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.

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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?

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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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Lost & Found: Beastie Boys 1986

Beastie Boys, Toronto, April 1986

HERE’S ANOTHER BUNCH OF NEGATIVES I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SEE AGAIN. These old pics of the Beastie Boys were in the same old file folder, buried behind old receipts and tax stuff, as the photos of the Minutemen I featured here a few weeks ago. More juvenilia, back from when I was still learning how to use a camera.

These are not great portraits. They’re not even particularly good snapshots. But thanks to my new Vivitar 285 flash, bought at B&H in New York City the previous fall, they were at least properly exposed – if you like the look of direct flash, which I don’t, and didn’t, even then.

So why even bother posting them? Well, they might not be great shots, but if I’ve learned anything from putting old photos online, almost any picture becomes history when even a minority of the audience for it wasn’t born when it was taken. Especially so, I suppose, when someone in the photo is no longer alive.

Beastie Boys, Toronto, April 1986

I shot them just before they went onstage at their first ever Toronto gig, at a tacky new wave disco in Yorkville called the Copa. I was double-dipping – these shots would end up being used by both Graffiti magazine and Nerve. According to the recollections of Perry Stern, who was writing the Graffiti piece, he’d spent much of the day before the show with them, walking up and down Yonge Street trying to buy amyl nitrate poppers, which they’d heard were legal in Toronto. (Apparently not, as far as Perry could tell.)

They were boisterous but likeable goofs, according to Perry, more than living up to their budding public image, which would become gold-plated with the release of Licensed to Ill a few months later. Their madcap antics would deflate a bit a few minutes after I took these photos, when they went onstage and threw around some beers that broke one of the neon “sculptures” hanging over the dance floor at the Copa. (An incident I’d completely forgotten about until Perry reminded me the other day.)

But cracks were starting to show, even then; a friend from Nerve who was hanging around when I took these shots recalled one of the Beasties – MCA or maybe Mike D, I can’t remember – suddenly sitting down, exhausted, and mumbling to himself “Man, I gotta get so stupid to do this shit.”

As Michael “Mike D” Diamond remembered in the recently-published Beastie Boys Book, a memoir written by himself and Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz:

Over the course of those months on the road, we went from being like, This is the most exciting thing ever, I can’t believe we’re actually rock stars to thinking, God, people really expect us to be these idiot caricatures of ourselves night after night. This kind of sucks . . . We didn’t see ourselves having to act out a role, having to go onstage and be the three guys who throw beer and have a giant dick for a prop. And it had never occurred to us that it would start to be demanded of us. We honestly just didn’t know.

Beastie Boys Book, p. 229
Beastie Boys, Toronto, July 2006

I would meet up with the Beasties again, twenty years later, working for the free national daily. Of course, nobody thought they’d have a career that would last two more years, never mind two decades. Adam Horovitz was still the cut-up in the band, mugging for my camera, while Michael Diamond had lost the baby fat in his face and Adam “MCA” Yauch (1964-2012) had become the group’s thoughtful conscience – not that we suspected the Beastie Boys had, or even needed, a conscience thirty+ years ago. The very idea would have been considered absurd.

Beastie Boys, Toronto, April 1986
Beastie Boys, Toronto, July 2006

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Lost & Found: Minutemen 1985

The Minutemen, Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 26, 1985

I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SEE THESE PHOTOS AGAIN. I’ve been searching for this shoot with The Minutemen since I started my old blog, but by the time I brought Some Old Pictures to an end almost a year ago I’d pretty much given up on finding these negatives. They turned up the other day when my wife was trying to clean out our basement, tucked into the back of an old tax file box in the cantina along with a bunch of other old shoots. How they got there, I haven’t a clue.

(My friend Chris thinks I should change the title of this blog to Some Old Pictures I Lost and My Wife Found.)

I had just started working for Nerve magazine when I flew down to NYC to stay with a girl I barely knew. (Long story – not very interesting in the end.) My visit happened to coincide with San Pedro’s Minutemen playing Irving Plaza (opening act: Live Skull pre-Thalia Zedek) so Dave and Nancy put in a call to SST, their record label, and I was on the list and booked to meet the band before the show.

