Monday, September 19, 2016

Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 1998

THERE'S AN ASSUMPTION YOU MAKE DOING CELEBRITY PORTRAITURE that every shoot is the only chance you'll get to capture a subject. This is probably a good thing - you might not strive to get the best in whatever time or circumstances you have if you know you'll get a mulligan at a later date. Which is why it's always interesting when chance puts someone in front of your camera more than once.

I shot Paul Schrader the first time at the film festival in 1998, when his career had one of its cyclical revivals with Affliction, a movie based on a novel by the then very fashionable Russell Banks and a critical hit. The film was shot in Quebec, and one of my best friends was its cinematographer, so I had that, at least, to break the ice when I set up my Rolleiflex and tripod in the hotel room (the old Four Seasons, I think) after draping a hotel curtain over a floor lamp to create a backdrop for what was obviously intended to be a NOW cover. (One of my last, it would turn out.)

Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 1998

The setup wasn't a million miles from the one I'd used to photograph Bjork a year previous, though the subject couldn't have been more different. Anyone who's ever used a Rolleiflex knows that it has a minimum focusing distance, and that if you want to get tighter, you have to fit it with one of a trio of close-up lenses. I own a couple of these lenses, which makes me wonder why I didn't reach for them to get a more intimate portrait of Schrader.

The truth is that I was intimidated by him. Schrader has done a lot of things in his career, but he's probably best known for writing the script for Taxi Driver, in addition to a raft of other films as either director or writer (Raging Bull, Blue Collar, Hardcore, Mishima, Bringing Out The Dead) of uncomfortable intensity and pitiless subject matter. His preoccupations always suggested a rather tortured psyche, and even while he sat, visibly basking in the warm glow of a festival hit film (I think there's more than a hint of self-satisfaction in his expression in these photos) I still felt moved to keep my distance.

Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016

Nearly twenty years later I met Schrader again, at another film festival with another violent and intense film to promote. Dog Eat Dog arrived in Toronto with advance word that it was a pretty grim piece of work, and some of the early reviews were equally grim, but Schrader's reputation was such that there was a lineup of critics and interviewers who wanted to talk to him, regardless of what they might have thought about the film.

I set up in an upstairs room in a building converted into a media lounge for the festival. He seemed to be in at a table in the restaurant downstairs most of the day, dealing with an endless lineup of interviewers, and I was told to get ready and hang on until he had a break in his schedule. I put up the black backdrop - it seemed appropriate - and positioned the two umbrella bounces to create the bubble of light and waited.

Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016

I am an older man than I was when I took the photos at the top of this post, and the gulf in age today between Schrader (70) and myself (52) feels a lot narrower than it did when I was 34 and he was 52. I might not be able to sit through a Paul Schrader film nowadays, but I certainly feel more moved to get up close to the man with my camera and try to see if I can get a glimpse of something behind his eyes that gives a key to what is often a harrowing vision of the world.

These are much simpler portraits than the ones I took eighteen years ago. They're also much better ones, I think, and not just because I didn't have an obligation to fit a client's cover format, or an urge to pursue a photographic style that seemed germane to my career. When I sat Paul Schrader down on the ottoman between my lights and my backdrop, I was getting that rarest of things - a second chance to take a better portrait of a person whose work has made an impression on me (although not always a pleasant one.) At this point in my career I can't help but cherish these opportunities.

Friday, September 16, 2016

TIFF 2016

Rebecca Hall, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016

MORE OF MY PORTRAITS WERE SHOT IN A HOTEL ROOM THAN IN ANY OTHER PLACE. More specifically, most of - and frequently the best - of these photos were taken during the Toronto International Film Festival, amidst a hectic week and a half running from hotel to hotel with a writer, setting up, shooting and moving on in brief windows of anywhere from five minutes to ten seconds.

This simple fact has become sharply obvious in the last two years, as I've excavated through my archives scanning images for this blog. I used to think I didn't miss this hectic, barely-controlled frenzy of shooting, but as I've been working away I felt a challenge building up: Could I still pull myself together and produce some decent portraits in the hothouse conditions of the festival?

Last winter, during the Auto Show press day, I approached Andrew Powell, a friend and colleague who publishes and edits The Gate, an entertainment website. I offered him my services - free of charge - to shoot portraits for his site's festival coverage. He could do anything he wanted with them, but the only condition was that I be allowed to shoot them my way - whatever that might be. To my surprise he said yes.

