Port Lands 2022

Yellow Bridge over Polson Slip, Toronto Port Lands, Nov. 2022

IT WAS A BAD WEEK, AND I NEEDED TO TAKE SOME PICTURES. I’d been stuck at my desk with writing gigs and I was watching the last days of decent weather go by, so I had to do something – go somewhere. Then the fog rolled in again. It’s been a foggy autumn, and while I love shooting in the fog, there were deadlines to meet, so I sat in my window looking outside at the weather for days and days until I couldn’t take it any more.

I’d been planning to start a hike with the cameras for my travel photo blog – another hometown travel piece, taking in as much of the Credit River as can be covered on public trails. But the leaves changed and then they fell and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get much more than brown and grey and late autumn dreariness. But then the fog beckoned, and I remembered the Port Lands, a reliable place for finding inspiration for three decades now. Time to get down there now; it was changing, and fast, and it might not be recognizable if I didn’t pay at least my annual visit.

Don River re-naturalization, Toronto, Nov. 2022

After decades of neglect, and as many plans that never came about, big changes were happening down in the Port Lands. A major landscaping project was restoring the mouth of the Don River to a wetland; acres of industrial brownfield were being dug and moved and shaped and roads were being shifted and bridges were being erected so that the dirty old river could flow into the lake more or less as it once had centuries ago. This was, of course, the prelude to a major redevelopment of the area. As soon as the river ran into its new channel and under the new bridges the condo towers would be going up. My reliable old source of inspiration will disappear gradually, so every visit has come to be a precious thing.

I also had a new toy I was dying to try out. Since I discovered that my Fuji mirrorless camera will take pretty near any old lens I can stick on the front, I’ve been collecting an odd gang of vintage glass. My latest purchase was a Schneider-Kreuznach Curtagon 28mm/f4 lens originally meant for a Kodak Retina Reflex camera. I have a soft spot for Kodak anything, so my purchase was as much a sentimental gesture as part of my ongoing quest to find unique optics that help make the photos I’ve had in my head for years. The big dent on the front of the barrel suggested a hard life, but it seemed to work fine, and as soon as I was able to order an adapter to make it fit my camera, I was desperate to see what it could do before winter forced me back indoors.

Cherry Street Strauss Trunnion Bascule Bridge, Toronto Port Lands, Nov. 2022
Ship Channel, Toronto Port Lands, Nov. 2022

I entered the Port Lands as I always have via Cherry Street, but with the two “red bridges” already in place on my right, I was reminded that Cherry will be moving soon, to cross the red bridges over Keating Channel on its way to the new “yellow bridge” already in use, over where the Polson Slip will become the new mouth of the Don. Villiers and Commissioners Street will be the two streets running the length of Villiers Island, a new geographic feature, and a new residential neighbourhood will move in to where businesses like CIMCO Refrigeration, Citiguard Security and Cooper’s Iron & Metal are now. Another new bridge on Commissioners will cross a re-routed Don River – the “orange bridge”, the longest of them all.

Cherry Street Strauss Trunnion Bascule Bridge, Toronto Port Lands, Nov. 2022

Right now, though, the site of the future Don River mouth is behind fences, the site filled with mounds of earth, excavators and cranes. South of this the bascule bridge over the Ship Channel remains, with fresh new sidewalks on either side, its rusted girders and flaking paint still there, the usual motley collection of boats moored on the channel wall. By this point in my walk I’m starting to see how nicely my new lens is working, though it won’t be until I get home and open up my files that I see how smoothly it’s rendering my shots, crisp detail retained despite the fog’s diffusion. (Click on any image to see a larger version.)

Past the Ship Channel nothing seems to have changed much in the Port Lands, so I take a left turn on to Unwin Avenue and walk along the disused railway tracks. There are traces in the grass and scrub of long-gone businesses, from back when this was supposed to be the bustling new port the city imagined, when it was still hoped that the St. Lawrence Seaway would make Toronto a major cargo port. The railway tracks were last used by a single train bringing chemicals to the wastewater treatment plant at Ashbridges Bay, but that line was severed three years ago and the tracks have grown over.

Sport Fields, Port Lands, Nov. 2022
Unwin Avenue, Port Lands, Nov. 2022

New uses like the sports field took the place of the tank farms, truck yards and warehouses. It’s a pretty melancholy place, with its marginal activity tailing off slowly but steadily every time I come down here. I’m sure it’s an eyesore to a city obsessed with density and development in prime lakeside locations like this, but I’ll miss it when it’s gone. Toronto used to be full of disused post-industrial areas like this; only the Port Lands remain today.

I was worried that I’d miss the fog as I made my way down to the Port Lands on public transit, but a new wave rolled in as soon as I crossed under the Gardiner and headed down Cherry Street. It persisted all the way across Unwin, briefly looked like it was lifting as I passed the empty Hearn Generation Station, and returned again when I got to the Portlands Energy Centre and the two short bridges over the little slip of water by the Outer Harbour Lookout. I don’t know where I’ll go to find landscapes like this on public transit, after the redevelopment of the Port Lands begins in earnest and these brownfields disappear, which they certainly will one day soon.

Slip by Outer Harbour Lookout, Port Lands, Nov. 2022
Leslie Street by Unwin Ave., Toronto, Nov. 2022

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Chris Buck: Behind the Scenes for Gentlemen’s Club – the Interview

Chris Buck, Toronto, Sept. 2021

LAST YEAR MY GOOD FRIEND CHRIS BUCK PUBLISHED GENTLEMEN’S CLUB, a collection of portraits of the partners of strippers, alongside very revealing long form interviews he did with his subjects. Last September he was in town, so I sat him down for an interview and portrait shoot – something I like to do whenever he has a milestone in his career as a photographer – a kind of “debrief” before he moves on to the next project.

I love the book, and was excited about the idea since he first told me about it eight years ago. It’s one thing to pursue a themed series of portraits of a subject that interests you – a lot of photographers do it, and Chris has made it a specialty – but it’s another to take the time to talk to your subjects and ask them to reveal themselves not just for your camera, but in their own words. Of course I had a lot of questions about how it all came about, and we talked about it for over an hour, the best of which I’ve published today on my Substack.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

Rick: I know that getting subjects wasn’t easy. You really struggled with that. I’d assume that put a bit more on their end of the power dynamic between subject and photographer.

