Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Sebadoh

Sebadoh, Parkdale, Toronto, Sept. 1994

SHOOTING BANDS CAN BE A PAIN IN THE ASS. Even when it isn't, it's always a challenge, for a lot of reasons, but it's probably best expressed in a mathematical formula that states that photographing two people is roughly twice as hard as shooting one, and that every extra person added to the equation makes the difficulty increase exponentially.

I have a bunch of band photos waiting to be scanned, but I thought that before I start barreling down the home stretch of the '90s (and the effective zenith of my professional career,) I should get them out of the way. For no particular reason I thought I'd start with Lou Barlow, who I photographed twice - once when he was part of the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr., and again when his band Sebadoh were approaching their critical and commercial heyday.

Dinosaur Jr. Toronto, Sept. 1987

There's not much I can say about my Dinosaur Jr. shoot, done for Nerve magazine at very near the beginning of my career and the edge of my competence. The band were faves around the office thanks to Tim Powis' championing of You're Living All Over Me and "Little Fury Things" in particular. They were playing the back room of the Cameron House, and I showed up during soundcheck to get a portrait.

They weren't wildly enthusiastic about doing a photo shoot and neither was I, judging by the evidence. I found the only workable spot of light in the room, posed them around a stack of Marshall heads and banged off less than a dozen frames. In my defense, I was very poor at the time and economizing on film for John Lee Hooker's show later that night, on the off chance I might corner the blues legend for a portrait. Thirty years later, I stand by my decision.

Sebadoh, Parkdale, Toronto, Sept. 1994

Seven years later, and with the grunge tidal wave raising the boats for a lot of generally unrelated but interesting indie bands, Barlow's Sebadoh was getting a lot of press. I'm pretty certain I shot them for the Village Voice, but there's nothing in the big ledger so it's just a guess. (It definitely wasn't for NOW magazine.)

Sebadoh's reputation was for being contrarians - aggressively independent but bitterly sarcastic about the indie rock scene. Their proud unwillingness to make themselves palatable to major labels or a broader audience gave them enormous credibility, and their latest record, Bakesale, was a big favorite with the critics. (Writer RJ Smith wrote about the band for the Voice that year, so perhaps this shoot was meant to accompany that story.)

Sebadoh, Parkdale, Toronto, Sept. 1994

The assignment was a big enough deal that they were persuaded to go to my Parkdale studio for the shoot. I fully expected them to be wary and even distracted in front of the camera, so I didn't bother with careful lighting or an elaborate composition, but crammed the three of them onto the art deco love seat I'd recently bought on credit and parked in my studio.

Barlow and Jason Loewenstein mostly regarded me and my camera dubiously for most of the four rolls I shot, when they weren't cracking each other up. Drummer Bob Fay was the exception, fidgeting and acting up like the kid with ADHD in your middle school, so he ended up being a focal point of sorts. Today, the bottom shot comes across like my "yacht rock" take on the band.

It's an alright shoot - a brute simple exercise in problem solving with a difficult subject. I can't help but look at it fondly nowadays; the love seat is in our basement today, covered in junk and cat scratches, and I moved out of my Parkdale studio nearly twenty years ago. The rented backdrop of painted clouds was my favorite - I wish I'd bought it when Vistek cleared it out of their rental inventory.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Toumani Diabate & Bassekou Kouyate

Toumani Diabate & Bassekou Kouyate, NYC, July 1996

NEW YORK CITY FASCINATES ME. I'm sure that being fascinated by New York probably marks me as a true provincial, but if that's true, I'll accept the verdict. For about a decade starting in the mid-'80s, I found myself in New York regularly, at first visiting women that I was either getting to know or breaking up with, or on work assignments, back when NOW magazine had travel budgets to send photographers to shoot covers.

In the summer of 1996 I was assigned to shoot Toumani Diabate, a West African musician, for an upcoming cover, so they dispatched me on a quick day trip to New York City where he was playing with fellow Malian Bassekou Kouyate. They'd just recorded an album together and were staying in a hotel down by Wall Street, so I began pre-visualizing the two men with their flowing robes and instruments made of gourds and skin and gut on the narrow old streets of Lower Manhattan, in front of the banking towers.

Toumani Diabate, NYC, July 1996

I arrived early to scout locations, and found a really nice spot in a side door of the Federal Reserve Building. I collected Diabate and Kouyate at their hotel and brought them to the spot; I told them that I could only feature one of them on the cover, so I asked Diabate to take his kora out of its case and sit down to play in the arched doorway, underneath the massive masonry blocks that make the Fed building stand out among all the other vintage skyscrapers.

