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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Northumbria

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I SPENT THE FIRST TEN YEARS OF MY CAREER IN AND AROUND MUSICIANS. Toronto had a great – and undersung – music scene in the ’80s and ’90s, and many of my friends from that scene are still performing and recording. Guitarist Jim Field was a mainstay on the scene back then, and last Sunday he and bassist Dorian Williamson played a gig for the release of Vinland, the latest from their group Northumbria.

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I don’t love shooting live music – I’ve explained that in the old blog – but it’s not easy to do, and every now and then it’s time for a challenge and trying to get a decent photo in dim, changing light with a subject who isn’t paying attention to you will make you work hard as a photographer. Jim and Dorian sounded great, and it was refreshing to photograph a show without having to work around microphone stands. Check their record out – if you like that sort of thing you’ll love what they do.

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Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding

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Robert Gordon, Toronto, August 11, 2018

I HAVE A LIST. I have almost always had a list of people I would love to photograph. I have talked about this list before; it’s changed over the years, and many of the people who’ve been on this list from the beginning I never photographed (Frank Sinatra) and never will, though occasionally I did manage to get one (Tony Bennett.)

Some people have been on the list for decades (John Cooper Clarke, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop) while others have been added in the last few years (Greta Gerwig, Jarvis Cocker, Maggie Gyllenhaal.) There are some I think I might still get (Neko Case, Gary Numan) and others I can’t imagine I ever will (Sophia Loren, Dolly Parton, Clint Eastwood.)

Robert Gordon was always on the list.

I had Robert Gordon’s records years before I ever owned a camera, and played them to death as a teenager. One of the first movies I ever saw at the film festival was The Loveless, an arty, campy biker film co-directed by a young Kathryn Bigelow, and I probably wouldn’t have bothered if Gordon hadn’t been one of the stars.

After the adrenaline buzz of punk wore off I got into R&B and rockabilly, styled my hair into an awkward quiff and listened to Gordon constantly, with particular emphasis on his two records with guitarist Chris Spedding, Rock Billy Boogie and Bad Boy. I particularly remember a feature about him in the New York Rocker that I read over and over, particularly impressed by the checkerboard floor and art deco furniture in his New York apartment.

But for some reason I never got him in front of my camera, even when he was passing through town almost annually. Like other entries on the list that always seemed to be around (The Cramps) I just assumed I’d get around to them one day. Then one day, very recently, I realized that I’d better get moving or I might miss my chance. That inspired me to talk two entries on my list into portrait sessions (Kinky Friedman, James Chance.) And then, one day last summer. I noticed that Gordon was coming to town – with Chris Spedding.

I bought a ticket and contacted the promoter and was amazed when I got permission, and on the day of the show I set up the portable photo studio at the back of the club before soundcheck and waited for Gordon and Spedding. There’s always the risk that these things can fall apart at the last minute, though, and I was prepared to break it all down and head home. But that didn’t happen.

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I paced around at the back of the club waiting to go. Almost impulsively, Gordon decided to leave the soundcheck and sit down for my photos. I began shooting, then started telling him that I was a big fan.

“Oooooh yeah…” he said, a bit uneasily.

And then I told him that I’d been listening to him since I was a teenager, and that I’d played his records constantly in high school. What was meant as a compliment didn’t seem to register as one, and in that moment I realized what it might feel like to hear a middle-aged man with a white beard and a paunch tell you he’s been a fan of yours since he was a teenager.

It’s something I think I should avoid doing again.

Gordon was, in any case, quite gracious, sitting for a long sequence of photos. I was surprised that he didn’t try to hide the deep scar across his chin, the souvenir of a vicious mugging in NYC in the ’90s, but he almost seemed to show it off. Even more graciously, he stayed for one final pose – my ritual “eyes closed” photos.

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I shook his hand, thanked him profusely, then turned to look for Chris Spedding, who’d also agreed to a quick portrait. I found him at a table, having a quick cat nap.

