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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
EVERY NEW PORTRAIT SHOOT FOR ME THESE DAYS IS A GIFT. This quick session with Danish architect Bjarke Ingels came about with a pair of writing assignments – Engels was in town on a promotional blitz for his first project here, and I was assigned to cover a public appearance and do an interview.
I began my professional career as a writer; photography came along just after, and for the subsequent three-plus decades I’ve seesawed back and forth between the two – the only time I’ve spent a sustained period doing nothing but photography was about five years in the early ’90s. I can’t complain about having two possible income streams in an ever more precarious business, but it became obvious years ago that having to divide my energies while producing writing and photos usually means that the photos suffer.
Ingels is a fascinating guy – a “starchitect” (he told me that he hates the word, as do most other architects) who seems committed to making buildings that are both striking and livable at a time when decades of modern architecture have convinced the public that they’ve rarely been given both at the same time. The development he’s designed for Toronto is certainly audacious – the fact that KING Toronto looks like nothing else that’s been built here has been pointed out by both its fans and detractors – and he’s passionate about explaining and defending his work.
I would have liked to set up my studio in a bag for this shoot, but the interview had precedence so there wasn’t time for that sort of fussiness. I found a half-decent background but it would have been better to have the light coming from behind me and not over my left shoulder. I got along perfectly well with my subject, but as ever just a minute or two extra to work would have been appreciated. In any case the client apparently preferred to go with their own photos, so here they are.
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.