We didn't take a single frame before an armed security guard showed up and told us that we had to move on - that they didn't allow photo shoots this close to the Fed building. I wondered how they'd spotted us so quickly - it was literally a matter of a minute or two - but I apologized and asked Diabate if he'd mind if we found another location.



We walked around the corner of the Fed building and down William Street to the Chase Bank Plaza, which seemed to offer a variation on what I was looking for - a contrast between the men in their robes and the massive old towers behind them. This time I was able to shoot two rolls of 120 film with my Rolleis before another security guard showed up and told us that we were on private property, and that we needed a permit to shoot here.

I've always remembered this very difficult, awkward shoot, with its logistical and technical difficulties, and wondered where exactly it all happened. The location of my cover shots were easy enough to find - the Chase Plaza is the only space like it in lower Manhattan, and the wall of the Fed building makes it easy to find the exact spot. Diabate was sitting right where the little white square is hovering at the corner of the plaza, but the concrete guardrail behind him has since been replaced by a much sleeker one in glass and tubular steel.

Toumani Diabate & Bassekou Kouyate, NYC, July 1996

The location of my second shoot, with a now-very upset Diabate and Kouyate, was a bit harder to pin down, since the fencing I stood them against obviously indicated a future building site, and the likelihood that the view through the vacant lot behind them has long been obscured.

There's a blog, Flaming Pablum, written by a native New Yorker and music fanatic that I've followed for years, and he regularly obsesses over bits of Manhattan time capsule archaeology, trying to find the locations of iconic band shots and other scenes from the past, usually in collaboration with Bob Egan's Pop Spots blog. After reading about their hunts for the spot where Neil Young was photographed for After the Gold Rush, or where the Plasmatics stood for a promo shoot, I thought I'd give it a try.



Thankfully Google Street View makes this a whole lot easier, without having to buy a plane ticket. With nothing but the rather grand building across the vacant lot behind the musicians to go on, I hovered over Wall Street on my computer for an hour, looking for what appeared to be a wedge-shaped building next to a new tower, when I discovered that we hadn't gone very far at all - just across William to the corner of Cedar, where Diabate and Kouyate stood against the long-gone fence just behind where the burly man in the dark suit is walking in the photo above.

Looking back, I'm amazed at how, after flying all the way to New York City, I really only did two set-ups. Maybe I was feeling frustrated, perhaps even as angry as Kouyate was, judging by his expressions on the contact sheets. It seems a shame - if I'd been a bit more patent, and exercised better bedside manner, I might have persuaded the two men to help me find an even better location to pose them with their instruments; only now do I realize that Bassekou Kouyate never had a chance to take his ngoni - a form of lute - out of its case. There's something sort of lovely about the shot of Diabate with his kora, and I might have gotten something else like it, perhaps even better, of the two men.

It's not that I wasn't a fan of their music - I've been listening to West African griot music since the mid-'80s, a wholly soothing sound built around the cascading, harp-like sound of the kora and the balaphon. In retrospect I can't be angry at the security guards who kept moving us along; it was only three years since the first World Trade Centre bombing, and I'm sure they had orders to keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. In any case, I can't help but remember this shoot with some frustration, and as an opportunity missed mostly because I got a case of the nerves.



Friday, June 2, 2017

Katrin Cartlidge

Katrin Cartlidge, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I STILL FIND IT HARD TO BELIEVE THAT, SIX YEARS AFTER I TOOK THIS PHOTO, KATRIN CARTLIDGE WOULD BE GONE. I'd first seen Cartlidge in Mike Leigh's Naked - a film I identified with far more than was probably healthy - and immediately recognized the talent that Leigh doubtless had. She was, in 1996, at the beginning of what I was sure would be a remarkable career.

I've written about this shoot with Katrin Cartlidge before, when I found a print of one of these photos in my files, early on in this blog. I wrote that she was in Toronto doing publicity for Leigh's Career Girls, which can't have been quite possible because the film didn't come out for another year. (My guess now is that she was at the festival for Lars Von Trier's Breaking The Waves.) It was my favorite role of hers, and my favorite film of Leigh's, and since movies were a big part of my life back then, I'd obviously seen her potential and become a fan even before then.

