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.