Chris: How do you see the power dynamic playing out?

Rick: There’s always a power dynamic between sitter and photographer. With a celebrity it tends to be very loaded on their end. But when you’re shooting a civilian – for a job – they tend to be, I’m not going to say in a very submissive position, but they don’t hold the same amount of power.

Chris: With a celebrity, it’s an honour for you to photograph them, and for a regular person it’s an honour for them to be photographed by you.

Rick: Yes. This is different because the circumstances are different.

Chris: Because it’s all on the front end for them. Like a celebrity once they’re there they’re mine. Yes I did a lot of song and dance to get people to the table. One of the things I did early on was I’d talk with them or do a pre-scout. I stopped doing that, because people would ghost me. I learned pretty early – I need a time and an address and then I’d stop talking to them and just show up.


Rick: Yeah, I loved the photos, but I really loved the reading.

Chris: Thanks. The fact that you know me I think adds something to it because you hear me talking to people, you know my backstory, when I’m talking about something and I’m clueing in that I know the dynamics of a strip club, I’m revealing something about myself that I don’t necessarily mention in passing to people. I think also to that a lot of the jokes in the interviews, a lot of the throwaway one liners – most of which are cut out – but the best are kept in, and the people who know me find those ones funny because they can hear me saying them.

Like the one near the back – I don’t know if you’ve got to this one – where there’s a kid who had the dreads and he was a musician and he got these weird tattoos, and one of them was this line that cut the line of a frontal lobotomy, and I asked him “Why did you get that?” And he said, “Well, because of Trump.” And I said “I don’t understand.” So he explains, well, you know, makin’ a statement and all that. And my response was like “Have you found that the tattoo has affected the administration much?”

BUT BEFORE WE STARTED TALKING I took Chris down to a makeshift studio in our basement and did a quick portrait shoot to go with the interview. These portrait sessions are an even more regular ritual in the nearly four decades I’ve known Chris; I might have photographed him more than anyone else I’ve ever known or met, going back to when we’d test out gear or lighting or film by using each other as subjects.

My first idea was that I wanted to do a “Chris Buck” – an homage to his style – by doing the session in a strip club. When I mentioned it to him he didn’t seem hugely enthusiastic (it probably sounded too “on the nose”) and in any case time and the tail end of Covid restrictions made it an impossibility. Which forced me to try to boil down just what I’d hoped to get from a location shoot and make it happen in the basement of our semi-detached house.

If we’d done the shoot in a club, I’d be dealing with a dark space, and very mixed lighting sources thanks to stage lights other practical sources. Boiled down, that meant shooting against a black background, using colour gels and hard, “unflattering” light sources approximating those from backlit signs and neon.

Thanks to lockdowns, I hadn’t done a lot of portrait work for nearly two years. What I had done, on the other hand, was an awful lot of still life photography, so I had the idea to shoot Chris more as a still life than a portrait, using small, tight light sources instead of umbrellas or soft boxes or natural light. What I ended up rediscovering was a scaled-down version of the sort of old school portraiture you’d find done for Hollywood publicity departments in the ’20s and ’30s, or editorial “power portraits” that might have appeared in LIFE or Fortune in the ’40s and ’50s.

Chris Buck, Toronto, Sept. 2021

I started out with the little kit of LED lights I’d collected during lockdown still life shooting – a Lume Cube Panel and cube light set, kitted out with gels and barn doors and snoots. They’re turning out to be a useful lighting kit – extremely portable, and more than sufficient in situations where I can set them up tight on a subject, in a space without a lot of stray ambient lighting from windows or practical sources.

For the first set of portraits I went with my favorite portrait lens – my Kamlan 50mm/1.1, bought on Kickstarter a couple of years ago, and basically wide open for most of the shoot. Switching to a Fuji mirrorless camera a few years ago has gradually brought me back to shooting fully manual, and I’ve become far more adept at hitting focus with a very shallow depth of field than back when I was using my Rollei, or my old Pentax and Nikon cameras.

I chose a very eccentric palette of lenses for the shoot. Besides the Kamlan, I picked out a Bolex Paillard Switar 25mm/1.5 that I took off a Bolex 16mm cine camera I bought nearly thirty years ago (but never used). I’d been using it to shoot plants and flowers and discovered that it really didn’t focus to infinity but worked best close up – very close up on a human subject, as it turned out. The great thing about shooting another photographer, of course, is that you can count on them to have some idea of what you’re trying to do; with long experience shooting Chris, I know that he’s truly invested in the process.

Chris Buck, Toronto, Sept. 2021

I’d warned Chris that I’d be invading his personal space pretty harshly once I changed the lighting to a pair of LED heads shooting through umbrellas. With the Switar on my camera things got very tight – I was basically sitting in his lap. I discovered years ago that getting very close to a subject was a great way of forcing them away from practiced posing and eliciting the right kind of awkward (one hopes), and since making his subjects uncomfortable is something of a trademark for Chris, I didn’t imagine he had much room to complain.

Finally, I put one of my pinhole optics on my camera – my Thingyfy Pinhole Pro X, a zoom pinhole that lets you tighten up compositions without having to move closer. Once again, considering Chris’ modus operandi, I didn’t feel terribly guilty forcing him to hold poses for anywhere from eight to sixteen seconds, as the pinhole’s incredibly tiny aperture forces you to work like a Victorian portrait photographer.

Chris Buck, Toronto, Sept. 2021

My pinhole portraits have been fairly divisive among friends and peers, but I’m enjoying them immensely, and have a feeling with each new one I do that I’m edging closer to something really good. Every time I use it, I feel like I’m closer to that “eureka” moment. Proof of concept, however, will come with a commission for a published pinhole portrait.

The portrait and interview turned into an epic hang – always welcome with a friend who lives in another country. If you haven’t already, try to pick up a copy of Gentlemen’s Club – I don’t know anyone who’s doing photo books like Chris these days, and when they’re trading for several hundred bucks on the collector’s book market, you’ll just kick yourself.