Katrin Cartlidge, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Cartlidge's death was a real loss; I'd even call it a tragedy. Her last film role was, unfortunately, little more than a cameo in a not particularly memorable adaptation of an Alan Moore comic starring Johnny Depp. It was the sort of thing an agent tells you to do for the "profile," but she had better taste than that, and between TV and the movies was doing three or even four roles a year, making interesting choices all the time.

I'm sure that her death was a big loss for Mike Leigh. It wasn't until he discovered Sally Hawkins that he'd be able to feature a younger actress with the intensity of Cartlidge in his films. "She took to the improvisation and character work instantly, easily and with extraordinary commitment and imagination," he said after she died. "I am in no doubt that we have lost not only one of our greatest actors but also one of the most interesting new directors of the future."

Katrin Cartlidge, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I did the shoot, I'm sure, in a room at the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor Street. I started by taking simple head shots in the light that came through the hotel's relatively small windows, but then asked Cartlidge if she'd sit on the bed for another roll. She worried aloud that I was trying to get her to do something a bit too cheesecake, and protested to Ingrid, the writer, and I that it really wasn't her image at all.

We both disagreed and said that she shouldn't worry about that sort of thing, and that we thought she looked great. My own motivation for the shots was more personal, and a bit more calculated - I rarely took full body shots of subjects, and worried that my portraits concentrated too much on faces. (I wanted to be a bit more August Sander than Irving Penn.) I wanted to get a shot that captured the way a person stood or sat, and reflected either the ease or discomfort that posing for a camera provoked. Cartlidge managed a bit of both, looking both at home in her skin and a bit wary of what the camera was seeing; it was a perfect character actor's reaction.

Katrin Cartlidge died in London on Sept. 7, 2002.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Stanley Tucci

Stanley Tucci, Toronto, Sept. 1996

THE 1996 FILM FESTIVAL WAS, AS I SAID BEFORE, A BIG ONE. Looking back, I ended up shooting quite a few people and getting a few good results. The sensation of spinning my wheels career-wise had only just begun, so I suppose I could ignore that feeling for at least a week or two while I did what I did best at the time - hotel room portraits.

It was a big year for Stanley Tucci as well. He was at the festival with his first film as actor, writer, director and co-producer - a film about food and Italian-Americans that I'd end up liking quite a bit. They even put out a cookbook inspired by the film, and as someone who was spending a lot of time either in my kitchen or in restaurants, I liked what Tucci was doing.

Stanley Tucci, Toronto, Sept. 1996

I'd worked hard to simplify my working methods at the end of my first decade in the business. I didn't understand why I was the only photographer shooting with a Rolleiflex at venues like the film festival; it was the perfect camera for this sort of work - small and light and well-made; a much more practical medium format camera than a big Hasselblad. I couldn't use multiple film backs, which meant I had to have two cameras, but I could re-load a Rollei pretty quickly, and in any case I rarely had enough time to shoot more than a couple of rolls of film.

It was an eccentricity, to be sure - a vintage camera in an age of autofocus, and anyone who knew anything about cameras noticed it. Tucci certainly did, remarking on it right away and asking me questions about why I chose to use something like a Rollei. I gave my usual spiel, which he actually seemed interested in hearing; most celebrity portrait subjects take about as much interest in the photographer shooting them as they do the waiter who brings them room service.

Stanley Tucci, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Tucci actually asked if we could switch places, so he could see what I was seeing through the camera. I assumed that he was preparing a role as a photographer, as almost no one had ever shown this much curiosity about the process of taking a portrait. (No one would again for another decade, when I was assigned to photograph another actor, William Hurt, at another film festival. But that was more a philosophical interest, and a story for another time.)

In retrospect, it looks like Tucci just had an interest in the past, and perhaps in retro technology. His next film as a director would be a screwball comedy set in 1938, and the one after that was about New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell and the eccentric/fraud Joe Gould, who became his obsession. Tucci has had a very successful career as a character actor on some pretty big blockbuster films while writing and directing his own films every few years. His latest, Final Portrait, is about the artist Alberto Giacometti, and the title alone makes it sound like something I'd like to see.


Monday, May 29, 2017

Gargoyle

Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, April 2017

MOST OF THE TIME, PHOTOGRAPHY IS ABOUT THE RIGHT MOMENT. Some of the time, however, it's about that, plus access. That's true whether you're talking about a portrait or a cityscape, and sometimes it helps to be able to go somewhere most people can't.

