Waltzing In With Style
Saturday, May 12, 2007
In July 1987 writer John Lekich wrote in Western Living:
While I've never felt the slightest desire to own a bar, I've always longed for a bar to call my own. This distinction is based on the premise that even saloon keepers in the most enviable situations - say Humphrey Bogart toasting a misty-eyed Ingrid Bergman at Rick's Café Américanin - end up checking the glasses for spots. Patrons, on the other hand, have a different obligation. If you're a patron, all you have to do is waltz into your establishment of choice, slide into a reserved booth and bark,"I'll have the usual, Al." (All bartenders should be named Al.) If you're a regular, you won't ever have to worry about Al sucking in his paunch and pulling out a Louisville Slugger.
Not long after this article appeared I remember looking at myself in a mirror while adjusting my bow tie. I was wearing a light blue Brooks Brother's button down shirt. Something looked odd. So I called John. His advice was short, "Don't."
In an age where anything goes (try opening night at the Vancouver Opera) I find comfort in knowing that a few people keep up with standards even if Barron Lee and his establishment of proper dress are gone.
In my profession of photography not too many people care how I dress as long as I can provide an image with a proper exposure. This means that I buy two pair of blue jeans and two black at Mark's Work Warehouse every couple of years. A few of their mock neck blue or black cotton shirts and boxer shorts at Simpson Sears complete my fashion needs. I wear my one suit to the opera until (inevitably) it's small and that's when I make a visit to the Bay.
But I must admit that my sense of fashion isn't all dead. When I take Rebecca to dance or a concert I ask her mother, "Make sure she is dressed to the teeth." I would have never suspected that as an adult man dressing up a doll I would find it as satisfying as knowing you never wear bow ties with a button down shirt. I am sure that Lekich would understand.
Friday, May 11, 2007
When I woke up today I remembered that May is the best month in the garden. This is the time when my hostas grow many inches overnight. You can see the change from one day to the next. The slugs and other pests have yet to do their damage and the plants look fresh, green and luscious. I also remembered that after months of nagging by my full-time-term students at Focal Point I am giving them what they wanted. This means that aroun 18 of them will feast their eyes (or will they do this in the sly?) on our two models (one male, one female) as we proceed with the nude portrait (that's what I call the course)class today for three hours. For many it will be a right of passage as they have not photographed nudes before. Even though I have done this for many years, the prospect of having a couple of brand new models for me is always like an early morning in the garden in May.
To make sure that the class goes smoothly I always distribute (a week before) what I call the model protocol to both my students and the models.
The Nude Portrait
About 23 years ago I photographed around 9 exotic dancers dressed as London Bobbies (cops). The resulting photograph was framed and was placed inside the Cecil Hotel
. It may still be there next to the pool table. The photo imitated a large mural/painting of 9 Bobbies that at the time graced the wall of the hotel. When the women arrived to the warehouse where I took the pictures (a white brick wall was needed) they asked me where they could change. I had set up an area with a large sheet where they could do this. My assistant commented, “Why would they need a place to change. They are strippers, aren’t they? “
It is obvious that my assistant was horribly wrong and no further explanation is needed.
But some of us, particularly, when we are behind the camera forget that the person who is our photographic subject is a person, and to be repetitive, a human being. I am sure that my assistant had objectified the exotic dancers and it never occurred to him that they were women who valued their modesty and privacy when not working at their job.
A variant of being aware that our subject is a person should be our ability to put ourselves in their position. While we may not want to pose now or in the future either clothed or unclothed we should think, “Would I do this?” “Would I do it like this?” Why am I telling the model to relax? Could I do it (relax) if I were facing that camera and that big soft box?”
Models, even very good models cannot predict what a photographer may want. They can do this if they have worked with you before. You cannot expect them to do something while you wait to snap your shutter unless you give them the proper and courteous indication. Saying, “Please”, and, “Thank you, “is appreciated. If you cannot verbally explain the pose you want, you can step in (don’t touch!) and show the model how. My advice is to watch your models when they are relaxing during their rest periods as they will do things that come naturally.
You should not only provide your model for an area to change where they have privacy but you should also expect them to clothe themselves (there are a few that don’t!) when they are not posing for you. A cooling fan on hot days and a heater on cold days is most necessary. An area where the model has a mirror and a stool with table where they can apply makeup is nice to have.
It is my personal rule that I never touch my models, particularly when they are unclothed. The exception can be a stray hair that may cover an eye and I will sometimes use my pinky finger to move it out of the way.
