I HATE WINTER. Which means that, from December to March, I’ll do pretty much anything to avoid leaving the house unless it’s strictly necessary. That means mining inspiration from my hermit-like existence, and that means still life work.
I am also a creature of habit. This year, like last year, I bought my wife roses for Valentine’s Day, and just like last year I asked if we could let them sit and dry out in their vase to provide me, once again, with a subject for some still life shooting.
A week or so after Valentine’s Day I decided to take my first shot at my wife’s roses, which had just started to dry out at the edges of their petals and drop their leaves, though the hearts of each flower retained some moisture and colour. I set up in the kitchen again, only this time I had new pieces of gear I didn’t have last year – a macro ring for my Fuji X-T2, a cable release and a lightweight travel tripod with a ball head.
Locked off and holding my breath, I was able to shoot at much lower ISO speeds than I had a year previous. It took a while to get used to the macro ring; the autofocus on the Fuji needed to be disabled to find the sweet spot on each flower, and I had to pace myself to let the camera and the flower stop moving after I composed and focused, breathing in and out before I triggered the cable release. As the afternoon light in the kitchen started to dim, I pulled out a pair of LED mag lights and used those as hard light sources.
Two weeks later, after the buds in the vase had dried out even further, I got back to work with a black backdrop instead of the white. By this point the pink roses had faded while the red ones had darkened considerably. I started earlier in the afternoon to use as much natural light as I could, which meant that by the time I probably should have pulled out the mag lights, I had been at it for a couple of hours and felt inspiration waning.
I know I’ll be at it again, same time next year no doubt, though earlier if my wife gets roses for her birthday. One day, God willing, I’ll be doing this work in the studio I long to build out back in the garage. It’s hard to describe how immensely satisfying shooting this work feels.
MY SECOND TRIP TO MEXICO IN TWO YEARS took me to a very different place than the first. This time I was sent to the Mexico most tourists would recognize – beaches and resort hotels; sun and sand. As I wrote when I posted the second of two stories on my travel photo blog (posted after the stories that paid for me to be in Mexico were printed) I’m not much of a beach person, so nearly a week on the Mayan Riviera felt very much like anthropology to me.
Our group made our way from the airport in Cancun to Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo province over the course of one very long day. The sun was down when we checked into our hotel, but I managed to get away one morning for a walk around the town by the harbour. No one would mistake Chetumal for a tourist hot spot, but it’s not a bad little city if that’s not what you’re looking for, and the waterfront has its particular charm.
The real discovery of the trip was the Laguna Bacalar – the Lagoon of the Seven Colours – and its still relatively undiscovered attractions. (Undiscovered, that is, by North American tourists; the place was full of Mexicans and South Americans.) As I wrote elsewhere, it put me in mind of a tropical Lake Como where big houses and old hotels hug the shore. In other spots, the vast, shallow shoreline and clear water had a meditative quality I don’t think you get next to an ocean.
That was underlined during a lightning visit to Tulum, where the hipsters holiday, or so I am told. Tulum also provided a perfect snapshot of the tourist experience as it was often revealed to me. We were able to get a bit more time before that in Bacalar, where a trip to the town square to get money from the ATM turned into a sunset walk around the perimeter of the town that gave me some of my favorite – and least touristy – photos of the trip.
Our two nights in the five star, luxury all-inclusive Grand Velas Maya Riviera was very different. I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit to loving the comfort and grandeur of a place like the Grand Velas, from its impressive front gates (very photogenic, especially at sunrise) to its wide halls and public spaces to its carefully manicured beach and excellent restaurants. It was as close as I’ve ever come to The Village, where Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six was very comfortably confined in The Prisoner. I always thought the place looked rather pleasant, and sometimes felt Number Six complained a bit too much.
Cozumel, very nearly the tourism ground zero of the Mayan Riviera, was actually quite lovely. I skipped the snorkeling – it was useless to take up space on the boat with a non-swimmer – but I was able to kill time in a manner better suited to my temperament, with a cold beer under an umbrella looking out to sea.
We ended up back where we began – in the party town of Cancun, at another all-inclusive resort, albeit one much better suited to the voracious vacation schedule of the young and resilient. Lizards marched slowly across the manicured lawns and the Caribbean beat restlessly against the beach under a dramatic sky on our last morning. The red flags were out to warn swimmers of treacherous waves, but for someone like me who doesn’t take off their shoes, it was all just more great spectacle, and the sort of thing that makes travel irresistible.