Several times in the last month or so I've been lucky enough to gain access to spots that most people can't go, either with or without cameras. Once was in my own hometown, but the other two were while on assignment, aided by the privilege that is one of the perks of travel writing.

Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, April 2017

I was walking back to my hotel from the harbor in Vancouver when I looked up and noticed the carved gargoyles on the corners of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Normally I would just bookmark a detail like this in the hope of some future access, but on this day I realized that I had the business card of the regional director of public relations for the hotel chain in my room, so I called and left a message as soon as I got off the elevator.

In a few hours it had all been sorted and I was let out of an inconspicuous door and over some slightly rickety scaffolding onto the roof terrace where the gargoyles - real and fantastical animals - have been glowering over Vancouver for almost eighty years. I was particularly drawn to the pegasus that looks down over Hornby and West Georgia, with the thin patch of bright green moss on its back and the colourful patina on the copper flashing by its hooves, the result of years of rain and pigeon shit.

Commerce Court, Toronto, May 2017

Before I left for Vancouver I'd gotten an e-mail from another PR person I'd worked with years previous, inviting me to an event at the old bank tower that was once the Toronto headquarters of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. It was home to one of the loveliest banking halls in the city, but the building also featured a now-closed observation deck behind four quartets of long stone faces near the top of what's probably Toronto's finest art deco skyscraper.

I lacked any sort of outlet for the photos besides this blog, but my contact was kind enough to add me to the list regardless. I showed up on the day with a bag full of cameras and lenses for a reception in the banking hall, where I snapped that ceiling in between canapes, and also took shots of an architectural model of the building, on display alongside other artifacts from the vaults of the bank's archives.

Commerce Court, Toronto, May 2017

I was assigned a number, and when our group was called we headed up in the elevator and got a short safety lecture before being led out to the 32nd floor observation deck, which has been inaccessible to anyone but building security and maintenance workers and bank executives for decades. (Though that hasn't stopped some intrepid friends of mine from getting out there.)

Commerce Court, Toronto, May 2017

With just fifteen minutes we had to move fast, and I shot as much as I could of the deck, the financial district skyline, and the "Giants of Jordan" with my new fisheye and my trusty Fuji.

A week later I was in Buffalo on a travel gig, on a private tour of the architecture of the old downtown, when my guide noticed Michael, the chief engineer of the Electric Tower building, as we were just about to leave the lobby. He asked if we could get a quick tour of the locked portions of the building, which is how I ended up in the abandoned offices of Niagara Mohawk Power on the seventh floor, and then in the "amphitheatre" at the base of the spire on the fourteenth floor, and then on the windy and never publicly accessible observation platform outside.

Electric Tower, Buffalo NY, May 2017
View east from City Hall, Buffalo NY, May 2017

The observation deck at Buffalo's magnificent City Hall, unlike the top of the Electric Tower, is very publicly accessible - though ringed with a high glass wall in keeping with modern health and safety (and legal) standards. I was there just a couple of hours after I'd been high in the Electric Tower, trying to get a decent shot of the skyline past the reflections on the glass.

I finally noticed this view of the city's park-like suburbs past the twin Lady Liberties on the roof of the Liberty Building, meeting the horizon just beneath the overcast sky.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Buffalo

Seventh floor, Electric Tower, Buffalo, NY, May 2017

THERE WERE TIMES WHEN BUFFALO FELT LIKE THE EMPTY SET OF A FILM NOIR. I mean that in a good way - thanks to a period of economic distress that was common to a lot of American cities, Buffalo managed to preserve much of its pre-war character, right down to the empty seventh floor of the Electric Tower, which is waiting for a tenant willing to preserve the former offices of Niagara Mohawk Power.

I've lived a short drive from Buffalo my whole life, and grew up watching the city's TV channels, which have made Shea's, the "Aud," Kleinhan's Music Hall, AM&A's and the Statler part of my childhood memories, even though I only saw them most of them up close for the first time last week. I was on assignment again, writing a travel story about Buffalo's architecture, which gave me rare access to the seventh floor of the Electric Tower and the still-abandoned portions of the Richardson-Olmsted Complex, in addition to some Frank Lloyd Wright.

Buffalo, NY, May 2017

Parkside Candy, by the way, is still in operation, and the Main Street store is worth a visit. The photo studio on Genesee, alas, is not, but I'd have rented it in a second if it was. There was a lot of this sort of thing in Buffalo, from Silo City to the Deco ballroom at the Lafayette Hotel. I really need to spend more time there.

