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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE GREAT THING ABOUT MY WORK is that I occasionally get paid to do something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve had my eye on the Chi-Cheemaun ferry for years now, but I was recently hired by the Alternator Group on behalf of Owen Sound Transportation Company to spend a weekend on the boat between Tobermory and Manitoulin Island, take some photos and write a few stories.
Cottage country is a big deal up here – not just in Canada, generally, but in Ontario particularly. My family never owned a cottage – we rented one for a week, once, when I was a boy – so I’ve spent my meagre time there as a guest. I’m not a driver, so I had to hire a car to get me up to where Ontario Highway 6 turns a corner by the Bruce Anchor Motel and pauses at the ferry docks in Tobermory.
The ferry takes up where the road leaves off, moving cars across the mouth of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron to South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island, where the highway continues across the island, over the North Channel via a swing bridge before ending in McKerrow. I was only concerned with the highway’s path over the water on the Chi-Cheemaun, however.
I arrived in Tobermory with just enough time to check in to the Bruce Anchor before wandering down to the dock to watch the Chi-Cheemaun arrive from its morning voyage across the bay. Since I wasn’t booked on to the boat until the evening sunset dinner cruise, I had an afternoon to kill in Tobermory, which I did with my camera – a warm-up before I had to get on the boat and get to work.
I like boats. I like anything that takes me anywhere, but boats have a clear lead over planes and a narrow one over trains. Going somewhere on a boat feels like a voyage, and thanks to ever-changing conditions on the water, each trip feels different than the last. The Chi-Cheemaun has been making itself a destination on its own for many years, but its branding got a boost when the bow and funnel were decorated with murals inspired by local woodland aboriginal artwork.
I used my main camera, a Fuji X-T2, to take the portraits and reportage I needed for the commissioned stories, but as usual I took my much-loved X30 with me to capture the sorts of shots I’m always collecting when I travel. The return journey from Manitoulin was dominated by a long sunset that seemed to change every time I thought I’d shot enough and went inside again. A glimpse out the window would reveal another different combination of sky, water and colour, so out I’d go again.
The last embers of the sunset were still burning away when we docked at Tobermory for the night, lining the horizon out towards the mouth of the bay. The sun disappeared and brought a night of rain, which carried in a day’s worth of fog that covered the lake from the moment we left the next morning, hiding the islands on the way out of Tobermory in wisps of steaming mist.
I actually enjoyed my two trips on the Chi-Cheemaun through the fog more than the spectacular sunset cruise the night before. The lake was definitely choppier and visibility was down to a few dozen metres for most of the trip, which meant that the ship’s horn would sound regularly, its muffled echo rolling back through the fog. But the views from the deck were more primal and mysterious, land glimpsed only occasionally through cool fog, the water raked with waves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I THINK IT TURNED OUT PRETTY WELL. If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be shooting LP and 7″ single covers in 2019, I’d have said you were crazy. By the time I shot my first album covers thirty years ago the CD was taking over; every record cover I shot made it into the world 5″ square and not 12″ (except for the odd record that also came out on cassette, but that didn’t last long.)
Ian Blurton is a legend in Toronto’s music scene (and likely all over Canada) but he probably doesn’t love hearing it all the time. I’ve known him for over thirty years, and two years ago he told me that he was working on a solo record. He asked me to shoot artwork for the project, and last week the first single from Ian Blurton’s Future Now was released. I actually think this is the first 45 cover I’ve ever done.
I met Ian by High Park after sundown on a warm early summer day and we went for a wander through the park looking for the moon behind the trees. Our rough inspiration was the cover of Paranoid by Black Sabbath, but that ended up more as a mood setter than anything else once we were deep in the park.
I knew that my go-to camera at the time – my Fuji X30 – produced impressive results in low light, but I was pushing it a little bit in the deep shadows under the trees of the park. Ian had brought along a pair of glasses with little LED lights attached, and they were supposed to be the highlight in each frame, a hot spot under the hood of the parka Ian would put on every time we stopped at a likely location.
Ian chose a night with a full moon, hoping we’d get a shot like the one that ended up on the cover of the 45. Even without the moon in the frame, moonlight filled in the sky that would otherwise be black. My favorite shot is probably the one just above, but I’m grateful that Ian and Yeah, Right! records were willing to go ahead with a photo dominated by blacks and dark grays.
