Sunday, September 23, 2007

Accidentally black © by adrian Photographic memory: Episode One

It's 1972, I'm working in the basement of the studio/photo-finishing plant I run. Bill my friend and co-worker comes downstairs looking ashen faced and shaken. He says "There are two really serious looking black guys upstairs. They want to talk to the owner."

I go upstairs to the reception room, and rounding the corner see that Bill has not exaggerated. Two very intense looking guys are sitting there, both dressed in tight black suits, slim briefcases on their laps. These guys are definitely not Jehovah's witnesses. As I enter and say "Hello, I'm the owner." they stand simultaneously. It is immediately apparent there will be no hearty handshakes or "Hello's." to be had from this crew.

One of them walks over to the reception desk, flattens his briefcase, opens and starts rummaging thru it. The case is too small to hold a baseball bat. What is he looking for? Why did I come to work today?

The other walks up to me, very close, inches from me, into my space. Very intimidating. I intentionally move two inches closer to him, It's a defense mechanism I've always used when people try to crowd me. I think this lets them know I get their body language and it won't work on me. He almost smiles as he hands me his business card and says simply, "Don't you think it's about time you start advertising with us?" The card I've been handed has "Contrast" written across it.

Contrast is the name of a militant black newspaper in Toronto during the 70's. These are the days of the Black Power movement, Black Panthers, Black & Proud, and everything is "Soul".

These guys are not here to give me a sales pitch. In some strange way I understand I've just been invited. Normally, this would be the simplest of business decisions, advertise. This is different than normally. I would be reaching a market I knew nothing about and could never have had the audacity to consider. Taking this step alters much of the next twenty or so years of my life.

Listen to this...

I ran a photo-finishing company, had a staff of four and a very crowded house. I decided to move everything out of the house, and at the same time I would throw a little studio into the new location to play in. Photography for me is theater, all smoke and mirrors. Point a camera at most people, and they will smile or take their clothes off, or both, at the first hint, in an instant. What great fun!

I dug up some of my old sample photos and put them in the window. The early seventies in Toronto was the beginning of a large migration of immigrants from the West Indies and several African countries. In a short time, the black population grew to over two hundred and fifty thousand people. So, I found the requisite token black person shot I had, and added that to the window.

Photography is one of the few businesses that attracts exactly what you display. If I put pictures of little old ladies in my window, that's what will come inside. Babies in the window, that's what I'll get. Nothing could be simpler. It's like fly paper. What I didn't know, was that for most photographers, black people are a difficult photographic challenge. I had often heard that black people were hard to photograph, but I swear, I always thought it was some kind of goofy racial thing someone thought up, but it's true. It's also pretty obvious if you think about it, white objects reflect light, black objects absorb it. Put a dark subject on a dark background in a photo, and if not properly lit, they will likely disappear.

I almost always use dark backgrounds in my work, that's what appeals to me.

So, the token black person I put in the window wasn't part of any plan, it was just a simple portrait of a black lady. I had used a dark background in the shot, as is my fashion, and she showed up plain as day. I didn't consider for a moment there was anything unusual about it.

Soon, there were various clusters of black people outside the window talking amongst themselves about this shot. I'm still amazed this one photo started it all. This was "the face that launched a thousand ... " (oops, sorry, wrong story).

In the seventies in Toronto, we didn't have the dreadful gangs that are around these days, but it was still pretty unnerving to have a group of black people gathered about and looking into my studio. It was all new, and when they started coming in for portraits, it was a struggle for them as well as myself. Many of these early immigrants had heavy accents and often spoke the Patois dialect, something I certainly wasn't used to, and at first I had great difficulty understanding them.

I make few decisions in my life with any thought about what the final destination or outcome will be. Climax simply doesn't interest me, never did. I'm far more interested in what I will discover on the trip to anywhere, not what I will find at destinations end. When the West Indians and blacks from other countries started showing up, and then Contrast invited me in, I signed on for the trip.

When I began this section of my life, if there was a group of black guys outside my studio window I would be wary. When I finished, if there was a group of white guys outside my studio window, I would be wary. Everything in my life eventually changed from what I had previously known, and turned completely around. Absolutely everything I knew became accidentally black.

The first ads were simple, nothing gaudy. I also advertised in a publication called Spear, which had a more militant approach to the thorny issue of our different cultures. Eventually I ran ads in the other black papers, Share, and then, Pride.

