Monday, February 20, 2017

Francesco Rosi

Francesco Rosi, Toronto, Sept. 1994

WHILE THE DECADE DIDN'T SEEM TO HAVE MUCH TO RECOMMEND IT AT THE TIME, I've come to miss the '90s. There were a lot of things that I took for granted that I would learn - too late - were on their way to disappearing. Things like quality literature on the bestseller lists, the last pretense of political objectivity in the news media, the news media itself for that matter, and art house cinema.

Francesco Rosi began his career as a children's book illustrator and a reporter before he began his career in film working as an assistant to Luchino Visconti. He made his first film as a neorealist before moving away with a series of ever more stylized films about politics, organized crime and corruption - subjects that Italians sadly know more about than most other countries. By the time he made More Than A Miracle with Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif, he'd moved far from the neorealist camp.

Francesco Rosi, Toronto, Sept. 1994

Rosi was at the film festival in 1994 to publicize Carmen, his film version of the Bizet opera starring Julia Miguenes and Placido Domingo. There was a day when filmed operas were something seen regularly on movie screens, and not just as simulcasts from the Met in New York. One more thing to add to that list of things I didn't know were disappearing - opera as part of mainstream culture.

Rosi said his main inspiration for the film was Gustav Dore's illustrations of Spain, which he was sure were a major visual resource for Bizet, who had never been to the country. I had learned about Dore over a decade earlier in art class at school, and was obsessed with his engravings for Dante's Inferno and the Bible for years. I still have one on the wall of my office. And there's another thing that's gone - high schools teaching kids about 19th century French illustrators and Dante.

Francesco Rosi, Toronto, Sept. 1994

I'm guessing I photographed Rosi at one of the main film festival hotels - the Sutton Place or the Four Seasons, also both gone now. The wallpaper was an appropriate backdrop; a neutral texture until you started to notice it, and I took pains with these scans to bring it out a bit more than I would have in the original prints I handed in to NOW magazine.

I don't think Rosi could have looked more like an Italian film director, do you? He has a relaxed dignity, helped along nicely no doubt by his well-tailored blazer and boulevardier shades. His very wry smile does a lot to convey a man who's keeping a good joke to himself. He had more than enough self-possession that my instructions to him while we shot were probably minimal, though it was only the thousandth time in my life when I wished I spoke Italian.

Francesco Rosi died at home in Rome on January 10, 2015.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Auto Show

OVER A DECADE AGO I WAS ASSIGNED TO SHOOT MY FIRST AUTO SHOW, and it was a huge part of my reawakened passion for cars. Media Day at the Canadian International Auto Show was a much bigger affair then, spreading through the whole of the downtown convention centre and into the Skydome nearby. As a photographer, it gave you the only chance you'd have to shoot the cars in a relatively uncrowded setting, before thousands of hands had run over the the paint and smeared the windows and lights.

It's a smaller auto show now, for a lot of reasons not worth going into here, and even Media Day was scaled back this year, but I had my accreditation again and wasn't going to miss an opportunity to capture the details and art unique to auto design, or the peculiar spectacle of an auto show in general, and the Media Day in particular.

This year was the first one I was under no obligation to shoot anything to illustrate an article on upcoming auto trends, so I decided to enter the show without a safety net. I put a fisheye lens on one of my DSLRs and a LensBaby on the other, and didn't bother packing a standard zoom lens for backup. I was hoping to get something that represented how I remember the highlights of an auto show - a record of the best bits of the cars I'd seen, recalled in a feverish reverie.

It's probably no surprise that there were no shots of Civics or Fiestas or Elantras on my camera's memory cards when I got home. Race cars and concepts and classic cars buffed and shined lovingly by proud owners; this is what got me really excited at that first auto show media day back in 2006, and it's what will probably keep pulling me back to convention centres and parking lots, museums and golf courses and public parks over and over again, with or without my camera.

This was probably also my last year with press accreditation, since the source of my credentials for the last six years decided that auto show coverage is no longer justified by the readership numbers. Maybe someone else might ask me to cover the Canadian International Auto Show again, but right now it looks like the wide open spaces of Media Day are over for me, and I'll be back to ogling the cars in the midst of the crowds again.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Peter Medak

Peter Medak, Toronto, Feb. 1994

LEARNING TO IMPROVISE WAS ALWAYS THE HARDEST PART OF SHOOTING PORTRAITS. I would show up for so many shoots with some sort of idea in my head - either something I wanted to try or a concept inspired by my subject's reputation - but I'd know in less than a minute whether I'd be able to give it a shot. Most of the time the answer would be "no."

