EVERY NEW PORTRAIT SHOOT FOR ME THESE DAYS IS A GIFT. This quick session with Danish architect Bjarke Ingels came about with a pair of writing assignments – Engels was in town on a promotional blitz for his first project here, and I was assigned to cover a public appearance and do an interview.
I began my professional career as a writer; photography came along just after, and for the subsequent three-plus decades I’ve seesawed back and forth between the two – the only time I’ve spent a sustained period doing nothing but photography was about five years in the early ’90s. I can’t complain about having two possible income streams in an ever more precarious business, but it became obvious years ago that having to divide my energies while producing writing and photos usually means that the photos suffer.
Ingels is a fascinating guy – a “starchitect” (he told me that he hates the word, as do most other architects) who seems committed to making buildings that are both striking and livable at a time when decades of modern architecture have convinced the public that they’ve rarely been given both at the same time. The development he’s designed for Toronto is certainly audacious – the fact that KING Toronto looks like nothing else that’s been built here has been pointed out by both its fans and detractors – and he’s passionate about explaining and defending his work.
I would have liked to set up my studio in a bag for this shoot, but the interview had precedence so there wasn’t time for that sort of fussiness. I found a half-decent background but it would have been better to have the light coming from behind me and not over my left shoulder. I got along perfectly well with my subject, but as ever just a minute or two extra to work would have been appreciated. In any case the client apparently preferred to go with their own photos, so here they are.
THERE’S SNOW ON THE GROUND SO WINTER’S EARLY which seems like a nice time to remember the summer. With my wife and kids out of town, I took a day off to try out the watercolour paint set I’d been given for Christmas. With the paints and my camera in my bag, I set off on a walk along the Humber River from the old town of Weston at Lawrence Avenue down to the Dundas Street bridge. As I say to myself whenever I head out with a camera and no particular agenda, “Let’s see what we can see.”
THE CEMETERY BEHIND OUR HOUSE has held a dawn Remembrance Day ceremony at the Lutyens cenotaph for nearly a century. We try to make it there if we can every year. It seemed particularly imperative this weekend, with the centenary of the end of World War One. There are no more veterans of that war, and veterans of the one that followed seem fewer every year.
I HAVE A LIST. I have almost always had a list of people I would love to photograph. I have talked about this list before; it’s changed over the years, and many of the people who’ve been on this list from the beginning I never photographed (Frank Sinatra) and never will, though occasionally I did manage to get one (Tony Bennett.)
Some people have been on the list for decades (John Cooper Clarke, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop) while others have been added in the last few years (Greta Gerwig, Jarvis Cocker, Maggie Gyllenhaal.) There are some I think I might still get (Neko Case, Gary Numan) and others I can’t imagine I ever will (Sophia Loren, Dolly Parton, Clint Eastwood.)
Robert Gordon was always on the list.
I had Robert Gordon’s records years before I ever owned a camera, and played them to death as a teenager. One of the first movies I ever saw at the film festival was The Loveless, an arty, campy biker film co-directed by a young Kathryn Bigelow, and I probably wouldn’t have bothered if Gordon hadn’t been one of the stars.
After the adrenaline buzz of punk wore off I got into R&B and rockabilly, styled my hair into an awkward quiff and listened to Gordon constantly, with particular emphasis on his two records with guitarist Chris Spedding, Rock Billy Boogie and Bad Boy. I particularly remember a feature about him in the New York Rocker that I read over and over, particularly impressed by the checkerboard floor and art deco furniture in his New York apartment.
But for some reason I never got him in front of my camera, even when he was passing through town almost annually. Like other entries on the list that always seemed to be around (The Cramps) I just assumed I’d get around to them one day. Then one day, very recently, I realized that I’d better get moving or I might miss my chance. That inspired me to talk two entries on my list into portrait sessions (Kinky Friedman, James Chance.) And then, one day last summer. I noticed that Gordon was coming to town – with Chris Spedding.