It was an altogether pleasant evening; Ian and I talked about how our work ends up finding us. I was planning the end of the old blog by this point, and had quietly decided that I was back at photography again. Ian has never lost his commitment to the work that found him, and spends most of his time producing, recording and playing music. There’s a reason why he’s a (sorry, Ian) legend.
I waited another year to hear from Ian about the record, and last winter he called about a promo shoot with the band he’d put together for the project – drummer Glenn Milchem, bassist Anna Ruddick and guitarist Aaron Goldstein. He suggested Riverdale Park as the location, with its view of the city and the sky, on another night with a nearly full moon.
I didn’t want to rely on the moon and streetlights so I brought along my simplest lighting rig – a pair of Coast LED maglights and light stands. The shot above was taken with my phone as a note to help plan the double exposure I knew I’d want to do with the Blood Moon or Wolf Moon that was due later that weekend. It was freezing that night, so I worked as fast as possible.
We did a reprise of the shoot for the single cover when Ian pulled out a set of little LED lights for everyone to put on, though Anna – the only non four-eyes in the group – had to hold hers in place. Fans of Ian and the band will be seeing more of this shot this summer as it’s being used for promo and posters.
The sky was clear a couple of nights later when the Wolf Moon was due. I was grateful to see it rise from the east and come into view right above my backyard, where I set up a tripod and my old Olympus E30 – the only camera I own that has a lens long enough (70-200) to get a close shot of the moon. After some trial and error – I’ve never really done much night sky shooting – I was able to get a bright, sharp shot of the Wolf Moon.
Combining the band shot with the moon was a challenge; every option with the moon roughly the size it would have appeared in the sky above Toronto looked a little underwhelming, so I kept making it larger and larger. The shot above is the most dramatic – and unrealistic – and remains my favorite at the end.
It’s nice to work with people you like. So far almost all of the work I’ve done for musicians since I returned to shooting has been with friends, and it’s been both pleasant and rewarding. I’d like to hope this doesn’t change; I’m too old to do work that I don’t enjoy, and having discovered a third act to my career – one I didn’t imagine happening even a few years ago – I’d like it to remain as satisfying as possible.
THE DISCARDED RELEASED THEIR THIRD RECORD – AN EP – LAST MONTH. It was also the third record I’ve worked on with Joel, Jared and Caden, a collaboration I haven’t had with anyone since Jane Bunnett in the ’90s. There’s something altogether pleasant about working with an artist on their visual image over the long term, and only part of it has to do with a sense of trust that’s probably felt disproportionately by the photographer.
I’d known Joel since the heyday of the the Queen West music scene here in Toronto – a community of groups that I always felt would have been better known, in a different city, in a place where major record labels weren’t branch plants of their parent corporation, or during (and not before) the digital revolution that changed the way music is made, distributed and marketed. After Joel ended up living with his two oldest sons after a divorce, they pulled a sort of post-indie Partridge Family and formed a punk band. When a record was imminent, he contacted me about doing publicity photos for his group.
Not From This Town is the first part of an ambitious project – the first act of a punk musical, or what we children of the ’70s used to call a “rock opera.” I’m not sure if it was meant to be this explicit, but the cover of act one ended up pulling in the influences and anxieties experienced by any new group; the Abbey Road visual shout-out was definitely something Joel and I talked about when planning the shoot, but the reference to The Who’s My Generation cover only became apparent when the band had moved a couple of blocks up Bay Street and I framed them standing in front of Old City Hall.
We ended up taking care of the two big shots in almost no time – the advantage of a bit of planning, I suppose. But with the rest of a weekend morning to burn, we headed out to other locations, like the front of the Concourse Building on Adelaide West, an art deco gem that was very nearly demolished a few years ago, J.E.H. MacDonald murals and all.
Out next stop was the ferry terminal by the foot of Yonge Street, where we had a vague plan to get shots of the band with the skyline of “This Town” behind them. We bought tickets and rode back and forth to Ward’s Island while I shot the band in various spots around the boat. My favorites turned out to be one along the railing, the band as weary and wary as any band will look, and another underneath the ceiling stuffed with flotation vests.
Back on shore, we wandered back to the car, where I posed Joel and his sons with one of the old island ferries in the background and I shot them having a moment probably as much like a family as a band.