John Borra

John Borra, Toronto, Jan. 2020

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.

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Jane Bunnett & Maqueque: Tierra Firme LP

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.

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The Discarded – Sound Check and Fury

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.

Jared, Joel and Caden Wasson, Toronto, 2018

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?

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Mrs. Edward Cross’ address book

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.

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Jane Bunnett & Maqueque – On Firm Ground

IT HAD BEEN OVER TWENTY YEARS SINCE I’D SHOT AN ALBUM COVER FOR MY FRIEND JANE when she contacted me late last year and asked if I’d take the photos for her next CD. A lot had happened since then. I’d moved out of my loft around the corner from her house, got married, had kids and left the business – twice – while Jane had gone from strength to strength, with an Order of Canada, a whole bunch of other awards and four Grammy nominations.

Of course I said yes.

Brainstorming for the look of the record started with the title – Tierra Firme and/or On Firm Ground. Ideas started with a photo of Sonny Rollins in a stark studio setting, but moved on to the idea of superimposing pictures of lush greenery on the band. I sent a bunch of images back at Jane, including an old Lou Donaldson record and bunch of others that evoked a pastoral take on psychedelia that was popular on LP sleeves in the late ’60s.

I began making sketches and collages in my notebook after we visited a shooting space that was both competitively priced and conveniently up the street from Jane and her husband Larry’s Parkdale house. It was a gallery and performance venue that had a very useful white wall and another big wall of windows. We booked a time, canceled once, Jane found a makeup person, we booked again and were ready to roll.

I arrived with my “studio in a bag”, the standby kit I’d put together after I’d seriously returned to shooting, with two new additions – a pair of Westcott LED lights to replace the household bulbs I’d been using and a Tiltall tripod that was once a stalwart in my old studio. The band arrived and I occupied my time waiting for them to finish with hair and makeup by obsessively moving my light stands a few inches forward and backward for an hour. This is what it all looked like from my perspective by halfway through the session:

Roxanne DeNobrega, the hair and makeup artist, brought along her friend Sonia Blayde, a photographer, to document her work. She helpfully took shots of the session and graciously let me share some of them here.

At work, Gallery 345 (photos by Sonia Blayde)

The group shots were done but I knew I wasn’t even halfway finished. Using stock photos for the superimpositions was briefly discussed, but I pushed for doing the “nature shots” myself. The problem was that the record was Latin Jazz, and it was winter in Toronto – hardly the time or place to shoot equatorial lush greenery.

The closest big patch of nature was High Park, where I’d been a few months previous and posted a few nice Instagram shots of bare trees and autumn leaves. I had to wait a few days for a warm spell to melt as much of the snow cover as possible before I could head back and try to get those shots again, this time with my Fuji X-T2 instead of my cell phone. The photos I came home with were a bit bleak and monochromatic, but the miracle of Photoshop allowed me to boost the saturation to the edge of cartoonish hues.

At work in Allan Gardens, March 2019 (photo by Cordelia McGinnis)

More shots of greenery – preferable the lush, green kind – had to be collected. This meant a trip to the greenhouses at Allan Gardens, where I knew I’d be able to get at least some close-ups of foliage that might be useful somehow. It turned into a family outing that I spent most of bent double, focusing on plants or shooting through the canopy of palms in the big main room.

With hundreds of shots to work with, I could finally get to work. Once upon a time this would mean providing a graphic artist with my raw shots, which would be re-shot and mechanically married and re-shot again. Photoshop put all this work back in my hands, and I spent a week tidying up the shots of the band and then another couple of weeks trying out a variety of double and triple exposures, sending them along to Jane and Larry via Facebook Messenger for approval.

What I was doing was as much graphic arts as photography, which was fine by me – I had wanted to be an illustrator when I was young, years before I bought a camera. Over four decades later and with the miracle of cheap computers and digital technology, I’m able to realize an old dream I thought I’d given up on years ago.

Once we’d agreed on a shot, I put together a mock-up of the cover as a sort of proof of concept for Simon Evers, the designer who put the whole package together for the record company. I also provided a bunch of raw shots from my trips to High Park and Allan Gardens to use as graphic elements, and the headshots I’d taken of the band at the end of the shoot, also treated as double exposures with bits of lush greenery, to push the whole graphic conceit of the record a bit further.

It all came together in a quadruple gatefold package that hit the stores a few weeks ago.

Reviews have been fantastic, which is great. As for myself, I’m proud of pushing myself to do something a bit outside my comfort zone, with the encouragement of Jane and Larry.