The studio in a bag, in use

I had the whole spring and summer to mull it over. I didn't want to fall back on the informal DSLR working method I was forced to use while shooting the Festival for the free national daily, but I knew I could no longer return to the Rolleiflex-on-a-tripod days of NOW magazine, for the very simple reason that I didn't want to shoot film, and no longer felt like coping with unpredictable factors like whatever light and backgrounds presented themselves in hotel rooms. I'd done that; I wanted a challenge.

I decided to use my studio in a bag. Two bags, actually, one holding my light stands and umbrellas, the other with my cameras and light sources - two cheap, Chinese-made socket and umbrella holders, and a pair of household LED lightbulbs equivalent to about 100 watts of tungsten light. It was as light and cheap a  kit as I could come up with, producing just enough illumination to shoot with digital cameras at relatively comfortable shutter speeds.

As for a backdrop, I slipped a collapsible light reflector into the pocket of the camera case. White on one side and silver on the other, it would be just big enough for head shots. After testing it out on willing audience members at a punk rock club last winter, I got my first bookings from Andrew and set off to cover TIFF again for the first time in nearly a decade.

Erika Linder, Toronto, Sept. 8, 2016
April Mullen, Toronto, Sept. 8, 2016
Natalie Krill, Toronto, Sept. 8, 2016

My first shoot was with the director and stars of Below Her Mouth, a Canadian film about a lesbian romance that premiered on the first weekend of the festival. With the umbrellas set up close to my subjects to create a balloon of flat light, and with some judicious Photoshop retouching to bleach the background to white, I ended up with a trio of simple, even stark portraits that set a benchmark for my first day. This was the sort of work I already knew I could produce, but what could I do next?

Kreesha Turner, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016
Anne Emond, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016
Mylene Mackay, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016

The next day began by shooting Kreesha Turner, a Canadian singer, now living in L.A., who had starred in a musical called King of the Dancehall. She had her hair and makeup people on hand when I showed up the airBnB she'd rented for the Festival, where space was so tight that I opted to use a kitchen wall and a north-facing window, with just one of my LED lights providing fill.

The next shoot was in another hotel room, with the director and star of a Quebec film called Nelly, a biopic of sorts about Nelly Arcan, a sex worker-turned-novelist who was a sensation in Quebec before her suicide in 2009. I shot Anne Emond, the director, with the same flat light I'd used the day before, but when Mylene Mackay, the film's star, walked in I decided to model the light a bit more, pulling the umbrellas away from her to get more shadows and drop off more steeply to turn the background gray.

At work photographing Mylene Mackay, photo by W. Andrew Powell

At the end of the previous day I realized that the little white reflector would quickly get limiting in terms of potential backgrounds and composition, so I made a quick trip to Vistek and bought a bigger collapsible backdrop, black on one side and white cloth on the other. It was the first serious investment in photo equipment I'd made in many, many years.

As I paid with my debit card it occurred to me that this was it - I was taking a serious step back into professional portraiture after walking away many years ago. Hopefully this wouldn't end with the same heartbreak as it did last time.

Robbie Amell, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016
Tony Elliott, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2016

My next shoot was with the star and director of ARQ, a sci-fi film produced by Netflix. We were back at the old Intercontinental on Bloor, where I'd shot so many of my TIFF portraits for the free national daily, and I let the new backdrop spring out of the bag with an uneasy flourish, unsure if I knew how to get it back in again.

I placed my umbrellas in a crossfire on either side of my subjects' faces, wanting to get something dramatic (and, well, sci-fi) with the black backdrop. Still conditioned to shoot tight by my little reflector, I stuck to close-ups with Robbie Amell, the star, but let myself move back a bit for Tony Elliott, the director, exploring the unexpected new space.

Rebecca Hall, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016
Craig Shilowich, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016
Paul Schrader, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2016

Several days passed before my next shoots. Andrew had to go out of town and the weekend didn't turn out to be as subject rich, so it was Wednesday before I was back at TIFF with my studio in a bag. I arrived early at the media suite just off of King West intending to set up with plenty of time, and was given a nice big spot on the top floor. I was just clipping together my last pieces of gear when the publicist came back and asked me if I wouldn't mind moving downstairs as the talent were on a tight schedule and couldn't spare the extra minute required to travel between floors.

