Oi! The Skinhead Photo Booth and a Return to Portraiture

Chris, March 2016

THE OLD BLOG WAS TWO YEARS OLD WHEN I FOUND MYSELF WITH THE URGE TO SHOOT FORMAL PORTRAITS AGAIN. I wasn’t working for anyone and no one was hiring me so I knew that if I wanted to do portraits, I had to go to my subjects – as many as possible at one time, I hoped. Luckily, an opportunity presented itself at just the right time.

My old friend and onetime assistant Rod Orchard was trying to revive Full Contact, his old magazine, and sponsored a show of mostly skinhead bands at a local club. There are few subcultures as abiding or fascinating – or as problematic, as we say these days – as skinheads, which made the idea of photographing a whole bunch of them at once even more appealing.

And as Rod said when he agreed to my proposition – “Hey, who doesn’t love skinheads? Skinheads are hilarious!”


I took the set-up I’d used to photograph Kinky Friedman the previous fall and added a pair of lights – my old travel light stands and umbrellas, with some cheap light socket/clamp assemblies I bought off Amazon and a couple of 14w household LED bulbs. The point of this little portable studio was to be as light and cheap as possible – to keep my overhead low on what felt like a tentative experiment, and to keep me from crying if the whole thing got busted up by skinheads.

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At work with the portable photo booth, March 2016. Photo by Rod Orchard.

I set up between the bar and the ATM in the club with a clipboard full of release forms. With Rod’s help, I approached bands as they finished soundcheck and customers as they entered the club. By the end of the night I’d shot twenty-nine subjects, all of whom happily signed my release form, including one very drunk gentleman who just left an “X.” (Still legally binding – “His mark,” as they used to note on old census forms and contracts when illiteracy was more common.)

Erik, March 2016
Victor, March 2016
Daick, March 2016
K. Wakely, March 2016

It might have been an experiment, but it was an important one for me. It had been a long time since I’d done a blitz of portrait shooting, and I wanted to throw myself headlong back into the process – sink or swim, so to speak. I also wanted to work with non-celebrities as subjects; it was even more of a challenge to work with people who didn’t have a fixed sense of their identity or what they wanted to look like, or present me with anything to work with before they stepped in front of my lights. Anything, of course, beyond “People you meet at a skinhead show.”

James, March 2016
Kat, March 2016
Pat, March 2016
Pete, March 2016

I shot tight and close to the backdrop to make sure it would easily bleach to white in Photoshop. I wanted to work with as many limitations as possible; I was still dubious about re-entering the world of formal portrait work, and didn’t want to give myself too many opportunities to get ambitious.

I’d end up taking nearly the same set-up to the film festival later that year, so I must have been pleased with the results. Two years later, I want to try something like this again. Anybody know where I can find a whole bunch of Teddy Boys in one spot?

And as ever, I have some books for sale:

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Interview with A Photo Editor


I TALKED ABOUT MY OLD BLOG, MY NEW WORK, AND THIRTY YEARS AS A PHOTOGRAPHER with Heidi Volpe at A Photo Editor last week, and the interview was published yesterday.  I’m still finding it odd to realize that I look like a bit of a veteran at this stage in my career, but I suppose it’s something I have to learn to accept. In any case, here’s an excerpt of our discussion:

What did you see in them now that you didn’t see then?

I always second-guessed myself when choosing work – I had a hard time finding the best shot, or I’d go for the most obvious, flattering one as opposed to the interesting one buried further down. With years of distance it became easier to find the interesting frames. Also, my skill with Photoshop far exceeds my skill in the darkroom, so I was finally able to produce finished images much closer to what I had in mind when I shot them twenty years ago, like my portraits of Bjork and Patti Smith. Then there are the shoots that I dismissed as flops, or ones from periods of my life that I didn’t recall fondly. I really undersold my portrait work at Metro in the 2000s; it turned out to be much better than I remembered.

