I REALLY NEED TO LEARN TO DRIVE. Never mind the inconvenience of being wholly reliant on public transit, hired drivers or the generosity of anyone with a car; it’s getting tiresome having to explain my obsession with automotive design and motorsport – never mind photographing cars in almost any setting – with the proviso that I have never had a driver’s license.
It’s why, even more than when I do my annual pilgrimage to the auto show, I feel like an impostor at collector car shows like Oshawa’s Autofest or Toronto’s Motorama, annual events for petrolheads and grease monkeys who, at least to my eyes, look like they’ve been taking apart carburetors and replacing blown pistons since before they had their G2 (or equivalent.)
I could take pictures of cars all day; zooming in on the details of even some banal old family sedan or weathered panel van, it’s the forms and textures that draw me in over and over. The great thing about car shows like Motorama is that they’re self-selecting – everything on the floor is there because some car nut has lavished endless hours on its restoration or improvement, or some critical mass of gearheads acknowledge a particular make and model to be worth collecting.
Some cars on the floor are true unicorns, like the 1959 Chrysler Imperial (below) that someone decided to transform from a massive four-door sedan to a sleek sports car. Pretty much every race car is a unique vehicle, and even the most average truck becomes an incredible palette of colour and texture with wear and care. And I have to thank every hot rodder, low rider and car geek at shows like Motorama for providing me with an endless supply of subjects.
THE DISCARDED RELEASED THEIR THIRD RECORD – AN EP – LAST MONTH. It was also the third record I’ve worked on with Joel, Jared and Caden, a collaboration I haven’t had with anyone since Jane Bunnett in the ’90s. There’s something altogether pleasant about working with an artist on their visual image over the long term, and only part of it has to do with a sense of trust that’s probably felt disproportionately by the photographer.
I’d known Joel since the heyday of the the Queen West music scene here in Toronto – a community of groups that I always felt would have been better known, in a different city, in a place where major record labels weren’t branch plants of their parent corporation, or during (and not before) the digital revolution that changed the way music is made, distributed and marketed. After Joel ended up living with his two oldest sons after a divorce, they pulled a sort of post-indie Partridge Family and formed a punk band. When a record was imminent, he contacted me about doing publicity photos for his group.
Not From This Town is the first part of an ambitious project – the first act of a punk musical, or what we children of the ’70s used to call a “rock opera.” I’m not sure if it was meant to be this explicit, but the cover of act one ended up pulling in the influences and anxieties experienced by any new group; the Abbey Road visual shout-out was definitely something Joel and I talked about when planning the shoot, but the reference to The Who’s My Generation cover only became apparent when the band had moved a couple of blocks up Bay Street and I framed them standing in front of Old City Hall.
We ended up taking care of the two big shots in almost no time – the advantage of a bit of planning, I suppose. But with the rest of a weekend morning to burn, we headed out to other locations, like the front of the Concourse Building on Adelaide West, an art deco gem that was very nearly demolished a few years ago, J.E.H. MacDonald murals and all.
Out next stop was the ferry terminal by the foot of Yonge Street, where we had a vague plan to get shots of the band with the skyline of “This Town” behind them. We bought tickets and rode back and forth to Ward’s Island while I shot the band in various spots around the boat. My favorites turned out to be one along the railing, the band as weary and wary as any band will look, and another underneath the ceiling stuffed with flotation vests.
Back on shore, we wandered back to the car, where I posed Joel and his sons with one of the old island ferries in the background and I shot them having a moment probably as much like a family as a band.
I HATE WINTER. Which means that, from December to March, I’ll do pretty much anything to avoid leaving the house unless it’s strictly necessary. That means mining inspiration from my hermit-like existence, and that means still life work.
I am also a creature of habit. This year, like last year, I bought my wife roses for Valentine’s Day, and just like last year I asked if we could let them sit and dry out in their vase to provide me, once again, with a subject for some still life shooting.
A week or so after Valentine’s Day I decided to take my first shot at my wife’s roses, which had just started to dry out at the edges of their petals and drop their leaves, though the hearts of each flower retained some moisture and colour. I set up in the kitchen again, only this time I had new pieces of gear I didn’t have last year – a macro ring for my Fuji X-T2, a cable release and a lightweight travel tripod with a ball head.
Locked off and holding my breath, I was able to shoot at much lower ISO speeds than I had a year previous. It took a while to get used to the macro ring; the autofocus on the Fuji needed to be disabled to find the sweet spot on each flower, and I had to pace myself to let the camera and the flower stop moving after I composed and focused, breathing in and out before I triggered the cable release. As the afternoon light in the kitchen started to dim, I pulled out a pair of LED mag lights and used those as hard light sources.
Two weeks later, after the buds in the vase had dried out even further, I got back to work with a black backdrop instead of the white. By this point the pink roses had faded while the red ones had darkened considerably. I started earlier in the afternoon to use as much natural light as I could, which meant that by the time I probably should have pulled out the mag lights, I had been at it for a couple of hours and felt inspiration waning.
I know I’ll be at it again, same time next year no doubt, though earlier if my wife gets roses for her birthday. One day, God willing, I’ll be doing this work in the studio I long to build out back in the garage. It’s hard to describe how immensely satisfying shooting this work feels.
MY SECOND TRIP TO MEXICO IN TWO YEARS took me to a very different place than the first. This time I was sent to the Mexico most tourists would recognize – beaches and resort hotels; sun and sand. As I wrote when I posted the second of two stories on my travel photo blog (posted after the stories that paid for me to be in Mexico were printed) I’m not much of a beach person, so nearly a week on the Mayan Riviera felt very much like anthropology to me.
