Camera Club

High Park, Toronto, January 2020

I DO NOT MISS SHOOTING FILM. Which is why joining a camera club to shoot and develop film would seem like a strange thing to do, right? Yet that’s exactly what I’ve done, for reasons that it’s going to take a whole blog post to explain. It’s a good thing I have a lot of photos to share to try and make a point that, if I’m honest, I’m not completely sure if I understand myself yet.

I suppose it all begins at the beginning, with Kodak. I grew up a few blocks away from the Kodak Canada plant in Mount Dennis, a working class neighbourhood of Toronto, where my family began working back in the ’20s, when my mother got a job there. Which meant it was inevitable that someone, some day, would give me a camera, like this one:

This isn’t that first camera – a Christmas gift back when I was about ten years old – but an identical Instamatic I bought at a junk shop a few years ago. (That original camera is long gone, left behind when the house I grew up in was sold.) I’ve told this story a couple of times now when I’ve given talks about my work, but I loaded it up with a couple of rolls of 126 cartridge film and headed out into the snow in pursuit of some idea I had in my head.

Once I was done I took the film to mom to ask if she could have it developed. She asked what I’d shot; I told her it was just things I’d seen – snowbanks and bushes and trees and road – whatever was within walking distance of the house that looked like the images I had in my head. She seemed puzzled – why take photos of anything that isn’t family or trips or parties or special occasions? That was, after all, what was in nearly every photo in our house. In any case those rolls got shuffled into a drawer and were never, as far as I can recall, sent to be developed.

And that was it for my career as a photographer for at least a decade.

Fast forward thirty years or so. Work was getting scarce and my creative confidence was taking a hit and I needed something to help me clear my head and reconnect with whatever inspiration I once had, and for some reason I decided that the best way was to find a camera as close to that long-lost Instamatic as possible. Which meant a Holga – a cheap plastic camera made originally for the Chinese market that had become a staple of what became known as Lomography.

This isn’t that camera. My first Holga 120S fell out of a bag while while trying to get our kids off of a plane after a summer trip to Nova Scotia. I ended up falling hard for the serendipitous process of shooting with a camera with a fixed aperture and only notional control over focus. Even after I (gratefully) gave up my darkroom and switched to digital, I kept a Holga around and would occasionally run a roll or two of film through it.

But I’d send the film out for developing – no more messing around with chemicals. And then last year Dave Watts at Shacklands – the west end brewery where I had my book launch party late last year – told me he was starting up a camera club for anyone interested in shooting and developing film, which began meeting on the first Wednesday of each month last December.

I showed up at that first meeting with two boxes full of my old film tanks and reels, which included a tank loaded up with two rolls of 120 I’d shot on that original Holga two decades ago that, for whatever reason, I’d never developed. They ended up being the first rolls of film I’d develop since I packed up my last darkroom in the dusty basement of the house on Macdonell, where we moved after I gave up my studio. Until I’d finished souping these rolls in the sink at Shacklands I didn’t even know what was on those rolls.

Georgian Bay, 2002?

They turned out to be shots taken in Georgian Bay, while visiting a friend’s cottage, and out on Cherry Beach in the Port Lands, during one of the walks I’d taken out there looking for inspiration. Light leaks had fogged the edges of some frames, but otherwise they were still more than usable- not that I went all the way and printed them with an enlarger.

Cherry Beach, Toronto, 2005?

Those undeveloped rolls were an unfinished bit of business that had haunted me since I stopped developing film, so finally running chemistry through them felt cathartic. But part of the camera club’s mission was to shoot film. And since all of this was happening at Christmas, the memory of that first Instamatic came to mind and I decided to wait until a suitably snowy day, like the one during that long ago holiday break where I headed out with my present.

High Park, Toronto, January 2020

My destination was another place of hometown inspiration – High Park, where I’ve been going since I was a child. The cold and a recent snowfall had emptied most of the park except for dog walkers, so I had the place mostly to myself as I looked for compositions strong enough to work with the strong technical limitations of the Holga – the indistinct focus, the blur and vignetting at the edges of the frame, the uncertain sense of precise composition in the very primitive viewfinder.

