Jane Bunnett in the ’90s

Jane Bunnett, outtake from The Water is Wide CD cover, 1993
Jane Bunnett in my Parkdale studio, 1993

AFTER A BREAK OF OVER TWENTY YEARS, I shot an album cover for my old friend Jane Bunnett the other day. I’ve written about collaborating with Jane on my old blog, but I put that project to bed before I got around to writing about the records I worked on after New York Duets, Live at Sweet Basil and Spirits of Havana. I honestly meant to talk about the albums covers we made in the mid-’90s, but those posts got lost in the rush to bring Some Old Pictures to a close, so now seemed like a good time to revisit that work.

Spirits of Havana did great things for Jane’s profile, so she and her husband and trumpeter Larry Cramer decided to charge ahead with a sort of all-star record featuring musicians she’d worked with before – pianist Don Pullen, drummer Billy Hart and bassist Kieran Overs – and two singers, Sheila Jordan and Jeanne Lee. It was a challenge musically since Jane’s main instruments, the soprano sax and flute, both reside almost exactly in the same register as the human voice, so she’d have to share a lot of harmonic space with these two legendary jazz singers.

Jeanne Lee, Harbourfront, Toronto, 1993
Billy Hart, Harbourfront, Toronto, 1993
Sheila Jordan, Reaction Studios, Toronto, 1993
Don Pullen, Reaction Studios, Toronto, 1993
Sheila Jordan & Jeanne Lee, Reaction Studios, Toronto, 1993
Jane Bunnett, Reaction Studios, Toronto, 1993

I ended up spending a couple of days documenting the recording and a gig with the band at Harbourfront. By now I’d spent a few years in Jane’s orbit, and her regular collaborators were used to seeing me around with my camera; Don Pullen, always wary with photographers, especially when he was playing live, had become something of a friend. It would be a few years before I became obsessed with jazz singers, but I was thrilled to be in the studio with Sheila Jordan and Jeanne Lee. Lee’s stark, beautiful early ’60s recordings with pianist Ran Blake were a particular favorite of mine back then.

The Denon Canada cover of The Water Is Wide is still probably my favorite cover of all the ones I did for Jane. I had just taken over my whole studio in Parkdale and finally had a space dedicated just to shooting, so I put some thought and effort into it; with just the title of the record to work on, I spent a night painting a white seamless backdrop with a rough, near-abstract expressionist image of a river meant to curve up and around Jane’s head. (Ever the thrifty Scot, I used leftover paint from two different shades of blue sitting around from painting my living room.) I was – still am, probably – in love with the look of jazz records from the ’50s and early ’60s on labels like Contemporary, World Pacific, Riverside, Prestige and Blue Note. I tried to duplicate the feel and visual vocabulary of those records for the cover image.

The Water is Wide actually has the distinction of being both my favorite and most disliked cover for Jane, mostly because of a photo I took that was intended for the back, or inside the CD booklet. I’d set up a shot with Jane and her instruments and sheet music in a corner of my studio after we’d finished with the cover shot, and while I was shooting my little cat Nato – a diva who loved walking into photo shoots – paid Jane a visit.

We thought it was cute, but at the insistence of the label boss a rather garish variation of the original image ended up on the Evidence Records version of the album in America. I have always hated this cover, which is about a thousand miles from the look I worked so hard to achieve for the Denon release.

My love affair with the look of old jazz album covers was still in full force two years later when Jane asked me to shoot the cover of a record she was making with Frank Emilio Flynn and José Maria Vitier. This time around my inspiration was more specific – Irving Penn (of course) and some other studio portraits of jazz musicians from the ’50s and early ’60s, especially Donald Silverstein’s iconic shot of pianist Bill Evans from the cover of his legendary Sunday at the Village Vanguard album.

I wanted to do something elegant and minimal, so I used a tabletop I’d made from some weathered barn boards and put a lot of work into lighting Jane as if she and her horn were a still life. The period homage was particularly appropriate for this record, which was being released on the recently-revived World Pacific label.

Jane Bunnett in my Parkdale studio, Toronto, 1995

I was very pleased with the results, and with the restrained layout of the World Pacific cover. Today, it reminds me of the happiest period in my Parkdale studio, when I still felt challenged and the prospect of an ongoing career as a studio portrait photographer still seemed viable.