Black people started coming in for portraits. Saturdays they would line up outside, I would shoot twenty or more sittings a day. Prior to this, I would shoot a couple of sittings a week. Initially they were new immigrants and would come in wanting shots of their new watch, holding their first paycheck, anything, and everything, to send back home. They were having fun, and so was I.

White people would come in acting like they were at the dentists. Explain the photo being made was to shut up some relative they hadn't seen in years, and they didn't want to be here. I was instructed to just get it over with quickly so they could get back to their lives.

The blacks were consistently exciting and yes, colourful. Many would show up in outrageous costumes and plumage. This was during the time that the "hip" all dressed in flamboyant velvet suits, innovative hats, goofy platform shoes and that incredible afro hair cut of the time. If a group came in and I set up a pose they liked, everybody would spontaneously clap to show their approval. There was a "black is beautiful" mentality and they wanted me to capture the history of it.

During this period I began dressing pretty outrageously myself. Sort of a cross between early beatnik and late hippie. Long great frocks, beads, very long hair. I've always been a suit and tie man when shooting weddings, so I would make exceptions for that. The long hair with a suit was theater unto itself.

The whites on the other hand were bland and boring. They never hesitated to display how much they hated every minute of what was happening. The blacks I encountered were visceral. Communication was not tainted by hidden meanings. No euphemisms here, everything was direct, emotional and on the surface. It didn't take long to realize I had stumbled into an area that my Italian temperament was more than suited to, this was definitely where I belonged.

At the same time it was an enormous culture shock. Sometime scary. I would shoot a wedding, at the reception there would be a huge gathering and I would be the only white boy in sight. I would attend raucous church services similar to what I had seen only in newsreels, and there I was, up at the alter, recording it. In the beginning it was very weird, no question about it. For them too, I guess.

Seeing as I stuck out so much, everybody quickly got used to the strange white guy with goatee and long grey hair. As I said, photography for me is theater, I am fast on my feet and usually put on a pretty good show. I always do my best to entertain my clients, that way I know they will go out of their way to entertain me, for the camera. Soon the black papers started hiring me to shoot some of their work, and occasionally they would print stories about me. I was welcomed in.

Photography for me is magic, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't. With black people, for me, it almost always worked. It's about communication, not equipment, and once I got the rhythm of the speech and the personalities right, it easily fell into place.

I closed the photo-finishing section of my business and moved the studio to the middle of what was then the "black section" of town, Bathurst and Dupont Street.

I started advertising on black radio programs, and began using the catch phrase, "The Almost Soul studio" in my ads. It was nervy and all very presumptuous. I now used black people exclusively for samples, with one token white person in the window. We joked that the only time a white person came into my studio was if they needed change for the parking meter. As I said, all unplanned and very weird.

As the community expanded and changed, I moved my studio to follow it. I moved to Jane & Lawrence Ave., and then eventually settled down on Eglinton at Oakwood Ave. This area is still a hub of black activity in Toronto.

For the reader that may have been wondering if I would ever get to it, yes, there were the women. Up till then in my life, my contact with black women had been by way of National Geographic magazine. Well, I found out that in real life, they are way more fun than in the magazine. Who knew?

Photographers get turned on by various things. Some of us get excited about buildings, hillsides, rocks, babies, horses, whatever. Black women photographically intoxicate me. I can't explain it, would be a fool to try. They just knock my socks off. Doesn't matter what shape, how old, how tall or any of that stuff, many just seem to have an attitude that drives me nuts. More fun!

I don't know if I drove them nuts too, but for many years almost all my female companions were black. It was just a natural progression of my life at that time. All the people I knew, met, worked with and saw on a daily basis were black, so naturally that's where I would meet my lovers. Eventually I started a semi-permanent relationship with the sister of a black lady that worked in one of my studios, and we lived together for quite some time.

Later, into the 80's, the area around Eglinton and Oakwood Ave., started to get run down. The shops nearby were deteriorating, taxes were becoming unmanageable, and that section of Toronto temporarily fell apart, so it became time to move on.

Many clients followed me to my new location on Bloor Street West, but it was never quite the same as the intense activity during that twenty year hit. By that time, I had also realized that although it might be initially distasteful, I may as well try to get used to doing business with, and taking money from, the white folk...

They talked a little different than me, but I figured in time I might get used to the idiom of their speech patterns and be able to learn how to deal with them. I even began to notice that some of their white women didn't look too bad either. Not as much "Junk in the Trunk" as I was familiar with, but isn't there something about "a change is as good as a rest".