Looking at your model, when not through the camera, should not be an obvious stare. Learn the way doctors do it. You look at them at eye level. Until you know your model well and you know about their sense of humour, or lack of it, you should never make any jokes about their body.
When I photograph anybody, clothed or unclothed, I don’t point out their physical demerits. If their face is too wide I narrow it with lighting. You don’t say, “You have a chubby face.” If the model has stretch marks you find angles where they don’t show. Unless your model wants you to document their body as it is (this rarely happens) it is your duty to make them look as good as you can and not blame your lack of lighting skills, bad equipment, or their body for your unsatisfactory picture. Unless you are really very good with PhotoShop, a Polaroid or the image on your screen will never look that much better.
In our class we should take as perfect a picture seconds before we press that shutter, be it film or digital.
Again I want to stress that you must respect a model’s privacy in the way you may show the pictures that you have taken. They should be seen only in your hard copy (as in one of those black books with plastic sleeves) and none of your photos should be posted on any web page be it a personal one or another type. If you wish to do this you must get permission in writing from your model.
Any model, and particularly the unclothed one, is in a vulnerable position when they face your camera. They trust you. Some models (if not most) will object to showing parts of their anatomy that they deem to be extremely private. When they pose for you, you may be in a situation to be able to photograph what the model does not want to show. It is your duty to move them until the pose is a correct one.
In the end it is more difficult to not show the external sexual organs of a male model. Male models will have different requests to that of female models. In our class sessions we will bring this up. In your own sessions, out of school with other models or friends, you should always bring up this sensitive area before you begin to shoot.
I always prefer to shoot without any kind of music, unless my model specifically requests it. I like to work in silence. The idea that the young thing in a bikini will remove her clothes, just because you offered her wine and play loud heavy metal music, only works on planet Jupiter. From the beginning you tell your model where the bathroom is and you should have plenty of bottled water. Alcohol always shows up on your model’s face and pot makes their eyes go red. And the last, often overlooked, recommendation is that models like to be given positive feedback on how they look in front of your camera and how they are taking to your instructions. Give them plenty of this stuff. They will warm up to it.
CBC Group Show
Thursday, May 10, 2007
From the very beginning that I happened to pick up an issue of American Heritage in the Lincoln Library (a USIS facility full of spooks) in Buenos Aires in 1952 I was drawn to the pictures of long dead American Civil War soldiers in photographs by Timothy O'Sullivan and Mathew Brady. That single issue of American Heritage is why I am a photographer today. As a ten year old I realized I was looking at people who were alive when the picture was taken but somehow they were now all impossibly dead. Through the years I have had a particular fondness for shooting group shots. As the photograph gets older and my memory for the names of the people in the shots fades the photographs seem to be that more interesting. And here is a bunch that I took in the 70s and 80s in Studio 40 of the CBC on Hamilton Street.
The b+w one was of the CBC TV News team. I particularly remember Ann Petrie (being held and to the right of Bill Good).
The next group shot I am not sure, but the set is extremely colorful. I often wondered why those CBC set designers loved lit steps. Smack in the middle in the light blue sweater is Michael Watt and to his left is choreographer and dancer James Hibbard.
The René Simard one is self-evident. I fondly remember Joanie Taylor for her wonderful voice and her Sphinx hair do (extreme right in picture below).
Working for these shows was fun because working for the producer (in most cases Ken Gibson and his right hand man Michael Watt) was fun. In particular it was fun to work with Gibson's Irish Rovers here in the Unicorn Pub group shot.
One of the shows, Boo, was a spoof of horror movies. What I remember best is this group shot of the dancers. The one in the middle was the daughter of the then ex-Vancouver Police Chief, Robert Stewart. We were all in awe of her legs.
But it is the last shot that somehow never saw the light of day that is my favourite. In the early 80s brainy comedian David Steinberg had a TV comedy show. In one very special day he invited as many comedians as he could find and asked me to take this group shot.
Middle row far right is Ryan Stiles. Two to his left is David Steinberg. I also recognize Jackson Davies, top left.
Rebecca's Improper Fractions
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Last night Rosemary was glum. Hilary called her to tell her that Rebecca had scored poorly in her math test. Somehow Rebecca did not tell her mother about the test so nobody helped her to prepare. Rosemary feels very guilty and went to sleep early. Rebecca is 9. She is in grade four at École Bilingue.