Today, it would be foolhardy to think too much about my photography in the context of what I once understood to be a “career,” but the sense of challenge has gratefully returned, and the album cover I’m working on for Jane right now is a considerable technical and creative challenge. But more about that later.

Don Pullen died in Los Angeles, California on April 22, 1995.

Jeanne Lee died in Tijuana, Mexico on October 25, 2000.

Check out my books
Advertisements

Butthole Surfers coffee table book

Gibby Haynes, Butthole Surfers, Toronto, Dec. 8 1987

FIRST OF ALL I’M AMAZED THIS THING EVEN EXISTS. If you’d walked up to me while I was packing up after shooting portraits of the Butthole Surfers after their soundcheck at the RPM Club in 1987 and said “Hey man – you should take care of those shots. They’ll be useful in about thirty years or so. Probably end up in a big old coffee table book,” I’d probably have said you were out of your mind.

“I mean, have you seen these guys? Have you heard their records?”

Well hey, time traveler, you were right, and here’s the proof:

When I posted photos from my Butthole Surfers portrait session on my old blog, they ended up catching the attention of Jeffrey “King” Coffey, one of the band’s drummers. He linked to them on Facebook and said nice things about being organized enough to save my work and get it out into the digital ecosystem. I was flattered but I thought that would be about it.

Butthole Surfers live, RPM, Toronto, Dec. 8 1987

About a year ago I got a call from Aaron Tanner of Melodic Virtue, a publisher that specializes in books about music. He said they were doing a book about the Buttholes and asked if I’d like to contribute. I did, and the result arrived in the mail yesterday. It’s called Butthole Surfers: What Does Regret Mean? and you can buy it here.

I’m pretty proud of this, and still more than a bit amazed that I’m in my mid-50s and I own a Butthole Surfers coffee table book with my photos in it. Going through the book, my sequence of portraits are the first really clear, straightforward pictures of the band that appear in the book’s chronology.

I suppose I could have tried to do something nuts that reflected the band’s weird, dangerous, psychedelic image but my lack of technical skill and whatever nascent aesthetic I was developing made me go as straight as possible with Gibby, Paul and the rest of the band. As subjects, they were like herding proverbial cats, but Coffey did mention later that they were probably tripping balls.

I was always pretty happy with the portrait of Gibby at the top of this post – it worked for me thanks to some “old masters” style lighting that I discovered by accident, after having to come up with a hasty setup to take individual shots of the band in a corner of the club. I’d spend another year trying to duplicate it, but this particular shot of Gibby gets better every time I print it.

I was never satisfied with my live shots from the show that night. I didn’t have a hope in hell of capturing the more than vaguely sinister chaos in a Buttholes live show, so I never really bothered doing anything with the negatives – until this week.

Check out my books

Behind the scenes of 24 Hours in NYC

WHEN I WAS INVITED TO DO THE B&H PODCAST LAST NOVEMBER, I always knew that I wanted to do it in person and not by phone or Skype. It was too great an opportunity to take part in long distance, which meant a trip to New York City – hardly a hardship as far as I was concerned.

Planning ahead for the trip, it seemed like a great opportunity to do something I’d been thinking about for a couple of years – trying to duplicate a few of the great photos that have been taken in NYC, photos that have contributed to the city’s iconography. This meant staying overnight, and a bit of homework. I’ve already posted the results on my travel photography blog, but I thought I’d like to go into detail with the planning I had to do for the trip, and also post some of the leftover shots that I took during that busy, productive day.

My room at Leo House, W. 23rd St.

I booked a room at Leo House, which has been my lodging of choice in Manhattan for the last couple of years. A modest Catholic-run hostel on 23rd Street, just a block west from the (legendary but still under renovation) Chelsea Hotel, it’s clean and old-fashioned and (relatively) cheap, and I splurged on a room with a bath.

I’d flown into Newark early on Porter that morning, but I didn’t want to waste a minute so I dropped off my bag and headed out to do a location scout on one of my main photo targets. Leo House was extra convenient in that it’s just a few blocks away from the Flatiron Building, which was made famous not long after it was built in photos taken by Edward Steichen.

I took a quick Instagram shot of the building, which looked striking even in the midday light. I knew that the weather and light had to line up perfectly if I hoped to get anything close to Steichen’s shot, which needed to be taken in dim morning light, and preferably when the pavement was wet. The Instagram pic looked good enough that I began worrying whether that would end up being my best Flatiron shot of the trip.

