Portfolio

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THIS IS MY OLD PORTFOLIO. Or rather, this is the shipping case that I’d use to send my old portfolio by courier, mostly to out of town clients. The last FedEx shipping form in the plastic envelope on the front is from a design company in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I haven’t a clue who they were – probably a firm that produced an in-flight magazine for an airline, but I can’t be sure. In any case, I don’t think I got any work from them.

Below is the leather portfolio case I’d use to carry my portfolio to clients here in town. I think my sister found it for me in an estate sale or antique auction somewhere. It might not have been the slickest container for my work, but I thought it summed me up rather nicely, and made a nice introduction to whomever might have responded to its well-worn, patinated exterior and considered hiring the person who’d have put their work in such a thing.

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I used to agonize about my portfolio. The pages below are from that last portfolio – my third or fourth, I think, and the last one that I used to sell myself at the end of the ’90s. It would take me years to update my book, as I’d pore over my work, change layouts, and then decide that I had to wait to shoot something new to create just the right sequence. Because every time I showed my portfolio to anyone it felt like a make-or-break situation – an opportunity that couldn’t be squandered, since they came around so rarely.

I hated showing my portfolio. It wasn’t just the idea of being judged, though that was definitely part of it, as much as knowing that I was the supplicant in an unequal relationship. I could sweat blood over my book, only to have some assistant to the photo editor flip through it at speed, eager to get through the pile of books left with the receptionist on drop-off day. A form rejection letter – some people saved them; I couldn’t – would be your only feedback. Sometimes you wouldn’t even get that.

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I particularly hated showing my portfolio here in town. When I started out, there would be “go-sees” with photo editors or art directors, sitting on one side of a desk or standing to the side in a cluttered layout room while they (silently, too often) went through your book. Those ended at some point in the early ’90s, and from then on it was “drop off days” – leaving your portfolio with a cover letter and a business card or promo mailer with the receptionist, then picking it up a day or two later. I can’t honestly say which one was worse.

Showing work in New York City always felt much more rewarding. Maybe it was because they knew you’d traveled there, but you’d have a small crowd looking at your book – whoever was in the layout office at the time – and some of them might even ask questions about the shoots. Even if they couldn’t use you, someone might say they had a friend at another magazine – they’d make a phone call and you’d jump into a cab. I always got more work after showing in NYC, though the hard part was maintaining the relationship at a distance, and hoping that someone would pass through Toronto who they couldn’t, for some inconceivable reason, have shot in New York.

Sometimes you’d ask another photographer if you could see their portfolio. I remember Michael Lavine showing me a huge, heavy, padded and embossed case with sides that folded down, each photo mounted on a thick board with felt backing. I remember thinking it must have cost a fortune to ship, and knew that with my tight overhead I’d never be able to afford such a lavish presentation. All of my portfolios were strictly off the shelf – black books with clear plastic pages into which you’d slip the 11×14 inch prints you’d laboured over in the darkroom for hours or even days.

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I’ve been thinking about my old portfolios again because, after a painful period of learning to use Adobe’s Portfolio software, I’ve finally updated my own online portfolio. The previous one was at least fifteen years old, wildly out of date and rather ugly, built as it was just after the era of the dial-up modem. The new one is … simple. Off the shelf, by design. I am a simple man, and while I am still in that supplicant position, it’s been a long time since I felt like it was a crucial, pivotal moment every time anyone looked at my work. Part of that is the internet; part of it is just getting older, and caring less.

I don’t know if anyone actually sends around physical portfolios any more. I hear it still happens, though promotional mailing campaigns are a bigger deal. I’d have a better idea about all of this stuff if I had an agent, but I never have, and suspect I never will. In any case, I have just spent over four years putting up hundreds of my old photos with essays explaining them all. I am still terrible at selling myself, but if anyone is curious about the work I’ve been doing for over three decades, they can learn far more about it all now than when it was represented by a generic black portfolio that spent most of its time sitting in a case next to my desk.

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Interview with A Photo Editor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview with The Photographic Journal

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MY GOOD FRIEND CHRIS BUCK interviewed and photographed me for The Photographic Journal earlier this summer, and the interview has gone live today. Amazingly enough, the front page image is probably the most flattering picture of me I’ve seen in, well, forever. Thanks, Chris!

(And yes, it’s true when they say that black is slimming.)

Included are exchanges like the following:

How do you think your being Catholic and a believer, in the traditional sense of being a regular churchgoer; how does that play into your photography?

It’s two things. One is the cultural Catholic thing. The other day on Facebook I posted, 10 Books in 10 Days. And the last book I put up was our family Bible. It was an early fifties pre-Vatican II, American Catholic Bible with two or three sections of old masters, Biblical paintings and scenes. El Greco, Fra Angelico, that kind of stuff. That was the only art book we had in the house the whole time I was a kid.

Did you grow up in the Middle Ages?

No, I grew up in a working class Catholic neighborhood (chuckles) there weren’t a lot of books.

It was a long conversation we had in my backyard, and I’m amazed Chris was able to distill it down as much as he did. The interview was inspired by the end of my old blog, the start of this one, and the publication of my trio of photozines, MUSIC, SQUARE and STARS, which are available at my Blurb bookstore.

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I’ll have more to say about the TPJ interview tomorrow, when I talk about the unique and even revelatory experience of doing a portrait session – for the first time in over twenty-five years – with Chris.

Hello, and Books for Sale

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WELCOME TO MY NEW BLOG. I’m guessing you’ve come here after reading my old blog, which was (mostly) about all the work I did between the mid-’80s and the late 2000s. This blog will feature new work, though I may occasionally revisit something old. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want.

In the meantime, I have some books I’d like to sell you. Photozines, actually – a set of three, full of some of the best of that old work. I wanted to put together a “greatest hits” collection, which quickly turned into three 32-page softcover books, available for the low price of CAN$14.99 each.

MUSIC features portraits of musicians taken over thirty years, and includes photos of Tony Bennett, Henry Rollins, Björk, Alice Cooper, Fela Kuti, Patti Smith and others. STARS is a collection of portraits of movie stars and other celebrities, and features Mickey Rooney, Jackie Chan, Rachel McAdams, Rudolf Nureyev, John Waters, Anne Hathaway and more.

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SQUARE is the most idiosyncratic volume of the three, and is meant to showcase travel, street photography, landscape and still life work I’ve done over the decades, held together by being shot in my favorite format – the 1:1 square. I imagine it’ll be the book that sells the least, but it’s the most personal of the three, so prove me wrong.

I wanted to publish my photos in a nice, high quality magazine format because I realized while working on my old blog that most of my work – the vast majority, in fact – had been printed on newsprint. I always wanted to be a magazine photographer, so this is my way of re-imagining what that old work would have looked like, published as I imagined it ideally.

The books are available through my Blurb bookstore, which will handle printing, sales and distribution. Click on the button below (or on the right hand side of this blog) and send me a selfie of you with the books when they arrive (if you feel like it.) Please enjoy MUSIC, SQUARE and STARS, and I hope you’ll like the new work I’ll be featuring here as much.

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