High Park, Toronto, January 2020

As an experiment, I tried to duplicate compositions I’d shot on the Holga with my cell phone. The frames above and below are fairly decent examples of the unique qualities available when you shoot with the most basic camera this side of a pinhole and a marvel of miniaturization and photo software.

I also brought along a “real” camera – my much-loved Fujifilm X30. The frames below are the sorts of photos I could take all day, every day, and while I’m hardly complaining, there’s something that makes me try to work harder, and avoid the easy path. The Shacklands camera club is an opportunity to force myself to think outside the digital realm, with all of its many conveniences. So the Holga will be taken off the shelf again, as I try to get the confidence to haul out my 4×5 view camera again for the first time in nearly twenty-five years. Stay tuned.

High Park, Toronto, January 2020
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New books: FACES

FACES WAS DEFINITELY THE EASIEST OF MY THREE NEW PHOTO BOOKS TO PUT TOGETHER. Portraits make up most of what I think is my best work from the last three and a half decades, and even after putting together last year’s STARS and MUSIC – both collections of portraits – I had a lot of shots left over.

I needed a theme, however, and it wasn’t hard to find. Thanks to a variety of factors – the short durations of most of my celebrity portrait sessions; the often difficult settings and lighting conditions where I’ve had to work – I learned early on to concentrate on faces as long as I could find a nice spot in any room.

This spread featuring actors Alan Rickman and Stanley Tucci, both shot for NOW magazine in the ’90s, could have been in STARS if I hadn’t run out of space. I’m glad I waited, though, since the self-imposed formal layout of the first books – smaller photos, centred no each page, done mostly because I was timid about my lack of experience with book design – would have discouraged me from laying these shots out full bleed, mirroring each other across the spine of the book.

This layout is one that cried out to happen. I’ve always been fond of my strange, nearly wordless 1990 shoot with Bruce Dern. Nearly fifteen years later, shooting Rhys Ifans for the free daily, I found myself copying it in a similar room in the same hotel. I figured a decade and a half was long enough outside of the statute of limitations that I could rip myself off. At the time I took the shot, only I knew that I was copying myself; this is my shameful admission.

The juxtaposition of my portrait of Robert Altman – shot on my vintage Rolleiflex in 1990 – and a 2007 shot of Leelee Sobieski – taken on the free daily’s digital Canon – was a way of marking the passage of time. I couldn’t have imagined a digital camera back at the turn of the ’90s, or how my five to ten minute sessions in the ’90s would give way to just a minute or two (and often much less) over a decade later. Digital cameras certainly made these rushed sessions possible, but I’d also learned – with regret, I have to admit – to work at an even more rushed pace with each decade.

This spread sums up the theme of FACES – simple, stripped down portraits (Ben Stein in 2009 and Peter Sarsgaard a year earlier) where I had just enough time to confront my subject with my camera up close. Working for the free daily this was pretty much my only option – in the paper’s cluttered layouts, a complicated composition with any negative space would just end up getting cropped, so I knew that my only option was to fill the frame with a face that would fill up three, or two, or perhaps only one column of newsprint.

I didn’t think much of the work I was doing for the free daily at first. It felt sort of automatic for the first year or two, but by the time I did these two portraits I felt I was working toward a new, even more minimal style. I would have liked to see where this led me, but I was laid off a few months after the Stein session and didn’t shoot another portrait for years. The publication of FACES brings the story of my portrait work up to date, with a couple of recent sessions sprinkled among the old “hits.”

With this book, I’ve brought the “some old pictures” story to an end – I might have a few decent uncollected portraits in my archives, but the cupboard is mostly bare and any new book I bring out going forward will have to feature new work. I have a few ideas, but I’m pretty sure that it’ll be more than a year before I’ll publish another book like the six I’ve managed to put out in just over a year.

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New books: JAZZ

I HAVE SOME NEW BOOKS FOR SALE. A year ago I celebrated the end of my old blog and the beginning of this blog by offering three collections of my old photography for sale via Blurb. Back when I published MUSIC, STARS and SQUARE, I had a vague plan to follow them up with another trio of books, the subjects of which I still hadn’t decided upon.