I AM NOT A HUGE FAN OF SHOOTING LIVE MUSIC. I have done a lot of it – at first with enthusiasm, as a fan, trying to capture my favorite artists in performance, and later as a professional, on assignment but with rapidly decreasing enthusiasm. It’s hard to shoot concerts well, but the really discouraging part is that, even when you think you’ve done a great job, it’s entirely likely that anyone else standing within a few feet of you with a camera has a better than even chance of producing shots as good as yours.
I took these pictures of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in the former phase of my (d)evolution as a concert photographer, when I was a huge fan and desperate to get some really great photos. I know I was enthusiastic because I shot three whole rolls of the show at the cavernous RPM Club (now long gone) down by the city’s port lands; naturally parsimonious and intent on keeping my overhead low, I wouldn’t have shot that much film of anyone if I wasn’t committed to getting a result.
Cave’s reputation for being prickly and difficult was probably why I didn’t bother trying to get a portrait of him when he was in town. (I could be that timid with subjects back then – a failure of nerve I felt acutely, then and now.) I wasn’t on assignment so this was a labour of love, which probably explains why, when I got the negatives back, I was so disappointed that I never bothered making a decent print from them – until today.
A bit of technical gobblydegook: Shooting concerts has always been a battle between having enough light and capturing action, so one felt obliged to use flash (annoying to performers so often prohibited and too hit-and-miss for me) or – as I did here – using the fastest film then on the market: at this point Kodak’s T-Max P3200. It was a “miracle” film, but misleadingly named: It actually had a base ISO of 800, but you could push it two, three or even four stops, from 1600 to 3200 to 6400 and even as high as 12,800, if you could handle the extreme grain and complete lack of shadow detail.
It was nightmarish to print, especially if – like me – your darkroom skills were untrained and fairly rudimentary. Highlights would blow out even in the flattest light, so under concert spotlights they were thick and hot, while the greys dropped off steeply to nothing. Scrutinizing the negatives while they were still wet I could see that they looked almost like ortho litho film, the kind they used in design houses to shoot black and white artwork.
The contact sheets looked even worse; I kept them on my desk for at least a year, scrutinizing them for something vaguely printable, but gave up after a few test prints. I admitted defeat, and into the files they went for almost thirty years.
Some lucky people can forget their failures. I’m one of the unlucky ones cursed with a long memory for them, and when I began excavating my archives for my old blog, this shoot came back to haunt me. It showed up again the other day while searching for another live show I shot around the same time, so I decided to give these photos one more crack.
I’d like to say I’m a better printer, but the truth is that my darkroom skills never evolved as fast as my ability with Photoshop. After a few days of wrestling with my old negatives, I was able to wring out more detail than I could ever have managed (at much greater cost in time and money) in the darkroom. Digitally, I can reach much deeper into each frame and pick out detail or smooth out grain. Shots I’d marked on the contacts thirty years ago, like the one at the top and the frame of Bad Seeds guitarist Blixa Bargeld, finally look like I’d hoped they would when I got home from the show and stayed up expectantly souping my film.
The cruel joke is that, even after all that work, anyone who might have been standing at the edge of the same stage that night, with a decent camera and just a bit more skill and luck than myself, would have got almost exactly the same pictures. And at the end of it all, I probably should have tried harder to get a portrait.
AFTER A BREAK OF OVER TWENTY YEARS, I shot an album cover for my old friend Jane Bunnett the other day. I’ve written about collaborating with Jane on my old blog, but I put that project to bed before I got around to writing about the records I worked on after New York Duets, Live at Sweet Basil and Spirits of Havana. I honestly meant to talk about the albums covers we made in the mid-’90s, but those posts got lost in the rush to bring Some Old Pictures to a close, so now seemed like a good time to revisit that work.
Spirits of Havana did great things for Jane’s profile, so she and her husband and trumpeter Larry Cramer decided to charge ahead with a sort of all-star record featuring musicians she’d worked with before – pianist Don Pullen, drummer Billy Hart and bassist Kieran Overs – and two singers, Sheila Jordan and Jeanne Lee. It was a challenge musically since Jane’s main instruments, the soprano sax and flute, both reside almost exactly in the same register as the human voice, so she’d have to share a lot of harmonic space with these two legendary jazz singers.
I ended up spending a couple of days documenting the recording and a gig with the band at Harbourfront. By now I’d spent a few years in Jane’s orbit, and her regular collaborators were used to seeing me around with my camera; Don Pullen, always wary with photographers, especially when he was playing live, had become something of a friend. It would be a few years before I became obsessed with jazz singers, but I was thrilled to be in the studio with Sheila Jordan and Jeanne Lee. Lee’s stark, beautiful early ’60s recordings with pianist Ran Blake were a particular favorite of mine back then.
