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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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.

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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: FACES

FACES WAS DEFINITELY THE EASIEST OF MY THREE NEW PHOTO BOOKS TO PUT TOGETHER. Portraits make up most of what I think is my best work from the last three and a half decades, and even after putting together last year’s STARS and MUSIC – both collections of portraits – I had a lot of shots left over.

I needed a theme, however, and it wasn’t hard to find. Thanks to a variety of factors – the short durations of most of my celebrity portrait sessions; the often difficult settings and lighting conditions where I’ve had to work – I learned early on to concentrate on faces as long as I could find a nice spot in any room.

This spread featuring actors Alan Rickman and Stanley Tucci, both shot for NOW magazine in the ’90s, could have been in STARS if I hadn’t run out of space. I’m glad I waited, though, since the self-imposed formal layout of the first books – smaller photos, centred no each page, done mostly because I was timid about my lack of experience with book design – would have discouraged me from laying these shots out full bleed, mirroring each other across the spine of the book.

This layout is one that cried out to happen. I’ve always been fond of my strange, nearly wordless 1990 shoot with Bruce Dern. Nearly fifteen years later, shooting Rhys Ifans for the free daily, I found myself copying it in a similar room in the same hotel. I figured a decade and a half was long enough outside of the statute of limitations that I could rip myself off. At the time I took the shot, only I knew that I was copying myself; this is my shameful admission.

The juxtaposition of my portrait of Robert Altman – shot on my vintage Rolleiflex in 1990 – and a 2007 shot of Leelee Sobieski – taken on the free daily’s digital Canon – was a way of marking the passage of time. I couldn’t have imagined a digital camera back at the turn of the ’90s, or how my five to ten minute sessions in the ’90s would give way to just a minute or two (and often much less) over a decade later. Digital cameras certainly made these rushed sessions possible, but I’d also learned – with regret, I have to admit – to work at an even more rushed pace with each decade.

This spread sums up the theme of FACES – simple, stripped down portraits (Ben Stein in 2009 and Peter Sarsgaard a year earlier) where I had just enough time to confront my subject with my camera up close. Working for the free daily this was pretty much my only option – in the paper’s cluttered layouts, a complicated composition with any negative space would just end up getting cropped, so I knew that my only option was to fill the frame with a face that would fill up three, or two, or perhaps only one column of newsprint.

I didn’t think much of the work I was doing for the free daily at first. It felt sort of automatic for the first year or two, but by the time I did these two portraits I felt I was working toward a new, even more minimal style. I would have liked to see where this led me, but I was laid off a few months after the Stein session and didn’t shoot another portrait for years. The publication of FACES brings the story of my portrait work up to date, with a couple of recent sessions sprinkled among the old “hits.”

With this book, I’ve brought the “some old pictures” story to an end – I might have a few decent uncollected portraits in my archives, but the cupboard is mostly bare and any new book I bring out going forward will have to feature new work. I have a few ideas, but I’m pretty sure that it’ll be more than a year before I’ll publish another book like the six I’ve managed to put out in just over a year.

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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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Jane Bunnett & Maqueque – On Firm Ground

IT HAD BEEN OVER TWENTY YEARS SINCE I’D SHOT AN ALBUM COVER FOR MY FRIEND JANE when she contacted me late last year and asked if I’d take the photos for her next CD. A lot had happened since then. I’d moved out of my loft around the corner from her house, got married, had kids and left the business – twice – while Jane had gone from strength to strength, with an Order of Canada, a whole bunch of other awards and four Grammy nominations.

Of course I said yes.

Brainstorming for the look of the record started with the title – Tierra Firme and/or On Firm Ground. Ideas started with a photo of Sonny Rollins in a stark studio setting, but moved on to the idea of superimposing pictures of lush greenery on the band. I sent a bunch of images back at Jane, including an old Lou Donaldson record and bunch of others that evoked a pastoral take on psychedelia that was popular on LP sleeves in the late ’60s.

I began making sketches and collages in my notebook after we visited a shooting space that was both competitively priced and conveniently up the street from Jane and her husband Larry’s Parkdale house. It was a gallery and performance venue that had a very useful white wall and another big wall of windows. We booked a time, canceled once, Jane found a makeup person, we booked again and were ready to roll.

I arrived with my “studio in a bag”, the standby kit I’d put together after I’d seriously returned to shooting, with two new additions – a pair of Westcott LED lights to replace the household bulbs I’d been using and a Tiltall tripod that was once a stalwart in my old studio. The band arrived and I occupied my time waiting for them to finish with hair and makeup by obsessively moving my light stands a few inches forward and backward for an hour. This is what it all looked like from my perspective by halfway through the session:

Roxanne DeNobrega, the hair and makeup artist, brought along her friend Sonia Blayde, a photographer, to document her work. She helpfully took shots of the session and graciously let me share some of them here.

At work, Gallery 345 (photos by Sonia Blayde)

The group shots were done but I knew I wasn’t even halfway finished. Using stock photos for the superimpositions was briefly discussed, but I pushed for doing the “nature shots” myself. The problem was that the record was Latin Jazz, and it was winter in Toronto – hardly the time or place to shoot equatorial lush greenery.

The closest big patch of nature was High Park, where I’d been a few months previous and posted a few nice Instagram shots of bare trees and autumn leaves. I had to wait a few days for a warm spell to melt as much of the snow cover as possible before I could head back and try to get those shots again, this time with my Fuji X-T2 instead of my cell phone. The photos I came home with were a bit bleak and monochromatic, but the miracle of Photoshop allowed me to boost the saturation to the edge of cartoonish hues.

At work in Allan Gardens, March 2019 (photo by Cordelia McGinnis)

More shots of greenery – preferable the lush, green kind – had to be collected. This meant a trip to the greenhouses at Allan Gardens, where I knew I’d be able to get at least some close-ups of foliage that might be useful somehow. It turned into a family outing that I spent most of bent double, focusing on plants or shooting through the canopy of palms in the big main room.

With hundreds of shots to work with, I could finally get to work. Once upon a time this would mean providing a graphic artist with my raw shots, which would be re-shot and mechanically married and re-shot again. Photoshop put all this work back in my hands, and I spent a week tidying up the shots of the band and then another couple of weeks trying out a variety of double and triple exposures, sending them along to Jane and Larry via Facebook Messenger for approval.

What I was doing was as much graphic arts as photography, which was fine by me – I had wanted to be an illustrator when I was young, years before I bought a camera. Over four decades later and with the miracle of cheap computers and digital technology, I’m able to realize an old dream I thought I’d given up on years ago.

Once we’d agreed on a shot, I put together a mock-up of the cover as a sort of proof of concept for Simon Evers, the designer who put the whole package together for the record company. I also provided a bunch of raw shots from my trips to High Park and Allan Gardens to use as graphic elements, and the headshots I’d taken of the band at the end of the shoot, also treated as double exposures with bits of lush greenery, to push the whole graphic conceit of the record a bit further.

It all came together in a quadruple gatefold package that hit the stores a few weeks ago.

Reviews have been fantastic, which is great. As for myself, I’m proud of pushing myself to do something a bit outside my comfort zone, with the encouragement of Jane and Larry.

Mostly, though, it’s nice to be working again, and especially with old friends.

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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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