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.)
THE OLD BLOG WAS TWO YEARS OLD WHEN I FOUND MYSELF WITH THE URGE TO SHOOT FORMAL PORTRAITS AGAIN. I wasn’t working for anyone and no one was hiring me so I knew that if I wanted to do portraits, I had to go to my subjects – as many as possible at one time, I hoped. Luckily, an opportunity presented itself at just the right time.
My old friend and onetime assistant Rod Orchard was trying to revive Full Contact, his old magazine, and sponsored a show of mostly skinhead bands at a local club. There are few subcultures as abiding or fascinating – or as problematic, as we say these days – as skinheads, which made the idea of photographing a whole bunch of them at once even more appealing.
And as Rod said when he agreed to my proposition – “Hey, who doesn’t love skinheads? Skinheads are hilarious!”
I took the set-up I’d used to photograph Kinky Friedman the previous fall and added a pair of lights – my old travel light stands and umbrellas, with some cheap light socket/clamp assemblies I bought off Amazon and a couple of 14w household LED bulbs. The point of this little portable studio was to be as light and cheap as possible – to keep my overhead low on what felt like a tentative experiment, and to keep me from crying if the whole thing got busted up by skinheads.
I set up between the bar and the ATM in the club with a clipboard full of release forms. With Rod’s help, I approached bands as they finished soundcheck and customers as they entered the club. By the end of the night I’d shot twenty-nine subjects, all of whom happily signed my release form, including one very drunk gentleman who just left an “X.” (Still legally binding – “His mark,” as they used to note on old census forms and contracts when illiteracy was more common.)
It might have been an experiment, but it was an important one for me. It had been a long time since I’d done a blitz of portrait shooting, and I wanted to throw myself headlong back into the process – sink or swim, so to speak. I also wanted to work with non-celebrities as subjects; it was even more of a challenge to work with people who didn’t have a fixed sense of their identity or what they wanted to look like, or present me with anything to work with before they stepped in front of my lights. Anything, of course, beyond “People you meet at a skinhead show.”
I shot tight and close to the backdrop to make sure it would easily bleach to white in Photoshop. I wanted to work with as many limitations as possible; I was still dubious about re-entering the world of formal portrait work, and didn’t want to give myself too many opportunities to get ambitious.
I’d end up taking nearly the same set-up to the film festival later that year, so I must have been pleased with the results. Two years later, I want to try something like this again. Anybody know where I can find a whole bunch of Teddy Boys in one spot?
I TALKED ABOUT MY OLD BLOG, MY NEW WORK, AND THIRTY YEARS AS A PHOTOGRAPHER with Heidi Volpe at A Photo Editor last week, and the interview was published yesterday. I’m still finding it odd to realize that I look like a bit of a veteran at this stage in my career, but I suppose it’s something I have to learn to accept. In any case, here’s an excerpt of our discussion:
What did you see in them now that you didn’t see then?
I always second-guessed myself when choosing work – I had a hard time finding the best shot, or I’d go for the most obvious, flattering one as opposed to the interesting one buried further down. With years of distance it became easier to find the interesting frames. Also, my skill with Photoshop far exceeds my skill in the darkroom, so I was finally able to produce finished images much closer to what I had in mind when I shot them twenty years ago, like my portraits of Bjork and Patti Smith. Then there are the shoots that I dismissed as flops, or ones from periods of my life that I didn’t recall fondly. I really undersold my portrait work at Metro in the 2000s; it turned out to be much better than I remembered.
I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t like talking about myself. After three decades of relative obscurity, it’s a bit of a thrill, and I’m not tired of it yet. In any case, hopefully it’ll sell some books. Speaking of which…