And then I remembered what shooting at TIFF was like. I rushed downstairs and was still putting the studio in a bag back up when the publicists asked me if I was ready to go. Now sweating, I hurried to get everything back in place and motioned for British actress Rebecca Hall to sit down, trying to break the ice by complimenting her on her role in a BBC miniseries of a Ford Madox Ford novel a few years previous. She seemed surprised that anyone here had seen it.

I had less than a minute, but I think these were my best portraits of the festival - simple, direct, and maybe even a bit elegant. This was exactly the sort of work I'd been longing to do as soon as I approached Andrew about taking another shot at TIFF after my long break. I was under the gun and barely able to get her to swivel her head around a few times while I shot, but everything looked good in the viewfinder.

As the film's writer and producer was motioned to take Rebecca's place, one of the publicists leaned in and whispered to me, "You have ten seconds." I captured one pose in colour and black and white, hoped Andrew wouldn't mind the lack of choice, and thanked my subject for his time.

My last shoot of the day was in the same building, just after lunch, with writer and director Paul Schrader, the man who wrote Taxi Driver. I'd shot him before, nearly twenty years previous, in my last Festival working for NOW, which also felt like something between an omen and a milestone. But more about that later.

As I broke down the studio in a bag I couldn't deny feeling some satisfaction with the week's work, with the small but significant creative challenges I'd been presented and my ability to deal with the sometimes infuriating demands of festival shooting. Very well, I thought - so what next?

Arnold Oceng, Toronto, Sept. 16, 2016
Noel Clarke, Toronto, Sept. 16, 2016
Jason Maza, Toronto, Sept. 16, 2016

CODA: It was on and then it was off and then it was on again. On the next to last day of the festival I had a shoot with actor/director Noel Clarke - Mickey from Dr. Who, as my daughter knows him - and the cast of Brotherhood, the last film in a trilogy Clarke began ten years ago.

They were jokey and blokey and a little punch drunk from doing interviews and waiting around in hotel hallways - pretty much typical of everyone at the end of the festival. I didn't bring the big black backdrop and set up the little white reflector instead, wanting to see what my photos would look like using the same setup as the first day of shooting, but after a week of taking pictures.

Everything was a little looser, mostly due to the rapport between the three men - who gently but persistently insulted each other while they were being photographed - but also since I knew I hadn't done anything lighthearted all week. Time to let someone really smile, I thought.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Melanie Doane

Melanie Doane, Parkdale, June 1998

I HAVE ALWAYS LIKED THESE PORTRAITS. They were made a decade after I moved into my Parkdale studio, and represent the point at which I'd achieved what I jokingly call a rudimentary mastery of studio portraiture. They also mark the beginning of an end, though I wouldn't have known that at the time.

Melanie Doane was a singer and songwriter from Nova Scotia who'd gotten signed to Sony Records Canada on the strength of an independent record she'd put out. I was assigned to shoot her for the cover of NOW, at the point when we no longer did black and white shots for the inside cover, having graduated to full colour interior pages.

Melanie Doane, Parkdale, June 1998

She was very nice. Her father was famous as a music educator back in the Maritimes - "Mr. Ukelele," thanks to his championing the humble, cheap stringed instrument - and Melanie had inherited his missionary attitude about music in schools. The lighting scheme I favoured at this point - strobes ringed tightly around the camera lens with carefully positioned modifiers to soften the light without blunting its specular quality - had the advantage of being flattering to most subjects, but that wasn't a problem I obviously had with Melanie Doane.

My bedside manner as a photographer had also improved by this point to where I could stage direct subjects through stock poses to those fascinating expressions people make when they're trying to think about what to do next. The shot at the top was a perfect example of that; I'm not sure if it was picked for the cover, but I know it's the one I lobbied for the hardest.

She also arrived with the resources of the record company behind her, which included a hair and makeup person and a choice or wardrobe. I didn't mind, as long as they didn't get in the way of a good shot, and I even squeezed of a frame when the makeup artists leaned in for a quick touch-up.

Melanie Doane, Parkdale, June 1998

For the interior shot I swapped in a big piece of fake grass I had sitting around from another shoot, which provided texture and colour and nicely set off her skin tone and camisole. Overall my memory of this shoot is how calmy competent I felt about it all, underlined in hindsight by the fact that I shot it all on transparency instead of colour neg, either straight or cross-processed. Shooting slide, which had far less leeway or forgiveness for mistakes, meant that I could judge the colour temperature of the film ahead of time and use filters to nudge the finished shots to something pleasing.