Martin House, Buffalo, NY, May 2017
Graycliff Estate, Derby, NY, May 2017

Except for a couple of visits to the Guggenheim in New York, I'd never been inside a Frank Lloyd Wright building, and Buffalo is a constant source of embarrassment for Toronto in that it has seven Wrights, including a boathouse, a filling station and a mausoleum. (It would have had eight, but they knocked one down; everyone makes a mistake now and then.)

Richardson-Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, NY, May 2017

The Richardson-Olmsted Complex was the whole reason I was in Buffalo - they've opened a new hotel in the centre of the once-abandoned state asylum, and I was one of its first guests. I'm sure some of my urbex friends have been in the place when it was empty, and they're still doing tours of the abandoned floors while they remain untenanted. Part of me hopes that as long as there's an abiding interest in this sort of thing, they'll keep at least a bit of it unoccupied for the experience.

Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY, May 2017

The Albright-Knox wasn't originally on my schedule, but I was so eager to get inside this world-renowned museum that an hour was carved out of my last morning in town. As is my habit, I used the school groups visiting that day as subjects in my ongoing series of art museum tableaux. I felt really privileged to have seen Buffalo during this pregnant moment in the city's reinvention; I hope they can avoid Toronto's mistakes and preserve some of the charm I saw there.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Apocalypse Club, Toronto, Nov. 1989

CHRIS CORNELL HAS DIED, AN APPARENT SUICIDE. I can only imagine the pain this has left his family and friends to suffer.

I was a big fan of Cornell, and especially his first band, Soundgarden, who I saw several times on either side of the turn of the '90s. He was a spectacular front man with a phenomenal voice that was clearly some sort of gift, which is just one reason why his death seems - at least from this fan's perspective - a terrible waste.

Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Apocalypse Club, Toronto, Nov. 1989

My earliest memory of the band is their first Sub Pop album. My editor at Guitar World magazine in New York, Jesse Marinoff Reyes, once sang "Beyond the Wheel" over a dinner of fried alligator to Chris Buck and I, trying to sell us on what he felt was the obvious genius of one of his favorite hometown bands.

I saw them not long after in a dingy basement club in Toronto, packed in the front row where I was basically shooting right through Cornell's hair, just a few feet away from where Derek von Essen stood with his camera. I'm not sure if we were using the "grunge" word yet; there were a lot of great, loud, hairy bands playing clubs like the Apocalypse at the time, but I remember thinking Soundgarden might have stood a chance of making it big, thanks mostly to Cornell's incredible voice.

Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Lollapalooza, Molson Park, Barrie, Aug. 1992

It would be almost three years until I saw them next, but I have no problem remembering it since it was the week of the Rodney King riots, and we left the Concert Hall after the show to find Yonge Street blocked off by the police after copycat riots broke out way up here in Toronto, far from Los Angeles. The next time I saw the band with a camera in my hand was at Lollapalooza, and the rise above dingy basement clubs was obviously well underway.

Having photographed the band from mere inches away, I wasn't particularly into shooting Cornell over the lip of the stage and past the stage monitors. I got maybe two or three half decent frames before I started turning around to shoot the vast mosh pit behind me, which was where I thought the real action was that hot August afternoon.

Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Exhibition Stadium, Toronto, Aug. 1993

Cornell had cut his hair by the time I saw them next, on a bill with Blues Traveler and Pearl Jam supporting Neil Young with Booker T's MGs at Exhibition Stadium, on assignment for SPIN magazine. I've written before about how little I enjoyed that particular assignment. The band were just a few months away from releasing Superunknown and the single "Spoonman." I slipped away from the band around that time, partly losing interest in their musical direction, partly feeling that I was getting a bit old for the rock thing.

Cornell's voice never seemed to fail him, and over a decade later he recorded the first Bond movie theme I've liked since "Live and Let Die." I remember thinking at the time that it shouldn't have been at all surprising that he turned out to be the Tom Jones of my generation.

After witnessing the tragic ends of Cornell, Scott Weiland and Kurt Cobain, just to name a few, it would seem that the rock stars of my generation are a troubled bunch. I wish I could explain this with something better than a half-hearted guess or an overused generalization, but I can't. Weiland and Cobain's deaths weren't, either in retrospect or at the time, terribly surprising, but Cornell's came as a shock. I don't really have much to offer except a prayer for his family.

Chris Cornell died in Detroit on May 17, 2017.