I arrived to shoot Peter Medak without any idea in my head. I knew his work mostly because of The Ruling Class, his 1972 black comedy starring Peter O'Toole, which had been re-struck and re-released into the art house circuit several years earlier, and which I'd seen mostly because I was such a huge fan of the star. I knew he was born in Hungary, but I didn't know whether I'd be dealing with a mitteleuropean artist or an English director (it turned out to be more the latter.)

Peter Medak, Toronto, Feb. 1994

I decided to make the hotel room setting a feature, and even shoot a few frames of him eating his room service lunch as I set up. (He wasn't nearly as put out by my camera as he looks in this shot; he was, in fact, quite cooperative.) I don't think I would have done anything with this shot at the time - too afraid of presenting my editors with something a bit too offbeat. Today I'd have gone for this shot straight away, but then I no longer suffer from the illusion that I have anything to lose.

Medak was in town promoting Romeo Is Bleeding, a "neo-noir crime thriller" (as described by Wikipedia) starring Lena Olin and Gary Oldman. He'd had a very busy career since The Ruling Class, directing films as different as The Changeling and Zorro The Gay Blade before returning to a thriving British film industry to make The Krays and Let Him Have It. Like a lot of art house and indie directors from this period, he's worked more on TV lately, directing episodes of The Wire, House, Breaking Bad and Hannibal.

Peter Medak, Toronto, Feb. 1994

He was interested in what I was doing as I set up, and noticed my little case of Rolleiflex cameras. He mentioned that he had a photographer mate back in London who used them quite a bit.

"He owns a whole bunch of Rolleis. Maybe you've heard of him. David Bailey?"

Of course I'd heard of David Bailey. Frankly, I was thrilled to hear that a big deal photographer was still using the Rollei; in Toronto at the time it was something of an eccentricity, so thoroughly did Nikon and Hasselblad dominate the business. In retrospect I had a lot of Bailey photos rattling around in my head without knowing it; only now do I recognize how often I was referencing (or just stealing) something he did in my work. I've always regarded this shoot as a little brush with photo greatness - my two degrees of separation.

Friday, February 3, 2017

John Sayles

John Sayles, Toronto, Sept. 1994

MOVIE DIRECTORS, AS I'VE SAID BEFORE, WERE TO MY '90s what rock musicians were to my '80s. Back when independent film was viable and people could still pronounce "auteur" I shot a lot of movie directors for NOW magazine, mostly because movie studios and distributors had the budgets to fly them to town for a day of interviews.

John Sayles was probably the epitome of American independent cinema, having taken the classic career path, starting with a brief stint in Roger Corman's exploitation stable before making his first art house hit, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, a film that would later be known as the Baby Boomer pre-midlife crisis weekend story that wasn't The Big Chill. He was at the film festival with his latest film, The Secret of Roan Inish, a story about selkies set in rural Ireland, made between his women's picture (Passion Fish) and his western murder mystery (Lone Star.)

John Sayles, Toronto, Sept. 1994

Sayles' reputation was based on his talent with scripts, bolstered by his involvement on an early version of what would become E.T. and uncredited work on movies like Apollo 13. I was personally a big fan of Baby It's You, his 1983 film starring Vincent Spano (remember him?) and a young Rosanna Arquette, about young love doomed by class differences in the '60s. Americans tend not to be able to deal with the complex machinery of class very well, mostly for lack of a vocabulary to discuss it with candor, so Sayles' film felt exceptional, at least when I saw it in college.

Sayles is what the British refer to as a Man of the Left, but his take on class in Baby It's You was refreshingly free of Marxist tropes. The best thing about the film, though, wasn't how it dealt with class as much as its very moving portrayal of that frightening moment, just after high school, when life suddenly isn't so full of promise and opportunity as much as disappointment and the bracing realization that your capabilities might be more limited than you imagined.

He'd explored something similar in The Return of the Secaucus Seven, albeit with adults breaking into their thirties harrowed by a reprise of this brute reality. It endeared me to him quite a bit, though I remember being more than a bit disappointed by his follow-up film, The Brother From Another Planet, which I can't help but recall as a film that Spike Lee might have had more success with.