The shoot must have gone well because several months later I was hired by the record company to take promo photos for Melanie. This time Sony called the shots, and had a menu of images they wanted to see - a few of which were clearly outside my comfort zone, and some very much more like the work I'd seen other photographers doing. To this day I don't understand why you'd bother spending your career developing a style, only to be hired to ape someone else's.

Even more regrettable, though, was the wardrobe they'd picked out for the shoot - a sort of schoolgirl deal, complete with the knee socks, which I thought was rather inappropriate for a grown woman. The whole thing made me intensely uncomfortable, and I suppose it followed through in the work, which didn't please Sony at all, and I never bothered asking for them to return it, which is why none of it appears here.

Melanie Doane is still performing and recording - self-financed releases, of course, in the absence of any meaningful support from the much-diminished major labels - and has continued her father's work by setting up a foundation for music education.

This would be the last record company promo shoot I would do, which is deeply ironic in hindsight considering how badly my first one, with Crash Vegas, had turned out eight years earlier. I suppose I've never had much respect for major record labels, which probably didn't finesse my attitude, but they always seemed to opt for the worst choice of any possible number of options.

My long working relationship with NOW magazine would also end not long after this, as would my tenancy in my Parkdale studio. By the time the '90s ended I was no longer doing anything I had been working so hard to achieve at the start of the decade, and my time as a studio photographer was all but over.

Friday, September 9, 2016

John Bottomley

John Bottomley, Toronto, April 1995

WHEN YOU MAKE A LIVING DOING PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY, you sometimes anticipate some subjects more than others. There are always a few people you admire, and every portrait photographer I ever knew had a "list" of subjects they were aching to get. After a while you learn that it's not a great idea, usually because any situation that produces a less than ideal shot is a huge disappointment. Sometimes you just have to let yourself be surprised.

I knew John Bottomley from Tulpa, a band he led with his brother Chris in Toronto in the '80s. Even in a scene full of unique, even oddball groups that conformed to no particular genre, never mind to each other, Tulpa stood out. Ambitious, odd, even mystifying - frankly they intimidated me, and it would be years before I'd come to appreciate them.

By this point they'd broken up and John had gone on to a solo career, re-inventing himself as a singer/songwriter in a slightly melancholic folk-rock vein. Just as he was releasing Blackberry, his most successful record, I was assigned to shoot him for a profile in NOW magazine.

John Bottomley, Toronto, April 1995

I did these profiles all the time, and usually expected to get through them in a single roll. I showed up at what I remember as a downtown office for the interview to find Bottomley decked out in a silver suit, clearly willing to meet any photographer more than halfway, which is always inspiring.

I found a nice patch of north light in the office, flat and clean, and shot him there first asking him to do things with the suit. Looking through the viewfinder at the way the silver fabric was reflecting in the cool window light, I couldn't help but wonder why everyone didn't wear silver suits all the time.

John Bottomley, Toronto, April 1995

I finished a couple of rolls with John in the office and asked if he'd be willing to step outside for another one. We were right off Queen West, near a hydroelectric facility I'd passed for years and always wanted to use. The light was the perfect overcast for what I wanted to do, and I posed John underneath one of the big carved stone signs outside the building, and by one of the enormous service doors.

John Bottomley, Toronto, April 1995

John was a great subject, and understood instinctively how to strike the right attitude; the shoot was that rare thing - a collaboration, with people on both sides of the camera working toward something like the same goal. I ended up with plenty to choose from, and felt bad that NOW could only run a single shot. At least one of these frames would end up in my portfolio for as long as I had one.

As I said, the record John Bottomley released when I took these pictures did well for a Canadian release, but that's always more a curse than a blessing, and between the industry's general inability to understand a really creative and idiosyncratic musician like him and the freefall collapse of the whole business in the digital era, John ended up like a lot of other musicians, living from release to self-funded release. Some artists can endure this rough independence; some even thrive on it. Others are worn down by the effort and the diminishing returns.

John Bottomley committed suicide in Brackendale, BC on April 6, 2011.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Suzie Ungerleider

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale, Nov. 1996

I MET SUZIE UNGERLEIDER FOR THE FIRST TIME WHEN SHE ARRIVED AT MY STUDIO for a NOW magazine cover shoot. She had come highly recommended by Tim Perlich, one of the writers at the paper and someone whose taste most closely matched my own.