I did, however, have some hope that I had enough material to collect my jazz photography, most of it taken in the late ’80s and early ’90s, into one volume. Going through my files I discovered that, while my photos weren’t exactly a broad overview of the music as much as a snapshot of a particular time and place, they did hold together – for me, at least, as a record of my own enthusiasm for music and musicians I’d just discovered, during a brief but fervent period when I wanted to be William Claxton or Francis Wolff.

My friend Chris‘ criticism of my first trio of books was that the photos weren’t big enough, and that the layouts were static. That was both by design (I wanted the books to have a minimal aesthetic) and circumstance (I had never designed a book before and didn’t want to overreach my level of competence.) So the first thing I did was lay out this live shot of Dizzy Gillespie full bleed over a double page spread, to give myself the courage to try more dynamic layouts and fill the book right to its edges with pictures.

I’m rather fond of this spread. It’s my “drummers layout,” and a showcase for the most recent work in the book – a portrait of percussionist Candido Camero taken two years ago. This is probably the last concert photography I’ll ever feature in a book, but it’s appropriate to the project, even if it’s far from representative of what I really do as a photographer.

This spread is more of a showcase for what I do now – and what I was trying to do back in the late ’80s when I took these photos. The portrait of Steve Lacy on the right is one I think I got right the first time when I posted it on my blog, but the Sam Rivers photo on the left is very much improved since I scanned it with my very inadequate HP scanner, early on in the old blog.

This is my “Brazilian spread” – candid shots of guitarist Egberto Gismonti (left) and bandleader Hermeto Pascoal (right) taken backstage on the same night. This screen shot doesn’t do justice to the quality of the photos as they appear in the actual book; I’m very pleased with the quality of Blurb’s premium magazine products. That said, these might be the last magazines I publish through Blurb – whatever I do next will be a bit more ambitious, and probably be a higher-quality book.

Finally, there’s my “Jane spread” – photos of my dear friend Jane Bunnett, one an outtake from a record cover session in the ’90s, the other a candid shot taken in the recording studio for the same record. The third shot is of the late Pancho Quinto from Grupo Yoruba Andabo in the Havana studio where Jane recorded Spirits of Havana, a very big record for her, and also one for me, as it was my first time in Cuba. I’ve dedicated JAZZ to Jane and her husband Larry (along with a few other people) since they played a huge part in helping me understand the music and in developing my work.

So it was especially lovely when Jane offered to play at my book launch party this past weekend. Along with pianist Danae Olano from their group Maqueque, Jane picked out a series of numbers by musicians like Frank Emilio Flynn, who was featured on the cover of last year’s photozine MUSIC, and Don Pullen and Dewey Redman, who both appear in this year’s JAZZ. I probably wouldn’t have met or photographed any of them without Jane, who prompted me to talk a bit about each musician between numbers. It made the whole event extra special – I wish you could have been there.

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Lost & Found: Beastie Boys 1986

Beastie Boys, Toronto, April 1986

HERE’S ANOTHER BUNCH OF NEGATIVES I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SEE AGAIN. These old pics of the Beastie Boys were in the same old file folder, buried behind old receipts and tax stuff, as the photos of the Minutemen I featured here a few weeks ago. More juvenilia, back from when I was still learning how to use a camera.

These are not great portraits. They’re not even particularly good snapshots. But thanks to my new Vivitar 285 flash, bought at B&H in New York City the previous fall, they were at least properly exposed – if you like the look of direct flash, which I don’t, and didn’t, even then.

So why even bother posting them? Well, they might not be great shots, but if I’ve learned anything from putting old photos online, almost any picture becomes history when even a minority of the audience for it wasn’t born when it was taken. Especially so, I suppose, when someone in the photo is no longer alive.

Beastie Boys, Toronto, April 1986

I shot them just before they went onstage at their first ever Toronto gig, at a tacky new wave disco in Yorkville called the Copa. I was double-dipping – these shots would end up being used by both Graffiti magazine and Nerve. According to the recollections of Perry Stern, who was writing the Graffiti piece, he’d spent much of the day before the show with them, walking up and down Yonge Street trying to buy amyl nitrate poppers, which they’d heard were legal in Toronto. (Apparently not, as far as Perry could tell.)