Just recently I returned to making notes for important shots – something I used to do all the time in the 1990s, when I was still doing a lot of studio shooting. There were a lot of logistics in play if I hoped to pull off everything I had planned for this trip, so I began planning weeks before, making notes of subway stops and routes, sunset and sunrise, and the approximate guesses of where I needed to be with my cameras, picked out with Google Maps and Google Street View.

I’d also researched my locations as much as possible, and I knew that Steichen wasn’t the only New York photographer captivated by the Flatiron Building when it was still new. His friend and mentor Alfred Stieglitz had taken a photo that likely spurred on the competitive Steichen to produce his own take, and their peer, the pictorialist Alvin Langdon Coburn, took his own famous shot of the building a few years later.

Flatiron at midday, NYC, Nov. 2018

I had all of these images in my head as I walked around the edge of Madison Square Park with my camera. I knew that getting my homage to the Steichen photo was the focus of my efforts, but while I was there I couldn’t resist making a few tentative efforts at something in the spirit of Stieglitz and Coburn’s shots.

34th St. Station, NYC, 2018

I don’t know why I love the New York subway but I do. It’s grimy and confusing but I never feel like I’m in the city until I take a ride on the subway. Every station looks unique, and the amateur historian in me is always looking out for the traces of closed entrances and tunnels to adjacent lines. It’s also a fantastic place to take photos.

DUMBO, Brooklyn, Nov. 2018
Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn, Nov. 2018

Even when I used to spend a lot of time in NYC back at the turn of the ’90s, I didn’t get out to the other boroughs very much, and I never crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. Back then the neighbourhood around the Brooklyn side of the bridge didn’t even have a name. The famous view down Washington Street toward the Manhattan Bridge is overrun with selfie-takers now, but I was fascinated by the adjacent streets where the massive piers of the bridge dominate the landscape.

Brooklyn Bridge, NYC, Nov. 2019

I’m sure there are a thousand ways to photograph the Brooklyn Bridge. I ended up making a few attempts at the view of the bridge arcing its way across the East River into Manhattan, but when I was on the pedestrian walkway I ended up shooting up most of the time. I’ve been told that you didn’t used to see that much foot traffic on the bridge; I imagine you’d have to get out there pretty early, or in some pretty harsh weather, to have the whole impressive sculptural spectacle of it to yourself. Perhaps that’s a project for another trip.

Empire, NYC, Nov. 2019

As I approached the Manhattan side of the bridge, I could see my next destination in the distance. The Empire State Building still dominates the midtown skyline, and hopefully it always will.

Flatiron, NYC, Nov. 2019

I didn’t want to waste any time with lineups going up to the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, so I had spent a bit extra and bought the VIP Express Pass online. I’d done my research – it was known that Berenice Abbott had shot her famous photo of Midtown Manhattan in 1934 from a window near the northwest corner of the building, but the first thing I saw as soon as I walked out onto the observation deck was my quarry for the following morning, cleaving through the thickets of buildings to the south.

Consulting my notes, Empire State Building, NYC, Nov. 2018

After getting my bearings, I headed right for the corner closest to where Abbott took her photo. Consulting my notebook, I saw that there had been very little change over the decades to the scene below, and that I would probably be able to shoot a pretty close approximation of her original photo. I only had to kill a bit of time while the sun began to set.

Midtown Manhattan, Nov. 2018

I wandered through the crowds on the observation deck, slipping into an empty spot by the railing whenever I saw one to shoot whatever looked interesting. It was, as they say, a target-rich environment – Manhattan at dusk looks magical, and I came away wondering why, with so many opportunities for a picture in front of her, Abbott had chosen that one, specific view?

New York Public Library, Nov. 2018

I had more time to kill before I had to meet a friend in the city for dinner, so I plotted out a route that would take me past the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and Grand Central Station on my way to P.J. Clark’s. The library was closed so I had to focus on the famous stone lions out front and the skyscrapers behind them – a view I’m sure hasn’t changed in at least seventy or eighty years.

Village Vanguard, Nov. 2019

The day ended at the Village Vanguard, a world-famous jazz club that’s miraculously still in business. No photographs allowed during the show, so I had to settle for a shot of the neon sign outside.