I bought a ticket and contacted the promoter and was amazed when I got permission, and on the day of the show I set up the portable photo studio at the back of the club before soundcheck and waited for Gordon and Spedding. There’s always the risk that these things can fall apart at the last minute, though, and I was prepared to break it all down and head home. But that didn’t happen.
I paced around at the back of the club waiting to go. Almost impulsively, Gordon decided to leave the soundcheck and sit down for my photos. I began shooting, then started telling him that I was a big fan.
“Oooooh yeah…” he said, a bit uneasily.
And then I told him that I’d been listening to him since I was a teenager, and that I’d played his records constantly in high school. What was meant as a compliment didn’t seem to register as one, and in that moment I realized what it might feel like to hear a middle-aged man with a white beard and a paunch tell you he’s been a fan of yours since he was a teenager.
It’s something I think I should avoid doing again.
Gordon was, in any case, quite gracious, sitting for a long sequence of photos. I was surprised that he didn’t try to hide the deep scar across his chin, the souvenir of a vicious mugging in NYC in the ’90s, but he almost seemed to show it off. Even more graciously, he stayed for one final pose – my ritual “eyes closed” photos.
I shook his hand, thanked him profusely, then turned to look for Chris Spedding, who’d also agreed to a quick portrait. I found him at a table, having a quick cat nap.
I had shot Spedding before, many years ago, and at the very beginning of my career:
He was in town backing up John Cale – as legendary a guitarist then as he is today. Not that it happens often, but I never turn down an opportunity for a re-match with any subject. I had the photo above handy on my phone, and showed it to him just before we started shooting.
He glanced at it, nodded politely, and wordlessly let me know that we should get started. Perhaps he was thinking what I was hoping – that I’d get something better this time.
It was an almost wordless shoot, and Spedding seemed to have a good idea of what to do. I was particularly impressed with his well-preserved quiff – something I had always aspired to before male pattern baldness made me more skinhead than teddy boy. I also noticed that he had, with age, developed a profile that looked practically Roman.
I’m not sure how long the whole shoot lasted. It seemed like it was over in a minute or two, and at the end there was a surprising, unexpected feeling of disappointment. Not that I hadn’t gotten anything – I was pretty sure there was something worthwhile in my camera – but that, after all these years, I’d struck another name off my list.
That night Spedding opened the show with a short set of his own – yes, he did “Motorbiking” – before Gordon came on, in great voice, and played everything the sold-out club wanted to hear, including “Rock Billy Boogie,” which Gordon (understandably) insisted the audience join on the chorus as a singalong if they wanted to hear it so badly.
I LOVE TO TRAVEL. It was a revelation to learn that I could travel and take pictures and sometimes even get paid to do it. After my gig doing travel writing for the Toronto Star ended last year I went into withdrawal for a few months before biting the bullet and starting my own travel photography blog. There might not be money in it, but it gets me back out on the road with my cameras, and that’s really the point.
My first trip for the blog was a pilgrimage to Rochester, New York; it seemed like a suitable destination to start with for a travel photo blog, and for a Kodak kid like myself, it was even more perfect. Everyone at the city’s tourism bureau were helpful and enthusiastic and I came back with three stories for the blog.
But I’m always shooting when I’m on a trip, and there are always leftover shots that don’t quite fit with the stories I produce. If I’m honest, these leftovers – “my own arty weird shit” as I used to call them when talking to my editor at the Star – are the reason I got into travel journalism. I could try and make these images without leaving Toronto, I suppose, but potentially having access to anywhere in the world to make them just increases the number of potential targets, so to speak.
It’s a travel photographer’s prerogative to ask if you can pull the car or bus over on your way between destinations to get a shot, and I’ve had to learn to find the best way to do that, whether I’m alone or on a group travel junket. Because there’s always something catching your eye, and I don’t know a photographer who doesn’t die a little when a potential shot recedes in the rear view mirror, unphotographed.
Travel photography is a recent addition to my portfolio, but I am always – and will probably always be – a portraitist. Opportunities to do portraits don’t always present themselves on trips, but when they do you have to grab them, as I did at the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford NY. (A great family destination, by the way, if you’re in the area.)