He said she was a singer/songwriter from British Columbia who went by the moniker Oh Susanna; she had recently moved here and Tim thought she was very, very good. He'd pushed to put her on the cover, which was the sort of thing that NOW, to its credit, was willing to do - devote precious cover space to a largely unknown musician from out of town with just one EP to her name.

I had, by the mid-'90s, begun boiling my studio shooting style down to a very stark template, using simple backgrounds and focusing my light tightly on the subject, tinkering with modifiers - reflectors, soft boxes, grids, bounces, gels - in the most minute variations. I wanted to produce the most graphic photos I could, and I was still using cross-processing to boost contrast and colour saturation in shots like the one above.

The flowers were props left over from another shoot that Suzie picked up and decided to use. Like a lot of photographers, I'd become fond of the look of my Polaroid tests, and laboured mightily to make the final shot look as much like them as possible. This required more work than might seem obvious.

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale, Nov. 1996

At this point the inside shots for NOW's cover stories were still in black and white. I did a couple of rolls of Suzie posing on the love seat that lived in my studio - the spot where I did most of my reading in the north light that came from Queen Street through my windows. I'd come to love this flat, soft light, and decided to use it, turning my seamless stand around, loading it with a four and a half foot roll instead of the customary nine foot wide one and placing it halfway down my shooting space with the windows behind me.

I liked to think of these shots as full-body mug shots, and intended them to run full frame, with all the studio detritus visible on either side of the shot in plain view. The fact is that I loved my studio space, and liked to showcase it whenever I could. Maybe I knew that I wouldn't be here forever, and that I should celebrate it as often as possible. My subjects - people like Suzie, who arrived on my doorstep with barely an introduction - were really just an excuse to do this.

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale, Nov. 1998

I was quite fond of my shoot with Suzie, and after running into her socially a few times, she ended up asking me if I'd be interested in shooting the photos for Johnstown, her first album, recorded with members of Blue Rodeo. We started at my studio, and moved down to an old warehouse on Liberty Street where the album was recorded.

I'd pared down my studio lighting even more by this point, grouping my lights in a tight ring around my lens, carefully balancing them to put a clean, specular spotlight on the face while adjusting the intensity of the background colour by simply moving it nearer or farther from the subject. I had books of diagrams and measurements and ratios to keep track of the tiny variations from shoot to shoot, trying to hone down to a perfect, magic formula.

Suzie Ungerleider, Toronto, Nov. 1998

Since I'd shot her for NOW's cover, Suzie had cut her hair into bangs that reminded me of a film noir actress, so I said I wanted to make the shots outside and in the warehouse to look like stills from a '50s B-picture. As with any shot at this sort of thing, there was probably more than a bit of Cindy Sherman implicated in taking this kind of photo, but that didn't bother me.

Suzie Ungerleider, Toronto, Nov. 1998

I shot a few rolls of cross-processed colour and several more in black and white, a couple by the loading dock at the back of the building that had, by this time, become an iconic location for band shoots in or around Dale Morningstar's Gas Station studio and the Liberty Village area in general. I know I'd used it at least a couple of times before this; since the wholesale redevelopment of the area it's been stripped away.

I was pretty pleased with the shoot, and was a bit disappointed when the record was released with artwork and not a photo on its cover - even though I did quite like the artwork Suzie chose. My shots ended up somewhere inside the booklet, though I'm not sure how they turned out since I never got sent a copy of the album.

Suzie Ungerleider still tours and records, under the usual modest circumstances that this country's best musical acts contend with. She's definitely rewarded the confidence Tim Perlich had in her twenty years ago, when he sent her to my studio to undergo my somewhat obsessive photographic ministrations.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016


Crash Vegas, Parkdale, August 1990

I SHOT A LOT OF BANDS IN MY HEYDAY AS A STUDIO PHOTOGRAPHER. Many of them were local acts, and a few of them were friends. One of the first promo shoots I ever did for a record company was Crash Vegas, a band that I'd seen live a few years earlier when Greg Keelor from Blue Rodeo was a member, and when they had a far more goth-y, post-punk sound than the roots/country band that I shot in my Parkdale studio that summer at the turn of the '90s.

I was friends with Ambrose Pottie, their drummer, who might have been the source of this job. On the day I set up a big, skylight-like softbox in front of a roll of gray seamless and explained to the band that I wanted them to sit or lie on the floor of my studio in a tight group - the better to keep my composition neat - while I shot with Agfapan 25, the slowest film I could find, to get the most smooth, detailed negative possible,

I also told them that the aperture would be very wide, and that the whole band probably wouldn't be in focus for every frame. I shot countless Polaroid tests to show the look I wanted, and the band - singer Michelle McAdorey and bassist Jocelyne Lanois seemed to be in charge of the shoot - said they liked what we were getting, so we moved to film.