Our group made our way from the airport in Cancun to Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo province over the course of one very long day. The sun was down when we checked into our hotel, but I managed to get away one morning for a walk around the town by the harbour. No one would mistake Chetumal for a tourist hot spot, but it’s not a bad little city if that’s not what you’re looking for, and the waterfront has its particular charm.
The real discovery of the trip was the Laguna Bacalar – the Lagoon of the Seven Colours – and its still relatively undiscovered attractions. (Undiscovered, that is, by North American tourists; the place was full of Mexicans and South Americans.) As I wrote elsewhere, it put me in mind of a tropical Lake Como where big houses and old hotels hug the shore. In other spots, the vast, shallow shoreline and clear water had a meditative quality I don’t think you get next to an ocean.
That was underlined during a lightning visit to Tulum, where the hipsters holiday, or so I am told. Tulum also provided a perfect snapshot of the tourist experience as it was often revealed to me. We were able to get a bit more time before that in Bacalar, where a trip to the town square to get money from the ATM turned into a sunset walk around the perimeter of the town that gave me some of my favorite – and least touristy – photos of the trip.
Our two nights in the five star, luxury all-inclusive Grand Velas Maya Riviera was very different. I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit to loving the comfort and grandeur of a place like the Grand Velas, from its impressive front gates (very photogenic, especially at sunrise) to its wide halls and public spaces to its carefully manicured beach and excellent restaurants. It was as close as I’ve ever come to The Village, where Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six was very comfortably confined in The Prisoner. I always thought the place looked rather pleasant, and sometimes felt Number Six complained a bit too much.
Cozumel, very nearly the tourism ground zero of the Mayan Riviera, was actually quite lovely. I skipped the snorkeling – it was useless to take up space on the boat with a non-swimmer – but I was able to kill time in a manner better suited to my temperament, with a cold beer under an umbrella looking out to sea.
We ended up back where we began – in the party town of Cancun, at another all-inclusive resort, albeit one much better suited to the voracious vacation schedule of the young and resilient. Lizards marched slowly across the manicured lawns and the Caribbean beat restlessly against the beach under a dramatic sky on our last morning. The red flags were out to warn swimmers of treacherous waves, but for someone like me who doesn’t take off their shoes, it was all just more great spectacle, and the sort of thing that makes travel irresistible.
I AM NOT A HUGE FAN OF SHOOTING LIVE MUSIC. I have done a lot of it – at first with enthusiasm, as a fan, trying to capture my favorite artists in performance, and later as a professional, on assignment but with rapidly decreasing enthusiasm. It’s hard to shoot concerts well, but the really discouraging part is that, even when you think you’ve done a great job, it’s entirely likely that anyone else standing within a few feet of you with a camera has a better than even chance of producing shots as good as yours.
I took these pictures of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in the former phase of my (d)evolution as a concert photographer, when I was a huge fan and desperate to get some really great photos. I know I was enthusiastic because I shot three whole rolls of the show at the cavernous RPM Club (now long gone) down by the city’s port lands; naturally parsimonious and intent on keeping my overhead low, I wouldn’t have shot that much film of anyone if I wasn’t committed to getting a result.
Cave’s reputation for being prickly and difficult was probably why I didn’t bother trying to get a portrait of him when he was in town. (I could be that timid with subjects back then – a failure of nerve I felt acutely, then and now.) I wasn’t on assignment so this was a labour of love, which probably explains why, when I got the negatives back, I was so disappointed that I never bothered making a decent print from them – until today.
A bit of technical gobblydegook: Shooting concerts has always been a battle between having enough light and capturing action, so one felt obliged to use flash (annoying to performers so often prohibited and too hit-and-miss for me) or – as I did here – using the fastest film then on the market: at this point Kodak’s T-Max P3200. It was a “miracle” film, but misleadingly named: It actually had a base ISO of 800, but you could push it two, three or even four stops, from 1600 to 3200 to 6400 and even as high as 12,800, if you could handle the extreme grain and complete lack of shadow detail.
It was nightmarish to print, especially if – like me – your darkroom skills were untrained and fairly rudimentary. Highlights would blow out even in the flattest light, so under concert spotlights they were thick and hot, while the greys dropped off steeply to nothing. Scrutinizing the negatives while they were still wet I could see that they looked almost like ortho litho film, the kind they used in design houses to shoot black and white artwork.
The contact sheets looked even worse; I kept them on my desk for at least a year, scrutinizing them for something vaguely printable, but gave up after a few test prints. I admitted defeat, and into the files they went for almost thirty years.
Some lucky people can forget their failures. I’m one of the unlucky ones cursed with a long memory for them, and when I began excavating my archives for my old blog, this shoot came back to haunt me. It showed up again the other day while searching for another live show I shot around the same time, so I decided to give these photos one more crack.
I’d like to say I’m a better printer, but the truth is that my darkroom skills never evolved as fast as my ability with Photoshop. After a few days of wrestling with my old negatives, I was able to wring out more detail than I could ever have managed (at much greater cost in time and money) in the darkroom. Digitally, I can reach much deeper into each frame and pick out detail or smooth out grain. Shots I’d marked on the contacts thirty years ago, like the one at the top and the frame of Bad Seeds guitarist Blixa Bargeld, finally look like I’d hoped they would when I got home from the show and stayed up expectantly souping my film.
The cruel joke is that, even after all that work, anyone who might have been standing at the edge of the same stage that night, with a decent camera and just a bit more skill and luck than myself, would have got almost exactly the same pictures. And at the end of it all, I probably should have tried harder to get a portrait.