I HAD NO PLACE TO PUBLISH MY PORTRAITS OF FELA KUTI when I took them in 1989. Thirty years later, those photos are probably the most profitable negatives I’ve ever made. Posting them on my blog nearly thirty years after they were taken gave them a life they’d never had, starting with when Rikki Stein, Fela’s manager, saw them and contacted me about putting them in a box set of Fela LP reissues.
I’ve written about how they’ve ended up in the world since then – on posters for an L.A. band and on the set of a nightclub on the reboot of Dynasty. And whatever monetary reward I’ve gotten for the photos has actually been overshadowed by seeing my images become part of the iconography of an artist as important as Fela.
The ongoing Fela saga got another chapter recently when Rikki contacted me again, to say that Carhartt WIP, the workwear and street wear clothing label, was doing a line of Fela merchandise and wanted to use my photos. I’ve been a Carhartt wearer for years, so it was a thrill when Philipp Maiburg of Carhartt WIP emailed me to order some images and firm up the deal – my first ever licensing deal with a clothing company.
My shot of Fela exhaling a cloud of pot smoke ended up on a few t-shirts, and a concert photo made it to a long-sleeved shirt that (unfortunately) didn’t end up in the package I got sent a few months ago. (Though you still have my address, right Philipp? I’m still an XL.)
Finally, the image at the top of this post remains my favorite one from the Fela shoot, though nobody has seen fit to use it yet for some reason. So I’m putting this new and improved scan out in the world in the hope of finding some takers.
I LIKE TO REVISIT MY OLD WORK. This shouldn’t be a shock coming from someone who spent over four years digging through their archives and posting what they found. So when Suzie Ungerleider (aka Oh Susanna) emailed me about revisiting the shoot we did for her Johnstown record over twenty years ago, I thought it was a great idea.
The easiest part of the challenge was finding the locations where we shot in Liberty Village, a now-gentrified neighbourhood in west end Toronto. Slightly harder was recreating the portraits we took just beforehand, in my Parkdale studio. The studio is long gone – we had to move out a few months after my shoot with Suzie – and I haven’t done a lot of studio work since then. I don’t even own the stool that Suzie sat on any more, which meant a quick trip to Ikea to pick up a new one.
By the end of my time in my studio I’d started using a deceptively simple lighting setup that involved most if not all of my strobe heads clustered around my camera to create a focused light on the subject. After years of trying to mimic natural light or recreate old glamour lighting, I’d become attracted to a lighting scheme that looked basic but actually required a lot of tinkering.
I still have the strobes and the light stands I used on Suzie’s 1998 shoot, either stored in the loft in the garage or down in the basement, but I’ve moved away from strobes to continuous light since I returned to shooting. Ultimately I rented a pair of Westcott Ice Lights, my favorite portable light source, and set them up to bracket my Fuji X-T2 top and bottom – an even more pared-down lighting scheme than the one I used twenty-one years ago.
Getting Suzie to mirror her poses from two decades ago became a challenge when you consider how hard it is for someone to inhabit the same physical and mental space they occupied at a specific point in their past. We couldn’t help but talk about this – when my stupid cat wasn’t trying to distract us. We’d had an email exchange earlier in the week about Suzie wearing clothes that approximated what she brought to the shoot in 1998, but it occurred to me that a lot of time has passed, so I told her to wear what she’d bring to a photo shoot today.
I already knew that the loading dock behind the “Castle building” in Liberty Village (originally the offices and factory of the E.W. Gillett Baking Powder company) wasn’t there any more – demolished when it was renovated from raw lofts back into offices again. But finding the spot where we took the shot was easy enough. It’s become a bit tiresome to hear people complain about how the decrepit or abandoned parts of their cities have disappeared with gentrification, but it’s not hard to compare these two shots and feel nostalgic for all that picturesque ruin, even if it didn’t generate much economically.
I left the last two locations for last, knowing that the light was nowhere like it was on that November day in 1998. The courtyard doorway into the Gillett building was both in bright sunlight when we arrived there and changed in a few unfortunate ways. I took the liberty (no pun intended) of removing the sign on the archway above Suzie’s head, but I had to alter the composition of the shot thanks to the Porta Potty just out of the right side of the frame.
We’d also shot in the hallways of the Gillett building – Suzie’s home for a couple of months when she moved to Toronto – but I knew that the security system and key cards meant we wouldn’t get access to the interiors today, so we headed to the final location, near the corner of Dufferin and Fraser. We were, once again, in bright sunlight and not flattering overcast, but at least one of the bricked up window bays in the wall where we shot wasn’t tagged with graffiti.
It was a great idea, a fascinating exercise – both technically and as an examination on the passage of time. Suzie, of course, gets to see how she’s changed in two decades, and I got to revisit the way I framed and lit and handled a subject all those years ago. A lot of time has passed, but my working methods didn’t feel too alien. Most of all I learned how much I miss having a studio space. Maybe one day I’ll have one to go with my new stool.
THE GREAT THING ABOUT MY WORK is that I occasionally get paid to do something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve had my eye on the Chi-Cheemaun ferry for years now, but I was recently hired by the Alternator Group on behalf of Owen Sound Transportation Company to spend a weekend on the boat between Tobermory and Manitoulin Island, take some photos and write a few stories.
Cottage country is a big deal up here – not just in Canada, generally, but in Ontario particularly. My family never owned a cottage – we rented one for a week, once, when I was a boy – so I’ve spent my meagre time there as a guest. I’m not a driver, so I had to hire a car to get me up to where Ontario Highway 6 turns a corner by the Bruce Anchor Motel and pauses at the ferry docks in Tobermory.
The ferry takes up where the road leaves off, moving cars across the mouth of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron to South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island, where the highway continues across the island, over the North Channel via a swing bridge before ending in McKerrow. I was only concerned with the highway’s path over the water on the Chi-Cheemaun, however.
I arrived in Tobermory with just enough time to check in to the Bruce Anchor before wandering down to the dock to watch the Chi-Cheemaun arrive from its morning voyage across the bay. Since I wasn’t booked on to the boat until the evening sunset dinner cruise, I had an afternoon to kill in Tobermory, which I did with my camera – a warm-up before I had to get on the boat and get to work.
I like boats. I like anything that takes me anywhere, but boats have a clear lead over planes and a narrow one over trains. Going somewhere on a boat feels like a voyage, and thanks to ever-changing conditions on the water, each trip feels different than the last. The Chi-Cheemaun has been making itself a destination on its own for many years, but its branding got a boost when the bow and funnel were decorated with murals inspired by local woodland aboriginal artwork.
I used my main camera, a Fuji X-T2, to take the portraits and reportage I needed for the commissioned stories, but as usual I took my much-loved X30 with me to capture the sorts of shots I’m always collecting when I travel. The return journey from Manitoulin was dominated by a long sunset that seemed to change every time I thought I’d shot enough and went inside again. A glimpse out the window would reveal another different combination of sky, water and colour, so out I’d go again.
The last embers of the sunset were still burning away when we docked at Tobermory for the night, lining the horizon out towards the mouth of the bay. The sun disappeared and brought a night of rain, which carried in a day’s worth of fog that covered the lake from the moment we left the next morning, hiding the islands on the way out of Tobermory in wisps of steaming mist.
I actually enjoyed my two trips on the Chi-Cheemaun through the fog more than the spectacular sunset cruise the night before. The lake was definitely choppier and visibility was down to a few dozen metres for most of the trip, which meant that the ship’s horn would sound regularly, its muffled echo rolling back through the fog. But the views from the deck were more primal and mysterious, land glimpsed only occasionally through cool fog, the water raked with waves.