Mostly, though, it’s nice to be working again, and especially with old friends.

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Talking about myself

Hamilton, Ontario (photo by Cordelia McGinnis)

I DON’T MIND TALKING ABOUT MYSELF. I didn’t do much of it until recently, and I’m still not sure why I’m suddenly worth listening to, but I’ll take it while it lasts. I have my theories about vlogs and podcasts and YouTubers and why everyone is all about listening to other people they like on the internet – it has something to do with erosion of trust in traditional news media and a generational shift – but let’s save that for another day.

A few weeks ago I did an interview with Tim and Tammy on the Creative Chaos podcast. I’ve known Tim for years so it was a very comfortable hour plus chat. If you’ve heard my B&H podcast you’ll know that I repeat myself a few times – I’ve got to get some new talking points if I want to do more of these podcasts – but I think I got my message across that this is a great time to be a photographer, even if the whole medium is in the middle of a massive transition.

A while before that my friend travel writer and photographer Stuart Forster contacted me about an interview for his MannedUp.com website. The target audience was other photographers, so the interview was a little inside baseball, but I did get to explain a bit about how and why I work nowadays, like here:

Do you have a favourite destination for photography?

Honestly, I don’t care. I love taking photos literally anywhere. I like to start a day by saying “Let’s see what we see today.”

I started doing travel photography to get myself to as many new places as possible, but even when I was grounded here, so to speak, I’d do still life work at the kitchen table, or go out to parts of the city (Toronto) that I know well, like the old working class neighbourhoods I grew up in, or the abandoned industrial port lands, or the hydro electrical corridors that run through the city.

If I have any mission right now – besides getting my name out in the world again after years of obscurity – it’s as an evangelizer for the simple joy of taking pictures, no matter what they are. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, photography saved me at a time when I was perilously close to the sort of despair that can ruin lives. As a creative enterprise or a meditative exercise I’d recommend it to anyone. And I’m happy to talk about it with anyone who’ll listen.

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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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Elora again

Elora Mill Inn, Grand River and the “Tooth of Time”

I FINALLY GOT TO STAY AT THIS PLACE. Elora is probably my favorite small town in Ontario, and I’ve been there a few times now, the last two on business. The Elora Mill Inn & Spa was still being renovated when I visited last year, but I’ve been angling to get a night there since they gave me a tour. A couple of months ago I got my chance.

The mill is as old as the town, and it’s been the star of its scenic views for as long as Elora has been hosting visitors, for more than a century. It’s amazing to think that the “Tooth of Time” – a little flowerpot island that sits in the middle of the steepest part of the rapids by the mill – is still standing. The spring melt had swelled the Grand River when I visited, so the water was raging through Fergus and Elora the whole time I was there.

Time was tight while I was in town so I had to do some planning. I already had the postcards, but I needed to nail down sunset and sunrise while I was in town and figure out where the light would be. I knew I wanted to get a long exposure of the water flowing past the mill, and thankfully this time I had all the gear I need to pull it off – a lightweight travel tripod, a cable release and a set of neutral density filters.

Taking the shot with all the gear

The sunset was a bit muted when I set up on the patio outside the spa – as close as I could get to the spot where some anonymous postcard photographer set up for their shot over a century ago. I’m still not sure about shooting long exposures, but it’s a look I’ve never seriously tried before with landscapes and this seemed like a good place to give it a shot.

Room with a view, Elora Mill Inn & Spa

My room was visible from the patio – on the left side of the new glass addition, just above the restaurant and below the balconies of the deluxe suites. The hotel was nice enough to give me a suite with a fireplace, which I enjoyed the hell out of. I was in town to write a couple of travel features about Elora, but I knew that I’d try to get a post for my own travel blog about the hotel while I was lucky enough to enjoy their hospitality – and the spectacular view:

I did a bunch of interviews for the travel features, which gave me an opportunity for some portraits. Elora’s been a hub for artists since at least the ’70s, and they’ve formed a community whose work has become a key part of the town’s business and identity. I handed in colour shots for the stories, but I took some versions of my own, pretty sure they’d end up being processed in black and white.

David Cross, blacksmith and sculptor, Elora, Ontario
Neil Hanscomb and Gisela Ruehe, glass artists, Elora, Ontario

The whole Elora/Fergus area is ridiculously photogenic, so I ended up with a lot of “end cuts” even after handing in my two features and posting to my travel blog. My visits to the area, while enjoyable, are always too brief. One day I’d like to spend a few days exploring with my camera, though I doubt if my lodgings will be as luxurious.