The Denon Canada cover of The Water Is Wide is still probably my favorite cover of all the ones I did for Jane. I had just taken over my whole studio in Parkdale and finally had a space dedicated just to shooting, so I put some thought and effort into it; with just the title of the record to work on, I spent a night painting a white seamless backdrop with a rough, near-abstract expressionist image of a river meant to curve up and around Jane’s head. (Ever the thrifty Scot, I used leftover paint from two different shades of blue sitting around from painting my living room.) I was – still am, probably – in love with the look of jazz records from the ’50s and early ’60s on labels like Contemporary, World Pacific, Riverside, Prestige and Blue Note. I tried to duplicate the feel and visual vocabulary of those records for the cover image.
The Water is Wide actually has the distinction of being both my favorite and most disliked cover for Jane, mostly because of a photo I took that was intended for the back, or inside the CD booklet. I’d set up a shot with Jane and her instruments and sheet music in a corner of my studio after we’d finished with the cover shot, and while I was shooting my little cat Nato – a diva who loved walking into photo shoots – paid Jane a visit.
We thought it was cute, but at the insistence of the label boss a rather garish variation of the original image ended up on the Evidence Records version of the album in America. I have always hated this cover, which is about a thousand miles from the look I worked so hard to achieve for the Denon release.
My love affair with the look of old jazz album covers was still in full force two years later when Jane asked me to shoot the cover of a record she was making with Frank Emilio Flynn and José Maria Vitier. This time around my inspiration was more specific – Irving Penn (of course) and some other studio portraits of jazz musicians from the ’50s and early ’60s, especially Donald Silverstein’s iconic shot of pianist Bill Evans from the cover of his legendary Sunday at the Village Vanguard album.
I wanted to do something elegant and minimal, so I used a tabletop I’d made from some weathered barn boards and put a lot of work into lighting Jane as if she and her horn were a still life. The period homage was particularly appropriate for this record, which was being released on the recently-revived World Pacific label.
I was very pleased with the results, and with the restrained layout of the World Pacific cover. Today, it reminds me of the happiest period in my Parkdale studio, when I still felt challenged and the prospect of an ongoing career as a studio portrait photographer still seemed viable.
Today, it would be foolhardy to think too much about my photography in the context of what I once understood to be a “career,” but the sense of challenge has gratefully returned, and the album cover I’m working on for Jane right now is a considerable technical and creative challenge. But more about that later.
Don Pullen died in Los Angeles, California on April 22, 1995.
Jeanne Lee died in Tijuana, Mexico on October 25, 2000.
FIRST OF ALL I’M AMAZED THIS THING EVEN EXISTS. If you’d walked up to me while I was packing up after shooting portraits of the Butthole Surfers after their soundcheck at the RPM Club in 1987 and said “Hey man – you should take care of those shots. They’ll be useful in about thirty years or so. Probably end up in a big old coffee table book,” I’d probably have said you were out of your mind.
“I mean, have you seen these guys? Have you heard their records?”
Well hey, time traveler, you were right, and here’s the proof:
When I posted photos from my Butthole Surfers portrait session on my old blog, they ended up catching the attention of Jeffrey “King” Coffey, one of the band’s drummers. He linked to them on Facebook and said nice things about being organized enough to save my work and get it out into the digital ecosystem. I was flattered but I thought that would be about it.
About a year ago I got a call from Aaron Tanner of Melodic Virtue, a publisher that specializes in books about music. He said they were doing a book about the Buttholes and asked if I’d like to contribute. I did, and the result arrived in the mail yesterday. It’s called Butthole Surfers: What Does Regret Mean? and you can buy it here.
I’m pretty proud of this, and still more than a bit amazed that I’m in my mid-50s and I own a Butthole Surfers coffee table book with my photos in it. Going through the book, my sequence of portraits are the first really clear, straightforward pictures of the band that appear in the book’s chronology.
I suppose I could have tried to do something nuts that reflected the band’s weird, dangerous, psychedelic image but my lack of technical skill and whatever nascent aesthetic I was developing made me go as straight as possible with Gibby, Paul and the rest of the band. As subjects, they were like herding proverbial cats, but Coffey did mention later that they were probably tripping balls.
I was always pretty happy with the portrait of Gibby at the top of this post – it worked for me thanks to some “old masters” style lighting that I discovered by accident, after having to come up with a hasty setup to take individual shots of the band in a corner of the club. I’d spend another year trying to duplicate it, but this particular shot of Gibby gets better every time I print it.
I was never satisfied with my live shots from the show that night. I didn’t have a hope in hell of capturing the more than vaguely sinister chaos in a Buttholes live show, so I never really bothered doing anything with the negatives – until this week.