the diary thing 
IMAGINE THAT THE MAJORITY of Canadian citizens supported a Quebecois terrorist organization called, say, the FLQ, despite their government's attempts to distance themselves from the terrorists. Imagine that the FLQ helped get that government elected, and that the FLQ continued to bomb shopping malls and attack innocent civilians in an adjacent country with which Canada is inextricably linked. 

Now imagine that the adjacent country -- let's say the United States -- was constantly attacking Canada, taking away chunks of territory, and assassinating Canadian citizens who may or may not be FLQ, mostly because the FLQ kept attacking them despite assurances from the Canadian government that the FLQ can be controlled. 

Imagine that Canada has been reduced to a strip of territory barely containing Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton, and the bleak, northern stretches of the central provinces, with a scant bit of shoreline on the Pacific just north of the Queen Charlotte Straits. The heart of the country, from Halifax through the St. Lawrence, and including Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary and Vancouver, is under American military control, and Canadian citizens are routinely evicted from their homes by U.S. settlers. Ottawa is a city divided; while the Canadian government can still use Parliament Hill, the rest of the city is under American control, and most Canadians live across the river in Hull.

Newfoundland was lost in a Six Day war almost thirty years ago, where the U.S. was attacked by Mexico, Japan, Iceland and Cuba, and has been garrisoned with immense U.S. military installations. The FLQ is being openly funded by governments in Algeria, Morrocco and Vietnam, privately by French citizens; the French government has, up until recently, refused to arrest or even discourage their FLQ supporters.

And imagine that the most developed, wealthy part of the world -- let's say Western Europe -- supports the U.S., despite their clear breaches of civil rights in what's basically a protracted, undeclared war with Canada. Imagine the position the Canadian prime minister (let's call him, say, Jacques Parizeau) would be in after yet another attack by the FLQ -- a bomb in SoHo and a suicide attack in Times Square -- at a time when terrorist groups vaguely linked with the FLQ had just flown highjacked airliners into Canary Wharf and the Eiffel Tower, prompting Western Europe to go to war with, say, Haiti. 

As I write this, U.S. helicopters are firing rockets at targets mere yards from Parliament Hill. The Chateau Laurier is on fire, and the National Gallery is in ruins. Prime Minister Parizeau has had to return home early from a visit with U.S. President Oliver North.

Most people claim they can't understand the awful mess that is the Middle East. Perhaps this little exercise, preposterous as it seems, will help put it into perspective. There's only one lesson to be learned -- you wouldn't want to be Yasser Arafat right about now. There's perhaps another: the war in Afghanistan was a sideshow. The real problem is the Middle East, Palestine particularly. We can go after Islamists in the Phillipines or Africa or in our own immigrant communities and take the sideshow even further from the main action, but the problem remains where it has always resided -- in that part of the Globe where the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran are set. The primal landscape of our civilization, more vital now than ever before.

DOES ANYONE READING THIS live in or near the Dallas/Fort Worth area? Starting on December 1st, the Barry Whistler Gallery on Canton Street in Dallas is having an exhibition of music photography called "Let's Rock". The organizer of the show, Allison, asked me to contribute some work after reading this online rant I wrote about shooting rock shows. I'd love it if someone could check the show out, and let me know what they thought. 


"Listen! There never was an artistic period. There never was an art-loving nation."
- James MacNeil Whistler

Recently, Quebec premiere Bernard Landry gave a rambling speech in which he made vague comparisons between separatists like himself in Quebec, and the war with Islamic terrorist groups. He made no explicit connections, but Parti Quebecois leaders have a history of exploiting the rhetoric of current struggles -- during the last referendum, PQ leader Jacques Parizeau was fond of comparing Quebecois to Bosnians being oppressed by Serbs -- to publicize their own situation. (Never mind that the comparison was odious and fantastical or that, upon losing the referendum, Parizeau blamed Jews and "the ethnic vote" in Quebec.) In the spirit of Landry's speech, I offer the scenario at beginning of this entry.

(By the way -- for non-Canadian readers, the FLQ is the "Front Liberation du Quebec", a now-defunct terrorist organization that once made Canada invoke wartime curfews and powers of arrest without warrants when they kidnapped James Cross, a British diplomat, and kidnapped and killed a Quebec cabinet minister in October of 1970. Back in the heyday of domestic terrorism in the west, they were our own Red Brigade or Baader Meinhof. It's still a livid scar on the nation's psyche. The terrorists are mostly still alive, and living in Quebec, after serving relatively brief jail terms. Only in Canada.)

...plus some babble about photography.
The scans on the right don't nearly do justice to the prints I sent to Dallas. The one on the bottom probably reads like a muddy blotch on most computer screens. I could have made huge, 6" by 6" jpegs that would have loaded like frozen mud and hogged server space but I just can't be bothered. Imagine that the perimeter of these images are full of thick grain that looks like brush strokes. Imagine a rich range of grays, toned a vintage brown. Oh hell, just go to Dallas this month.

THE SHOW IS APPARENTLY full of work by well-known photographers like Jim Marshall (he of the famous Jimi-Hendrix-setting-his-guitar-on-fire at Monterey Pop photo, and more), and images of people like the Beatles, Dylan, Stones, Elvis, KISS, the Who, as well as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett and Dolly Parton. (I did say the show was happening in Texas, didn't I?) My two framed shots are in undeniably good company. I have plenty of file photos of rock stars, including portraits of John Cale, Tony Bennett, Jewel, Tori Amos, Alice Cooper, Metallica, Patti Smith, Björk, etc. I could have sent any of those.

