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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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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Interview with A Photo Editor

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I TALKED ABOUT MY OLD BLOG, MY NEW WORK, AND THIRTY YEARS AS A PHOTOGRAPHER with Heidi Volpe at A Photo Editor last week, and the interview was published yesterday.  I’m still finding it odd to realize that I look like a bit of a veteran at this stage in my career, but I suppose it’s something I have to learn to accept. In any case, here’s an excerpt of our discussion:

What did you see in them now that you didn’t see then?

I always second-guessed myself when choosing work – I had a hard time finding the best shot, or I’d go for the most obvious, flattering one as opposed to the interesting one buried further down. With years of distance it became easier to find the interesting frames. Also, my skill with Photoshop far exceeds my skill in the darkroom, so I was finally able to produce finished images much closer to what I had in mind when I shot them twenty years ago, like my portraits of Bjork and Patti Smith. Then there are the shoots that I dismissed as flops, or ones from periods of my life that I didn’t recall fondly. I really undersold my portrait work at Metro in the 2000s; it turned out to be much better than I remembered.

I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t like talking about myself. After three decades of relative obscurity, it’s a bit of a thrill, and I’m not tired of it yet. In any case, hopefully it’ll sell some books. Speaking of which…

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TOHC: Toronto’s hardcore scene, where it all started

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The crowd in the pit at a Negative Gain show, Ildiko’s, 1986

SOME FRIENDS DID THE CRAZIEST THING THE OTHER DAY and published a whole big fat book about Toronto’s hardcore punk scene in the ’80s. I was asked early on to submit some photos and recollections to the book, and a few of them made it into the finished product, which turned out to be quite the epic.

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I cut my teeth taking photos of bands like Negative Gain, Bunchofuckingoofs, MDC, NoMeansNo, Corrosion of Conformity, El Paso’s Rhythm Pigs and many more in shitty little clubs like the Siboney, DMZ, the Apocalypse, the basement of the Silver Dollar and Ildiko’s/The Bridge/the Starwood. I’d owned a camera for less than a year by this point, so my learning curve started here, and Tomorrow Is Too Late was a great opportunity to try to share some of these very early shots, like these ones of MDC (aka Millions of Dead Cops) at Ildiko’s in 1986:

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I’ve always been amazed that friend and photographer Rod Orchard – later my assistant in the ’90s and the guy who shot my wedding – made it into one of my shots from COC’s Ildiko’s show, a long-haired kid at the back of the pit holding his camera. So it was a thrill when I saw one of Rita Laberto’s shots from the MDC show and, presto, there I am, sleeves rolled up, with my camera, on the stage, 22 years old and skinny as fuck:

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MDC at Ildiko’s, 1986, photo by Rita Laberto

I was nominally Nerve magazine’s hardcore correspondent for my first year at the paper, which was hardly a bustling beat, though it got me in front of the stage for gigs like NoMeansNo playing the Rivoli or the El Mocambo, I’m not sure which:

Local hardcore bands were also my earliest portrait subjects. I had a lot to learn, to be sure, but I was pleasantly surprised that these shots of John Grove and Animal Stags and the Bunchofuckingoofs turned out sharp and half-decently composed. It’s worth pointing out that I’d end up taking another portrait of Steve Goof twenty five years later in almost exactly the same spot, by what was once Fort Goof in Kensington Market.

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Animal Stags, Toronto, 1986
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Bunchofuckingoofs, Kensington Market, 1986
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“Crazy” Steve Goof, Kensington Market, 1986
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“Crazy” Steve Goof, Kensington Market, 2011

Revisiting my shots of a Negative Gain show at Ildiko’s gave me a startling sense of time passing, but not as much as the book launch party held for Tomorrow Is Too Late last week, which featured a re-formed Negative Gain at the top of a bill with Sudden Impact, Chronic Submission, Microedge and Creative Zero. Many of the same people I captured in the pit over thirty years ago were there again, a bit sweatier and very out of breath.

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I was never really a mainstay on the scene – more of an interloper with a camera. But three decades later I’m still friends with Rod, and not only the contractor who recently renovated my bathroom but the guy who I buy my beer from are all onetime members of that same TOHC scene. Thirty years later, ties that I would have called fragile at the time have persisted, amazingly.

