ANOTHER PRESS DAY AT THE CANADIAN INTERNATIONAL AUTO SHOW. I was supposed to be covering this for a newspaper, but there were layoffs and nobody got back to me but I was accredited on my own in any case so I was able to enjoy press day as a free agent. I put a fisheye lens on my X-T2 and did the usual thing with my X30 and let my eye get drawn to where it normally goes – to the details.
This year’s show was much smaller than it once was, certainly when I began covering the auto show over fifteen years ago and it sprawled over the whole of the convention centre and into the Skydome, er, Rogers Centre. One manufacturer (Volvo) was a no-show, but had skipped auto shows before, while another (Mercedes-Benz) was conspicuous by their absence. Concept cars made themselves conspicuous with their usual improbability, and the stunning new mid-engined Corvette finally made an appearance.
THESE ARE THE SAME FLOWERS as the ones I was shooting two months ago, even drier and more sun-bleached. Valentine’s Day is coming up so I needed to clear out the vase for the next bouquet. It’s winter – I’d rather do this than shiver on some hiking trail by the bluffs or windswept street down by the harbour. And frankly a day will doubtless come when I’d rather do this than anything else. Stay tuned.
My tabletop studio was mostly built from old clothespins and about twenty-five bucks worth of foamcore and construction paper from Michael’s. That’s the dirty secret of still life work – unless your subject is a car you can do it for pennies. The light sources were also low budget – a pair of LED flashlights. Work is slow right now so I’m experimenting on a very modest scale; let’s see where this leads.
THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF A NEW PROJECT, but more about that later. I’ve known John Borra for at least three decades – one of a community of working musicians here in my hometown who are still performing and (when they can) recording. He was on a list I made of potential portrait subjects, but as soon as I saw he had a new album coming out, he got bumped to the top.
John was the bassist in A Neon Rome when I met him all those years ago – a sort of psychedelic punk group whose live performances were famously mercurial (to say the least.) When the band imploded he went out on his own as a singer and songwriter, while filling the bass slot in Change of Heart for a few years.
I used to catch him busking during daylight hours; after the sun set you’d find him playing bass with Ron Sexsmith, Greg Keelor, Serena Ryder and a reunited Viletones (among many, many other acts.) He’s released three solo albums of his own and three with his band, Rattlesnake Choir, but told me during our shoot last week that his fourth and latest solo album, Blue Wine, was the first he’s made after serving what felt like a kind of years-long apprenticeship.
My habit lately ahead of big shoots is to put together visual notes for a subject, a way to give myself some starting points for lighting and poses. For the first time, however, I showed my subject my notebook; for some reason I had a feeling that John would know how to respond to them more as a series of hints or moods than as instructions, and I was right.
Here’s the thing about John Borra – I don’t think he’s gained an ounce since I met him. His lankiness was an obvious physical trait to start with, and for some reason it suggested a pair of portraits I’ve always loved – Richard Avedon’s 1959 portrait of Rev. Martin Cyril D’Arcy SJ and Irving Penn’s 1966 shot of writer Tom Wolfe. We seemed to hit that note with the shot at the top of this post, and pushed it a little bit farther as we kept shooting.
The location for the shoot suggested itself to both of us, independently – John has had an informal residency at The Communist’s Daughter, a cozy little bar on College Street for years, playing with his old friend (and Toronto punk legend) Sam Ferrara. I brought my lights, but arrived to find the gift of a big picture window full of north light waiting, so the lights stayed in their case.
The first shot that suggested itself used an old folding screen that I’d seen in the window of the Commie for years – a potential location filed in my memory, finally pressed into service. This ended up combining another two visual notes I’d put into my notebook – Bill Claxton’s 1959 photo of actor Ben Carruthers taken outside Birdland, the famous NYC jazz club, and an 18th century portrait of Thaddeus Burr by John Singleton Copley.
The penultimate setup was in my comfort zone – tight portraits against a neutral background, shot with my new manual focus 50mm portrait lens. John has always had a kind of Sam Shepard vibe about him that hasn’t diminished with time, so I knew that, even if nothing else worked, at least these shots would produce something worth seeing.
The final set-up was meant to use the location as much as possible, and as soon as I saw the jukebox down at the end of the bar, the composition fell into place after I’d shifted the stools sitting on the bar down a few inches. We shot this while continuing the chat that had gone on since the shoot began – a bit of catching up, a bit of talking about our newest projects. It was the end of an altogether very amiable session.