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John MacLeod

John MacLeod, Toronto, Sept. 2022

THIS SHOOT WAS SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN OVER TWO YEARS AGO. At the beginning of 2020 I had just embarked on a project – portraits of musicians from around my hometown who I had followed or admired for years, but (in most cases) had never photographed – or did, but never to my complete satisfaction. Just after I did my shoot with John Borra, I had booked a session with John MacLeod at his studio/rehearsal space just as winter was ending but . . . we all know what happened next.

I kept in touch with John over the months as they turned into years, checking to see if he was still interested and, if he was, trying to keep the idea of the shoot alive. He was at the top of my list of subjects and as it began to feel like I’d dropped the thread of the whole project, I knew that a shoot with John was key to recovering lost momentum. And then, about a week or so ago, I got a call from John, inviting me to the premiere screening of a concert film featuring his first wave Toronto punk band, Johnny and the G-Rays. I told him that I’d already bought my ticket, but that since I had him on the phone , , ,

Johnny & the G-Rays live at the Palais Royale, 1979 dir: Randy Marsh

John MacLeod grew up in Thornhill, a suburb of Toronto, and was part of a youthful music scene there in the late ’60s and ’70s that would end up comprising a remarkable number of the city’s first wave of punk and new wave groups – by then centred downtown around the Ontario College of Art and the adjacent Queen Street West neighbourhood. Before then, though, John moved to England, where he worked as a roadie and witnessed the early stirrings of punk in London, seeing Joe Strummer playing with his pre-Clash pub rock band The 101ers, for instance. He returned to Toronto and formed the G-Rays, who ended up becoming mainstays of the scene.

In 1979, a year before they released their first (and only) LP, Every Twist Reminds, John and the band were approached by a young art student named Randy Marsh, asking if he could film an upcoming show they were headlining at the Palais Royale, an old dancehall right on the lake. Marsh was a fan of the band, and had saved up a fridge full of leftover high speed black and white 16mm stock, gifted to him by a cameraman at a racetrack who filmed the photo finishes of every race. Marsh put together a crew and got permission from the G-Rays to shoot the show, but apart from a couple of songs that were edited together as promo clips, the footage sat in cans for over four decades.

A decade ago, with the help and encouragement of John and his longtime collaborator, G-Rays guitarist Harri Palm, Marsh set about rebuilding the film with the aid of technology that didn’t exist when it was shot. John and Harri had been combing through their closets and storage spaces for years, with a plan to reissue live tapes and other archival material, and Marsh’s film was a perfect first blast to publicize their project. And so a film that nobody ever expected to see will be premiering at the recently renovated Paradise Cinema this Sunday.

John agreed to meet me at the rehearsal space he owns and manages just a few blocks north of Queen West and the art college. I brought the most stripped-down version of my studio-in-a-bag I could fit into the back of a taxi and showed up early – as John had significantly suggested he hoped I would. I told him it would only take about an hour to pull off three, maybe four different setups – a luxurious shoot schedule for someone like me, who has spent most of my career trying to get as much as possible in fifteen minutes or less (if I was lucky).

As with nearly every shoot I do nowadays, I put together a sampling of ideas and inspiration in my notebook, to help myself focus and give my subject some visual cues for what I hope to get. Ever since I began planning a shoot with John, I’d had one particular portrait – or group of portraits – in mind: Matthew Brady’s photos of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, shot near the end of the US Civil War. There’s a rawness and intensity to the pictures that I’ve always loved, and for some reason I imagined substituting John for Sherman in my own homage. Another inspiration was a painting of Aesop by Velasquez, as well as some close-up portraits – Marcel Duchamp by Avedon (I don’t know why I wrote Rene in the notebook, but I did), and a young John Hurt, shot by Snowdon.

John had set out clothes for the shoot and a few guitars; I showed him the notebook, and said I’d like to start with the Brady homage – what I considered the most challenging setup. I’m certain that Sherman was photographed under a studio skylight, but since there was no such light source in John’s space, I had to make do with two LED heads pointed through a pair of white shoot-through umbrellas. Since Brady doubtless shot with a fully open lens on his view camera, I put a 50mm/f1.1 lens on my Fuji body with the aperture wide open.

After I was sure that I had something close to my Brady ideal, I moved on to a setup closer to my comfort zone, and a series of close-up portraits. I had noticed that John’s jaw and shoulders would stiffen in front of the camera, so I sat on a stool behind the camera facing him for a sequence in front of a black backdrop and began a conversation, clicking the shutter as we talked to try and capture something more relaxed, perhaps even intimate.

John, both with the G-Rays and on subsequent records, has never been shy of showing his influences – a fan’s deep appreciation of old country and rockabilly, R&B, soul and jazz records. With the G-Rays the songs had a hard, angular shape suitable to the time and the band, but with subsequent records he moved closer to his original inspirations – like his 1985 solo LP Dynamite in the Stove (a great collection of songs diminished – as John admits – by some very ’80s production; he’s been working with producer Peter Hudson on a reissue of the record that strips away the period sonic trappings).

On the way into the rehearsal space I had noticed a concrete wall at the top of the stairs with a promising texture. It looked like a fine place to attempt the Velasquez, and while it presented a very tight space for a full-length shot, I decided to pull back and let the lights and wires into the frame. Looking at the sequence later, I decided that including them in the composition updated my inspiration. Putting an old East German Pentacon 50mm lens on the camera softened the focus immediately around John, and evoked the painterly quality I’d hoped to capture in at least one shot.

I liked the wall enough to stay there for a while longer, and moved the lights around for a more dramatic effect. The result was very much in my comfort zone – or the one I built for myself back in the ’90s, when portrait photography was my bread and butter. It’s the kind of shot I’d pat myself on the back for if I handed it into a photo editor back in the day, but I knew I had to push it more than a bit further.

I took a risk and reached for a lens I’d never shot with before – a 3″ Sun telephoto taken off an old Bolex 16mm cine camera I’d bought (but never used) back in the ’90s. I warned John that I’d be getting up quite close for the next series of shots; the softness and severe vignetting that come with using a lens meant for the relatively tiny frame size of a 16mm camera on a modern mirrorless sensor meant that finding focus is work, so I had to take my time framing and shooting, still taking a flyer on whether anything would be usable.