Another group of friends I made on the scene were Ed Ivey and the Rhythm Pigs, who were from El Paso via San Francisco but had a big fan base here. I was a bit disappointed that none of my shots of the band, either from their first gig here in 1986 or their final, reunion show, in 1990, made it into the book, but with everything they had, I guess some things had to go. The portrait was shot on the balcony of Don LaBeuf’s place in Oakville, I believe, the morning after the show:

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There might not be a lot of skill in these shots, but there are plenty of memories. I like to think I took a lot away from punk rock and hardcore. Self-reliance, to start, and the DIY aesthetic that’s become even more important today. But also the sense that, even in a marginal scene full of constraints, there’s freedom and potential. I have never lost a sense of that scene, no matter where I am.

So buy Derek and Shawn’s book and try to stay in touch with the people who knew you when you were thinner and angrier. It’s actually worth it.

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Other side of the camera: My portrait session with Chris Buck

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Chris Buck in my garage, taking my portrait. Photo by Prachy Mohan.

MY FRIEND CHRIS AND I TALKED FOR HOURS LAST JULY, when he interviewed me for The Photographic Journal, but that’s not the part that made me nervous. I am gregarious by nature – probably too much so – so talking about anything (especially myself) isn’t a chore. Having my picture taken, however, makes me deeply uneasy.

I would have been anxious if anyone was doing a portrait of me, but Chris and I have a long personal history and I know his work as well as anyone could who isn’t him, I suppose. There’s a sometimes pitiless quality to a Chris Buck photo that I’ve found endlessly intriguing and entertaining – when someone else is the subject. I couldn’t help but wonder just what would happen when he turned his camera on me.

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By the concrete banks of Black Creek. Photos by Prachy Mohan.

Chris asked me to suggest some locations, and the first one that came to mind was in the neighbourhood where I grew up – Mount Dennis, by what was once the Kodak Canada plant where both our families worked. I used to come down here in the evenings when I was young, sometimes stoned, sometimes not, and lie on the angled concrete banks encasing Black Creek, still warm from the summer sun, and stare at the sky.

We did quite a few shots where I was lying on the flat concrete next to the water, with Prachy, Chris’ assistant for the day, carefully aiming a silver reflector to bounce the sun behind me back into my face. For another whole series I squatted down in front of Chris’ lens, almost sumo-style, and grimaced at the camera. So far, pretty much what I anticipated from the shoot; Chris taking some cue or detail from my story and turning it into a scenario from his own imagination.

With the light starting to go, we drove back to my house, and set up to shoot in the space between my garage and the wall of my neighbour’s garage, which was covered in nicely weathered wood siding. At one point I pulled out my phone and took a quick shot of what it looks like when you’re a Chris Buck subject:

We kept shooting while the summer evening light slowly dimmed, Prachy working hard to fill in the shadows with the bounce. For one long series of shots, Chris asked me to bend my arm behind my head and lean back – a position he’d seen me fall into during our long interview a few hours previous. At some point during that series he managed to capture a very flattering shot of me – one that would end up featured on the front page of the TPJ site.

Without much of a break, Chris moved me closer to his camera, to where the light wrapped mostly around the back of my head. I was told to face away from the camera and then, when he gave a cue, to turn and look at him. It was a bit of a contortion for a stiff, 54-year-old man, and it didn’t take long until doing it repeatedly became somewhat painful. Once again, I had a bit of an insight into how Chris creates his unique portraits, though I knew Barack Obama didn’t have to do this.

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This would end up being the photo that Chris and Lou Noble of TPJ chose for the top of the interview. It’s a good shot. It’s not totally flattering – I’m grizzled and very obviously a man in late middle age, but that’s not something I want or need to hide. The shadows and the layout obscure my face a bit, which is a good thing for a portrait of a photographer, and especially one like me, who’s never been good at selling himself.

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The McGinnis family, Chris Buck, July 2018.

We did one final, quick, setup at the front of the house with my family. We’d spent a lot of time during the interview talking about family and its importance to both of us, and who we’ve become as we’ve gotten older. I didn’t imagine it would end up getting used in the story, but I wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity for a Chris Buck family portrait.

It does a nice job of capturing us as we are today – two people with teenage daughters, our house as the backdrop, as it is in our lives. A hi-res snapshot of domesticity, featuring two ageing hipsters and their very different offspring. The only thing missing is the cat.

I can’t wait to see the outtakes from the shoot, and I know that I walked away from the experience wondering if there was anything in Chris’ working method that I could adapt to my own. Definitely struck by how different it is if you have a willing subject with their attention fully on you, and plenty of time to work. I’d like to thank Chris and Prachy and Lou Noble for the whole experience, and with that I’ll just slink back into the undergrowth where I belong.

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In the bushes. Photo by Prachy Mohan.

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