Flatiron (after Stiechen), NYC, Nov. 2019

The rain started falling when I walked back to Leo House, and it was still falling the next morning when I got up before dawn to take the Steichen shot of the flatiron. I was wet and cold but at least I was lucky enough to match the circumstances in which Steichen took his photo. Once I was satisfied that I couldn’t shoot any more, I headed back to my room to dry off and get ready for the B&H interview.

I was hoping there’d be time after lunch with my friend Chris Buck to walk down the High Line with my cameras to 23rd before I had to get back to Newark, but the weather and an accident by the New Jersey Railroad line into Penn Station meant I had to recalculate my route out of the city via the PATH. Leaving at least one more iconic New York City location to shoot the next time I was back in the city.

Check out my books

Car Show

Volkswagen Bug, CIAS 2019

I WAS AT THE AUTO SHOW THIS YEAR ON ASSIGNMENT. If you followed my old blog, you’d know that Media Day the Canadian International Auto Show is an annual event for me. I began shooting it over a decade ago for the free daily, and then regularly for blogTO. Last year I was accredited on my own steam for the first time, and I scored a media pass again this year, but at the last minute the Toronto Star hired me to do some shooting.

Ford Explorer on display, CIAS 2019
Toyota Supra, CIAS 2019
Ford GT, CIAS 2019

I love photographing cars. I’m not sure I’d ever want to do big deal, professional auto shoots or advertising, but I love car shows and museums and drag strips, where I can wander around treating each new machine like a still life subject. This year was great – besides the new cars at the manufacturer’s booths, there were lowriders from L.A.’s Petersen Museum, racecars, a Sherman tank and the Buick Y-Job, legendary GM car designer Harley Earl’s personal car. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of shooting cars. One day I need to learn how to drive.

Lowrider custom, CIAS 2019
Harley Earl's Buick Y-Job, CIAS 2019
Mario Andretti's McLaren racecar, CIAS 2019
Sherman Tank, CIAS 2019
Honda Civic, CIAS 2019
Aston Martin DB5, CIAS 2019
Check out my books

Art Gallery

Art Gallery of Ontario, April 21, 2018

AROUND FOUR YEARS AGO MY YOUNGEST DAUGHTER started taking classes at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I volunteered to take her on weekend mornings, which usually meant I had a couple of hours to kill just when the gallery opened. At first I used it as an excuse to wander around the neighbourhood with my camera, but after a while I began sticking to the galleries, taking pictures of the rooms and the gallery goers – making photos of people looking at art. I would start the morning with a coffee in the Galleria Italia and then slip into the adjacent rooms of Canadian art to start my furtive shooting.

At least a year or so ago my daughter was definitely too old for me to be taking her to class, but it had become our ritual, and frankly I had come to enjoy those two hours every week, lurking around the AGO with my camera, stalking my subjects. But with her last class just before Christmas she was officially too old for the kids’ art programs. She’ll likely be back to take portfolio classes in high school, but my excuse to spend every weekend sneaking my photos was over.

These photos are a selection of the best shots I took in the gallery last year. At some point in the last four years a random challenge turned into a bit of an obsession, and I realized that I was creating a series – an ongoing project I’ve christened “Right Behind You.”

I also took photos at other art galleries, and when I was on travel junkets – any place where people went about the business of looking at things, individually or in groups. I suppose the whole project actually began over thirty years ago, with some photos I’d taken in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, before I had any idea that I’d make photography my career.

As someone who’s specialized in portrait photography, this was a challenge – anti-portraits, of people who didn’t know their picture was being taken, most of them shots with their faces turned away from the camera. If I was shooting this on film, I might have used a Rolleiflex or a Leica rangefinder; cameras with nearly inaudible shutters. In the digital era I’m even luckier – my beloved Fuji X-30 has a virtually silent electronic shutter, and an LCD screen that folds out for waist-level shooting. It’s basically a street photography challenge, confined to a single venue, with most of the variables of shooting on the street – crowds, the clutter of buildings in the background, changing conditions of light and weather – removed.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from heading back to the AGO on my own. But perhaps it’s time to take my little project to some new venues, maybe back out into the streets. What I do know is that setting myself this challenge regularly has helped keep my reflexes sharp and my eye in practice. But the melancholy part is that this particular series of photos marks the end of a discrete period of my time as a father.

Check out my books