The Minutemen, Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 26, 1985

They’re not great photos. I’d barely owned a camera for a few months so my skills were basic, to say the least; I’d be taking better pictures in about a year. I loaded my camera with 100 ASA Ilford FP4 for some inexplicable reason – I must have been optimistic about the amount of available light backstage at a venue. In the end I had to take the band into the bathroom off their dressing room for the shoot – the only spot with usable light. (It was also where the band had the food for their tour rider. Rock and roll is glamorous, kids.)

The Minutemen live, Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 26, 1985

At least they’re better than the live shots I took that night, of which this is the only remotely printable frame. I was pretty timid about getting up close at a gig, especially when confronted with a New York City mosh pit. I’m not going to apologize too much about these photos – I was learning on the job, and while I’d bought a new Vivitar flash for my Spotmatic at B&H on that trip, I was definitely too timid to use it.

The Minutemen, Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 26, 1985

When you’ve been shooting as long as I have you learn that your photos gain value not because of quality or style, but because you happened to capture a bit of history. The Minutemen were an incredibly important band in the evolution of punk through hardcore, and as exemplars of the DIY ethic and aesthetic. Stripped-down, humble and idiosyncratic, they bucked trends in and outside of hardcore punk and have become hugely influential in hindsight. (Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerad’s essential history of the American indie rock scene in the ’80s, takes its title from a Minuteman lyric.)

They were an actual working class band from a town known mostly for its naval base. I couldn’t help but identify with their baffled ignorance at the way things were done in the by-then very middle class world of rock music, muscling past being intimidated by “the rules” and making a virtue of their own outsider status. For The Minutemen, drummer George Hurley’s mane of peroxided curls twirling as he played was their sole stage effect. “We were fucking corndogs,” recalled singer and guitarist D. Boon when he sang about driving to see punk rock gigs in L.A. with his best friend, bassist Mike Watt. For a great history of the band, watch the documentary We Jam Econo.

The band were exceeding expectations when I took these photos. They were about to go on tour with R.E.M., and were confounding the hidebound rules of the hardcore scene with records like Project: Mersh and 3-Way Tie (For Last). The unexpected end came less than two months later, when D. Boon died in a car crash just before Christmas. Watt and Hurley would end up forming fIREHOSE with guitarist Ed Crawford, and Watt would become a sort of indie punk legend, playing bass in the reformed Stooges. But that would all come later, and I wouldn’t have imagined any of it when I took these photos, at the very edge of my limited competence, so long ago.

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Icon Gallery – Music Prints for Sale

Eric B & Rakim, Toronto, 1987

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.

Imaginary gallery wall

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.

John Lee Hooker, Toronto, 1987

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.

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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.

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Ian Blurton & Future Now

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.

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The Discarded

THE DISCARDED RELEASED THEIR THIRD RECORD – AN EP – LAST MONTH. It was also the third record I’ve worked on with Joel, Jared and Caden, a collaboration I haven’t had with anyone since Jane Bunnett in the ’90s. There’s something altogether pleasant about working with an artist on their visual image over the long term, and only part of it has to do with a sense of trust that’s probably felt disproportionately by the photographer.

I’d known Joel since the heyday of the the Queen West music scene here in Toronto – a community of groups that I always felt would have been better known, in a different city, in a place where major record labels weren’t branch plants of their parent corporation, or during (and not before) the digital revolution that changed the way music is made, distributed and marketed. After Joel ended up living with his two oldest sons after a divorce, they pulled a sort of post-indie Partridge Family and formed a punk band. When a record was imminent, he contacted me about doing publicity photos for his group.

Not From This Town is the first part of an ambitious project – the first act of a punk musical, or what we children of the ’70s used to call a “rock opera.” I’m not sure if it was meant to be this explicit, but the cover of act one ended up pulling in the influences and anxieties experienced by any new group; the Abbey Road visual shout-out was definitely something Joel and I talked about when planning the shoot, but the reference to The Who’s My Generation cover only became apparent when the band had moved a couple of blocks up Bay Street and I framed them standing in front of Old City Hall.

We ended up taking care of the two big shots in almost no time – the advantage of a bit of planning, I suppose. But with the rest of a weekend morning to burn, we headed out to other locations, like the front of the Concourse Building on Adelaide West, an art deco gem that was very nearly demolished a few years ago, J.E.H. MacDonald murals and all.

