ALMOST A YEAR AFTER WE SHOT THE RECORD COVER, The Discarded brought out their latest record, Sound Check and Fury. This is the fourth record I’ve worked on with the band – a story that began three years ago when Joel Wasson told me he’d started a band with his sons and was recording an album at our old friend Ian Blurton’s studio.
It’s the last chapter of a sort of rock opera Joel started with their previous record, Not From This Town. The project’s theme – life in a touring band – dictated the very simple cover concept – a shot of the band’s gear on a club stage between sound check and their set. We shot it a year ago at Duggan’s Brewery, which is where the band held their Toronto record release just over a week ago.
The back cover was shot at sound check – two lights bounced into umbrellas on either side my camera locked off on a tripod. The shutter was set to a second, but looking back I wish I’d screwed a neutral density filter on the lens and gone for an even longer shutter speed – fifteen seconds or maybe thirty – to get an even more abstract blur.
With just a few minutes to work after we finished the cover shots, it was time to grab a quick band photo. Duggan’s is in the basement of an old building in Parkdale, with rough stone walls, so that was an irresistible choice for a backdrop.
Months after finishing the job, I decided to have some fun with the shoot and tried to imagine the record in a different context. What, for instance, would Sound Check and Fury look like if, say, it was released on a Canadian record label in the middle of the 1970s?
THIS IS A PROJECT I’VE BEEN PLANNING FOR MANY YEARS. A long time ago – at least a decade, probably more – I bought this little address book at an old paper show. I don’t know why I picked it up, but as soon as I began leafing through the pages inspiration struck, and I knew what I wanted to do.
Any other photographer would have gone straight home and set about shooting. If I still had a studio I might have done just that, but things weren’t so simple. I was still working full-time at the free daily, unsure whether I was a writer taking pictures or a photographer who wrote, and the Some Old Pictures blog was still years in the future. I was also a new father, with precious extra energy to set about a new project. And so the little address book sat in a box on my desk through at least two moves.
Without picking apart the scraps of paper and newspaper clippings folded and stacked and paper-clipped into the pages of the address book, I can only make an educated guess at who Mrs. Edward Cross might have been. By all available evidence she was a widow old enough to have a son who was married in 1928, which makes her a Victorian by birth, someone whose life so far had seen a horse drawn world give way to a motorized one; the sort of woman who needed to keep glove sizes handy.
She was an educated Anglophone whose circle of acquaintance spread itself from Canada to New York City to England and the Bahamas. It’s easy to imagine someone who lived in at least the mid-to-upper strata of the middle class, a woman who was happy to take her husband’s name, and who didn’t keep house as much as run a household, with the aid of a little, well-used book like this, which moved from handbag to writing desk to dining room table. The evidence left behind in her address book evokes a genteel, WASPy world of summer linen, talcum powder, kid leather and polished silver.
The poetry copied by Mrs. Cross across two pages of the fourth picture is Rudyard Kipling – “When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted“, a poem from 1892. For Mrs. Cross, Kipling was a celebrity as much as a writer, a literary luminary of the British Empire who might still have been alive when she copied these lines, probably remembered from her youth, for significant and now wholly obscure reasons.
The sentiments in his poetry would have been unquestionable to someone with the background and social position of Mrs. Edward Cross. Why they were transcribed adjacent to a reference to the Otis Elevator Company of Cleveland, OH is just one of the mysteries of Mrs. Cross’ address book.
I have had a long time to plan these photos. Originally I might have shot them on film, but the digital revolution intervened and I’ve used several makes and models of digital cameras while the address book sat in an old wooden box full of ink bottles and dip pens and other assorted office supplies on my desk.
It was clear from the start that I’d need a macro lens to take really tight shots of details of Mrs. Cross’ book, to capture the scrollwork of her cursive handwriting in different inks, the slivers of yellowing newsprint held in place with rusting metal paper clips.
The gift card I got as an honorarium from B&H Camera for doing their podcast last year paid for a macro ring for my Fuji, and I built a little shooting stand out of scrap wood from Home Depot’s lumber department at the same time. (Off-cuts of wood that they were happy to give away, so that the only cost was a few hinges and screws and a sheet of glass.)
The Globe & Mail is still around today, one of the country’s major dailies though – like all newsprint – much diminished in importance, as is The Ontario Intelligencer, now just the Intelligencer and still based out of Belleville, part of the Postmedia chain. I can only guess the significance of the clippings collected by Mrs. Cross in her little book, or the reasons for the many crossed-out names and addresses.
