Sondra Locke

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Sonda Locke, Toronto, May 1990

I PHOTOGRAPHED SONDRA LOCKE NEARLY TWENTY-NINE YEARS AGO, WHEN SHE WAS IN TOWN PROMOTING HER SECOND MOVIE AS A DIRECTOR. It was early in my time at NOW magazine, and I was still amazed that I’d get called to shoot actual movie stars. I had only the vaguest idea that she’d just undergone a vicious divorce from Clint Eastwood, or that she was battling cancer, when I took these shots. As I wrote when I posted photos from this shoot on my old blog, over four years ago:

Locke was tiny, with translucent skin and what my youngest daughter calls “manga eyes.” Born in the south, she made every male around her default to a courtly version of themselves, keeping their voice down, their manners in check, and their eagerness to see that she was comfortable at the foremost.

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The day after I photographed her, I ran into Locke at the airport, on her own, and sensing that she might need a bit of assistance, helped her with her luggage.

Locke would direct two more films, but the actress who got an Oscar nomination for her first film role in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter would only appear onscreen three more times after I took these photos. The cancer that she was battling when I took these photos ultimately didn’t go away, and she died earlier this month, aged 74.

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Cemetery

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Lambton Jewish Cemetery, Toronto, Sept. 2018

I THOUGHT I KNEW THE WEST END PRETTY WELL BUT I DIDN’T KNOW THIS CEMETERY WAS THERE. A job had taken me out to a decidedly wealthy area on the “good” side of the Humber (I grew up on the “bad” side) and I saw the gates to the Lambton Jewish Cemetery from the bus stop. I’m a sucker for cemeteries (I live next to one) so I had to go inside and, even better, I had my camera bag with me.

The Lambton Cemetery is a conglomerate of several burial grounds. There are the cemeteries for synagogues – Junction Synagogue, Beth Jacob, Ostrovster Synagogue, Beth Aaron – and various burial societies like the Grand Order of Israel, Kol Yankov, the Ostrovster Young Mens Society, the Sons of Abraham and (my favorite) Hebrew Men of England. There are recent graves, so the cemetery is still active and well maintained.

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Every cemetery is full of stories, though reading them is like trying to figure out a book with just its last page. I probably wouldn’t have noticed all of the Fishmans grouped together if I hadn’t been drawn to the arresting sculpture of an infant on one of their stones. It’s hard not to be moved by the graves of children. And then there are the Holocaust memorials – long lists of names of relatives whose names are all that could be recovered. A cemetery is a quiet place until you notice all the remembrances around you, gently pleading for your attention.

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Portfolio

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Northumbria

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I SPENT THE FIRST TEN YEARS OF MY CAREER IN AND AROUND MUSICIANS. Toronto had a great – and undersung – music scene in the ’80s and ’90s, and many of my friends from that scene are still performing and recording. Guitarist Jim Field was a mainstay on the scene back then, and last Sunday he and bassist Dorian Williamson played a gig for the release of Vinland, the latest from their group Northumbria.

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I don’t love shooting live music – I’ve explained that in the old blog – but it’s not easy to do, and every now and then it’s time for a challenge and trying to get a decent photo in dim, changing light with a subject who isn’t paying attention to you will make you work hard as a photographer. Jim and Dorian sounded great, and it was refreshing to photograph a show without having to work around microphone stands. Check their record out – if you like that sort of thing you’ll love what they do.

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On The Air

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AFTER THIRTY YEARS OF NEVER TALKING ABOUT MY WORK I’ve been spending a lot of time lately discussing my old blog and my photos. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying it, but it’s still pretty weird. I seem to have moved on from the print phase of self-promotion to the verbal one, which means I’ve been inflicting my voice on you. Sorry for that.

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With B&H Podcast host Allan Weitz and Julie Grahame

A couple of weeks ago I flew to New York City for a day to appear on the B&H Podcast with photo curator and archivist Julie Grahame. Julie runs the estate and website for legendary Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh – you probably know his work, even if you’re not Canadian and didn’t see his portraits all the time growing up – and had a lot of wisdom about managing your public profile as a photographer.

Producer John Harris and host Allan Weitz did a great job of keeping the conversation moving (and keeping me on topic.) We talked for over an hour but the show was edited very tightly, I think, though the segment where Julie thought I was saying “bi-curious” when I was talking about bike couriers unfortunately ended up on the cutting room floor. (Must have been my Canadian accent.)

To listen to the show, go here on the podcast website, or listen to it on iTunes here or here on Libsyn.

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With Richard Crouse, Jon Brooks and Anthony Lemke. I really need to change my clothes.

Last week I had the opportunity to wag my jowls a bit more on Richard Crouse’s AM 1010 radio show, alongside singer/songwriter Jon Brooks and actor Anthony Lemke. I’ve known Richard for many years, mostly seeing him at movie screenings back when I did my time as a movie critic, and he runs a nice, loose show where his guests can actually get past talking points – a rarity on radio and TV these days, I can say from experience.

We got on to the topic of failure – a favorite subject of mine – as a constructive, even creatively necessary thing. I plugged my books. It was all very pleasant. Go here to listen to the show.

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