No matter how tough it is for her at school it makes me think of me in grade 8 in a very small school in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila. Grade 8, 7 and 6 were under one roof and the teacher happened to be my mother.
We were in Nueva Rosita because my mother had a job as teacher for the children of the engineers who worked at the American Smelting and Refining Company mine. They mined zinc and converted coal to coke. The coke was shipped to the US to make steel.
It was tough because my mother was doubly hard on me. Grade 8 was as far as the Nueva Rosita school went and from there our class of 6 boys graduated (we were all given razors as a graduation gift from the school) and we dispersed to schools in the US.
I am on the left (the boy with the big ears). My nemesis was Sammy Simpson, third from left. He was smart, good looking, tall, could immitate Elvis Presley's Blue Suede Shoes
(consider that this was 1957), he played baseball and basketball, was a champion bowler, and got to drive his parent's '57 Ford all the time. Worst of all, he wore crisp, faded just right, Lee jeans and mine never looked like his. My mother did not know how to iron well so I tried to get Sammy's razor creases to no avail.
My only comfort was that I knew I was smarter than he was. Until my mother somehow told me one day, "You have a very high IQ Alex but not as high as Sammy's." I was devastated. In the 50s there were two very important double initials. One was IQ and the other was SA which stood for sex appeal. Sammy had both and I had neither. I settled down to be a nerd. In high school I avoided school dances because I could not dance and I was ashamed of my big ears. When two women showed interest in me (I was by then 20) I thought they were idiots. I could not believe it!
If Rebecca had not been asleep last night I would have called her and told her that failing the math test wasn't important. I would have told her that she navigates her piano music math very well and knows all about the f-stops and shutter speeds of my manual cameras. She has an excellent idea of how much space her body occupies from her dance classes (ballet, jazz and character at Arts Umbrella) and is able to follow all the steps in correct order without any problem.
When we go to her piano lessons I always put a previously unheard piano CD in the car stereo. Last Monday we listened to Philip Glass playing his piano sonatas. Rebecca immediately caught on to possible similarites with Erik Satie.
Last Saturday before going to Sebastian Alexander's baptism
I gave Rebecca a crash course in Original Sin and the seven sacraments. We delved into the doctrine of transubstantiation and the Holy Trinity.
I remember when I was in grade 9 and I could not do chin ups. One day I was able to do one and then another and soon they were easy. I think the same will happen with Rebecca as soon as she realizes some of the practical applications of math. I cannot blame her for not being interested or understanding what an improper fraction is. It was on improper fractions that Rebecca did poorly.
Hilary nor Rosemary like this picture that I took of Rebecca last Halloween. They say she looks too mature. For parents their children will always be children. Yet they worry about their child's school grades to the point that a child, in this case Rebecca, comes home, almost in tears and refuses to talk about her day. I understand as I remember what it was trying to compete with Sammy Simpson.
I think there is plenty of time (if ever) to worry about math and school grades. Meanwhile I remember:
You find it hard to forgive those who, early in life, have
come to enjoy the advantages which go with maturity. Aside
from any other consideration, why don't you put into the
balance the long spring enjoyed by a youth who matured
Markings - Dag Mammarskjöld - 1964
Rebecca and I will have to study a few Dave Brubeck Quartet pieces with that difficult 5/4 time signature. It's an improper fraction. And in Take Five it's an improper fraction that I am sure Rebecca will like.
For those who might want to know the names of the boys in the picture please look here
Two Coroners - One Never Smiled
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
It was sometime in 1984 that I photographed retiring city Coroner Glen McDonald for Vancouver Magazine. A year later McDonald published a book (co-written with John Kirkwood) with the curious title How Come I'm Dead?
Of the shoot I remember little except for a few things. McDonald smelled of whisky and even though he was very serious I had this impression that at any moment he was going to laugh loudly.
In October, 2002 I had the opportunity to photograph another city coroner, Larry Campbell. By then he was our mayor and he came to my studio with a collection of hats. Unlike his predecessor he smiled all the time but I managed to get this out of character photograph (or is it?) of Campbell looking very serious.
I find it curious that both men dealt with death yet had an uncommon liking for spirits.
Jim Carroll - Catholic Boy - Confirmation
Monday, May 07, 2007
They can't touch me now
I got every sacrament behind me:
I got baptism,
I got communion,
I got penance,
I got extreme unction
I've got confirmation
'Cause I'm a Catholic child
The blood ran red
The blood ran wild!
Now I'm a Catholic man
I put my tongue to the rail whenever I can.