They were boisterous but likeable goofs, according to Perry, more than living up to their budding public image, which would become gold-plated with the release of Licensed to Ill a few months later. Their madcap antics would deflate a bit a few minutes after I took these photos, when they went onstage and threw around some beers that broke one of the neon “sculptures” hanging over the dance floor at the Copa. (An incident I’d completely forgotten about until Perry reminded me the other day.)

But cracks were starting to show, even then; a friend from Nerve who was hanging around when I took these shots recalled one of the Beasties – MCA or maybe Mike D, I can’t remember – suddenly sitting down, exhausted, and mumbling to himself “Man, I gotta get so stupid to do this shit.”

As Michael “Mike D” Diamond remembered in the recently-published Beastie Boys Book, a memoir written by himself and Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz:

Over the course of those months on the road, we went from being like, This is the most exciting thing ever, I can’t believe we’re actually rock stars to thinking, God, people really expect us to be these idiot caricatures of ourselves night after night. This kind of sucks . . . We didn’t see ourselves having to act out a role, having to go onstage and be the three guys who throw beer and have a giant dick for a prop. And it had never occurred to us that it would start to be demanded of us. We honestly just didn’t know.

Beastie Boys Book, p. 229
Beastie Boys, Toronto, July 2006

I would meet up with the Beasties again, twenty years later, working for the free national daily. Of course, nobody thought they’d have a career that would last two more years, never mind two decades. Adam Horovitz was still the cut-up in the band, mugging for my camera, while Michael Diamond had lost the baby fat in his face and Adam “MCA” Yauch (1964-2012) had become the group’s thoughtful conscience – not that we suspected the Beastie Boys had, or even needed, a conscience thirty+ years ago. The very idea would have been considered absurd.

Beastie Boys, Toronto, April 1986
Beastie Boys, Toronto, July 2006

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Lost & Found: Minutemen 1985

The Minutemen, Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 26, 1985

I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SEE THESE PHOTOS AGAIN. I’ve been searching for this shoot with The Minutemen since I started my old blog, but by the time I brought Some Old Pictures to an end almost a year ago I’d pretty much given up on finding these negatives. They turned up the other day when my wife was trying to clean out our basement, tucked into the back of an old tax file box in the cantina along with a bunch of other old shoots. How they got there, I haven’t a clue.

(My friend Chris thinks I should change the title of this blog to Some Old Pictures I Lost and My Wife Found.)

I had just started working for Nerve magazine when I flew down to NYC to stay with a girl I barely knew. (Long story – not very interesting in the end.) My visit happened to coincide with San Pedro’s Minutemen playing Irving Plaza (opening act: Live Skull pre-Thalia Zedek) so Dave and Nancy put in a call to SST, their record label, and I was on the list and booked to meet the band before the show.

The Minutemen, Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 26, 1985

They’re not great photos. I’d barely owned a camera for a few months so my skills were basic, to say the least; I’d be taking better pictures in about a year. I loaded my camera with 100 ASA Ilford FP4 for some inexplicable reason – I must have been optimistic about the amount of available light backstage at a venue. In the end I had to take the band into the bathroom off their dressing room for the shoot – the only spot with usable light. (It was also where the band had the food for their tour rider. Rock and roll is glamorous, kids.)

The Minutemen live, Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 26, 1985

At least they’re better than the live shots I took that night, of which this is the only remotely printable frame. I was pretty timid about getting up close at a gig, especially when confronted with a New York City mosh pit. I’m not going to apologize too much about these photos – I was learning on the job, and while I’d bought a new Vivitar flash for my Spotmatic at B&H on that trip, I was definitely too timid to use it.

The Minutemen, Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 26, 1985

When you’ve been shooting as long as I have you learn that your photos gain value not because of quality or style, but because you happened to capture a bit of history. The Minutemen were an incredibly important band in the evolution of punk through hardcore, and as exemplars of the DIY ethic and aesthetic. Stripped-down, humble and idiosyncratic, they bucked trends in and outside of hardcore punk and have become hugely influential in hindsight. (Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerad’s essential history of the American indie rock scene in the ’80s, takes its title from a Minuteman lyric.)

