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.

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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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