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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Behind the scenes in Atlantic City

Steel Pier, Atlantic City, NJ, Oct. 2019

SOME PEOPLE TRAVEL TO RELAX. That’s something I’d love to do one day, but at the moment traveling is an exercise in constant motion and military-style logistics. Take my recent trip to Atlantic City – I won a two-night stay at Resorts AC at a travel press event, which I decided to turn into some stories for my travel photography blog.

When it became obvious that there was no direct flight from Toronto to Atlantic City, it was time to get serious with my timetable. The best option was a Porter flight that took me from Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island to Philadelphia – via Boston. From there I had to get a SEPTA train to 30th Street Station in downtown Philly, and on to a New Jersey Rail train to Atlantic City. All told about twelve solid hours of traveling, which had to be meticulously plotted in my notebook, alongside weather, sunrise and sunset times and lists of potential subjects to be shot when I finally got there.

The trip got off to a promising start while waiting for the train to Atlantic City in Philadelphia. I was sitting on a bench in the very lovely art deco 30th Street Station when I noticed a man sitting across from me, looking up and down as he drew in a notebook. He told me to look up and we made a joke about smiling before he came across and sat next to me, introducing himself as Irving Fields.

Irving Fields, artist, 30th Street Station, Philadelphia PA, Oct. 2019

He was an artist, formerly homeless, with quite a story – only one part of which was losing his leg after being hit by a car. After he showed me his work, I said that it was only fair that I take a portrait of him in exchange. I looked around the vast hall and spotted the rows of columns on either end of the room, where I asked him to pose. He took to being a subject quite enthusiastically, and I thought to myself that the trip was getting off to a good start with a portrait before I even arrived at my destination.

Portrait of the photographer by Irving Fields, Oct. 2019

My main subject for the trip was the Boardwalk and the Steel Pier – two icons of Atlantic City that any traveler would feel obliged to capture with their camera. I put quite a lot of effort into taking shots of them both, and the Steel Pier in particular, which I made sure I caught at both sunset and sunrise while I was there.

Steel Pier, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019

I was in Atlantic City just after the season ended, so despite the summer-like weather on the only full day I had for shooting, I was dealing with a much emptier town than I would have just a few weeks earlier. Which was fine by me – there’s something poignant about a seaside town off-season, not to mention the convenience of being able to capture unpeopled views.

Boardwalk, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019

At the top of my Boardwalk destinations was Boardwalk Hall and its pipe organ – the largest in the world. Shooting in among the pipes in the rafters of the building I was glad I’d brought along my new fisheye lens, which I hit pretty hard while I was there. But I was also lucky enough to get another quick portrait during my tour, of Chuck Gibson, Professional assistant to the Boardwalk Hall organ’s curator, one of several people tasked with the non-stop maintenance of the instrument.

Pipe organ keyboard, Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019
Chuck Gibson, pipe organ technician, Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019

I also made my way out to Margate to photograph Lucy the Elephant, America’s oldest roadside attraction and an artifact of Atlantic City’s early history. Unfortunately my time in Margate was brief, but this district of lovely big beach houses, empty of the summer people and vacation renters who’d filled them until just a few weeks previous fascinated me. If I ever get back to Atlantic City, it’s an area I’d love to explore a bit more.

Lucy the Elephant, Margate NJ, Oct. 2019
Margate NJ, Oct. 2019

I walked up and down the Boardwalk looking for shots, but my eye kept getting drawn to the streets parallel to the wooden promenade – streets named after states that cut across avenues like Baltic, Pacific and Oriental, made famous by the Monopoly board game. This ended up drawing me away from the casino hotels and the beach into the Atlantic City that people call home.

Off the Boardwalk, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019

This led to my third portrait session of the trip, with Robert Ruffolo, proprietor of Princeton Antiques, a bookshop that specializes in the history of Atlantic City. He told me about buying and collecting photos taken by generations of photographers who made documenting Boardwalk tourists and Atlantic City nightlife and events their business.

Robert Ruffolo Jr., antiquarian bookseller, Princeton Antiques, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019

I find places like Atlantic City fascinating – towns with unique origins and unprecedented histories. There’s the town for visitors and the town for locals, with changes of fortune up and down the decades, peopled with colorful characters. I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of those characters whenever I passed the empty shell of Trump Plaza, one of three properties that made up Donald Trump’s real estate empire at different times. The massive gilded Trump escutcheon still looms over the parking lots at the back of the Plaza, the “T” conspicuously missing. It’s tempting to snicker at this monument to failure, but as I keep pointing out to people prone to this sort of thing, he did move on to an even higher profile gig.

Former Trump Plaza, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2016
House face, Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019
Atlantic City NJ, Oct. 2019

As much as I love the challenge of taking iconic travel photos for my other blog, I truly love making photos like these along the way, while I wander from sunrise to sunset. These are the kinds of photos that made me love traveling – the sort of thing I’d shoot at home, no doubt, but with the benefit and inspiration of being taken in places utterly unlike my hometown – places like Atlantic City, which I’d travel back to in a heartbeat.

