Art Gallery

Art Gallery of Ontario, April 21, 2018

AROUND FOUR YEARS AGO MY YOUNGEST DAUGHTER started taking classes at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I volunteered to take her on weekend mornings, which usually meant I had a couple of hours to kill just when the gallery opened. At first I used it as an excuse to wander around the neighbourhood with my camera, but after a while I began sticking to the galleries, taking pictures of the rooms and the gallery goers – making photos of people looking at art. I would start the morning with a coffee in the Galleria Italia and then slip into the adjacent rooms of Canadian art to start my furtive shooting.

At least a year ago my daughter was definitely too old for me to be taking her to class, but it had become our ritual, and frankly I had had come to enjoy those two hours every week, lurking around the AGO with my camera, stalking my subjects. But with her last class just before Christmas she was officially too old for the kids’ art programs. She’ll likely be back to take portfolio classes in high school, but my excuse to spend every weekend sneaking my photos was over.

These photos are a selection of the best shots I took in the gallery last year. At some point in the last four years a random challenge turned into a bit of an obsession, and I realized that I was creating a series – an ongoing project I’ve christened “Right Behind You.”

I also took photos at other art galleries, and when I was on travel junkets – any place where people went about the business of looking at things, individually or in groups. I suppose the whole project actually began over thirty years ago, with some photos I’d taken in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, before I had any idea that I’d make photography my career.

As someone who’s specialized in portrait photography, this was a challenge – anti-portraits, of people who didn’t know their picture was being taken, most of them shots with their faces turned away from the camera. If I was shooting this on film, I might have used a Rolleiflex or a Leica rangefinder; cameras with nearly inaudible shutters. In the digital era I’m even luckier – my beloved Fuji X-30 has a virtually silent electronic shutter, and an LCD screen that folds out for waist-level shooting. It’s basically a street photography challenge, confined to a single venue, with most of the variables of shooting on the street – crowds, the clutter of buildings in the background, changing conditions of light and weather – removed.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from heading back to the AGO on my own. But perhaps it’s time to take my little project to some new venues, maybe back out into the streets. What I do know is that setting myself this challenge regularly has helped keep my reflexes sharp and my eye in practice. But the melancholy part is that this particular series of photos marks the end of a discrete period of my time as a father.

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Daniel Doheny

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Daniel Doheny, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2017.

I PHOTOGRAPHED ACTOR DANIEL DOHENY AT THE FILM FESTIVAL IN 2017, one of over fifty people whose portraits I took, mostly at the Gate TIFF Lounge at the Intercontinental Hotel on Front Street. He was Canadian, just one of a dozen or so young actors I’d photograph that weekend. If I’m frank, I was a lot more excited about the portraits I did of Judy Greer, his co-star in a film called Public Schooled, which changed its title to Adventures in Public School by the time it was released. The shots of Doheny didn’t even make the cut when I posted the best of my festival portraits on my old blog.

As with everyone else I shot during that festival, I posted a portrait of Doheny on Instagram. Over the last few months, however, that shot has been getting a steady stream of likes – mostly because of starring roles he’s had in two teen comedies on Netflix – The Package and Alex Strangelove. The latter – a coming-out film as well as a teen comedy – has apparently been the source of a burst of fame for Doheny.

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When you do portrait photography with celebrities, the extended life of your work depends hugely on the reputation of your subjects. For years I kept some of my favorite photos out of my portfolio simply because the subject was obscure or unknown; when you only had two or three dozen pages to make an impact on a distracted photo editor or jaded art director, a string of big names was as good or better than a series of shocking photos to keep their attention. A celebrity portrait photographer is too beholden to luck and access to make bets on the future status of the people who get put in front of their camera – if they’re fortunate enough to get the work.

I could not, for instance, have predicted how much longevity my portraits of Fela Kuti would have. On the other hand, Rudolf Nureyev was an enormous star when I photographed him nearly thirty years ago; today he’s only a celebrity in the memories of people who were alive when he still danced. I would never have predicted that Cate Blanchett or Mark Ruffalo would have become the big stars they are today when I photographed them ten or twenty years ago. So here are a few more shots of Daniel Doheny, who seems to have had a nice launch at the start of what might be a fine career, for the fans who could make the young man a star one day.

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Sondra Locke

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Sonda Locke, Toronto, May 1990

I PHOTOGRAPHED SONDRA LOCKE NEARLY TWENTY-NINE YEARS AGO, WHEN SHE WAS IN TOWN PROMOTING HER SECOND MOVIE AS A DIRECTOR. It was early in my time at NOW magazine, and I was still amazed that I’d get called to shoot actual movie stars. I had only the vaguest idea that she’d just undergone a vicious divorce from Clint Eastwood, or that she was battling cancer, when I took these shots. As I wrote when I posted photos from this shoot on my old blog, over four years ago:

Locke was tiny, with translucent skin and what my youngest daughter calls “manga eyes.” Born in the south, she made every male around her default to a courtly version of themselves, keeping their voice down, their manners in check, and their eagerness to see that she was comfortable at the foremost.