John’s new record is pretty great. Drawing on a cast of musical friends he’s made over the years, Blue Wine has a big, modern honky tonk sound, based around a quartet of great drummers and filled out with organ, accordion and mandolin. It also features a great cover designed by Alisdair Jones, another old Toronto punk comrade. If you’re in Toronto tonight, there’s a record release party at The Supermarket in Kensington Market.
This is the first installment in a new portrait series. It’s been quite a few years since there were thriving newspaper arts sections or magazines that might have assigned me to take portraits of local musicians, so I’ve decided to be my own photo editor and give out the assignments I’d be excited to take, shooting people whose work I admire. Some are, like John, old friends; others are people I’ve never had a chance to get in front of my camera for some reason. I hope you’ll enjoy the project as it unfolds over the next year or two.
THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE SOMETHING I COULD SHOW YOU AWHILE AGO. The vinyl version of Tierra Firme was supposed to be out at the same time as the CD, but there were technical issues so it only became a thing recently. I think it looks great; I wish everything I did came out on LP. Hell, I want to record an album so I can make another LP cover.
As I’ve said before, I never really got to enjoy the heyday of the vinyl era. Compact discs had taken over and vinyl was on the way out when I began shooting my first record artwork, so I got used to seeing my work 5″ square, or maybe on a slightly larger oblong package when the jewel case was no longer standard music packaging. I honestly never expected that I’d see my photos on an LP cover, but here we are, and I’m thrilled.
It was great to see my work nice and big, pretty much exactly as I imagined it a year ago when we did the shoot. Reaching into the LP sleeve and seeing another photo on the inner sleeve was gratifying. The inside shot was meant as a promo photo (see below) – if I get to do this again I’d like to try to make something that’s more of a cohesive graphic package.
The promo group shots were actually inspired by a Sonny Rollins photo Jane sent me when we began brainstorming the cover – the cover image was an idea we had later, when Jane wanted to do something that evoked the title of the record. I think we would both have wanted to take more promo setups that day, but the shoot was going long and I didn’t want to keep Jane and the band any longer.
The shoot also ended up in the year-end reader’s poll issue of Downbeat, which was richly ironic, given my (long ago and brief) history with the magazine. (Click here – it’s a good story.) With this in mind, I loved seeing a photo of mine in Downbeat.
I DIDN’T SPEND AS MUCH TIME AT THE ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO THIS YEAR as I have in previous years. The many hours I’ve spent with my camera wandering around the AGO (and other art galleries) have been a big part of reviving my love of shooting. But without youngest offspring attending art classes at the gallery, however, there have only been two visits there with my Fuji X30.
This is an ongoing project that I probably wouldn’t have pushed this far without digital camera technology. Between the nearly silent shutter on the X30 and its waist-level LCD viewfinder, stalking random gallery goers has never been easier. I suppose I could be doing this out on the street, but shooting inside art galleries has the effect of eliminating variables like weather and light.
If there’s anything notable about this year’s photos it’s that I’ve started cropping tighter and moving in closer to my subjects. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve gotten more confident with this project or that I’m more of a psycho about my “street photography” and how much I’m happy to take from the passersby who stray in front of my camera.
Still not sure about where this is all going. There’s a few years worth of these shots now, all loosely grouped under the title “Right Behind You.” I don’t think I’m quite there yet with the project as a cohesive whole; maybe I need to shoot in a bunch of other museums, or maybe I need to take this back out onto the streets. This next year seems like the time to make a decision about the future of my lurking.
WINTER’S ARRIVED EARLY SO I’M NOT LEAVING THE HOUSE MUCH. Which is perfectly fine – as long as there’s a vase of flowers in whatever state of freshness I’ll have something to put in front of my camera. This particular mix of roses and carnations was left over from my wife’s birthday – sitting on a shelf in the sun, they were finally ready to become still life subjects.
This was also a chance to test out my new toy – a Kamlan 50mm f1.1 Mk.2 I’d bought on Kickstarter as a portrait lens. Fitted with my macro ring, it turned out to work very nicely for close-up shooting, though I never opened it up to its lowest f-stop and unleashed the “Bokeh monster” that Kamlan dubbed it for the campaign. I’m feeling inspired, but Valentine’s Day is nearly two months away, so it looks like I’ll need an excuse for more flowers.
SOMEONE ONCE ASKED ME IF I HAVE TO “PRACTICE” AS A PHOTOGRAPHER. I said that I did, which is why I carry a camera with me almost everywhere I go. (And I’m not including my cellphone in this.) I don’t shoot as much as I’d like to, so I try to take pictures whenever it’s possible. So I end up with folders full of shots that need a home. With the end of the year in sight, this is their home.
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.