While showing me around his space, John had indicated a small green space tucked into the building footprint, with a wall of ivy that I knew would be getting some sun the later we shot that afternoon. By the time we got out there the sun was coming in and out of the clouds and dappling the wall, so I put the Pentacon back on the camera, knowing it would provide a swirling effect with the texture and colour behind my subject. John brought along some personally significant objects – a wool beanie knitted for him by a relative who remembered him wearing a similar one years ago, and the wooden guitar he’d made after seeing the Beatles on television – an attempt to copy John Lennon’s Rickenbacker. I was amazed that he not only still had it, but that it was sitting in pride of place in a guitar stand by his desk.

Before wrapping up, I wanted to try an environmental portrait using one of the rehearsal spaces, with the backdrop of amps and guitars. John reached for an archtop put together by a friend from parts – an instrument he clearly cherished – and I set up my lights to cover the area with as flat and general a light as I could manage. A couple of big softboxes on booms would have been ideal, but I knew I could massage the lighting in post-processing, so the real task at the moment was coaching John to move from a natural pose to one that suggested a bit more tension.

Ultimately the hour we’d agreed upon turned into over three hours of shooting, and somewhere in there I brought out one of my pinhole optics, explaining to John how obsessed I’d become with pinhole shooting since the first lockdowns. He understood the whole idea of pinholes, and how shooting a portrait with one in artificial light meant a long exposure – with him holding himself as still as a subject in a Victorian photo studio. Regardless of the results, I’m finding that forcing a subject to endure the ritual of several pinhole exposures helps set a mood during a shoot – one that facilitates a respect for the moment a shutter opens, but also forces me to put the brakes on my habitual breakneck pace and go a bit deeper with a session.

John’s patience and generosity with his time was gratifying – it felt like we’d managed the sense of collaboration I strive for in a shoot. And if you’re in Toronto this weekend, make your way to the Paradise Sunday afternoon to see the G-Rays film – a revival and reappraisal that bands like John’s not just deserve but actually seem to be getting lately, as technology and taste are giving great music a second shot at an audience. And here’s hoping these shots are fuel for a revival of a project that Covid nearly killed.

Music
Music
By Rick McGinnis
Photo book

Publications

I ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A MAGAZINE PHOTOGRAPHER. As I used to say all the time on my old blog, while going through the work I did in from the ’80s to the ’00s, my biggest disappointment was that most of my photos appeared in newsprint, and not on the thicker, glossier stock of a newsstand magazine. I always read more magazines than newspapers, and in any case anyone who’s worked for both will tell you that the layout and presentation – never mind the quality – is almost always superior in a mag than a newspaper, whether weekly, tabloid or broadsheet.

Which is why it’s gratifying that much of the sales I’ve done from my archive since the old blog put them out on the internet has been to magazines. It feels like the work is finally being seen the way I imagined it when I shot it – albeit delayed by at least a couple of decades. While lockdowns have definitely slowed down my production of new work – new portraits, certainly – it didn’t put a stop to sales of old work. Far from it – I’ve made quite a few sales to publications all over the world, not to mention getting new work showcased in extremely gratifying venues.

Visions is a German music magazine not unlike the British monthlies Uncut and Q and the now-defunct Select, with a preference for slightly harder-edged bands. Last year they bought my 1986 portrait of Corrosion of Conformity to illustrate a reissue of the pivotal metal-punk crossover records (Animosity and Technocracy) the group recorded with the lineup in my portrait. It was an unusually inspired and successful photo taken during my first tentative year with a camera, and it’s a photo that a lot of people have asked about using – without talking about paying. Lea Franke, the picture editor of Visions, was nice enough to mention money, and so the shot ended up being featured in a magazine across the ocean, over thirty-five years after I took it.

I’m extremely fond of my portraits of Fela Kuti, which have been printed and used in places I would never have imagined when I shot them on spec before a concert here in 1989. They didn’t get published anywhere until I published them on my old blog, and they’ve become the most popular set of images in my archive. I had never heard of Singapore-based Vulture magazine when they contacted me about using one of my portraits in an upcoming issue, and they pleaded poverty when I asked about payment, but I wanted to get my shots out in a new market, so I agreed, against my better instincts, only asking for a couple of copies of the magazine. Actually receiving those copies turned out to be more work than I imagined, and after a tense e-mail exchange, they finally arrived months after the issue was published – an inconvenience mitigated slightly by how good they looked in the magazine.

I had, however, heard of Kinfolk, an e-commerce site-turned-magazine that no less than Vanity Fair described as having “defined the Millennial aesthetic,” and was flattered when they contacted me about using my 1996 portrait of British director Mike Leigh. (I was slightly mystified as well – neither I nor Leigh could be described as Millennial. But they did mention money.) While their choice wasn’t my favorite of my portraits of Leigh, the results were as fine as I could expect – and far better than the 2-3 columns on a cluttered newspaper page where my shots were originally published.

I have to confess to being mystified as well by the existence of magazines like Kinfolk and Vulture at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. Their look is very aspirational, and the subjects they cover remarkably high culture, especially for magazines clearly targeted at a generation whose cultural preference is more definitely pop and mass media. I’ve only ever seen one or two copies at a time of these sorts of magazines on newsstands; they’re more likely to show up on coffee tables in pricey stores or in the lobbies of boutique hotels. As such, I’m not sure how they make money. (In the case of Vulture, I suppose it’s by not offering to pay contributors.) Still, they all seem to treat photography with more respect than most other magazines, not to mention websites, which have become the newsprint of the day, I suppose.

Back when I shut my old blog down, I felt confident enough to start entering my work in the end-of-year annual competitions and contests that I’d been too timid to contemplate as a younger photographer. My audacity paid immediate dividends when several of my shots were accepted in the Communication Arts 2019 photography annual, and over a year later I was even more pleased when a new photo won a spot in the American Photography annual. Taken as part of my “Neighbours” series during lockdown, my portrait of Heather and Mischa and their family has turned out to be a hit, and I couldn’t have been happier to see it showcased in AP’s very deluxe, slipcased annual.

I’ve become, however, dubious about the actual value of winning a place in these juried contests and annuals. I suppose that if you win the grand prize or get several pages devoted to a series of images it can be a great calling card, but for the rank and file who place just a single image or are relegated to the online-only runners-up category, I’m not sure it means much besides bragging rights. They seem more like a cash grab, with entrance fees and subsequent payments to make it into the published annual or even the online archive. I might change my tune if one of my shots ended up generating work or publicity, but right now most of the reward boils down to the approval of my peers, and being flatteringly showcased alongside major names.