John Sayles, Toronto, Sept. 1994

I don't know why I put Sayles in the deep shadows of the hotel room where we did this shoot. Perhaps I was trying to say something about his reputation as a screenwriter and script doctor - one of the movie industry's more obscure jobs. Or perhaps I just liked this stark piece of light by a bit of bare wall.

I know that I was trying to capture something heroic with the shot at the top, not just because of Sayles' politics (Men of the Left tend to regard their political stances as implicitly heroic) but more particularly reflecting his role in the independent film scene, in which he was once a trailblazer and where he's now something of a survivor, and an endangered one at that.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Abel Ferrara

Abel Ferrara, Toronto, Sept. 1995

REPUTATION IS A USEFUL THING IN A PORTRAIT SHOOT. When a subject arrives for a sitting with a measure of fame and an established persona, a photographer can choose to either work with that or try to push against it, not quite subverting their subject's reputation as much as underscoring it with a theatrical contradiction.

Abel Ferrara's reputation definitely proceeded him when I took his photo during the 1995 film festival, where he was doing interviews to promote The Addiction, his latest film, alongside Lili Taylor, the films' star. Ferrara had started his career with low budget grindhouse films like Driller Killer, Fear City and Ms. 45. He was a New York City director, setting most of his films there in whta looked like a endless loop of the sleazy, '70s "Ford To City: Drop Dead" era, but there was always some simmering philosophical edge to his characters that finally took over with King of New York and, especially, Bad Lieutenant.

Abel Ferrara, Toronto, Sept. 1995

Ferrara didn't take off his shades for the whole shoot. He was dressed in the head-to-toe black uniform of the New York artist, punk rock brigade. None of that was surprising. If I'd had more time or an inkling that he had any inclination to shed the sunglasses at least I might have pushed for him to take them off, but my focus was on Taylor, so I decided to just document Ferrara and his persona with a full length portrait.

I have friends who have infinite patience for gritty, nasty films like Ms. 45, but I've never acquired the taste, so my interest in Ferrara began with Bad Lieutenant (which I saw after hearing a lot of good things about King of New York.) Bad Lieutenant was an angry, even ugly film, but it might be one of the most Catholic films I've ever seen, and my interest in its director isn't surprising since I have a lot of time for conflicted Catholics. (Ferrara later converted to Buddhism, but admits that he's a lapsed Buddhist as much as he's a lapsed Catholic.)

Lili Taylor & Abel Ferrara, Toronto, Sept. 1995

Ferrara is a poster boy for American independent cinema, going so far as to move from New York to Rome to be closer to funding for his films. He has also shed the black uniform for open neck shirts and summerweight suits, so much more appropriate to late middle-aged men living in Mediterranean countries.

I'll probably always be interested in whatever Ferrara does, though for my own mental health I tend to think hard before sitting down with his latest film. Along with directors like Paul Schrader, he's a survivor of a brief era when movies didn't plead for us to like them, and puts interesting actors in front of his camera. Needless to say, I'm itching for him to make another film with Christopher Walken, though some perverse part of me hopes that it will finally be the musical that I think Walken needs to make while he's still limber. That Fatboy Slim video simply wasn't enough.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Lili Taylor

Lili Taylor, Toronto, Sept.1995

WE MUST HAVE REALLY LIKED LILI TAYLOR A LOT AT NOW MAGAZINE because I seem to have photographed her for the cover twice in two years. Both shoots took place at the film festival, which was where I shot most of my really high profile portraits every year, and probably the reason why, long after I had left school, I still had the feeling that a new year really began in September and not January.

Taylor was having a good career back then. After supporting roles in Mystic Pizza and Born on the Fourth of July, she had her breakthrough in Nancy Savoca's Dogfight, co-starring with River Phoenix. My first shoot with her was probably when she was at the Festival promoting Savoca's follow-up, Household Saints, which seems to have disappeared into obscurity, as there's no DVD release and only VHS copies for sale online.

Lili Taylor, Toronto, Sept.1993

I met her at the Sutton Place Hotel and took her to a little park just north, next to St. Basil's church, and posed her in front of a stainless steel sculpture that's still there. The paper was obviously still in thrall to the "two-thirds blank space" cover template, so imagine the NOW logo at the top of the frame and type running down the right side of a cropped rectangle. It was challenging but never rewarding, and tended to suck the creative life out of a portrait shoot.

And yes, I know I'm making excuses.