It’s the thick collection of information that Mrs. Cross pressed between its pages that caught my eye, so dense and frequently consulted that they broke its spine in several places, and rendered many of the pages nearly illegible with corrections and crossings-out and the cacophony of entries in pencil and different colours of ink, written in every direction across the lined pages. Up close it’s even more abstract – a quiet blare of data and notes cut loose from meaning and usefulness.
Since I bought Mrs. Edward Cross’ address book for just $5 all those years ago, I’ve picked up a few scrapbooks at other old paper shows, while keeping an eye out for more little books like these. Since I’ve finally put together what I need for this project, I’m hoping to post new additions to this series every few months, especially now that winter’s moved in early and leaving the house is even less appealing.
IT WAS COLD BY THE CENOTAPH THIS MORNING so there weren’t as many people as usual. We woke up early and made our way to the sunrise remembrance ceremony at the cemetery next door, as we have pretty near every year since we moved to this house.
I brought my camera, as I always do. The crowd was suitably stoic in the chill of an apparently early winter, but then I’m sure most of them know that they’re standing there in remembrance of soldiers who suffered much worse than a chilly morning just before the snow started falling.
Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us, Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp. The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp, Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice, But nothing happens.
SOME PEOPLE TRAVEL TO RELAX. That’s something I’d love to do one day, but at the moment traveling is an exercise in constant motion and military-style logistics. Take my recent trip to Atlantic City – I won a two-night stay at Resorts AC at a travel press event, which I decided to turn into some stories for my travel photography blog.
When it became obvious that there was no direct flight from Toronto to Atlantic City, it was time to get serious with my timetable. The best option was a Porter flight that took me from Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island to Philadelphia – via Boston. From there I had to get a SEPTA train to 30th Street Station in downtown Philly, and on to a New Jersey Rail train to Atlantic City. All told about twelve solid hours of traveling, which had to be meticulously plotted in my notebook, alongside weather, sunrise and sunset times and lists of potential subjects to be shot when I finally got there.
The trip got off to a promising start while waiting for the train to Atlantic City in Philadelphia. I was sitting on a bench in the very lovely art deco 30th Street Station when I noticed a man sitting across from me, looking up and down as he drew in a notebook. He told me to look up and we made a joke about smiling before he came across and sat next to me, introducing himself as Irving Fields.
He was an artist, formerly homeless, with quite a story – only one part of which was losing his leg after being hit by a car. After he showed me his work, I said that it was only fair that I take a portrait of him in exchange. I looked around the vast hall and spotted the rows of columns on either end of the room, where I asked him to pose. He took to being a subject quite enthusiastically, and I thought to myself that the trip was getting off to a good start with a portrait before I even arrived at my destination.
My main subject for the trip was the Boardwalk and the Steel Pier – two icons of Atlantic City that any traveler would feel obliged to capture with their camera. I put quite a lot of effort into taking shots of them both, and the Steel Pier in particular, which I made sure I caught at both sunset and sunrise while I was there.
I was in Atlantic City just after the season ended, so despite the summer-like weather on the only full day I had for shooting, I was dealing with a much emptier town than I would have just a few weeks earlier. Which was fine by me – there’s something poignant about a seaside town off-season, not to mention the convenience of being able to capture unpeopled views.
At the top of my Boardwalk destinations was Boardwalk Hall and its pipe organ – the largest in the world. Shooting in among the pipes in the rafters of the building I was glad I’d brought along my new fisheye lens, which I hit pretty hard while I was there. But I was also lucky enough to get another quick portrait during my tour, of Chuck Gibson, Professional assistant to the Boardwalk Hall organ’s curator, one of several people tasked with the non-stop maintenance of the instrument.
I also made my way out to Margate to photograph Lucy the Elephant, America’s oldest roadside attraction and an artifact of Atlantic City’s early history. Unfortunately my time in Margate was brief, but this district of lovely big beach houses, empty of the summer people and vacation renters who’d filled them until just a few weeks previous fascinated me. If I ever get back to Atlantic City, it’s an area I’d love to explore a bit more.
