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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Jane Bunnett in the ’90s

Jane Bunnett, outtake from The Water is Wide CD cover, 1993
Jane Bunnett in my Parkdale studio, 1993

AFTER A BREAK OF OVER TWENTY YEARS, I shot an album cover for my old friend Jane Bunnett the other day. I’ve written about collaborating with Jane on my old blog, but I put that project to bed before I got around to writing about the records I worked on after New York Duets, Live at Sweet Basil and Spirits of Havana. I honestly meant to talk about the albums covers we made in the mid-’90s, but those posts got lost in the rush to bring Some Old Pictures to a close, so now seemed like a good time to revisit that work.

Spirits of Havana did great things for Jane’s profile, so she and her husband and trumpeter Larry Cramer decided to charge ahead with a sort of all-star record featuring musicians she’d worked with before – pianist Don Pullen, drummer Billy Hart and bassist Kieran Overs – and two singers, Sheila Jordan and Jeanne Lee. It was a challenge musically since Jane’s main instruments, the soprano sax and flute, both reside almost exactly in the same register as the human voice, so she’d have to share a lot of harmonic space with these two legendary jazz singers.

Jeanne Lee, Harbourfront, Toronto, 1993
Billy Hart, Harbourfront, Toronto, 1993
Sheila Jordan, Reaction Studios, Toronto, 1993
Don Pullen, Reaction Studios, Toronto, 1993
Sheila Jordan & Jeanne Lee, Reaction Studios, Toronto, 1993
Jane Bunnett, Reaction Studios, Toronto, 1993

I ended up spending a couple of days documenting the recording and a gig with the band at Harbourfront. By now I’d spent a few years in Jane’s orbit, and her regular collaborators were used to seeing me around with my camera; Don Pullen, always wary with photographers, especially when he was playing live, had become something of a friend. It would be a few years before I became obsessed with jazz singers, but I was thrilled to be in the studio with Sheila Jordan and Jeanne Lee. Lee’s stark, beautiful early ’60s recordings with pianist Ran Blake were a particular favorite of mine back then.

The Denon Canada cover of The Water Is Wide is still probably my favorite cover of all the ones I did for Jane. I had just taken over my whole studio in Parkdale and finally had a space dedicated just to shooting, so I put some thought and effort into it; with just the title of the record to work on, I spent a night painting a white seamless backdrop with a rough, near-abstract expressionist image of a river meant to curve up and around Jane’s head. (Ever the thrifty Scot, I used leftover paint from two different shades of blue sitting around from painting my living room.) I was – still am, probably – in love with the look of jazz records from the ’50s and early ’60s on labels like Contemporary, World Pacific, Riverside, Prestige and Blue Note. I tried to duplicate the feel and visual vocabulary of those records for the cover image.

The Water is Wide actually has the distinction of being both my favorite and most disliked cover for Jane, mostly because of a photo I took that was intended for the back, or inside the CD booklet. I’d set up a shot with Jane and her instruments and sheet music in a corner of my studio after we’d finished with the cover shot, and while I was shooting my little cat Nato – a diva who loved walking into photo shoots – paid Jane a visit.

We thought it was cute, but at the insistence of the label boss a rather garish variation of the original image ended up on the Evidence Records version of the album in America. I have always hated this cover, which is about a thousand miles from the look I worked so hard to achieve for the Denon release.

My love affair with the look of old jazz album covers was still in full force two years later when Jane asked me to shoot the cover of a record she was making with Frank Emilio Flynn and José Maria Vitier. This time around my inspiration was more specific – Irving Penn (of course) and some other studio portraits of jazz musicians from the ’50s and early ’60s, especially Donald Silverstein’s iconic shot of pianist Bill Evans from the cover of his legendary Sunday at the Village Vanguard album.

I wanted to do something elegant and minimal, so I used a tabletop I’d made from some weathered barn boards and put a lot of work into lighting Jane as if she and her horn were a still life. The period homage was particularly appropriate for this record, which was being released on the recently-revived World Pacific label.

Jane Bunnett in my Parkdale studio, Toronto, 1995

I was very pleased with the results, and with the restrained layout of the World Pacific cover. Today, it reminds me of the happiest period in my Parkdale studio, when I still felt challenged and the prospect of an ongoing career as a studio portrait photographer still seemed viable.

Today, it would be foolhardy to think too much about my photography in the context of what I once understood to be a “career,” but the sense of challenge has gratefully returned, and the album cover I’m working on for Jane right now is a considerable technical and creative challenge. But more about that later.

Don Pullen died in Los Angeles, California on April 22, 1995.

Jeanne Lee died in Tijuana, Mexico on October 25, 2000.

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Butthole Surfers coffee table book

Gibby Haynes, Butthole Surfers, Toronto, Dec. 8 1987

FIRST OF ALL I’M AMAZED THIS THING EVEN EXISTS. If you’d walked up to me while I was packing up after shooting portraits of the Butthole Surfers after their soundcheck at the RPM Club in 1987 and said “Hey man – you should take care of those shots. They’ll be useful in about thirty years or so. Probably end up in a big old coffee table book,” I’d probably have said you were out of your mind.

“I mean, have you seen these guys? Have you heard their records?”

Well hey, time traveler, you were right, and here’s the proof:

When I posted photos from my Butthole Surfers portrait session on my old blog, they ended up catching the attention of Jeffrey “King” Coffey, one of the band’s drummers. He linked to them on Facebook and said nice things about being organized enough to save my work and get it out into the digital ecosystem. I was flattered but I thought that would be about it.

Butthole Surfers live, RPM, Toronto, Dec. 8 1987

About a year ago I got a call from Aaron Tanner of Melodic Virtue, a publisher that specializes in books about music. He said they were doing a book about the Buttholes and asked if I’d like to contribute. I did, and the result arrived in the mail yesterday. It’s called Butthole Surfers: What Does Regret Mean? and you can buy it here.

I’m pretty proud of this, and still more than a bit amazed that I’m in my mid-50s and I own a Butthole Surfers coffee table book with my photos in it. Going through the book, my sequence of portraits are the first really clear, straightforward pictures of the band that appear in the book’s chronology.

I suppose I could have tried to do something nuts that reflected the band’s weird, dangerous, psychedelic image but my lack of technical skill and whatever nascent aesthetic I was developing made me go as straight as possible with Gibby, Paul and the rest of the band. As subjects, they were like herding proverbial cats, but Coffey did mention later that they were probably tripping balls.

I was always pretty happy with the portrait of Gibby at the top of this post – it worked for me thanks to some “old masters” style lighting that I discovered by accident, after having to come up with a hasty setup to take individual shots of the band in a corner of the club. I’d spend another year trying to duplicate it, but this particular shot of Gibby gets better every time I print it.

I was never satisfied with my live shots from the show that night. I didn’t have a hope in hell of capturing the more than vaguely sinister chaos in a Buttholes live show, so I never really bothered doing anything with the negatives – until this week.

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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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