorge was another, where the landscape seemed more than a bit enchanted.

Elora, Oct. 2017

A long, late autumn brought a thick fog in one morning, and inspired another trip to the park at the bottom of my street with my camera, like the one that I took before my last round of travel. The challenge with shooting my own city, of course, is finding ways to make it look mysterious and magical without the aid of evocative and flattering weather conditions.

Fog, Earlscourt, Dec. 2017

I live next to a cemetery. Cemeteries are tempting subjects, and I could rely on at least a half dozen within easy reach by transit to find photos, but they're a challenge. Graveyards are compelling landscapes that tug at our natural morbidity and fascination with death, but they do half the work for a photographer. The challenge is finding something new in places shot to death (no pun intended.)

This year, for her birthday, my wife suggested we take a stroll through Mount Hope, the second oldest Catholic cemetery in the city. She wanted to find the grave of a parish priest she's researching, and I wanted to show her where my grandparents and uncle are buried. Of course I brought my camera.

Mount Hope Cemetery, Toronto, Nov. 2017

Finally, with the end of the year in sight, we went on an outing with my birth father and his wife to the ROM - one of my favorite places in the city when I was a boy, now quite changed. We'd all been looking forward to the show of Christian Dior fashion, and I had a photo in my head I wanted to take. These are the closest I got to that image, which I can only describe as "drunk and disoriented at a society party."

Dior exhibition, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Dec. 2017

I won't pretend that the new year doesn't fill me with as much anxiety as those unsettling ones twenty years ago, though I'm much happier with my work now than I was then. Since actually making a living isn't either as imperative or possible, I've set myself different goals - to be announced shortly.

It's also likely to be the last year for this blog. The end is in sight for the excavations of my archives; I'll likely have found and posted the best of my work on film within a month or two, and without the need to scan and retouch, I'll make quicker progress through the digital work shot in the last dozen years. Big stars, but short shoots, and a momentary loss of style. I hope I'll find something worth sharing.


Monday, January 1, 2018

Fruit & Veg

Artichoke, Parkdale, Jan. 1997

BY THE MID-NINETIES, I WASN'T LEAVING THE HOUSE MUCH IF I DIDN'T HAVE TO.
 I had an ambition - probably easier to achieve today than twenty years ago - to stay inside from the moment the first snow fell till the beginning of spring. If I could get all of my subjects to come to me, as well as arranging for all of my necessary supplies - film and chemicals, laundry, food - to be delivered, all I'd need to do was have colour film couriered to and from the lab, and prints delivered to my clients.

It would have cost a fortune, which is probably the main reason I never carried it through. It certainly wasn't for lack of desire on my part; today, of course, with digital photography, Amazon, eBay and competing grocery delivery services keeping delivery charges low, I think I might have tried to give it a shot. It's just a shame nobody makes money taking photos any more.

Persimmon, Parkdale, Oct. 1995
Pomegranate, Parkdale, Oct. 1995

This is a long way of explaining why, starting in the middle of the decade, I began shooting still lifes in my Parkdale studio. It began as a technical exercise - an attempt to figure out high-key tabletop shooting, the sort of thing any competent catalog photographer could do with just a few minutes' set-up. But there was also a nagging worry that the market was shrinking, and that I was relying too heavily on my NOW assignments. I needed to branch out and find new markets.

There were a lot of cooking and lifestyle magazines on the newsstands. I noticed this because, besides spending most of my days reading, I was teaching myself how to cook. I had become what we now call a "foodie" years earlier with my first girlfriend, and instead of spending money in restaurants, I wanted to learn how to make really good food at home, if only so I could avoid leaving the house to socialize and convince my friends to come to me.

Ginger root, Parkdale, Jan. 1997
Garlic bulb, Parkdale, Jan. 1997

And so I bought a piece of milk-white opaque plexiglass and set up a simple backlit tabletop to shoot the ingredients I had in the kitchen. I began with more obviously sculptural items - a Savoy cabbage and some leeks, a pomegranate and a persimmon (though I still haven't really figured out what to do with a persimmon, even today.) A while later I turned my attention to ingredients I was using all the time, like garlic and ginger and summer melons.


I was pleased enough with all of this work to make fruit and veg still lifes the subject of my first (and only) solo photo show, at an uptown restaurant that's still in business today. It was not a success; despite several phone calls from diners who either wanted me to mark down my (very reasonable) prices ("What if you made a smaller one? Would that cost less?"), I only sold one framed print - to the chef/owner. I'd end up selling another to a friend years later, but the rest have ended up on the walls of our home.

Canteloupe, Parkdale, Jan. 1997

Despite this setback, I was proud of my still life work, and can only blame my own woeful inability to market and publicize myself for not using it to get more work, back in the last moments of the last boom time of magazine publishing. I'd keep doing still life work in my studio - more about that later - and occasionally take over the kitchen table when everyone's at work or school to see what I can do today.

Finally, I should mention that all of these shots were shot with cross-processed slide film. After years of experimenting, I had finally found a way to control the results and produce negatives with the contrast and colour I'd been trying to get for a decade. This little-seen work is probably the technical zenith of my work as a studio photographer. They are also available for very reasonable prices for framing and hanging.