But I would have felt like a dork.

I'm not saying that the photographers who sent in shot of big stars are dorks. Far from it -- most of the subjects are icons, symbols of moments in a shared cultural history, and some of the images are icons all by themselves. I haven't shot anything near that important -- most of my music work was done for magazines, basically just illustrative space-filler for middling profiles (sometimes written by me) -- little more than a disposable marketing tool. I have more passion invested in the last batch of chicken stock I made than in any of these photos.

Never mind that spending most of my twenties (and part of my thirties) working as a rock (and jazz) critic, pretty much drained my once red-hot enthusiasm for music. I won't go into the decade I spent shooting live music on assignment -- that's pretty much covered in my online rant. And it's not that I don't value my work as a photographer -- I'm inordinately fond of a good chunk of my work. It's just that little of it involves portraits of famous people, or even involves any people at all.

I hate celebrity. I guess it just comes down to that. Like anyone who grew up in a culture that worships celebrity -- the temporary, secular deities that we adore and then abandon with little regret, then rediscover and venerate with cultlike fervor -- I once defined myself in relation to the famous, and described myself as a "celebrity portraitist". It was what I did -- shooting the famous, nearly famous, or almost famous for whomever paid me, or even on my own dollar, if I could get "access" to one of my own deities. Tony Bennett was one of those, and Cale. Frank Sinatra was always on my list, but the one time I tried to shoot him, live, from the back of the Skydome, my rented camera malfunctioned. I took it as a sign.

It didn't take long for the sense of awe to wear away. One too many obstructive, starfucking publicists, perhaps, or the slow realization that most of the people I was shooting were pretty ordinary, some of them even quite repellent. But that isn't the whole story.

I was becoming more sure of myself, and my own talents. I realized that I had as much to say as anyone I was shooting -- more, in most cases -- and that my own vision of the world was unique and attractive, without the enhancement of a famous subject. I started shooting still-lifes, and landscapes, and realized that portraits I took of friends and strangers could be as attractive as any celebrity work I did. I started to doubt the relevance of celebrity, or its importance in my own life. 

Most importantly, I stopped wanting to be a celebrity myself. 

So I started writing an online diary.

And yes, I know that sounds like a contradiction.

Basically, I think that either all of us are celebrities, or none of us are. Take that to mean anything you want.

SO WHEN ALLISON asked me to send along a couple of photos for the show, I thought about it for a minute and decided to pull out some negatives I'd shot almost a decade ago, when I was getting sick of shooting live rock, but still hanging out in "the scene".

I was friends with a local group who named themselves after a Japanese kiddie-porn mag. They played a kind of industrial metal, and had a great image, all leather and hair and tattoos. Onstage, they weren't afraid of looking like gits, striking big, heroic rock god poses and making each show a big production, complete with their own lighting technician and smoke machines. In a city where the local scene could be almost precious in their disdain of charisma or showmanship, they were a breath of fresh air.

We made a deal: I would become their photographer, with full access to their shows -- no great sacrifice for a band playing club shows to a hundred people at most -- and they'd get use of what I shot. No money changed hands, and the deal was that they couldn't tell me what to do; I was free to do what I wanted. I would be in charge of their image. All told, I think they got the better part of the deal.

I decided that the most creative thing I could do with live music photography would be to go against the conventional wisdom. Where it was considered necessary to use fast film and shutter speeds and long lenses on 35mm cameras, I would use slow film and long shutter speeds and portrait cameras like my Rolleiflex, with its fixed lens. I could never have done this work in the pit at a big stadium show, yards away from the subject, staring up their nostrils past looming stage monitors. 

I loved the results. At the time, I was getting into the painterly, soft-focus, turn-of-the-century "pictorialist" photography, and the work of "photo-secessionists" like Alfred Stieglitz, early Edward Steichen, and their more obscure contemporaries, like Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertrude Kasebier and Clarence White. With the aid of soft filters and tissue paper, in addition to the band's strobe lights and smoke machine, I made these swirling, dense shots of hair and guitars and over-the-top rock warrior poses. It was real "Hammer of the Gods" stuff and both the band and I loved the results. I took my work with me to different art directors, here and in New York, at magazines and record companies.

To massive, thundering indifference. No one, it seemed, was much interested in what I considered my best work at the time. It was a real blow. Not long after, the band sold their name to another Canadian band, a dull alt-rock outfit from out west who'd gotten a record deal, and who probably didn't know where my friends got their name from. They disappeared after two albums -- typical for Canadian bands on major labels.

My friends changed their name to "Love Bomber", used the money from the sale of their name to buy new gear and pay for a demo, went techno then quietly broke up. I still see them on the street from time to time. We don't have much to say.

I put the photos away in a box, pulling them out only to show other photographers, until Allison e-mailed me a week or two before I got married. It was nice to go down into the darkroom and work on the shots, using all of the skill I'd learned in the intervening decade. I was proud of the results, and sent then along to Texas with pride. 

Nobody will buy them, I'm sure, even at the low, low price of US$400, framed. After all, who in the hell is Pure, and why would anyone buy a photo of a band that they've never heard of? I'd like to think that someone will appreciate the photos for their sense of mystery, that gauzy mock-threat I spent so much time trying to enhance, and which seems part of the appeal of rock and roll to me. But I'm probably wrong, and in about a month or so I'll probably have another couple of pictures to hang on my wall, ready to join the other unsold work I've sent out into the world over the years.

At least I like it.

photos and writing 
©2001 Rick McGinnis
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