I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t like talking about myself. After three decades of relative obscurity, it’s a bit of a thrill, and I’m not tired of it yet. In any case, hopefully it’ll sell some books. Speaking of which…

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Rose, March 2018

IT WAS THE LONG THIRD MONTH OF WINTER AND I WAS GROUNDED FROM TRAVELING and I needed a subject. My wife said it was about time to throw out the roses I’d given her for Valentine’s Day, which had dried up in their vase. I had a long afternoon with nothing else to do and the cold winter sun was coming through the kitchen window, so…


The buds were so dry that moving them from the big vase to the bud vase left petals all over the kitchen table. I could have set up my strobes or LED lights but I decided to just use the light from the kitchen windows. (Note to self: Use a tripod.) It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon; I’d be perfectly happy doing this sort of thing every day.

Roses, March 2018

There was even a little left over for Instagram.

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TOHC: Toronto’s hardcore scene, where it all started

The crowd in the pit at a Negative Gain show, Ildiko’s, 1986

SOME FRIENDS DID THE CRAZIEST THING THE OTHER DAY and published a whole big fat book about Toronto’s hardcore punk scene in the ’80s. I was asked early on to submit some photos and recollections to the book, and a few of them made it into the finished product, which turned out to be quite the epic.

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I cut my teeth taking photos of bands like Negative Gain, Bunchofuckingoofs, MDC, NoMeansNo, Corrosion of Conformity, El Paso’s Rhythm Pigs and many more in shitty little clubs like the Siboney, DMZ, the Apocalypse, the basement of the Silver Dollar and Ildiko’s/The Bridge/the Starwood. I’d owned a camera for less than a year by this point, so my learning curve started here, and Tomorrow Is Too Late was a great opportunity to try to share some of these very early shots, like these ones of MDC (aka Millions of Dead Cops) at Ildiko’s in 1986:

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I’ve always been amazed that friend and photographer Rod Orchard – later my assistant in the ’90s and the guy who shot my wedding – made it into one of my shots from COC’s Ildiko’s show, a long-haired kid at the back of the pit holding his camera. So it was a thrill when I saw one of Rita Laberto’s shots from the MDC show and, presto, there I am, sleeves rolled up, with my camera, on the stage, 22 years old and skinny as fuck:

MDC at Ildiko’s, 1986, photo by Rita Laberto

I was nominally Nerve magazine’s hardcore correspondent for my first year at the paper, which was hardly a bustling beat, though it got me in front of the stage for gigs like NoMeansNo playing the Rivoli or the El Mocambo, I’m not sure which:

Local hardcore bands were also my earliest portrait subjects. I had a lot to learn, to be sure, but I was pleasantly surprised that these shots of John Grove and Animal Stags and the Bunchofuckingoofs turned out sharp and half-decently composed. It’s worth pointing out that I’d end up taking another portrait of Steve Goof twenty five years later in almost exactly the same spot, by what was once Fort Goof in Kensington Market.

Animal Stags, Toronto, 1986
Bunchofuckingoofs, Kensington Market, 1986
“Crazy” Steve Goof, Kensington Market, 1986
“Crazy” Steve Goof, Kensington Market, 2011

Revisiting my shots of a Negative Gain show at Ildiko’s gave me a startling sense of time passing, but not as much as the book launch party held for Tomorrow Is Too Late last week, which featured a re-formed Negative Gain at the top of a bill with Sudden Impact, Chronic Submission, Microedge and Creative Zero. Many of the same people I captured in the pit over thirty years ago were there again, a bit sweatier and very out of breath.

I was never really a mainstay on the scene – more of an interloper with a camera. But three decades later I’m still friends with Rod, and not only the contractor who recently renovated my bathroom but the guy who I buy my beer from are all onetime members of that same TOHC scene. Thirty years later, ties that I would have called fragile at the time have persisted, amazingly.

