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.

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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.

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Daniel Doheny

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Daniel Doheny, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2017.

I PHOTOGRAPHED ACTOR DANIEL DOHENY AT THE FILM FESTIVAL IN 2017, one of over fifty people whose portraits I took, mostly at the Gate TIFF Lounge at the Intercontinental Hotel on Front Street. He was Canadian, just one of a dozen or so young actors I’d photograph that weekend. If I’m frank, I was a lot more excited about the portraits I did of Judy Greer, his co-star in a film called Public Schooled, which changed its title to Adventures in Public School by the time it was released. The shots of Doheny didn’t even make the cut when I posted the best of my festival portraits on my old blog.

As with everyone else I shot during that festival, I posted a portrait of Doheny on Instagram. Over the last few months, however, that shot has been getting a steady stream of likes – mostly because of starring roles he’s had in two teen comedies on Netflix – The Package and Alex Strangelove. The latter – a coming-out film as well as a teen comedy – has apparently been the source of a burst of fame for Doheny.

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When you do portrait photography with celebrities, the extended life of your work depends hugely on the reputation of your subjects. For years I kept some of my favorite photos out of my portfolio simply because the subject was obscure or unknown; when you only had two or three dozen pages to make an impact on a distracted photo editor or jaded art director, a string of big names was as good or better than a series of shocking photos to keep their attention. A celebrity portrait photographer is too beholden to luck and access to make bets on the future status of the people who get put in front of their camera – if they’re fortunate enough to get the work.

I could not, for instance, have predicted how much longevity my portraits of Fela Kuti would have. On the other hand, Rudolf Nureyev was an enormous star when I photographed him nearly thirty years ago; today he’s only a celebrity in the memories of people who were alive when he still danced. I would never have predicted that Cate Blanchett or Mark Ruffalo would have become the big stars they are today when I photographed them ten or twenty years ago. So here are a few more shots of Daniel Doheny, who seems to have had a nice launch at the start of what might be a fine career, for the fans who could make the young man a star one day.

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The Persistence of Fela

Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Toronto, 1989
Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Toronto, July 1989

THE SHOOT I DID WITH FELA KUTI NEARLY THREE DECADES AGO WAS SEEN BY ALMOST NOBODY until I published it on my old blog near the start of that project. Since then it’s taken on a life I couldn’t have imagined, either when I was begging the show’s promoter for a chance to photograph Fela, or on the winter day long after that, when I took the negatives from their files and started scanning them.

In the years those photos sat unseen in my files, Fela increased his profile internationally, continued his conflict with the Nigerian government, and died of complications from HIV – which did nothing to halt the spread of his fame and reputation. He was the subject of a Broadway musical and a documentary film before his manager, Rikki Stein, contacted me two years ago to ask about using my photos in a box set of his records, curated by Erykah Badu.

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I was happy to get my photos out in the world, especially in a full-sized LP box set, printed full bleed and across double page spreads. It seemed an auspicious way to launch my Fela portraits into the world after decades of obscurity (mine and the photos.) But I wasn’t quite prepared for what would happen once they were out there.

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Last summer my old friend Chris Buck told me that he’d seen a poster that used one of my Fela images all over the Venice neighbourhood of Los Angeles. He said he’d try to find them again and send me some photos of the posters, and a few days later they arrived in an e-mail.

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Najite & Olokun Prophecy are a Los Angeles band working in the Afrobeat tradition of Fela Kuti and his groups Africa 70 and Egypt 80, and they apparently took a couple of my Fela photos from the box set booklet and my blog as the inspiration for posters advertising a big summer gig in a neighbourhood in South LA. I suppose I could be mad about this unauthorized use of my intellectual property – it’s happened before, but at least a couple of those times the artist had the courtesy to ask me for permission.

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But on the whole, frankly, I’m rather less outraged than I probably should be. While the band’s appropriation of my shots isn’t strictly “fair use” as defined in copyright law, there’s part of me that’s pleased to see my Fela photos become part of the musician’s iconography, especially after they were effectively buried for so long.

I grew up looking at photographer’s portraits that defined the visual legacy of their famous subjects – think of Penn’s “cyclops” portrait of Pablo Picasso, Churchill by Yousuf Karsh, or Jerry Schatzberg’s photos of the newly electrified Bob Dylan. If my shots of Fela could somehow become a part of his visual legacy, there’s no way I couldn’t be pleased.

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What was even stranger was that, at around the time Chris told me about the posters in Los Angeles, my Fela shots were on their way to a most unexpected place. Last summer I was contacted by Cassie Williams, the clearance coordinator for the CW/Netflix reboot of Dynasty, the hugely popular ’80s primetime soap, which was filming in Atlanta.

“This season we’re introducing Club Colby – an upscale jazz club owned by the Colby family,” she wrote in an email. “We’d really like to use the below Fela Kuti image as set decoration for the club. The club is being built as a permanent set, so this image would be used as background set dressing in multiple episodes.”

In the end, Cassie and Andrew Huddleston, the art department coordinator on Dynasty, licensed the use of four of my Fela shots for the Club Colby set. I can only imagine the motivation for their choice of my shots – the Colbys have been recast as African American for the reboot, so perhaps they’re meant to be some sort of political or cultural statement by the Colby family.

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The season two episodes with scenes taking place in Club Colby have been airing this fall, and a week ago Andrew was nice enough to send me snapshots of the standing set with my photos. If you have sharp eyes, you might catch them in the background of a few shots of the show. They’re certainly in a place where I would never have imagined them appearing. I think Fela might have been just as surprised.

There’s another place where my Fela shots will be appearing in the new year, but I don’t think I’m at liberty to talk about that yet. Stay tuned.

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Sondra Locke

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Sonda Locke, Toronto, May 1990

I PHOTOGRAPHED SONDRA LOCKE NEARLY TWENTY-NINE YEARS AGO, WHEN SHE WAS IN TOWN PROMOTING HER SECOND MOVIE AS A DIRECTOR. It was early in my time at NOW magazine, and I was still amazed that I’d get called to shoot actual movie stars. I had only the vaguest idea that she’d just undergone a vicious divorce from Clint Eastwood, or that she was battling cancer, when I took these shots. As I wrote when I posted photos from this shoot on my old blog, over four years ago:

Locke was tiny, with translucent skin and what my youngest daughter calls “manga eyes.” Born in the south, she made every male around her default to a courtly version of themselves, keeping their voice down, their manners in check, and their eagerness to see that she was comfortable at the foremost.

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The day after I photographed her, I ran into Locke at the airport, on her own, and sensing that she might need a bit of assistance, helped her with her luggage.

Locke would direct two more films, but the actress who got an Oscar nomination for her first film role in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter would only appear onscreen three more times after I took these photos. The cancer that she was battling when I took these photos ultimately didn’t go away, and she died earlier this month, aged 74.

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