New books: FACES

FACES WAS DEFINITELY THE EASIEST OF MY THREE NEW PHOTO BOOKS TO PUT TOGETHER. Portraits make up most of what I think is my best work from the last three and a half decades, and even after putting together last year’s STARS and MUSIC – both collections of portraits – I had a lot of shots left over.

I needed a theme, however, and it wasn’t hard to find. Thanks to a variety of factors – the short durations of most of my celebrity portrait sessions; the often difficult settings and lighting conditions where I’ve had to work – I learned early on to concentrate on faces as long as I could find a nice spot in any room.

This spread featuring actors Alan Rickman and Stanley Tucci, both shot for NOW magazine in the ’90s, could have been in STARS if I hadn’t run out of space. I’m glad I waited, though, since the self-imposed formal layout of the first books – smaller photos, centred no each page, done mostly because I was timid about my lack of experience with book design – would have discouraged me from laying these shots out full bleed, mirroring each other across the spine of the book.

This layout is one that cried out to happen. I’ve always been fond of my strange, nearly wordless 1990 shoot with Bruce Dern. Nearly fifteen years later, shooting Rhys Ifans for the free daily, I found myself copying it in a similar room in the same hotel. I figured a decade and a half was long enough outside of the statute of limitations that I could rip myself off. At the time I took the shot, only I knew that I was copying myself; this is my shameful admission.

The juxtaposition of my portrait of Robert Altman – shot on my vintage Rolleiflex in 1990 – and a 2007 shot of Leelee Sobieski – taken on the free daily’s digital Canon – was a way of marking the passage of time. I couldn’t have imagined a digital camera back at the turn of the ’90s, or how my five to ten minute sessions in the ’90s would give way to just a minute or two (and often much less) over a decade later. Digital cameras certainly made these rushed sessions possible, but I’d also learned – with regret, I have to admit – to work at an even more rushed pace with each decade.

This spread sums up the theme of FACES – simple, stripped down portraits (Ben Stein in 2009 and Peter Sarsgaard a year earlier) where I had just enough time to confront my subject with my camera up close. Working for the free daily this was pretty much my only option – in the paper’s cluttered layouts, a complicated composition with any negative space would just end up getting cropped, so I knew that my only option was to fill the frame with a face that would fill up three, or two, or perhaps only one column of newsprint.

I didn’t think much of the work I was doing for the free daily at first. It felt sort of automatic for the first year or two, but by the time I did these two portraits I felt I was working toward a new, even more minimal style. I would have liked to see where this led me, but I was laid off a few months after the Stein session and didn’t shoot another portrait for years. The publication of FACES brings the story of my portrait work up to date, with a couple of recent sessions sprinkled among the old “hits.”

With this book, I’ve brought the “some old pictures” story to an end – I might have a few decent uncollected portraits in my archives, but the cupboard is mostly bare and any new book I bring out going forward will have to feature new work. I have a few ideas, but I’m pretty sure that it’ll be more than a year before I’ll publish another book like the six I’ve managed to put out in just over a year.

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New books: INSTAGRAM

THIS BOOK IS A SEQUEL, OF SORTS, TO SQUARE – THE MOST PERSONAL OF THE TRIO OF BOOKS I PUBLISHED LAST YEAR. It might be even more personal; unlike SQUARE, which included studio still life work and by-products and leftovers from travel gigs, this is really a collection of snapshots – photos taken with the most simple, easy to use cameras I’ve ever used: My cellphones.

All of my cellphones, in order

I’m not sure when I took my first cellphone pic. It might have been with the third phone I owned – a Palm Trio built for texting that I never did. I mostly used my phone to take notes for locations; Instagram launched in 2010, but I didn’t open my first account until January of 2015.

I took a lot of time matching shots for the spreads in this book. The shot on the left was taken in an industrial park in a Toronto suburb. The one on the right was shot in Montana. I like to think that they both suggest a bit of a story that the viewer will try to fill in for themselves.

The snapshot of Irving Penn’s painted backdrop, taken during a trip to New York to see his big retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, screamed out for a portrait on the facing page, but I almost never shoot portraits with my cellphone. (Don’t ask me why.) I did, however, have a photo I took of a wooden sculpture – a portrait of an African chieftain in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Instagram is full of a lot of types of photos. There are selfies, of course (which I don’t take) and shots of food (which I have taken, rarely.) Most of all, though I think it’s a platform for people to share their travel photos, and I’m no different. This spread suggested itself – two different views of airplane travel, shot from plane windows. Like the two photos below, they’re quick grabs at capturing something ephemeral, and that mix of loneliness and wonder I find so compelling about travel.

Every new generation of cellphone I’ve had has improved camera image quality immensely. Shooting a professional gig on a cellphone is still a bit of a stunt today, but I can imagine a day when it will be completely normal. Perversely, this is why I decided to publish cellphone pics in the book with the highest printing quality (and highest price – $20) of all the books I’ve made so far. I’m pretty certain that the next book I do will move on from magazine to book format, so INSTAGRAM was a tentative test of what I can expect to see.

