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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
IT USED TO BE SO HARD TO GET YOUR PHOTOS OUT INTO THE WORLD. I’ve told the story many times in the last year or two – back when cameras still shot film and there was no internet, you had three options for putting your work in front of people: You had to get paid to take photos for a magazine or a newspaper, you had to get them hung on the wall of a gallery or museum, or you had to publish a book. Instagram, of course, has made all of this irrelevant, but so has the rise of online shopping and digital publishing.
Which is why I was excited the other day when this arrived:
One of my old compatriots from the Toronto hardcore punk scene – and an author of the TOHC book published last year – has a printing business, and a few months ago he told me that they were launching a new venture called 5050. It’s a custom printing business with an online storefront, where photographers and artists can upload poster-sized images for sale, with the profits split down the middle between artist and publisher. He asked if I’d like to submit some images for sale, so I did, after asking for some test prints to check the quality (which is excellent, BTW.)
I chose three images shot over a twenty year period – a still life taken in the last year I had my Parkdale studio, a photo from a trip to England on a press junket back when I worked at the free daily, and my homage to Berenice Abbott, taken last year in New York City. Each poster is printed on 22″ x 28″ matte stock, and retails for $50 Canadian. They’re unsigned (unless you can put one in front of me with a pen in my hand) but the quality is superb, and they cost much, much less than a signed, archival print.
They are, of course, suitable for framing, so I’ve mocked up a few ways for you to imagine them hanging on the wall of your Mad Men midcentury modern apartment, your swinging ’70s crash pad, or your cozy city condo. If they sell well, I might put up a few more images for sale, but mostly they’re a way to get my photos out of the virtual world and onto walls without the cost or frustration of dealing with an art gallery – which has never been a rewarding venue for me.
I hope my confidence in the existence of a market for my photos isn’t misplaced. And while I’m at it, my trio of photozines – STARS, MUSIC and SQUARE – are still for sale at the link below, but only for five more months, so pick them up while you can.
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.
I TAKE PHOTOS ALL THE TIME. Especially since the day I noticed I had a camera on my cell phone, long before I got the Fuji X30 that’s become my favorite camera. My hard drives are full of random folders of shots – pictures taken as I make my way through the world.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Kodak kid, but I’ve been fascinated by snapshots for years – since before I ever took photos seriously. I’m not sure if most photographers feel this way, but I always want to find a way to tap the artless feel of snapshot photos for my own work (when appropriate.) I think I’ve been doing this too long to really take what most people would call a snapshot, but I love the snapshot aesthetic too much to take that option off the table.
These shots are an informal, pick-and-mix record of things I’ve seen and places I’ve been for the last three or so years, back to when I was still doing my old blog and not really sure where all of that was leading me. At some point my friend Jonathan Castellino loaned me his Leica V-Lux 4 for a few weeks, which produced the next four shots:
These photos were taken “off the clock” – while out with my family, or killing time wandering around town. The Black Creek shot was taken while Chris Buck was taking my portrait; the shots below at Oshawa Autofest, where I was helping my friend Alex sell t-shirts at his booth.
I guess I have some pretty predictable obsessions – clouds on the horizon, behind bits of skyline or parkland or striking intrusions, like the camera cranes at an auto race. These are notes – visual post-its; I see these things all the time, so I feel pretty happy when I have the wherewithal to capture them with a camera every now and then.
And every now and then I get to indulge the street photographer I’ve never really let myself be, like at the Yayoi Kusama show at the AGO with my family. I can’t help but catch these scenes out of the corner of my eye; sometimes I remember to bring a camera.
I REALLY NEED TO LEARN TO DRIVE. Never mind the inconvenience of being wholly reliant on public transit, hired drivers or the generosity of anyone with a car; it’s getting tiresome having to explain my obsession with automotive design and motorsport – never mind photographing cars in almost any setting – with the proviso that I have never had a driver’s license.
It’s why, even more than when I do my annual pilgrimage to the auto show, I feel like an impostor at collector car shows like Oshawa’s Autofest or Toronto’s Motorama, annual events for petrolheads and grease monkeys who, at least to my eyes, look like they’ve been taking apart carburetors and replacing blown pistons since before they had their G2 (or equivalent.)
I could take pictures of cars all day; zooming in on the details of even some banal old family sedan or weathered panel van, it’s the forms and textures that draw me in over and over. The great thing about car shows like Motorama is that they’re self-selecting – everything on the floor is there because some car nut has lavished endless hours on its restoration or improvement, or some critical mass of gearheads acknowledge a particular make and model to be worth collecting.
Some cars on the floor are true unicorns, like the 1959 Chrysler Imperial (below) that someone decided to transform from a massive four-door sedan to a sleek sports car. Pretty much every race car is a unique vehicle, and even the most average truck becomes an incredible palette of colour and texture with wear and care. And I have to thank every hot rodder, low rider and car geek at shows like Motorama for providing me with an endless supply of subjects.