By far the biggest thrill of the last year, though, was seeing a selection of a half dozen of my pinhole photos, shot during the first year of lockdown, appear in Inside 2020, a collection of pinhole work edited by Valentino Guido and published in Italy. The process of bringing this book from an idea on a Facebook group to an actual thing turned out to be a difficult birth, and I have to give Valentino and Mario de Maio credit for seeing it through, despite the setbacks along the way.

I’ve been immensely proud of the work I’ve done with pinhole optics since I started working with them at the start of lockdowns. Some people have been puzzled by my interest in pinhole work, and I’ve had a bit of criticism for pursuing the project, but the results have helped me actualize images that I’ve only been able to imagine since I started taking photos over three decades ago. Seeing them printed so beautifully in a volume with work by other photographers from all over the world was hugely rewarding – especially since I wasn’t asked to pay for the privilege. I know I never would have imagined this book – or the work I have in it – five years ago, never mind back in the analog days. Here’s hoping the next few years will get my work as flatteringly presented.

Stars
Stars
By Rick McGInnis
Photo book

Ian Blurton’s Future Now

Ian Blurton’s Future Now, Toronto, April 2022

I LIKE TO WORK WITH PEOPLE I LIKE. An obvious statement, for sure, but that’s why it’s nice when I get a call from someone like Ian Blurton, asking me if I’ve got time to shoot promo pics for his latest project. I always try to say yes to my friends, especially when I enjoy their work as much as I do Ian’s – in this case, the second record by his band Future Now.

I first shot Ian way back in the ’80s, and did promo pics for his band Change of Heart back in the ’90s, and again a few years ago when Ian reunited the lineup of CoH that recorded their epic Smile album for a performance celebrating that record’s reissue. Ian called again when Future Now was in germinal stages, to shoot the cover of a 7″, and again when the band had their first record out. I like having this sort of long-term relationship with an artist; I’ve had it with Jane Bunnett since the ’80s, and with The Discarded since they began a prolific string of recordings. It’s nice to feel part of a team, and to work with someone long enough that you start communicating with a sort of shorthand.

I asked Ian what he had in mind, and he said he wanted to work with a Parkdale landmark – Hydro Substation 1111, build in 1928, just down the street from Ian’s apartment and from my old studio. I knew it well enough that I didn’t need to do a location scout, and when it came time to put together a page of ideas for my notebook, I pulled a shot off Google Street View. The rest of my suggestions and inspirations were a mixed bag – an old picture of the Buzzcocks (photographer unknown), a Franz Hals painting, Michael Lavine’s shoot with Sonic Youth on a summer night in the Lower East Side for the gatefold of Daydream Nation, and my own old portrait of the late John Bottomley, shot back in the ’90s in front of another Toronto Hydro substation.

For some reason Ian prefers to do promo shoots at night, which means bringing along some sort of lighting. Unlike the last time – shooting at Riverdale Park on one of the coldest nights of the winter – where I was still using LED mag lights in pinch situations, I now own a little collection of Lume Cube lighting: small, compact, battery-powered LED lights, with a kit that includes a whole selection of little barn doors, gels, grids, diffusers and snoots. A Lume Cube panel was locked off on the hot shoe of my XT2 for front fill, and I knew I’d have just enough light to overcome the street lights and keep the ISO down. I wish there were behind the scenes snaps of the shoot, but it all went by so quickly (on an unseasonably cold spring night) that there wasn’t any time.

No surprise that Ian arrived first, since he only had to walk a block, so we went over my notebook and the setup while waiting for Aaron, Anna and Glenn to arrive. I decided to start with something basic – a simple stand-up shot of the band in front of the substation door, shot with my 12mm lens to give a mild wide angle view without too much distortion. It’s the kind of shot I learned to take back when record companies paid for promo pics and inevitably picked the most straightforward frames. I keep thinking that I need to break myself of this habit, but when working with more than two people, you fall into old habits.

I brought a bunch of gear, but ended up working from a simple palette of three lenses, mostly favouring my 7.5mm fisheye – a look that I knew Ian had liked before. Fisheye is, frankly, a perfectly appropriate lens for a band like Future Now, and even after owning two of them I’m still not tired of the challenge of shooting with a fisheye or the cartoonish fun I have working with it.

At the end of the shoot I wanted to try something as different as possible – inspired my Michael Lavine’s picture, and by the experiments I’ve been doing with old lenses. My latest purchase was a Jupiter 8 – a 50mm/f2 lens made in the Soviet Union, bought from an eBay seller in Latvia. It’s a very simple optic, with basic coatings on the glass that helps take away from the (to me) extreme sharpness we take for granted in modern lenses.

I moved the band along with a couple of my gelled lights down from the door of the substation to a spot where I knew the streetlamps and car headlights would create interesting shapes and – hopefully – a nice flare in the finished image. I ended up making my favorite shot from the night – something that looked almost cinematic, with the flare I’d hoped for, and a colour palette that looked rich but not garish, thanks to the contrast between the cool zone of red and blue on the band and the warm streetlamps lighting Queen Street behind them.

My selection seemed to go over well with Ian and the band, and I was happy when the first “tearsheets” started showing up on social media – like this teaser for a piece in Brooklyn Vegan about the band. I never get tired of seeing my shots in circulation, especially when it’s new work rather than archival shots.

Second Skin, the record we shot these promos for, came out last week, and it’s great. Recorded on the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio at the National Music Centre in Calgary, it mixes a very heavy sound (nobody loves monstrous guitar tracking more than Ian) with even more expansive vocal harmonies than the last album. It also has a spectacular cover, comes in several coloured vinyl versions, and can be bought on Bandcamp here.