I walked up and down the Boardwalk looking for shots, but my eye kept getting drawn to the streets parallel to the wooden promenade – streets named after states that cut across avenues like Baltic, Pacific and Oriental, made famous by the Monopoly board game. This ended up drawing me away from the casino hotels and the beach into the Atlantic City that people call home.
This led to my third portrait session of the trip, with Robert Ruffolo, proprietor of Princeton Antiques, a bookshop that specializes in the history of Atlantic City. He told me about buying and collecting photos taken by generations of photographers who made documenting Boardwalk tourists and Atlantic City nightlife and events their business.
I find places like Atlantic City fascinating – towns with unique origins and unprecedented histories. There’s the town for visitors and the town for locals, with changes of fortune up and down the decades, peopled with colorful characters. I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of those characters whenever I passed the empty shell of Trump Plaza, one of three properties that made up Donald Trump’s real estate empire at different times. The massive gilded Trump escutcheon still looms over the parking lots at the back of the Plaza, the “T” conspicuously missing. It’s tempting to snicker at this monument to failure, but as I keep pointing out to people prone to this sort of thing, he did move on to an even higher profile gig.
As much as I love the challenge of taking iconic travel photos for my other blog, I truly love making photos like these along the way, while I wander from sunrise to sunset. These are the kinds of photos that made me love traveling – the sort of thing I’d shoot at home, no doubt, but with the benefit and inspiration of being taken in places utterly unlike my hometown – places like Atlantic City, which I’d travel back to in a heartbeat.
FACES WAS DEFINITELY THE EASIEST OF MY THREE NEW PHOTO BOOKS TO PUT TOGETHER. Portraits make up most of what I think is my best work from the last three and a half decades, and even after putting together last year’s STARS and MUSIC – both collections of portraits – I had a lot of shots left over.
I needed a theme, however, and it wasn’t hard to find. Thanks to a variety of factors – the short durations of most of my celebrity portrait sessions; the often difficult settings and lighting conditions where I’ve had to work – I learned early on to concentrate on faces as long as I could find a nice spot in any room.
This spread featuring actors Alan Rickman and Stanley Tucci, both shot for NOW magazine in the ’90s, could have been in STARS if I hadn’t run out of space. I’m glad I waited, though, since the self-imposed formal layout of the first books – smaller photos, centred no each page, done mostly because I was timid about my lack of experience with book design – would have discouraged me from laying these shots out full bleed, mirroring each other across the spine of the book.
This layout is one that cried out to happen. I’ve always been fond of my strange, nearly wordless 1990 shoot with Bruce Dern. Nearly fifteen years later, shooting Rhys Ifans for the free daily, I found myself copying it in a similar room in the same hotel. I figured a decade and a half was long enough outside of the statute of limitations that I could rip myself off. At the time I took the shot, only I knew that I was copying myself; this is my shameful admission.
The juxtaposition of my portrait of Robert Altman – shot on my vintage Rolleiflex in 1990 – and a 2007 shot of Leelee Sobieski – taken on the free daily’s digital Canon – was a way of marking the passage of time. I couldn’t have imagined a digital camera back at the turn of the ’90s, or how my five to ten minute sessions in the ’90s would give way to just a minute or two (and often much less) over a decade later. Digital cameras certainly made these rushed sessions possible, but I’d also learned – with regret, I have to admit – to work at an even more rushed pace with each decade.
This spread sums up the theme of FACES – simple, stripped down portraits (Ben Stein in 2009 and Peter Sarsgaard a year earlier) where I had just enough time to confront my subject with my camera up close. Working for the free daily this was pretty much my only option – in the paper’s cluttered layouts, a complicated composition with any negative space would just end up getting cropped, so I knew that my only option was to fill the frame with a face that would fill up three, or two, or perhaps only one column of newsprint.
I didn’t think much of the work I was doing for the free daily at first. It felt sort of automatic for the first year or two, but by the time I did these two portraits I felt I was working toward a new, even more minimal style. I would have liked to see where this led me, but I was laid off a few months after the Stein session and didn’t shoot another portrait for years. The publication of FACES brings the story of my portrait work up to date, with a couple of recent sessions sprinkled among the old “hits.”
With this book, I’ve brought the “some old pictures” story to an end – I might have a few decent uncollected portraits in my archives, but the cupboard is mostly bare and any new book I bring out going forward will have to feature new work. I have a few ideas, but I’m pretty sure that it’ll be more than a year before I’ll publish another book like the six I’ve managed to put out in just over a year.