They were an actual working class band from a town known mostly for its naval base. I couldn’t help but identify with their baffled ignorance at the way things were done in the by-then very middle class world of rock music, muscling past being intimidated by “the rules” and making a virtue of their own outsider status. For The Minutemen, drummer George Hurley’s mane of peroxided curls twirling as he played was their sole stage effect. “We were fucking corndogs,” recalled singer and guitarist D. Boon when he sang about driving to see punk rock gigs in L.A. with his best friend, bassist Mike Watt. For a great history of the band, watch the documentary We Jam Econo.

The band were exceeding expectations when I took these photos. They were about to go on tour with R.E.M., and were confounding the hidebound rules of the hardcore scene with records like Project: Mersh and 3-Way Tie (For Last). The unexpected end came less than two months later, when D. Boon died in a car crash just before Christmas. Watt and Hurley would end up forming fIREHOSE with guitarist Ed Crawford, and Watt would become a sort of indie punk legend, playing bass in the reformed Stooges. But that would all come later, and I wouldn’t have imagined any of it when I took these photos, at the very edge of my limited competence, so long ago.

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Annuals and Awards

I PROBABLY SHOULD HAVE DONE THIS A LONG TIME AGO. Back when I took three of the five photos that ended up in the latest Communication Arts Photography Annual, I never thought of entering a juried competition. It was something someone else did, in another place. I was, in essence, policing my own obscurity.

What changed between then and now, I really can’t tell you. Perhaps it was a sense of accomplishment after publishing my trio of photozines, after completing my old blog. Maybe I was feeling a bit cocky. My friend Chris – who’s entered and won spots in these annual competitions and even sat on juries – gave me advice to enter in the “books” category, which is generally less crowded. It was obviously good advice.

Months before the CA photo annual hit the stands this arrived in the mail – an Award of Excellence. This is the first trophy I’ve had since my little league softball team won the league championship in Mount Dennis, over forty years ago. (And that was mostly because John Svab, a great all-rounder, was on our team.)

I also won a spot in the juried competition organized by American Photography. I didn’t place as well – it was a runner’s-up prize that earned my portrait of Bjork from the MUSIC photozine a spot on the annual’s website but not the published magazine. Slightly disappointing, to be sure, but better than not placing at all, which is pretty much how I always imagined a shot at these competitions ending, back when I took my photo of Bjork.

So I’m not going to complain. Everything I do at this point is about fighting obscurity and putting myself and my photos back out in the world. So far, so good, especially considering that I was always the principal author of that obscurity.

As for the photozines, they’re on sale for just two more months before I withdraw them from publication and publish three more books. So if you want to pick up copies of STARS, MUSIC or SQUARE, the time is now. More news on the next three ‘zines soon.

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Fela for Carhartt

Fela Kuti, Toronto, 1989

I HAD NO PLACE TO PUBLISH MY PORTRAITS OF FELA KUTI when I took them in 1989. Thirty years later, those photos are probably the most profitable negatives I’ve ever made. Posting them on my blog nearly thirty years after they were taken gave them a life they’d never had, starting with when Rikki Stein, Fela’s manager, saw them and contacted me about putting them in a box set of Fela LP reissues.

I’ve written about how they’ve ended up in the world since then – on posters for an L.A. band and on the set of a nightclub on the reboot of Dynasty. And whatever monetary reward I’ve gotten for the photos has actually been overshadowed by seeing my images become part of the iconography of an artist as important as Fela.

The ongoing Fela saga got another chapter recently when Rikki contacted me again, to say that Carhartt WIP, the workwear and street wear clothing label, was doing a line of Fela merchandise and wanted to use my photos. I’ve been a Carhartt wearer for years, so it was a thrill when Philipp Maiburg of Carhartt WIP emailed me to order some images and firm up the deal – my first ever licensing deal with a clothing company.

My shot of Fela exhaling a cloud of pot smoke ended up on a few t-shirts, and a concert photo made it to a long-sleeved shirt that (unfortunately) didn’t end up in the package I got sent a few months ago. (Though you still have my address, right Philipp? I’m still an XL.)