I shot a fair number of rolls that day, but when I sent it along to the band and the record company it didn't go over well, precisely because of the narrow depth of field I'd tried so hard to sell on the day of the shoot. I don't know if any of these shots ever got used, and I felt quite bad for Ambrose after all of this. Years later I'd end up living with my wife and young daughters above a coffee shop a few blocks north of my old studio, where Michelle and her young son were neighbours. I'm sure she recognized me as we stood, watching our toddler children play with each other outside the cafe or around the corner at the park, but neither of us ever mentioned this shoot.

The Satanatras, Toronto, July 1992

One of my regular hangouts in the early to mid-'90s was Rotate This, a record store then on Queen West near Bathurst run by my buddy Pierre Hallett. The store's backroom was an occasional concert space, but for a while it was rented out by the Satanatras, who were probably one of the best bands on an almost wholly unsung musical scene in Toronto at the time.

We became friends, and when I was assigned to shoot them for NOW's weekly band profile page, they told me they were going to do a bit more than look moody in the backyard of their bassist's house or some park adjacent to their rehearsal space. The band showed up in full KISS makeup and the results of a raid on a friend's costume rental house, and we did the shoot on a weekend in the nearly empty financial district, in the vast sculpture courtyard of the TD Bank towers.

They released a cassette and a record and then broke up - bassist Bernie Pleskach ended up in instrumental combo The Stinkies, for whom I shot a NOW cover and a CD, Jeff Beardal is some kind of boffin and Dallas Good formed the Sadies with Sean Dean and his brother Travis and became the finest band in Canada. I still think the Satanatras' "Powerful Wonderful" is one of the best singles to come out of this city.

Violent Brothers, Danko Jones, Toronto, July 1995

The Violent Brothers were another band from this same scene, and another footnote mostly because they were an early version of what became Danko Jones. I shot Danko and Paul Ziraldo at what I remember as an apartment in a house near Bathurst and Bloor. What struck me was how meticulous they were when I arrived, having set up drums in the nicest spot of light in the gable at the top floor of the house. Few bands put this sort of aesthetic care into a NOW band shoot.

I shot everything with my Rolleiflex, and the shot of Danko at the drums was part of a diptych I submitted to Irene at NOW. I did another roll of the two of them together as well, and I was always fond of this shoot for how unexpectedly elegant it turned out, as elegance was something I always strived for in a portrait but rarely achieved with a rock band.

King Cobb Steelie, Parkdale, January 1997

King Cobb Steelie were another Toronto group who were, for quite a while, probably the best band playing Queen West. I'd shot front man Kevan Byrne's old band, Heimlich Maneuver, for Graffiti magazine and ended up seeing his new group at the urging of my roommate Sally and upstairs neighbour Don Pyle. They were a natural fit for me, drawing from the same stew of music I listened to on my own - dub reggae, post-punk, Bill Laswell, world music, trance, Bill Laswell, techno and Bill Laswell.

I don't know how many times I saw them live, and I'm still not sure how I ended up doing this band portrait in my Parkdale studio around the time they released Junior Relaxer, their third record. It might have been for NOW, but I shot both slide and black and white film of this setup, so it may have been a promo shoot for their record company. I wanted to do something stark, so I asked them to all wear black and set them up in a crossfire of hard lights in front of a black seamless.

To be frank, it doesn't really capture the essence of the band, but I wanted to give them a simple, usable promo image that would stand out on a busy newspaper page. They're still active, at least according to their Wikipedia page, though their website doesn't have anything posted more recently than three years ago.

Sloan, Parkdale, January 1997

Sloan were technically a Halifax band, but they were all living in Toronto by the time I got to know them, mostly through Andrew Scott, their drummer, who lived with his wife above Rotate This. They swept into the public eye and an American record deal on the coattails of grunge, though they were a far more interesting band than that, and despite constantly being on the verge of breaking up, put out a series of great, unique records throughout the '90s that were smart and tuneful and generally acquitted Canada musically.