Music
Music
By Rick McGinnis
Photo book

Art Deco Toronto 3

Round Room, The Carlu (Eatons College Street), Toronto, June 2022

HUNTING FOR ART DECO IN TORONTO IS MORE OFTEN THAN NOT AN EXERCISE IN SCARCITY. As I’ve said in previous posts on my hometown’s Deco heritage, there are no “Deco Districts” in the city, and you have to know where to look to enjoy our surviving examples of Deco, Streamline Moderne, Municipal Modern, Industrial Deco and all the other variations of the style. Toronto is an unsentimental city, with a poor sense of its own history, and we’ve demolished a whole extra city worth of heritage buildings; since I started on this project in earnest just over two years ago, I’ve captured images of now-lost buildings and been either months or weeks too late to document others.

My guide in the hunt, as ever, is the work of Tim Morawetz, whose definitive books Art Deco Architecture Across Canada and especially Art Deco Architecture in Toronto: A guide to the buildings from the Roaring Twenties and the Depression (sadly out of print, but available though the Toronto Public Library) have pointed me where I’ve needed to look. And that often means looking up – at the corners and cornices of office buildings and apartment buildings, where telltale ornament and corner windows set into brick are signs to look down and around.

Loblaws Groceterias Company Building, 500-530 Lakeshore Boulevard West, July 2020
1 Mallory Gardens near Yonge & St. Clair, June 2020
Glen Grove Apartments, 2837 Yonge St., Sept. 2020
1205-1211 Bathurst St., August 2020
Cloverhill Apartments, 26 St. Joseph St., June 2022
Monetary Times Building, 341 Church Street, June 2022
2454 Bloor St. West at Riverview Gardens, July 2020 (now demolished)

The old Loblaws warehouses at Bathurst and Lakeshore looked doomed for years, but they were recently dismantled, restored and rebuilt as the facade of a new office and retail complex with headquarters for the company. Not so lucky was a lovely Streamline building on Bloor Street West, next to the (also doomed) Humber Odeon; I captured the carved stone and stainless steel ornamentation around its roof two years ago, during the first lockdown summer. Don’t expect to find it now, as the corner has been knocked down to make way for a 12-storey condo building.

Formerly Police Station #6, 1313 Queen St. W., June 2021
Formerly Dominion Bank, 380 Yonge St., June 2022
Toronto Hydro-Electric Building, 14 Carlton St., June 2022
190 Colin Ave., December 2020

While you’re looking up, you might see the work of stonemasons and fabricators who helped make Deco the last stand of guild crafts and craftspeople. The clock that still looks down on Queen Street in Parkdale on the old police station (now a community centre and art gallery) was one of my favorite sights when I lived in the area for two decades, and the bas reliefs and medallions on old banks and civic buildings remain delightful. The decorative carving above the door of an apartment building off Eglinton West in North Toronto harks back to Art Nouveau, while a medallion on the same building is firmly modernist Deco.

Auditorium and foyer, The Carlu, June 2022

If you love Deco as much as I do, these glimpses caught while shopping or doing errands can make your day, but they feel rationed in a city like Toronto, which is so full of unremarkable architecture, and constantly busy creating more of the same. So gaining entry into a space like The Carlu in the old Eatons College Street department store building can be a heady experience – a sudden, lavish banquet of Deco after months or years of scarcity.

Opened in 1933 on the seventh floor of the department store, it was designed by Jacques Carlu, who had also done the interiors of the French ocean liners Normandie and Ile de France. The auditorium and foyer are Streamline Deco on a scale rarely seen in Toronto – boldly geometric and modernist for a city more comfortable with Methodist restraint. The auditorium was at the heart of Toronto’s cultural life for decades, until Eatons closed the College Street store in 1977. The rooms remained mothballed for years and were threatened with demolition for offices until a lawsuit forced a reprieve and they were restored and reopened as the Carlu event space in 2003.

Round Room, The Carlu, June 2022

The gem at the heart of this incredible space is the Round Room, designed by Carlu with murals by his wife Natacha. The centerpiece of this restaurant and bar is a fountain, dismantled at one point and found in a storage space during restoration. It’s an only slightly humbler version of the famous Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center, with backlit panels in place of its New York counterpart’s views of the Manhattan skyline.

The marvel isn’t just that the whole suite of rooms survives, but that Natacha Carlu’s delicate murals – inspired by rural life in the south of France – weren’t ripped out or painted over in the ’50s and ’60s, when so much of Toronto’s architectural heritage was wiped out or erased by “updating.” It you can manage to get invited to an event at The Carlu you’ll be able to share my giddy reaction to this lavish Deco artifact, and thanks to Diego Rupolo from The Carlu for arranging my visit to the space.

Jazz
Jazz
A collection of pho…
By Rick McGinnis
Photo book

Motorama

Motorama, Toronto, April 2022

SINCE THE LAST PUBLIC EVENT I ATTENDED BEFORE LOCKDOWNS STARTED was the Motorama car show in 2020, returning to Motorama two years later felt – I hope not unreasonably – like the end of a cycle. Wandering among the hot rods, restomods, garage queens, jalopies, race cars and labours of love on display at the International Centre by the airport with my camera nonetheless had the reassuring aspect of a ritual gratefully observed once again.

Motorama, Toronto, April 2022

It wasn’t a total return to normal as my usual companion at Motorama – my friend Alex – declined to make the drive in to Toronto because of the soaring gas prices. The new normal, or the next crisis or whatever – you choose. Which made it just me and my camera this time, alone to take in the projects that entrants had been sitting on for two years, lovingly on display alongside the booths selling insurance, car care products, investment services, vintage clothing, die cast miniatures and remote control trucks.

Motorama, Toronto, April 2022

As ever, my mission was to photograph the colours and the details, the bits of machinery and sheer graphic exuberance that has always drawn me – a lifelong non-driver – to cars and car shows. The big auto show downtown, with its lavish custom displays of new model cars from the big manufacturers – whenever that returns – is about spectacle. Motorama, on the other hand, is more about each vehicle as a potential still life subject, its best angle to be discovered with my camera. Maybe one day I’ll finally learn to drive, but I say that every year.

Motorama, Toronto, April 2022

Square
Square
By Rick McGinnis
Photo book

Corktown, on spec

Looking west along King Street East toward downtown Toronto from Corktown, Dec. 2021

SOMETIMES IT’S WORTH TALKING ABOUT THE WORK WE DON’T GET. Late last year I got an email from Pallavi Kumar, an editor at Conde Nast Traveler, who said they were working on a story about Corktown, and specifically a stretch of King Street East here in Toronto – a neighbourhood just by the old downtown that’s seen some restaurant and retail revival in the last few years, to go with the astronomical housing prices all over that part of Toronto. (To be honest, the whole city has been experiencing a housing bubble for at least a decade and a half now, so that statement could be applied almost anywhere.)