Lili Taylor, Toronto, Sept.1995

The second shoot, two festivals later, was probably at the Sutton Place again, where Taylor was in a hotel room with director Abel Ferrara promoting The Addiction, a vampire story. By now the 2/3 template was history, and I could no longer be bothered trying to disguise the hotel rooms where I did so much shooting.

By the mid-'90s I was making the curtains, wallpaper and faux-antique furniture in hotels like the Sutton Place, Four Seasons and Park Plaza features in my photos; since I couldn't get all these people to come to my studio, it seemed more productive to treat the hotel rooms as studios, and turn their luxurious blandness into a feature.

Lili Taylor & Abel Ferrara, Toronto, Sept.1995

With the second Taylor shoot, I'd also decided to try something counterintuitive. Photographers are taught that one thing that separates amateurs from professionals is composition, and more specifically filling the shot with your subject instead of putting their face beneath the focusing grid in the centre of the frame. I'd diligently done this for years, but ten years into my career I thought it was time I tried to break learned habits and go against rules that were starting to seem arbitrary.

Taylor's defining role would come a year later when she played Valerie Solanis in Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol. It was the sort of role that an actress more concerned about sex appeal and prolonging her ingenue status would never have taken. Taylor was a lot more interesting than that, and she's continued working regularly to this day, shifting between movies and regular TV roles in shows like Six Feet Under and American Crime.

It's probably worth noting that Taylor, a striking and photogenic person, is the sort of actor Hollywood calls on when they need to cast a character that the script might call plain or even unattractive. This is one of the reasons why I don't think the word "realistic" should ever be used to describe a movie.

Monday, January 23, 2017

David Thewlis

David Thewlis, Toronto, Dec. 1993

MY MEMORY OF THE NINETIES IS THAT IT WAS A TIME WHEN MUSIC GOT WORSE AND MOVIES GOT BETTER. Going through my archives, it's obvious that shooting musicians gave way to photographing actors and directors during the heyday of the independent film and the last gasp of the art house cinema. I was certainly spending far more time in movie theatres than clubs, but this might be entirely subjective - the memories of someone slipping out of their twenties and into the treeless flatlands of early middle age.

Looking through the files, though, I keep finding portraits of actors who seem more interesting to me than their youthful counterparts today. Most of them are still working, a testament (I like to think) to their craft and personality and, most of all, enduring personas that keep them relevant to casting directors and audiences. To paraphrase Norma Desmond, they had faces then.

David Thewlis, Toronto, Dec. 1993

David Thewlis was thirty, just a year older than me, when I took these photos in a Toronto hotel room while he was doing press for Mike Leigh's latest film, Naked. He'd been in a few films in Britain, and after Leigh cast him as Jane Horrock's mopey boyfriend in Life is Sweet, he got his breakthrough role as the sourly confrontational Johnny, on the run and spoiling for a good argument in a dreary London suburb.

The film made me a huge fan of both Leigh and Thewlis, and I took the assignment with real excitement. It's obvious now that I wanted to get as much out of this session as possible, as I shot two rolls of medium format and one of 35mm film, moving my subject around the dim hotel room to get as many options as possible - as much work as I'd normally have done for a cover shoot.

David Thewlis, Toronto, Dec. 1993

This was still a time when shoot times were luxurious - a whole fifteen minutes before or after the interview, which allowed me to take my time finding a few good spots in or outside the room, metering carefully and setting up the Rolleis on a tripod. Toronto's downtown hotel rooms became my studio, and I memorized their layouts, usually heading for the corner near the window where ductwork created a tight little spot that caught the light.

I didn't know it at the time, but these hotel shoots would comprise most of the best work I did in the '90s - a first mature period in my portrait shooting which mostly ended up on newsprint in NOW's movie section, where I would never have been able to print these photos with the rich blacks and shadows they have here, given the limitations of cheap paper stock and print technology.

David Thewlis, Toronto, Dec. 1993

Thewlis had an angular elegance in front of my camera, and was a very amenable subject - I think he knew that this was his first big role, and he was happy to cooperate. I really liked the film - I was single and lonely and a little bitter and a lifelong impatience with small talk in social situations meant that I relished a good argument and a bit of confrontation. Long nighttime walks often presented me with street dramas and random encounters with other insomniac misfits. Leigh's film might have been more violent and desperate, but the setting wasn't unfamiliar.

Making small talk while we shot, I told Thewlis how much I liked the film, and how much I identified with Johnny.

"Oh," he said, a bit of concern and surprise in his voice. "I'm sorry to hear that."