Another group of friends I made on the scene were Ed Ivey and the Rhythm Pigs, who were from El Paso via San Francisco but had a big fan base here. I was a bit disappointed that none of my shots of the band, either from their first gig here in 1986 or their final, reunion show, in 1990, made it into the book, but with everything they had, I guess some things had to go. The portrait was shot on the balcony of Don LaBeuf’s place in Oakville, I believe, the morning after the show:

There might not be a lot of skill in these shots, but there are plenty of memories. I like to think I took a lot away from punk rock and hardcore. Self-reliance, to start, and the DIY aesthetic that’s become even more important today. But also the sense that, even in a marginal scene full of constraints, there’s freedom and potential. I have never lost a sense of that scene, no matter where I am.

So buy Derek and Shawn’s book and try to stay in touch with the people who knew you when you were thinner and angrier. It’s actually worth it.

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Other side of the camera: My portrait session with Chris Buck

Chris Buck in my garage, taking my portrait. Photo by Prachy Mohan.

MY FRIEND CHRIS AND I TALKED FOR HOURS LAST JULY, when he interviewed me for The Photographic Journal, but that’s not the part that made me nervous. I am gregarious by nature – probably too much so – so talking about anything (especially myself) isn’t a chore. Having my picture taken, however, makes me deeply uneasy.

I would have been anxious if anyone was doing a portrait of me, but Chris and I have a long personal history and I know his work as well as anyone could who isn’t him, I suppose. There’s a sometimes pitiless quality to a Chris Buck photo that I’ve found endlessly intriguing and entertaining – when someone else is the subject. I couldn’t help but wonder just what would happen when he turned his camera on me.

By the concrete banks of Black Creek. Photos by Prachy Mohan.

Chris asked me to suggest some locations, and the first one that came to mind was in the neighbourhood where I grew up – Mount Dennis, by what was once the Kodak Canada plant where both our families worked. I used to come down here in the evenings when I was young, sometimes stoned, sometimes not, and lie on the angled concrete banks encasing Black Creek, still warm from the summer sun, and stare at the sky.

We did quite a few shots where I was lying on the flat concrete next to the water, with Prachy, Chris’ assistant for the day, carefully aiming a silver reflector to bounce the sun behind me back into my face. For another whole series I squatted down in front of Chris’ lens, almost sumo-style, and grimaced at the camera. So far, pretty much what I anticipated from the shoot; Chris taking some cue or detail from my story and turning it into a scenario from his own imagination.

With the light starting to go, we drove back to my house, and set up to shoot in the space between my garage and the wall of my neighbour’s garage, which was covered in nicely weathered wood siding. At one point I pulled out my phone and took a quick shot of what it looks like when you’re a Chris Buck subject:

We kept shooting while the summer evening light slowly dimmed, Prachy working hard to fill in the shadows with the bounce. For one long series of shots, Chris asked me to bend my arm behind my head and lean back – a position he’d seen me fall into during our long interview a few hours previous. At some point during that series he managed to capture a very flattering shot of me – one that would end up featured on the front page of the TPJ site.

Without much of a break, Chris moved me closer to his camera, to where the light wrapped mostly around the back of my head. I was told to face away from the camera and then, when he gave a cue, to turn and look at him. It was a bit of a contortion for a stiff, 54-year-old man, and it didn’t take long until doing it repeatedly became somewhat painful. Once again, I had a bit of an insight into how Chris creates his unique portraits, though I knew Barack Obama didn’t have to do this.


This would end up being the photo that Chris and Lou Noble of TPJ chose for the top of the interview. It’s a good shot. It’s not totally flattering – I’m grizzled and very obviously a man in late middle age, but that’s not something I want or need to hide. The shadows and the layout obscure my face a bit, which is a good thing for a portrait of a photographer, and especially one like me, who’s never been good at selling himself.

The McGinnis family, Chris Buck, July 2018.

We did one final, quick, setup at the front of the house with my family. We’d spent a lot of time during the interview talking about family and its importance to both of us, and who we’ve become as we’ve gotten older. I didn’t imagine it would end up getting used in the story, but I wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity for a Chris Buck family portrait.