Ruin, Elora, Ontario
Templin Gardens, Fergus, Ontario
Grand River in the spring, Fergus, Ontario
Grand River at Wilson Flats Access Point
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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.

Felaboxsetreleasepartyposter

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.

FelaLAposter_04

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.

FelaLAposter_05

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.

DynastyCWposters

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.

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Portfolio

Portfolio_01

THIS IS MY OLD PORTFOLIO. Or rather, this is the shipping case that I’d use to send my old portfolio by courier, mostly to out of town clients. The last FedEx shipping form in the plastic envelope on the front is from a design company in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I haven’t a clue who they were – probably a firm that produced an in-flight magazine for an airline, but I can’t be sure. In any case, I don’t think I got any work from them.

Below is the leather portfolio case I’d use to carry my portfolio to clients here in town. I think my sister found it for me in an estate sale or antique auction somewhere. It might not have been the slickest container for my work, but I thought it summed me up rather nicely, and made a nice introduction to whomever might have responded to its well-worn, patinated exterior and considered hiring the person who’d have put their work in such a thing.

Portfolio_02

I used to agonize about my portfolio. The pages below are from that last portfolio – my third or fourth, I think, and the last one that I used to sell myself at the end of the ’90s. It would take me years to update my book, as I’d pore over my work, change layouts, and then decide that I had to wait to shoot something new to create just the right sequence. Because every time I showed my portfolio to anyone it felt like a make-or-break situation – an opportunity that couldn’t be squandered, since they came around so rarely.

I hated showing my portfolio. It wasn’t just the idea of being judged, though that was definitely part of it, as much as knowing that I was the supplicant in an unequal relationship. I could sweat blood over my book, only to have some assistant to the photo editor flip through it at speed, eager to get through the pile of books left with the receptionist on drop-off day. A form rejection letter – some people saved them; I couldn’t – would be your only feedback. Sometimes you wouldn’t even get that.

I particularly hated showing my portfolio here in town. When I started out, there would be “go-sees” with photo editors or art directors, sitting on one side of a desk or standing to the side in a cluttered layout room while they (silently, too often) went through your book. Those ended at some point in the early ’90s, and from then on it was “drop off days” – leaving your portfolio with a cover letter and a business card or promo mailer with the receptionist, then picking it up a day or two later. I can’t honestly say which one was worse.

Showing work in New York City always felt much more rewarding. Maybe it was because they knew you’d traveled there, but you’d have a small crowd looking at your book – whoever was in the layout office at the time – and some of them might even ask questions about the shoots. Even if they couldn’t use you, someone might say they had a friend at another magazine – they’d make a phone call and you’d jump into a cab. I always got more work after showing in NYC, though the hard part was maintaining the relationship at a distance, and hoping that someone would pass through Toronto who they couldn’t, for some inconceivable reason, have shot in New York.

Sometimes you’d ask another photographer if you could see their portfolio. I remember Michael Lavine showing me a huge, heavy, padded and embossed case with sides that folded down, each photo mounted on a thick board with felt backing. I remember thinking it must have cost a fortune to ship, and knew that with my tight overhead I’d never be able to afford such a lavish presentation. All of my portfolios were strictly off the shelf – black books with clear plastic pages into which you’d slip the 11×14 inch prints you’d laboured over in the darkroom for hours or even days.

Portfolio_new_2018

I’ve been thinking about my old portfolios again because, after a painful period of learning to use Adobe’s Portfolio software, I’ve finally updated my own online portfolio. The previous one was at least fifteen years old, wildly out of date and rather ugly, built as it was just after the era of the dial-up modem. The new one is … simple. Off the shelf, by design. I am a simple man, and while I am still in that supplicant position, it’s been a long time since I felt like it was a crucial, pivotal moment every time anyone looked at my work. Part of that is the internet; part of it is just getting older, and caring less.

I don’t know if anyone actually sends around physical portfolios any more. I hear it still happens, though promotional mailing campaigns are a bigger deal. I’d have a better idea about all of this stuff if I had an agent, but I never have, and suspect I never will. In any case, I have just spent over four years putting up hundreds of my old photos with essays explaining them all. I am still terrible at selling myself, but if anyone is curious about the work I’ve been doing for over three decades, they can learn far more about it all now than when it was represented by a generic black portfolio that spent most of its time sitting in a case next to my desk.

Check out my books