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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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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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Fela for Carhartt

Fela Kuti, Toronto, 1989

I HAD NO PLACE TO PUBLISH MY PORTRAITS OF FELA KUTI when I took them in 1989. Thirty years later, those photos are probably the most profitable negatives I’ve ever made. Posting them on my blog nearly thirty years after they were taken gave them a life they’d never had, starting with when Rikki Stein, Fela’s manager, saw them and contacted me about putting them in a box set of Fela LP reissues.

I’ve written about how they’ve ended up in the world since then – on posters for an L.A. band and on the set of a nightclub on the reboot of Dynasty. And whatever monetary reward I’ve gotten for the photos has actually been overshadowed by seeing my images become part of the iconography of an artist as important as Fela.

The ongoing Fela saga got another chapter recently when Rikki contacted me again, to say that Carhartt WIP, the workwear and street wear clothing label, was doing a line of Fela merchandise and wanted to use my photos. I’ve been a Carhartt wearer for years, so it was a thrill when Philipp Maiburg of Carhartt WIP emailed me to order some images and firm up the deal – my first ever licensing deal with a clothing company.

My shot of Fela exhaling a cloud of pot smoke ended up on a few t-shirts, and a concert photo made it to a long-sleeved shirt that (unfortunately) didn’t end up in the package I got sent a few months ago. (Though you still have my address, right Philipp? I’m still an XL.)

Finally, the image at the top of this post remains my favorite one from the Fela shoot, though nobody has seen fit to use it yet for some reason. So I’m putting this new and improved scan out in the world in the hope of finding some takers.

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Oh Susanna: Johnstown revisited

I LIKE TO REVISIT MY OLD WORK. This shouldn’t be a shock coming from someone who spent over four years digging through their archives and posting what they found. So when Suzie Ungerleider (aka Oh Susanna) emailed me about revisiting the shoot we did for her Johnstown record over twenty years ago, I thought it was a great idea.

The easiest part of the challenge was finding the locations where we shot in Liberty Village, a now-gentrified neighbourhood in west end Toronto. Slightly harder was recreating the portraits we took just beforehand, in my Parkdale studio. The studio is long gone – we had to move out a few months after my shoot with Suzie – and I haven’t done a lot of studio work since then. I don’t even own the stool that Suzie sat on any more, which meant a quick trip to Ikea to pick up a new one.

Suzie with Stupid Cat in the “studio,” July 2019

By the end of my time in my studio I’d started using a deceptively simple lighting setup that involved most if not all of my strobe heads clustered around my camera to create a focused light on the subject. After years of trying to mimic natural light or recreate old glamour lighting, I’d become attracted to a lighting scheme that looked basic but actually required a lot of tinkering.

What the photographer looks like.

I still have the strobes and the light stands I used on Suzie’s 1998 shoot, either stored in the loft in the garage or down in the basement, but I’ve moved away from strobes to continuous light since I returned to shooting. Ultimately I rented a pair of Westcott Ice Lights, my favorite portable light source, and set them up to bracket my Fuji X-T2 top and bottom – an even more pared-down lighting scheme than the one I used twenty-one years ago.

Getting Suzie to mirror her poses from two decades ago became a challenge when you consider how hard it is for someone to inhabit the same physical and mental space they occupied at a specific point in their past. We couldn’t help but talk about this – when my stupid cat wasn’t trying to distract us. We’d had an email exchange earlier in the week about Suzie wearing clothes that approximated what she brought to the shoot in 1998, but it occurred to me that a lot of time has passed, so I told her to wear what she’d bring to a photo shoot today.

I already knew that the loading dock behind the “Castle building” in Liberty Village (originally the offices and factory of the E.W. Gillett Baking Powder company) wasn’t there any more – demolished when it was renovated from raw lofts back into offices again. But finding the spot where we took the shot was easy enough. It’s become a bit tiresome to hear people complain about how the decrepit or abandoned parts of their cities have disappeared with gentrification, but it’s not hard to compare these two shots and feel nostalgic for all that picturesque ruin, even if it didn’t generate much economically.

I left the last two locations for last, knowing that the light was nowhere like it was on that November day in 1998. The courtyard doorway into the Gillett building was both in bright sunlight when we arrived there and changed in a few unfortunate ways. I took the liberty (no pun intended) of removing the sign on the archway above Suzie’s head, but I had to alter the composition of the shot thanks to the Porta Potty just out of the right side of the frame.

We’d also shot in the hallways of the Gillett building – Suzie’s home for a couple of months when she moved to Toronto – but I knew that the security system and key cards meant we wouldn’t get access to the interiors today, so we headed to the final location, near the corner of Dufferin and Fraser. We were, once again, in bright sunlight and not flattering overcast, but at least one of the bricked up window bays in the wall where we shot wasn’t tagged with graffiti.

It was a great idea, a fascinating exercise – both technically and as an examination on the passage of time. Suzie, of course, gets to see how she’s changed in two decades, and I got to revisit the way I framed and lit and handled a subject all those years ago. A lot of time has passed, but my working methods didn’t feel too alien. Most of all I learned how much I miss having a studio space. Maybe one day I’ll have one to go with my new stool.

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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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Daniel Doheny

daniel.doheny.2017_03
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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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.

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.

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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