I had shot Spedding before, many years ago, and at the very beginning of my career:

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Chris Spedding, Toronto, January 1987

He was in town backing up John Cale – as legendary a guitarist then as he is today. Not that it happens often, but I never turn down an opportunity for a re-match with any subject. I had the photo above handy on my phone, and showed it to him just before we started shooting.

He glanced at it, nodded politely, and wordlessly let me know that we should get started. Perhaps he was thinking what I was hoping – that I’d get something better this time.

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It was an almost wordless shoot, and Spedding seemed to have a good idea of what to do. I was particularly impressed with his well-preserved quiff – something I had always aspired to before male pattern baldness made me more skinhead than teddy boy. I also noticed that he had, with age, developed a profile that looked practically Roman.

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I’m not sure how long the whole shoot lasted. It seemed like it was over in a minute or two, and at the end there was a surprising, unexpected feeling of disappointment. Not that I hadn’t gotten anything – I was pretty sure there was something worthwhile in my camera – but that, after all these years, I’d struck another name off my list.

That night Spedding opened the show with a short set of his own – yes, he did “Motorbiking” – before Gordon came on, in great voice, and played everything the sold-out club wanted to hear, including “Rock Billy Boogie,” which Gordon (understandably) insisted the audience join on the chorus as a singalong if they wanted to hear it so badly.

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Oi! The Skinhead Photo Booth and a Return to Portraiture

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Chris, March 2016

THE OLD BLOG WAS TWO YEARS OLD WHEN I FOUND MYSELF WITH THE URGE TO SHOOT FORMAL PORTRAITS AGAIN. I wasn’t working for anyone and no one was hiring me so I knew that if I wanted to do portraits, I had to go to my subjects – as many as possible at one time, I hoped. Luckily, an opportunity presented itself at just the right time.

My old friend and onetime assistant Rod Orchard was trying to revive Full Contact, his old magazine, and sponsored a show of mostly skinhead bands at a local club. There are few subcultures as abiding or fascinating – or as problematic, as we say these days – as skinheads, which made the idea of photographing a whole bunch of them at once even more appealing.

And as Rod said when he agreed to my proposition – “Hey, who doesn’t love skinheads? Skinheads are hilarious!”

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I took the set-up I’d used to photograph Kinky Friedman the previous fall and added a pair of lights – my old travel light stands and umbrellas, with some cheap light socket/clamp assemblies I bought off Amazon and a couple of 14w household LED bulbs. The point of this little portable studio was to be as light and cheap as possible – to keep my overhead low on what felt like a tentative experiment, and to keep me from crying if the whole thing got busted up by skinheads.

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At work with the portable photo booth, March 2016. Photo by Rod Orchard.

I set up between the bar and the ATM in the club with a clipboard full of release forms. With Rod’s help, I approached bands as they finished soundcheck and customers as they entered the club. By the end of the night I’d shot twenty-nine subjects, all of whom happily signed my release form, including one very drunk gentleman who just left an “X.” (Still legally binding – “His mark,” as they used to note on old census forms and contracts when illiteracy was more common.)

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Erik, March 2016
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Victor, March 2016
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Daick, March 2016
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K. Wakely, March 2016

It might have been an experiment, but it was an important one for me. It had been a long time since I’d done a blitz of portrait shooting, and I wanted to throw myself headlong back into the process – sink or swim, so to speak. I also wanted to work with non-celebrities as subjects; it was even more of a challenge to work with people who didn’t have a fixed sense of their identity or what they wanted to look like, or present me with anything to work with before they stepped in front of my lights. Anything, of course, beyond “People you meet at a skinhead show.”

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James, March 2016
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Kat, March 2016
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Pat, March 2016
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Pete, March 2016

I shot tight and close to the backdrop to make sure it would easily bleach to white in Photoshop. I wanted to work with as many limitations as possible; I was still dubious about re-entering the world of formal portrait work, and didn’t want to give myself too many opportunities to get ambitious.

I’d end up taking nearly the same set-up to the film festival later that year, so I must have been pleased with the results. Two years later, I want to try something like this again. Anybody know where I can find a whole bunch of Teddy Boys in one spot?

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