She asked me if I had any photos on file of that part of the city. I said I didn’t – at least nothing recent – but that I could go out and shoot some if she wanted. (Never ignore what could be a break.) She told me it would be strictly on spec – no guarantee that they’d get used or that I’d get paid – but if I wanted to send some photos in ASAP, she needed some local colour to go with the shots they already had – interiors provided by the restaurants.

Beneath the overpasses on King Street East, Corktown, Dec. 2021
Modern townhouses north of King Street East in Corktown, Toronto, Dec. 2021

It was a chilly, overcast weekend when I set out with my cameras. As neighbourhoods go, Corktown is one of our oldest, and full of red brick Victorian storefronts alongside industrial remnants and the usual mix and match of architectural styles from over a century of indifferent urban planning. It has history – notably Little Trinity Church and Enoch Turner Schoolhouse – but it also has a couple of looming overpasses that carry Richmond and Adelaide streets to where they link up to Eastern Avenue and cross the Don River, just to the east.

There are some streets of Victorian townhouses and worker’s cottages, and others lined with recent developments that loosely copy them. I doubt if any of them sell for less than a million and a half these days. And now that Conde Nast Traveler is writing about the area, I can guarantee that you can add at least another twenty-five grand to your bid if you’re competing to buy one. Toronto is that kind of city, and sometimes I have to ask myself: why?

The area isn’t wholly charmless – the Victorian storefronts along the northern side of King Street East somehow managed to survive mostly intact during the area’s decades of gritty, mixed-use, low-income neglect. Enoch Turner Schoolhouse is a museum and event space now, and in addition to the restaurants and bakeries along King there’s actually a bookstore – a rare amenity almost anywhere these days, and not just in Toronto. As far as historical districts in Toronto go, this is one of our best, but that’s mostly because we tore down most of them back when there was still coal smoke staining the red bricks and houses were still affordable.

Spaccio on Sackville Street south of King East, Corktown, Toronto, Dec. 2021
Nicholas Metivier Gallery on Richmond Street near Corktown, Toronto, Dec. 2021

I remember when there were still machine shops along King and the side streets, and when the area was an unofficial “photo district” in the ’80s and ’90s, full of labs where you’d courier your film after a shoot to get it developed quickly. They’re all gone now, and the old industrial buildings house restaurants and art galleries. If you frame your shot carefully, it can look rather pretty, evoking nearly two hundred years of the city. But if you’re walking around with a camera, trying to come up with something to compete with photos of Tuscan villages and resorts in Fiji and European cities with Roman walls, it’s hard to ignore the thought that Toronto is a rather unlovely city. In the end Conde Nast Traveler decided to go without the local colour, and I can’t say that I blame them.

Little Trinity Anglican Church, founded in 1843, Corktown, Toronto, Dec. 2021
Ghost sign, Corktown, Toronto, Dec. 2021
Instagram
Instagram
A collection of cel…
By Rick McGinnis
Photo book

Still Life

Rose, Toronto, March 2022

THIS TIME TWO YEARS AGO I WAS SETTLING IN TO OUR KITCHEN TO SHOOT STILL LIFES. The first year of lockdown inspired me to shoot the still life studio work I’d been planning for years, and I kept myself busy while waiting for lockdown to end. My first subjects were some dried roses I’d kept around since the previous fall, followed by an old Victorian scrapbook, a human skull I keep on my desk, more flowers, spring buds, trash I scavenged from the back alley, and then our groceries and flowers from the garden. It was a creative spring and summer.

Lockdown briefly opened up a little and then closed down again and it became obvious that this wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Somewhere just before the end of the first year my energy started to flag, and I spent more time looking back at old work and planning future projects than actually shooting new things. I suppose this was inevitable, but that didn’t make it any less depressing – then or now. The second year of lockdown was more about marshalling what felt like diminishing energy and focusing it on fewer projects.

Leeks, Toronto, March 2021
Kiwis, Toronto, March 2021
Clementines, Toronto, March 2021

Last march I had a brief spurt of energy for still life work, inspired by a delivery of groceries that looked just a little bit more photogenic than the usual fruit and veg. I must have been feeling ambitious because I cobbled together a lighting setup with five sources – a Westcott LED head, two LumeCubes and a pair of LED flashlights, all in the service of a high key still life setup. And then the weather got nicer, I took on a new gig writing a weekly movie column, and my energy dissipated for another half year.

Near the end of September an old friend gave me a lovely bunch of flowers that inspired me to sit down in the kitchen again and shoot. Over the summer I’d acquired an LED panel light from LumeCube, and pulled an old Lensbaby Composer (version 1.0) from my camera bag, fitted it with an adapter for my Fuji, and decided to see what it could do as a still life lens after doing the first few shots with my 7Artisans 60mm macro lens.

Calla lily, Toronto, Sept. 2021
Dianthus, Toronto, Sept. 2021
Rose, Toronto, Sept. 2021
Rose, Toronto, Sept. 2021

The first year of lockdown got me fussing with the fine technical details of my cameras and lenses, and inspired me to work a bit harder toward a look I’d been pursuing on and off since the 1990s – a less sharp, “modern” sort of photography, inspired by the work of Victorian and Edwardian photographers and pictorialism. I’d been complaining for years that modern camera lenses were too sharp – too lacking in character – and one of the intriguing developments of digital and particularly mirrorless camera technology was the ability to adapt nearly any old lens (and there are millions out there, sitting in bags and on shelves, waiting to be used again) to a modern camera.

The Lensbaby Composer system isn’t “old,” but it opens up possibilities for the sorts of creative accidents that I love, and which seemed harder to engineer back in the days of computer-designed autofocus lenses. My old double glass optic on the Composer was the sharpest you could buy, and even that produced great fall-off the further you got from the centre of the frame, and on the skull still-lifes it produced an effect that I’d had in my mind’s eye for years.