Finally, the image at the top of this post remains my favorite one from the Fela shoot, though nobody has seen fit to use it yet for some reason. So I’m putting this new and improved scan out in the world in the hope of finding some takers.

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Oh Susanna: Johnstown revisited

I LIKE TO REVISIT MY OLD WORK. This shouldn’t be a shock coming from someone who spent over four years digging through their archives and posting what they found. So when Suzie Ungerleider (aka Oh Susanna) emailed me about revisiting the shoot we did for her Johnstown record over twenty years ago, I thought it was a great idea.

The easiest part of the challenge was finding the locations where we shot in Liberty Village, a now-gentrified neighbourhood in west end Toronto. Slightly harder was recreating the portraits we took just beforehand, in my Parkdale studio. The studio is long gone – we had to move out a few months after my shoot with Suzie – and I haven’t done a lot of studio work since then. I don’t even own the stool that Suzie sat on any more, which meant a quick trip to Ikea to pick up a new one.

Suzie with Stupid Cat in the “studio,” July 2019

By the end of my time in my studio I’d started using a deceptively simple lighting setup that involved most if not all of my strobe heads clustered around my camera to create a focused light on the subject. After years of trying to mimic natural light or recreate old glamour lighting, I’d become attracted to a lighting scheme that looked basic but actually required a lot of tinkering.

What the photographer looks like.

I still have the strobes and the light stands I used on Suzie’s 1998 shoot, either stored in the loft in the garage or down in the basement, but I’ve moved away from strobes to continuous light since I returned to shooting. Ultimately I rented a pair of Westcott Ice Lights, my favorite portable light source, and set them up to bracket my Fuji X-T2 top and bottom – an even more pared-down lighting scheme than the one I used twenty-one years ago.

Getting Suzie to mirror her poses from two decades ago became a challenge when you consider how hard it is for someone to inhabit the same physical and mental space they occupied at a specific point in their past. We couldn’t help but talk about this – when my stupid cat wasn’t trying to distract us. We’d had an email exchange earlier in the week about Suzie wearing clothes that approximated what she brought to the shoot in 1998, but it occurred to me that a lot of time has passed, so I told her to wear what she’d bring to a photo shoot today.

I already knew that the loading dock behind the “Castle building” in Liberty Village (originally the offices and factory of the E.W. Gillett Baking Powder company) wasn’t there any more – demolished when it was renovated from raw lofts back into offices again. But finding the spot where we took the shot was easy enough. It’s become a bit tiresome to hear people complain about how the decrepit or abandoned parts of their cities have disappeared with gentrification, but it’s not hard to compare these two shots and feel nostalgic for all that picturesque ruin, even if it didn’t generate much economically.

I left the last two locations for last, knowing that the light was nowhere like it was on that November day in 1998. The courtyard doorway into the Gillett building was both in bright sunlight when we arrived there and changed in a few unfortunate ways. I took the liberty (no pun intended) of removing the sign on the archway above Suzie’s head, but I had to alter the composition of the shot thanks to the Porta Potty just out of the right side of the frame.

We’d also shot in the hallways of the Gillett building – Suzie’s home for a couple of months when she moved to Toronto – but I knew that the security system and key cards meant we wouldn’t get access to the interiors today, so we headed to the final location, near the corner of Dufferin and Fraser. We were, once again, in bright sunlight and not flattering overcast, but at least one of the bricked up window bays in the wall where we shot wasn’t tagged with graffiti.

It was a great idea, a fascinating exercise – both technically and as an examination on the passage of time. Suzie, of course, gets to see how she’s changed in two decades, and I got to revisit the way I framed and lit and handled a subject all those years ago. A lot of time has passed, but my working methods didn’t feel too alien. Most of all I learned how much I miss having a studio space. Maybe one day I’ll have one to go with my new stool.