Out next stop was the ferry terminal by the foot of Yonge Street, where we had a vague plan to get shots of the band with the skyline of “This Town” behind them. We bought tickets and rode back and forth to Ward’s Island while I shot the band in various spots around the boat. My favorites turned out to be one along the railing, the band as weary and wary as any band will look, and another underneath the ceiling stuffed with flotation vests.

Back on shore, we wandered back to the car, where I posed Joel and his sons with one of the old island ferries in the background and I shot them having a moment probably as much like a family as a band.

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The Persistence of Fela

Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Toronto, 1989
Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Toronto, July 1989

THE SHOOT I DID WITH FELA KUTI NEARLY THREE DECADES AGO WAS SEEN BY ALMOST NOBODY until I published it on my old blog near the start of that project. Since then it’s taken on a life I couldn’t have imagined, either when I was begging the show’s promoter for a chance to photograph Fela, or on the winter day long after that, when I took the negatives from their files and started scanning them.

In the years those photos sat unseen in my files, Fela increased his profile internationally, continued his conflict with the Nigerian government, and died of complications from HIV – which did nothing to halt the spread of his fame and reputation. He was the subject of a Broadway musical and a documentary film before his manager, Rikki Stein, contacted me two years ago to ask about using my photos in a box set of his records, curated by Erykah Badu.

Felaboxsetreleasepartyposter

I was happy to get my photos out in the world, especially in a full-sized LP box set, printed full bleed and across double page spreads. It seemed an auspicious way to launch my Fela portraits into the world after decades of obscurity (mine and the photos.) But I wasn’t quite prepared for what would happen once they were out there.

Last summer my old friend Chris Buck told me that he’d seen a poster that used one of my Fela images all over the Venice neighbourhood of Los Angeles. He said he’d try to find them again and send me some photos of the posters, and a few days later they arrived in an e-mail.

FelaLAposter_04

Najite & Olokun Prophecy are a Los Angeles band working in the Afrobeat tradition of Fela Kuti and his groups Africa 70 and Egypt 80, and they apparently took a couple of my Fela photos from the box set booklet and my blog as the inspiration for posters advertising a big summer gig in a neighbourhood in South LA. I suppose I could be mad about this unauthorized use of my intellectual property – it’s happened before, but at least a couple of those times the artist had the courtesy to ask me for permission.

FelaLAposter_05

But on the whole, frankly, I’m rather less outraged than I probably should be. While the band’s appropriation of my shots isn’t strictly “fair use” as defined in copyright law, there’s part of me that’s pleased to see my Fela photos become part of the musician’s iconography, especially after they were effectively buried for so long.

I grew up looking at photographer’s portraits that defined the visual legacy of their famous subjects – think of Penn’s “cyclops” portrait of Pablo Picasso, Churchill by Yousuf Karsh, or Jerry Schatzberg’s photos of the newly electrified Bob Dylan. If my shots of Fela could somehow become a part of his visual legacy, there’s no way I couldn’t be pleased.

DynastyCWposters

What was even stranger was that, at around the time Chris told me about the posters in Los Angeles, my Fela shots were on their way to a most unexpected place. Last summer I was contacted by Cassie Williams, the clearance coordinator for the CW/Netflix reboot of Dynasty, the hugely popular ’80s primetime soap, which was filming in Atlanta.

“This season we’re introducing Club Colby – an upscale jazz club owned by the Colby family,” she wrote in an email. “We’d really like to use the below Fela Kuti image as set decoration for the club. The club is being built as a permanent set, so this image would be used as background set dressing in multiple episodes.”

In the end, Cassie and Andrew Huddleston, the art department coordinator on Dynasty, licensed the use of four of my Fela shots for the Club Colby set. I can only imagine the motivation for their choice of my shots – the Colbys have been recast as African American for the reboot, so perhaps they’re meant to be some sort of political or cultural statement by the Colby family.

The season two episodes with scenes taking place in Club Colby have been airing this fall, and a week ago Andrew was nice enough to send me snapshots of the standing set with my photos. If you have sharp eyes, you might catch them in the background of a few shots of the show. They’re certainly in a place where I would never have imagined them appearing. I think Fela might have been just as surprised.

There’s another place where my Fela shots will be appearing in the new year, but I don’t think I’m at liberty to talk about that yet. Stay tuned.

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