From Catholic Boy - 1980
One of my fondest memories of my father is singing in bed with him. Our two favourite songs were My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean
and Onward Christian Soldiers.
It is only recently that I found out that the latter song was originally called St Gertrude
by Arthur Sullivan who wrote the music.
There we were singing as loud as we could:Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
It was in 1980 that I photographed Jim Carroll and his band at the Commodore in Vancouver. I was struck by the lyrics of his title song (above) Catholic Boy
. He misses two sacraments(Holy Orders and Matrimony) although he must have been at death's door in one of his drug ODs to receive Extreme Unction.
For many years, until it closed in 1989, I was a patron of the Classical Joint on Carrall Street. I went on Thursday nights to listen to my friend, alto saxophonist Gavin Walker play with his ever changing band. What never changed was the repertoire of classic bebop and bossa nova tunes peppered with jazz standards. There was one that intrigued me.
It was Charlie Parker's Confirmation
. Walker explained that as a boy Parker had sung in a Catholic Church choir and that indeed the name of the tune was Catholic.
I would only mention that Confirmation is the forgotten sacrament. This is the sacrament that follows First Communion and makes one a "Soldier of Christ". As it was explained to me by Brother Edwin Reggio CSC this meant that it was my obligation to find out as much about the Catholic Church and its doctrine so that I could instruct anybody who asked. Brother Edwin saw Confirmation as an obligation to teach and impart and not something out of Arthur Sullivan which would have us march with sword in hand to battle the hoards of infidels!
Taking Confirmation seriously (and I was confirmed) has enabled me to explain to Rebecca all the questions she asks every time we enter a church in Mexico or in Vancouver. It will give her a richer appreciation of art, music, dance and the architecture of Gothic cathedrals.
And there has been an added bonus. I have been able to fend for myself when my Argentine nephew, Jorge O'Reilly (who is a member of Opus Dei) tries to put one over me!
Rebecca, Inesita & La Redonda
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Yesterday Rebecca, Lauren and I went to Sebastian Alexander Schallie's baptism at St Augustine's Catholic Church in Kerrisdale. The interesting ceremony was a complete Mass and I did my best to explain to Rebecca what was happening. I pointed out that to our left on the main altar we could see a stained glass window of St. Augustine and that we could tell it was he because of his bishop's hat. Immediately Rebecca asked me where St Monica's window was. I have told Rebecca often the story of the Bishop of Hippo(354-430 AD) who early in his life (when he was having lots of fun womanizing) prayed to God asking him, "Make me a saint, but not yet." And it was because he had been such a wicked man in his youth that his long suffering mother had been made into a saint. When we left the church I had a chat with Father Gordon Cook and asked him about Monica. It was then that I found that the church is named after another bishop, St. Augustine of Canterbury (birth date unknown but died 26 May, 604 AD) and there is no patient Monica in the premises.
Earlier in the day I had explained to Rebecca the Catholic concept of original sin and how baptism is the first sacrament of a total of 7. I explained how some Christian sects believe that sprinkling with water is not enough and total immersion is necessary. Shades of Achilles?
All this set me to thinking that as a youth my religion had been quantitative and not qualitative. Let me explain.
When I was 9 I would go to visit my cousin Robby Miranda who lived in Belgrano C in Buenos Aires. On Sundays we would walk to the nearby church on Juramento and Cabildo, la Parroquia de la Inmaculada Concepción but affectionately called La Redonda (the Round Church) because it indeed was round.
Robby and I would calculate to get to the Mass by the Offertory. At the time if you arrived a bit before the Offertory and stayed until the priest said, "Ite Missa Est," ("Go, the Mass is ended.") we would satisfy our contractual obligations to go to a complete Mass on Sunday. We then considered that on very hot days we stood outside the church's open doors and looked into the Mass. Did we have to be under the roof of the church to be in the Mass? We argued about this to exhaustion. We may have been too immersed in our discussion to notice that Father Virgilio Filippo
(he was a great orator) usually insinuated in his sermon that unless we became good Peronists we would burn in hell.