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Icon Gallery – Music Prints for Sale

Eric B & Rakim, Toronto, 1987

SO SOMEONE IS SELLING A BUNCH OF MY PHOTOS NOW. This has been in the works for a while – at least a year, probably more, since Lyle Waisman from Chicago’s Icon Gallery contacted me about selling gallery prints of my music photos. It took me a while to get all the images Lyle requested ready for the website, but almost everything is up now and I’m ready to take orders of some of my “greatest hits” – Patti Smith, Prince, Tony Bennett, Fela Kuti, David Bowie – as well as some less-seen shots like the Eric B & Rakim portrait at the top.

Imaginary gallery wall

One of the reasons this has taken so long to set up was me. It probably took about a year for Lyle to convince me to do this, as I’m pretty down on doing the gallery thing. I haven’t had a lot of success selling prints off of walls over the last three decades, and our house is full of framed leftovers from old shows. But Lyle’s business model is an online gallery – I don’t have to make a print until someone buys one, and I don’t have to pay for frames.

John Lee Hooker, Toronto, 1987

While I was going through my files I made a few discoveries, like this shot of John Lee Hooker, taken way back at the beginning of my career. It’s not technically perfect – I probably overlooked it for thirty years because of the blur – but it has an energy I like, and there aren’t a lot of shots of the man smiling like this, so I’ve put it out there to see if there are any takers.

I’m in pretty fantastic company – Mick Rock, Ebet Roberts, Adrian Boot, Gered Mankowitz, Terry O’Neill, Barrie Wentzell and Baron Wolman are among the photographers also represented by Lyle at Icon. There’s a link over on the right that will take you to my page, if you’re in the market for something for your wall. Like I’ve said, it took a while to sell me on this, so go do Lyle a favour and prove him right.

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Oh Susanna – Johnstown

MY COPY OF JOHNSTOWN TOOK TWENTY YEARS TO ARRIVE. Somewhere along the way it turned from a CD into a vinyl LP, which is something I never would have anticipated. It’s a long story, I guess, and a lot happened along the way. It was a big twenty years, both for myself and Suzie Ungerleider, aka Oh Susanna, who had just moved to Toronto to record her first album.

I’d met Suzie a couple of years previous, when she was sent to my studio in Parkdale for a NOW magazine cover shoot. Tim Perlich, then one of the editors of the music section, had liked her first EP and pushed for the coverage. Suzie and I got along, the cover turned out well, and when it came time to put together the package for the Johnstown CD, she asked me to shoot her portraits for it.

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale studio, 1998

I had been in my Parkdale studio for a decade by then, and had been refining my studio portraits with increasingly stark, focused lighting. For many years, under the influence of pictorialist photography, I’d been using gels and dry mount tissue and Japanese rice paper to “age” or “distress” my photos – to take away the sharpness of a modern negative and add texture and grain.

But I’d been moving away from that look as the decade was coming to a close; I’m not sure why I decided to revisit it with the shots I printed for Johnstown. It might have been Suzy’s description of the record – a song cycle inspired by a flood that destroyed a Pennsylvania town over a hundred years previous, spiked with the odd murder ballad or two.

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale studio, 1998

I can’t make my photos look that way any more in the age of digital – not easily, in any case. So these shots – scanned and processed a few months ago when Suzie contacted me last year with news that Johnstown was being released on vinyl for its 20th anniversary – are more like what I shot in the studio that day in November of 1998, and in and around Liberty Village, where we went afterwards to get some variety of poses and locations.

Suzie Ungerleider, Liberty Village, Toronto, 1998

Liberty Village doesn’t look the same any more – it’s been gentrified, filled with condos and cafes and restaurants and offices. And I didn’t know it at the time, but my shoot with Suzie would be one of the last – perhaps even the very last – portrait session I’d do in my Parkdale studio. The eviction notice arrived around the same time, and I haven’t had a studio since then. Things got pretty chaotic when it came time to move, and I forgot to ask Suzie for a copy of her CD. Frankly, by the time the end of the millennium rolled around, I was wondering if I was still a working photographer.

Johnstown turned out to be a hell of a debut album, and the basis for a career that’s survived a cancer scare and the multiplying insecurities of an independent musician in the digital universe. And somehow I’ve also managed to survive and even return to shooting. Seeing my work for Johnstown again pulls me up a bit short; it was work done at a turning point in both our lives, I think. I feel lucky to have had a small part in it.

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