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The day after I photographed her, I ran into Locke at the airport, on her own, and sensing that she might need a bit of assistance, helped her with her luggage.

Locke would direct two more films, but the actress who got an Oscar nomination for her first film role in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter would only appear onscreen three more times after I took these photos. The cancer that she was battling when I took these photos ultimately didn’t go away, and she died earlier this month, aged 74.

 

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Bjarke Ingels

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EVERY NEW PORTRAIT SHOOT FOR ME THESE DAYS IS A GIFT. This quick session with Danish architect Bjarke Ingels came about with a pair of writing assignments – Engels was in town on a promotional blitz for his first project here, and I was assigned to cover a public appearance and do an interview.

I began my professional career as a writer; photography came along just after, and for the subsequent three-plus decades I’ve seesawed back and forth between the two – the only time I’ve spent a sustained period doing nothing but photography was about five years in the early ’90s. I can’t complain about having two possible income streams in an ever more precarious business, but it became obvious years ago that having to divide my energies while producing writing and photos usually means that the photos suffer.

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Ingels is a fascinating guy – a “starchitect” (he told me that he hates the word, as do most other architects) who seems committed to making buildings that are both striking and livable at a time when decades of modern architecture have convinced the public that they’ve rarely been given both at the same time. The development he’s designed for Toronto is certainly audacious – the fact that KING Toronto looks like nothing else that’s been built here has been pointed out by both its fans and detractors – and he’s passionate about explaining and defending his work.

I would have liked to set up my studio in a bag for this shoot, but the interview had precedence so there wasn’t time for that sort of fussiness. I found a half-decent background but it would have been better to have the light coming from behind me and not over my left shoulder. I got along perfectly well with my subject, but as ever just a minute or two extra to work would have been appreciated. In any case the client apparently preferred to go with their own photos, so here they are.

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Remembrance Day

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Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Nov. 11, 2018

THE CEMETERY BEHIND OUR HOUSE has held a dawn Remembrance Day ceremony at the Lutyens cenotaph for nearly a century. We try to make it there if we can every year. It seemed particularly imperative this weekend, with the centenary of the end of World War One. There are no more veterans of that war, and veterans of the one that followed seem fewer every year.

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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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Rochester NY

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On the Erie Canal, July 2018

I LOVE TO TRAVEL. It was a revelation to learn that I could travel and take pictures and sometimes even get paid to do it. After my gig doing travel writing for the Toronto Star ended last year I went into withdrawal for a few months before biting the bullet and starting my own travel photography blog. There might not be money in it, but it gets me back out on the road with my cameras, and that’s really the point.

My first trip for the blog was a pilgrimage to Rochester, New York; it seemed like a suitable destination to start with for a travel photo blog, and for a Kodak kid like myself, it was even more perfect. Everyone at the city’s tourism bureau were helpful and enthusiastic and I came back with three stories for the blog.

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George Eastman’s wisteria, George Eastman Museum, Rochester, July 2018

But I’m always shooting when I’m on a trip, and there are always leftover shots that don’t quite fit with the stories I produce. If I’m honest, these leftovers – “my own arty weird shit” as I used to call them when talking to my editor at the Star – are the reason I got into travel journalism. I could try and make these images without leaving Toronto, I suppose, but potentially having access to anywhere in the world to make them just increases the number of potential targets, so to speak.

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High Falls at sunset, Rochester NY, July 2018
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Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester NY, July 2018

It’s a travel photographer’s prerogative to ask if you can pull the car or bus over on your way between destinations to get a shot, and I’ve had to learn to find the best way to do that, whether I’m alone or on a group travel junket. Because there’s always something catching your eye, and I don’t know a photographer who doesn’t die a little when a potential shot recedes in the rear view mirror, unphotographed.

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Outside Scottsville NY, July 2018
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Pittsford NY, July 2018
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Pittsford NY, July 2018

Travel photography is a recent addition to my portfolio, but I am always – and will probably always be – a portraitist. Opportunities to do portraits don’t always present themselves on trips, but when they do you have to grab them, as I did at the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford NY. (A great family destination, by the way, if you’re in the area.)

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Blacksmith, Genesee Country Village & Museum, July 2018
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Brewer, Genesee Country Village & Museum, July 2018
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Cobbler, Genesee Country Village & Museum, July 2018
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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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