John Borra

John Borra, Toronto, Jan. 2020

THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF A NEW PROJECT, but more about that later. I’ve known John Borra for at least three decades – one of a community of working musicians here in my hometown who are still performing and (when they can) recording. He was on a list I made of potential portrait subjects, but as soon as I saw he had a new album coming out, he got bumped to the top.

John was the bassist in A Neon Rome when I met him all those years ago – a sort of psychedelic punk group whose live performances were famously mercurial (to say the least.) When the band imploded he went out on his own as a singer and songwriter, while filling the bass slot in Change of Heart for a few years.

I used to catch him busking during daylight hours; after the sun set you’d find him playing bass with Ron Sexsmith, Greg Keelor, Serena Ryder and a reunited Viletones (among many, many other acts.) He’s released three solo albums of his own and three with his band, Rattlesnake Choir, but told me during our shoot last week that his fourth and latest solo album, Blue Wine, was the first he’s made after serving what felt like a kind of years-long apprenticeship.

My habit lately ahead of big shoots is to put together visual notes for a subject, a way to give myself some starting points for lighting and poses. For the first time, however, I showed my subject my notebook; for some reason I had a feeling that John would know how to respond to them more as a series of hints or moods than as instructions, and I was right.

Here’s the thing about John Borra – I don’t think he’s gained an ounce since I met him. His lankiness was an obvious physical trait to start with, and for some reason it suggested a pair of portraits I’ve always loved – Richard Avedon’s 1959 portrait of Rev. Martin Cyril D’Arcy SJ and Irving Penn’s 1966 shot of writer Tom Wolfe. We seemed to hit that note with the shot at the top of this post, and pushed it a little bit farther as we kept shooting.

The location for the shoot suggested itself to both of us, independently – John has had an informal residency at The Communist’s Daughter, a cozy little bar on College Street for years, playing with his old friend (and Toronto punk legend) Sam Ferrara. I brought my lights, but arrived to find the gift of a big picture window full of north light waiting, so the lights stayed in their case.

The first shot that suggested itself used an old folding screen that I’d seen in the window of the Commie for years – a potential location filed in my memory, finally pressed into service. This ended up combining another two visual notes I’d put into my notebook – Bill Claxton’s 1959 photo of actor Ben Carruthers taken outside Birdland, the famous NYC jazz club, and an 18th century portrait of Thaddeus Burr by John Singleton Copley.

The penultimate setup was in my comfort zone – tight portraits against a neutral background, shot with my new manual focus 50mm portrait lens. John has always had a kind of Sam Shepard vibe about him that hasn’t diminished with time, so I knew that, even if nothing else worked, at least these shots would produce something worth seeing.

The final set-up was meant to use the location as much as possible, and as soon as I saw the jukebox down at the end of the bar, the composition fell into place after I’d shifted the stools sitting on the bar down a few inches. We shot this while continuing the chat that had gone on since the shoot began – a bit of catching up, a bit of talking about our newest projects. It was the end of an altogether very amiable session.

John’s new record is pretty great. Drawing on a cast of musical friends he’s made over the years, Blue Wine has a big, modern honky tonk sound, based around a quartet of great drummers and filled out with organ, accordion and mandolin. It also features a great cover designed by Alisdair Jones, another old Toronto punk comrade. If you’re in Toronto tonight, there’s a record release party at The Supermarket in Kensington Market.

This is the first installment in a new portrait series. It’s been quite a few years since there were thriving newspaper arts sections or magazines that might have assigned me to take portraits of local musicians, so I’ve decided to be my own photo editor and give out the assignments I’d be excited to take, shooting people whose work I admire. Some are, like John, old friends; others are people I’ve never had a chance to get in front of my camera for some reason. I hope you’ll enjoy the project as it unfolds over the next year or two.

Check out my books

Jane Bunnett & Maqueque: Tierra Firme LP

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.

See my published books

The Discarded – Sound Check and Fury

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.

Jared, Joel and Caden Wasson, Toronto, 2018

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?

Check out my books

Oh Susanna – Johnstown

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.

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale studio, 1998

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.

Suzie Ungerleider, Parkdale studio, 1998

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.

Suzie Ungerleider, Liberty Village, Toronto, 1998

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.

Check out my books