Skull, Toronto, Sept. 2021
Skull, Toronto, Sept. 2021

Another six months passed before I felt inspired to get back into the kitchen studio for still life work again. This time it was a mixed bag of subjects – a small flat of living lettuce that had arrived with our fresh grocery delivery, a bunch of roses that had been drying in the kitchen since Valentine’s Day, and some scraps of lumber I’d been saving on our porch for years. I pulled out the Lensbaby again, and the LumeCube pro kit with its little selection of tiny grids, diffusion filters, colour gels, barn doors and snoots, and worked with the slimmest depth of field I could imagine, with the focused into tight spotlights on the roses.

Rose, Toronto, March 2022
Rose, Toronto, March 2022
Rose, Toronto, March 2022
Lettuce, Toronto, March 2022
Rose, Toronto, March 2022
Rose, Toronto, March 2022

Eight years ago, when I was till doing my old blog, I documented the demolition of an old house up the street from us. It was one of the original shacks built when the street was part of an unplanned working class suburb, full of tiny, owner-built homes. This one had the distinction of featuring a huge, ancient oak tree, at least two hundred years old, awkwardly located midway down the lot, in a spot that was inconvenient for the developer who was building a new triplex on the lot.

There was a brief show of trying to preserve it, and then the guys moved in with the chainsaws ahead of the crew who would tear down the old house in a day. I documented nearly the whole process, with the permission of the owner, and when it was done I scavenged a few pieces of the tree left behind by the crew – two inch-thick cross sections of the branches and a section of the tree’s roots.

Oak branch cross sections, Toronto, March 2022
Oak root, Toronto, March 2022

I’d left these remnants of the old tree sitting on our porch for the last eight years, one side weathering in the air and sun, another side sitting on the concrete deck or propped up against the front wall of our house. I shot them using the same bright, “flat artwork” setup I began using in the kitchen two years ago, to get a stark, catalogue-style document of these artifacts. A lot of people have moved away since the house and its tree were cut down; I’m sure many of my neighbours have no memory of the odd little house and its huge tree. Apart from my photos, I guess these are all that’s left.

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William Hurt 1950-2022

William Hurt, Toronto, Sept. 2005

IT WAS A SHOCK TO HEAR THAT WILLIAM HURT DIED. There’s something absurd about feeling a pang of grief for someone who wasn’t either friend or family, but I couldn’t help but remember a brief moment, nearly twenty years ago, when what should have been a perfunctory encounter with a celebrity during a photo session unexpectedly turned into a moment I recalled with a start when I heard the news. I don’t have a lot of these moments, so they’re easy to remember.

I’ve written about my two shoots with William Hurt before, on my old blog. In a nutshell, he showed up in a funny mood, pointed out two raw patches of skin where a prosthetic he’d worn for a role had left some nasty marks, and asked me to promise to retouch them out. I agreed, and made an offhanded remark about my responsibility to a subject. Most people – celebrities, that is, resigned to yet another quick session with yet another newspaper photographer – would just nod and steel themselves for a minute or so in front of the camera. Hurt, strangely, wanted to talk.

What should have been at tops two minutes of my shutter clicking while I tried to capture something worth sending in to my editors turned into twenty minutes of banter, as Hurt quizzed me about the ethics of portrait photography and I answered – perhaps too eagerly, since I couldn’t recall when any of the subjects I’d shot over twenty years of work had ever shown an interest in the “why” of what I did. He might have been bored with the rounds of film festival press he was doing, but he seemed to be enjoying himself, while I struggled to fire off shots between what I’m sure sounded like psychobabble.

William Hurt, Toronto, Sept. 2005

What I do know is that the poor PR handler who had accompanied Hurt into the hotel room was silently seething behind me. I know this because, after we’d been at this for quite a while – I recall mentioning Pascal; it was all a bit much – Hurt mentioned that she was probably furious at him for ruining her schedule, and that we should probably wrap it up.

Hurt has always been on a short list of actors who I rely on to make even the worst film better whenever they’re onscreen. His career in films began roughly when I started watching movies seriously, around when he made Altered States, so I’ve always had this sense of being complicit in his work, part of an audience that has shadowed him.

Like John Malkovich, he’s the sort of actor who gives off the impression that he knows something no one else he’s sharing a frame with does – some key observation or bit of information that everyone else has overlooked. I probably noticed it for the first time with his role in The Big Chill, as the droll, damaged, impotent Vietnam vet and drug dealer spending a mourning weekend with a group of self-satisfied college friends. Even when his character wasn’t supposed to be the smartest person in the room, like the horny lawyer in Body Heat or the dim news anchor in Broadcast News, that same sensation of emotional simmer radiated from him onscreen.

William Hurt, Toronto, Sept. 2007

The last celebrity death that pulled me up this short was probably David Bowie. Which is probably why I felt moved to revisit my two shoots with Hurt, back in the second half of the 2000s, when I was still working for the free daily. The conversation I had with Hurt in 2005 was the best thing I took away from that shoot; the light was terrible and it would probably have been better if I’d concentrated more on my camera, but his inexplicable interest in the dynamic of the relationship between the sitter and a photographer felt flattering.

William Hurt, Toronto, Sept. 2007

It was, in any case, a story I liked telling, but when I was assigned to shoot Hurt again at the film festival two years later I assumed that he’d completely forgotten about it. It was a shock, then, when he walked into the hotel room and did a double take. “Oh, it’s you,” he said. “Look, I’d love to have another talk again but she -” he indicated the PR person who’d brought him into the room “- is really riding my ass today and I don’t want to get her mad at me.”

The light was a little better this time, and Hurt was in a more boisterous mood, cracking jokes with the room behind me while I shot. I worked fast, knew I really didn’t get anything much better than the first shoot, and thanked him for his time. And once again I felt flattered – not that we’d had much of an encounter, but that he’d even remembered the last time we’d met.

And part of me thought – well, maybe you’ll get another chance. Maybe the light will be better and you’ll have more time and maybe we can continue the conversation. Then the free daily laid me off and my opportunities to shoot movie stars at film festivals disappeared almost entirely. In the meantime William Hurt continued to work – the films generally getting less interesting with time, while he still tried to do something interesting with what he was given, even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And now, quite suddenly, he’s gone, and I have to admit that we’ll never continue that conversation.

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