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New books: JAZZ

I HAVE SOME NEW BOOKS FOR SALE. A year ago I celebrated the end of my old blog and the beginning of this blog by offering three collections of my old photography for sale via Blurb. Back when I published MUSIC, STARS and SQUARE, I had a vague plan to follow them up with another trio of books, the subjects of which I still hadn’t decided upon.

I did, however, have some hope that I had enough material to collect my jazz photography, most of it taken in the late ’80s and early ’90s, into one volume. Going through my files I discovered that, while my photos weren’t exactly a broad overview of the music as much as a snapshot of a particular time and place, they did hold together – for me, at least, as a record of my own enthusiasm for music and musicians I’d just discovered, during a brief but fervent period when I wanted to be William Claxton or Francis Wolff.

My friend Chris‘ criticism of my first trio of books was that the photos weren’t big enough, and that the layouts were static. That was both by design (I wanted the books to have a minimal aesthetic) and circumstance (I had never designed a book before and didn’t want to overreach my level of competence.) So the first thing I did was lay out this live shot of Dizzy Gillespie full bleed over a double page spread, to give myself the courage to try more dynamic layouts and fill the book right to its edges with pictures.

I’m rather fond of this spread. It’s my “drummers layout,” and a showcase for the most recent work in the book – a portrait of percussionist Candido Camero taken two years ago. This is probably the last concert photography I’ll ever feature in a book, but it’s appropriate to the project, even if it’s far from representative of what I really do as a photographer.

This spread is more of a showcase for what I do now – and what I was trying to do back in the late ’80s when I took these photos. The portrait of Steve Lacy on the right is one I think I got right the first time when I posted it on my blog, but the Sam Rivers photo on the left is very much improved since I scanned it with my very inadequate HP scanner, early on in the old blog.

This is my “Brazilian spread” – candid shots of guitarist Egberto Gismonti (left) and bandleader Hermeto Pascoal (right) taken backstage on the same night. This screen shot doesn’t do justice to the quality of the photos as they appear in the actual book; I’m very pleased with the quality of Blurb’s premium magazine products. That said, these might be the last magazines I publish through Blurb – whatever I do next will be a bit more ambitious, and probably be a higher-quality book.

Finally, there’s my “Jane spread” – photos of my dear friend Jane Bunnett, one an outtake from a record cover session in the ’90s, the other a candid shot taken in the recording studio for the same record. The third shot is of the late Pancho Quinto from Grupo Yoruba Andabo in the Havana studio where Jane recorded Spirits of Havana, a very big record for her, and also one for me, as it was my first time in Cuba. I’ve dedicated JAZZ to Jane and her husband Larry (along with a few other people) since they played a huge part in helping me understand the music and in developing my work.

So it was especially lovely when Jane offered to play at my book launch party this past weekend. Along with pianist Danae Olano from their group Maqueque, Jane picked out a series of numbers by musicians like Frank Emilio Flynn, who was featured on the cover of last year’s photozine MUSIC, and Don Pullen and Dewey Redman, who both appear in this year’s JAZZ. I probably wouldn’t have met or photographed any of them without Jane, who prompted me to talk a bit about each musician between numbers. It made the whole event extra special – I wish you could have been there.

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Butthole Surfers coffee table book

Gibby Haynes, Butthole Surfers, Toronto, Dec. 8 1987

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.

Butthole Surfers live, RPM, Toronto, Dec. 8 1987

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.

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Hello, and Books for Sale

Zine.Trio.Gray_small

WELCOME TO MY NEW BLOG. I’m guessing you’ve come here after reading my old blog, which was (mostly) about all the work I did between the mid-’80s and the late 2000s. This blog will feature new work, though I may occasionally revisit something old. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want.

In the meantime, I have some books I’d like to sell you. Photozines, actually – a set of three, full of some of the best of that old work. I wanted to put together a “greatest hits” collection, which quickly turned into three 32-page softcover books, available for the low price of CAN$14.99 each.

MUSIC features portraits of musicians taken over thirty years, and includes photos of Tony Bennett, Henry Rollins, Björk, Alice Cooper, Fela Kuti, Patti Smith and others. STARS is a collection of portraits of movie stars and other celebrities, and features Mickey Rooney, Jackie Chan, Rachel McAdams, Rudolf Nureyev, John Waters, Anne Hathaway and more.

SQUARE is the most idiosyncratic volume of the three, and is meant to showcase travel, street photography, landscape and still life work I’ve done over the decades, held together by being shot in my favorite format – the 1:1 square. I imagine it’ll be the book that sells the least, but it’s the most personal of the three, so prove me wrong.

I wanted to publish my photos in a nice, high quality magazine format because I realized while working on my old blog that most of my work – the vast majority, in fact – had been printed on newsprint. I always wanted to be a magazine photographer, so this is my way of re-imagining what that old work would have looked like, published as I imagined it ideally.

The books are available through my Blurb bookstore, which will handle printing, sales and distribution. Click on the button below (or on the right hand side of this blog) and send me a selfie of you with the books when they arrive (if you feel like it.) Please enjoy MUSIC, SQUARE and STARS, and I hope you’ll like the new work I’ll be featuring here as much.

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