THE PHOTOGRAPHER ARRIVES the next morning, and I pull
on my jacket and meet him at the door downstairs. He seems surprised that
I assume we'll be shooting outside, and asks to take a look at the apartment
for a location. Just at this moment K. comes back from the Goth coffee
shop around the corner and offers him her latte. He declines, and we make
our way upstairs.
He looks around the living room with the tight-lips-and-darting-eyes
expression I know all too well from my own, often desperate searches for
a suitable background for a shot. I notice that he has a couple of the
really nice Nikon digital 35mm cameras around his neck, the kind that actually
work, as opposed to the piece of crap I had to use a couple of months ago
at the film festival.
He fixates on the glass-paned door leading out to the
"mini-deck" outside the living room, and slips outside to check it out,
switching from one chunky, barrel-lensed camera to another. He asks me
to stand as close to the glass as possible, looking out past him at the
overcast sky and the roofs of our neighbours across the street. He shifts
up and down, carefully placing his feet amongs the pots we moved out to
the mini-deck last month when the landlord demolished the deck upstairs
to fix a leaky roof.
Doing portraits with a 35mm camera is a tricky business
-- the compact size of the camera and seamless interface of the optics
with your eye make for a finicky process of composition, especially when
you're doing a close-up. You pivot the camera lens around, shift your shoulders
and go up and down on the balls of your feet, bending your knees and shuffling
from side to side. It's a faintly comic little dance, by no means conducive
to making a nervous subject more relaxed.
I've been on his end so many times that I'm happy to stand
there, the breath from my nose fogging up the glass as he snaps a couple
of test shots and checks the exposure in the little LCD screen on his camera.
He takes a couple of minutes to get something he seems to like, and shows
one of the shots to me when we crawl back into the living room.
It's a moody portrait, all right, with me looking out
the window and into the distance, my eyes and nose just peering over a
reflection of the bare trees and rooftops. It would be a lovely shot if
I wasn't in it.
I have a joke with K. -- the "potato headed Canadian".
It's based on an observation I made a few years ago that Canadian men,
by and large, share a basic physical type, one that asserts itself more
and more with age, and with each generation, regardless of your original
ethnicity. Stocky and big-boned, a bit barrel-chested, with a face based
on a broad, fleshy, jowly oval.
It's a face you see in our major rock bands -- The Barenaked
Ladies, Tragically Hip, Guess Who, Alex Lifeson from Rush -- and in the
casting choices of our beer commercials and domestic television programs.
It's a face you see in portraits of voyageurs and fur trappers and loggers
and doughboys. It seemed to recede a bit during the Depression, but only
because everyone had that gaunt, haunted look then. It re-appeared after
the war and finds its penultimate shape in the face of the Canadian archetype:
The Hockey Player.
I have that face -- with the little, brushy goatee and
round glasses of the intellectual-guy, but I have it. Clean-shaven, it's
a little on the lumpy-potato side, and in the little LCD screen of the
camera, it was large as life. I suggest that we head off, down to the lakeshore
In the car, I try to explain that I'm not sure I have
the right face for the "moody/poetic/reflective" kind of thing I saw in
his camera, that I try to have my pictures taken where there will be a
little bit of context to distract from it, or at least in a situation where
my mug isn't in big, bruising close-up.
Down at the old bathing pavillion, we wander around looking
for a nice spot. I try not to be a pain, another photographer making suggestions.
I promised myself to be patient, compliant, to make this job as easy for
him as possible. Finally, he settles on the old, drained fountain in the
courtyard of the pavillion. I sit on the edge with my legs in side, where
the water would be, and he shoots from across the still-filled little birdbath
in the middle of the fountain. I expect there'll be some kind of reflection
of the sky, or my face, in the stagnant, greenish water, but as long as
I don't take up most of the frame, I imagine it'll be survivable.
He asks me to look up, over his shoulder, away into the
near distance. I comply, trying to put some kind of thoughtfulness, some
"presence" in my eyes. It's a bit chilly today, the sky overcast, and I
slowly look around the pavillion as he clicks away. I see a few nice photos
myselt -- a stacked wall of empty wire garbage bins in front of some weathered
stucco, the arches of the pavillion with their wrought-iron gates, the
boardwalk, beach, water and breakwall behind, drawing together in the horizon
of the lake. I imagine how I would have shot this assignment. It occurs
to me how little portrait work I've done in the last year or so. A sobering
And we're done. He packs up his bag and we make small
talk about people at the other national daily as he drives me home. I tell
him the story of how I called an art director at the paper a "rude fucking
hag" on the phone once. He laughs uproariously -- the woman is universally
hated by all the photographers at the other national daily.
"Did you really say that?" he asks, through guffaws. Sure
I did -- and I never got another job from them again.