It does a nice job of capturing us as we are today – two people with teenage daughters, our house as the backdrop, as it is in our lives. A hi-res snapshot of domesticity, featuring two ageing hipsters and their very different offspring. The only thing missing is the cat.

I can’t wait to see the outtakes from the shoot, and I know that I walked away from the experience wondering if there was anything in Chris’ working method that I could adapt to my own. Definitely struck by how different it is if you have a willing subject with their attention fully on you, and plenty of time to work. I’d like to thank Chris and Prachy and Lou Noble for the whole experience, and with that I’ll just slink back into the undergrowth where I belong.

In the bushes. Photo by Prachy Mohan.
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Interview with The Photographic Journal


MY GOOD FRIEND CHRIS BUCK interviewed and photographed me for The Photographic Journal earlier this summer, and the interview has gone live today. Amazingly enough, the front page image is probably the most flattering picture of me I’ve seen in, well, forever. Thanks, Chris!

(And yes, it’s true when they say that black is slimming.)

Included are exchanges like the following:

How do you think your being Catholic and a believer, in the traditional sense of being a regular churchgoer; how does that play into your photography?

It’s two things. One is the cultural Catholic thing. The other day on Facebook I posted, 10 Books in 10 Days. And the last book I put up was our family Bible. It was an early fifties pre-Vatican II, American Catholic Bible with two or three sections of old masters, Biblical paintings and scenes. El Greco, Fra Angelico, that kind of stuff. That was the only art book we had in the house the whole time I was a kid.

Did you grow up in the Middle Ages?

No, I grew up in a working class Catholic neighborhood (chuckles) there weren’t a lot of books.

It was a long conversation we had in my backyard, and I’m amazed Chris was able to distill it down as much as he did. The interview was inspired by the end of my old blog, the start of this one, and the publication of my trio of photozines, MUSIC, SQUARE and STARS, which are available at my Blurb bookstore.

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I’ll have more to say about the TPJ interview tomorrow, when I talk about the unique and even revelatory experience of doing a portrait session – for the first time in over twenty-five years – with Chris.

Hello, and Books for Sale


WELCOME TO MY NEW BLOG. I’m guessing you’ve come here after reading my old blog, which was (mostly) about all the work I did between the mid-’80s and the late 2000s. This blog will feature new work, though I may occasionally revisit something old. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want.

In the meantime, I have some books I’d like to sell you. Photozines, actually – a set of three, full of some of the best of that old work. I wanted to put together a “greatest hits” collection, which quickly turned into three 32-page softcover books, available for the low price of CAN$14.99 each.

MUSIC features portraits of musicians taken over thirty years, and includes photos of Tony Bennett, Henry Rollins, Björk, Alice Cooper, Fela Kuti, Patti Smith and others. STARS is a collection of portraits of movie stars and other celebrities, and features Mickey Rooney, Jackie Chan, Rachel McAdams, Rudolf Nureyev, John Waters, Anne Hathaway and more.

SQUARE is the most idiosyncratic volume of the three, and is meant to showcase travel, street photography, landscape and still life work I’ve done over the decades, held together by being shot in my favorite format – the 1:1 square. I imagine it’ll be the book that sells the least, but it’s the most personal of the three, so prove me wrong.

I wanted to publish my photos in a nice, high quality magazine format because I realized while working on my old blog that most of my work – the vast majority, in fact – had been printed on newsprint. I always wanted to be a magazine photographer, so this is my way of re-imagining what that old work would have looked like, published as I imagined it ideally.

The books are available through my Blurb bookstore, which will handle printing, sales and distribution. Click on the button below (or on the right hand side of this blog) and send me a selfie of you with the books when they arrive (if you feel like it.) Please enjoy MUSIC, SQUARE and STARS, and I hope you’ll like the new work I’ll be featuring here as much.

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