So it was that four years ago when Rosemary, Rebecca and I went to Buenos Aires I felt I had the obligation to take Rebecca to La Redonda for Sunday Mass with my godmother and first cousin Inesita Barber O'Reilly Kuker (above left). This we did and we had a lot of fun. The officiating priest resembled matinee idol Cornel Wilde. I could almost imagine his foil hidden under his chasuble. From our seats, which were halfway down, (it was very hot but I did not think it was proper for me to suggest to Inesita that we step out!) Rebecca kept waiving at the priest. You would have thought that Inesita would have taken it all very seriously. But no, she thought it was all very funny and I heard her giggle. After the Mass we had medias lunas
and café in the cafe outside and it was very special that my godmother could be sitting at the table with my granddaughter. I felt some sort of symmetrical order and that all the religious instruction I had received from my mother and grandmother (and Brother Edwin at St Edward's in Austin) I had passed on to Rebecca and that it would serve her well as it had served me.
The reason Inesita had been chosen as my godmother was that her mother, my Aunt Inés had divorced Barber to marry Alejandro Ariosa (which explains my middle name of Alejandro). So instead of my aunt being my official godmother (though se was de facto
) her daughter Inesita took on the responsibilities of taking care of my spiritual life or helping in other ways in lieu of the absence of my parents. I must report that Inesita has been the perfect godmother in all respects.
Yesterday the priest's sermon at St. Augustine was a bit long and Rebecca asked me, " When is he going to shut up?" I confessed to her that we were participating in a complete Mass (thinking about what dispensation I would have looked for so many years ago that would have enabled me to avoid Mass on the next day, today Sunday.) and that we needed some patience. I explained to her the beautiful compactness of Latin and what Ite Missa Est
meant. When the time came the father said, "The Mass is ended, go......" and I missed the rest because Rebecca at 9 had the same smile of relief that I myself must have had when I was 9 and Robby and I ran out of La Redonda to play rolling down on the grassy slopes of our favourite park, Barrancas de Belgrano and then buy a porción of pizza at the nearby Belgrano C train station restaurant.
Rebecca, at 9 is much too young for me to explain a further mystery about La Redonda and how it figures in the plot of my favourite Argentine novel, Ernesto Sábato's Sobre Héroes y Tumbas
. This will happen, when like her grandfather, she shifts from the quantitative to the qualitative.
The Bishop of Hippo, Floria Aemilia & The Bitch
St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas are really the two most important saints of the Catholic Church in reference to doctrine. Aquinas modified and adapted Aristotle's concept of the unmoved mover as his "proof" of the existence of God. I always saw God as a very special bowling ball that somehow moved all the other bowling balls in a row (as they are automatically returned) without It
moving at all. The three finger holes on the ball are sheer coincidence and have no bearing to the Holy Trinity.
I have told Rebecca the story of St Augustine thinking on the problem of the Holy Trinity while walking on a beach. "How could God be three distinct persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost and somehow all be (and certainly not share as that would be heresy) the nature of God?" He spotted a little boy (sometimes in my story he is naked) who was running to the sea with a sea shell where he would scoop some water and then run back to the sand where he had dug a little hole. He would then empty the shell into the hole and repeat his procedure. Thinking this a bit strange, Augustine stopped the boy and asked him what he was doing. "Sire, I am emptying the sea into the hole." "Child, that is clearly impossible," Augustine retorted. The little boy then said, "Far easier for me to finish my task than for you to find an answer to your problem." And then I tell Rebecca the little boy vanishes in a poof.
It was a few years ago in 1997 that I found a little book called That Same Flower
by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder. This book is a translation from the Latin into Norwegian and then into English by Ann Born. The book is supposed to be the letters that St Augustine's mistress, Flora Aemilia wrote to him.
How did Gaarder find the letters?
In 1995 Gaarder was browsing in an antiquarian bookshop in Buenos Aires' old district of San Telmo. It was there that Gaarder claims he found the letters in a box labeled Codex Floriae. Inside he found an introductory greeting:Floria Aemilia Aurelio Augustino Episcopo Hipponiensi Salutem
We do know that Augustine did have a mistress called Floria who was the mother of his only son. They lived together for over a decade in Africa and then in Italy, until Augustine banished Floria with the intention of marrying a woman of higher social status. He never did and chose a path of asceticism.
From the book I copy:You thought I bound you to the world of the senses, leaving you no peace and quiet in which to concentrate on the salvation of your soul. As a consequence, nothing came of that proposed marriage either. God desires above all that man should live in abstinence, you write. I have no faith in such a God........But why? Well, because you loved the salvation of your own soul more than you loved me. What times, Esteemed Bishop, what manners! (O tempora, o mores!)
The book is a delightful one night read and what is most interesting is that our concept of the terrible mother-in-law has not changed in the least with time. It seems that while Monica was a good mother and a saint she was a bitch.