I was assigned to shoot them for a NOW cover after they'd released One Chord to Another, and when they showed up at my studio I explained that I was going to do a basic, Beatlesque high-key studio shot with cross-processed film to boost the colours and contrast. They were all pretty graphically savvy guys, and when I finished my spiel Chris Murphy shrugged and said "Of course, that usually comes out all green."

His comment rang in my head throughout the whole shoot and for the next day until I was able to get into the darkroom to make my prints. I worked overtime in the rented darkroom at Toronto Image Works to correct every bit of green cast from the shots I handed in to NOW. Of course, when the cover ran a week or so later, it had a glaring green cast on the paper's cheap newsprint. It's only now, with the control afforded by Photoshop, that I can finally publish these shots the way I intended them to be seen.

The Headstones, Parkdale, October 1997

The Headstones formed in the late '80s in Kingston, Ontario and I shot them a decade later for NOW in my Parkdale studio. They had a dodgy public image, fueled mostly by occasional drug problems among band members and front man Hugh Dillon's confrontational attitude to both his audience and the music press.

I shot them under a big softbox in front of a simple seamless backdrop - a basic Penn/Avedon light scheme that served me and a million other photographers well. I went through a few rolls trying to get them to do something that captured the band's rather menacing image, and ended up with this shot, which I visualized ahead of time as the sort of thing you probably didn't want to see when you'd fallen off your stool in a bar you'd been warned about.

The band broke up, Dillon cleaned up, slimmed down and made a name for himself as an actor, and then - as seems to be so much the thing nowadays - they reformed to play for a dedicated audience who respond strongly to their songs about desperate living and (I have it on good authority) will do quite a bit of damage to a bar or concert hall while boosting liquor sales for the night.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Jane Siberry

Jane Siberry, Toronto, August 1993

I FIRST HEARD JANE SIBERRY WHEN "MIMI ON THE BEACH" WAS A HIT on the radio in my college years. Ten years later I was assigned to photograph her for NOW at her home, somewhere in or around the Annex neighbourhood in Toronto - what I remember as a little two-storey house with a big garden. I was expecting someone a bit quirky and distant, and that was exactly who I met, so I set about trying to take a portrait of a subject who didn't seem much interested in addressing my camera.

This must have been a cover shoot because I did two rolls of colour 120 film - cross-processed in different directions - and a single roll of black and white 35mm. The shot at the top was the one that suggested itself most strongly - a big vase of oversized blooms sitting under a skylight near the front door. Her all-white outfit looked vaguely futuristic, so I framed the shot like a still from a sci-fi film - arranging flowers on some moon colony where the plants grow bigger.

Jane Siberry, Toronto, August 1993

Out in the garden I went for something a bit more pre-Raphaelite, posing Siberry among the vines and leaves, with her dog curled up by her feet. I didn't give her much direction - I rarely do - and just shot while she gave the old dog the sort of attention old dogs like - soothing pats and back rubs. I didn't notice the echo of her gesture in the birdbath sculpture behind her until much later.

Jane Siberry, Toronto, August 1993

Finally, I wanted to do something with the dappled light coming through the trees overhead, and loaded in a roll of negative film for cross-processing as transparency. I knew the highlights would probably take on a peachy, blown-out cast while the shadows would come out cyan-blue - an otherworldy effect that seemed appropriate.

As with most negative-to-transparency cross-processing, the effect was very uncontrolled and a bit underwhelming, at least in the era before Photoshop. Over twenty years since I took this photo, I was finally able to change the balance between the shadows and highlights and bring out the stray colour effects to produce the sort of psychedelic pictorialism I had in my mind.

Jane Siberry was on the verge of a major change in her career when I took these photos. The album she was promoting, When I Was A Boy, would be the last made with longtime collaborator Ken Myhr, and the second last for Reprise. She started her own label, Sheeba, moved to New York City, then moved back to Toronto. Even before digital downloading changed the way the music industry worked, she took charge of her career outside of the big label business model and turned music-making into a sort of cottage industry.

Ten years ago she sold most of her possession and her home - I'm presuming the one I photographed her in here - on eBay, kept one guitar and a few CDs and changed her name to Issa. She embarked on a European tour that saw her play cafes and fans' homes, and made her back catalogue downloadable on her website for free. In 2009 she changed her name back to Jane Siberry, and has put out her most recent records with crowdfunded support.

While I've never totally understood what Jane Siberry has done musically, it's hard not to respect someone who understood instinctively that the music business is not the most sympathetic to music making and acted accordingly. She has been - and this is a very loaded compliment - a very Canadian success story.