Rick McGinnis

Frustrated Artist

Rick McGinnisA self-professed ‘frustrated artist’, Rick McGinnis has transformed his desired artistic medium from paint and brushes to images and cameras. For some time he earned a living being a writer, switched to photography, and somewhere along the way combined the two. His work covers vast spans of subjects: famous faces to the little houses in working class communities of Toronto. It is his ability to capture little portraits of the past in his building photography, then switch to catching the life story of a actress in her eyes that makes his work all that more poignant.

In addition to being a successful photographer, McGinnis is also known for his writing, particularly his pithy social commentary and movie and book reviews. My initial impression of him is that of a modern day Renaissance Man indulging his creative impulses across multiple media types. He responded with the following:

That’s a flattering way to look at it, for sure, but when it comes to the writing I’m really probably a frustrated novelist, like a lot of writers. Which isn’t to say that I probably have a great novel in me, just that I don’t have the time to write one, so it all comes out in these short-form
outlets: blog postings, journalism, criticism, comments on other people’s websites.

As for the photography, I can definitely say that that comes from being a frustrated painter, at least initially.

I wanted to be an artist, but I had a big problem: I didn’t know how to handle paint. Seriously, I just didn’t understand the medium, as much as I loved it, so in a lot of ways photography is a way for me to paint.

Which sounds like I’m running down photography—I’m not. I get a lot of consolation from the fact that my favorite photographer, Irving Penn, is also clearly a frustrated painter. Not a great one, either, from what I can tell from glimpses at these little abstract things he’s done—but what a photographer. What I’m saying, I guess, is that creative frustration is an underrated form of inspiration. We can probably be grateful for a lot of unwritten novels when we see really great photography or journalism.

greg dulli As for myself, in a nutshell: 40 years old, raised and schooled Roman Catholic by my mother after my dad died when I was four years old. The big cultural event of my life was punk rock. Dropped out of college to pursue a career as a journalist, bought a camera along the way. Freelanced for years until the market got rough and I took a job at a newspaper. Married late, two daughters. That’s about it.

CoC: What was it that first got you hooked on photography?

RMG: I grew up in an old working class suburb of Toronto called Mount Dennis, which has the distinction of being the home of Kodak in Canada since World War One. My family worked at the plant for practically three generations, so there was always photography around, at least in the form of the red and yellow boxes and boxes of snapshots.

That said, I really had no interest in photography ’til I was in college, when I got into Evelyn Waugh (this was just before the Brideshead Revisited miniseries with Jeremy Irons), and found this monograph on Cecil Beaton by James Danziger on sale at a bookstore. It was practically an illustrated companion to the Waugh novels of the 20s and 30s, so I bought it, and became fascinated with Beaton’s work. Suddenly, photography began to look like more of an art form than I’d ever imagined it could be, and as I went from Beaton to Hoynigen-Huene to Lartigue to Atget to Cartier-Bresson to Avedon and Penn, I began to think there was something to photography after all.

I had a bit of money after I dropped out of college, so I bought a Pentax Spotmatic and a few lenses and started carrying it around when I did interviews and live shows, as a way of making a bit of extra money—I was just starting to work as a music journalist, and I could bill for photos as well as writing if the shots turned out, which they sometimes did.

I was also reading the English music press at the time—the NME just as they were leaving their Marxist period, Melody Maker, Sounds and the
like—and they had great photographers like Anton Corbijn shooting for them. Corbijn was a great inspiration for me and another photographer friend, Chris Buck, who lives in New York now, shooting for these big ad clients like HP and magazines like Esquire. We waited for Corbijn at the box office outside a Tom Waits show once when we heard he was in town, and persuaded him to sit for an interview with us. He showed us how he used fast film and flat lighting, and that was like a light bulb going off in our heads.

helena bohham carterI’d like to add that the Kodak plant in Mount Dennis is finally being closed down. I just learned that the other day, and it made me pretty sad. If I can scrounge the time and permission, I’d like to try and document the plant’s closing for personal reasons, at the very least, maybe for something else. I just think that the project would be a way of coming full circle, so to speak, on my career.

CoC: When did you make the leap into professional photography?

RMG: It wasn’t a leap as much as a sideways slide. Like I said, I started taking photos to make a bit of extra money, but I started really enjoying it. I guess I started getting serious when I bought my first medium format camera—a Mamiya 220. That would be about 1985, I think. I was definitely working as a pro when I stopped writing altogether for a few years and just shot—that would be around 1989, probably. I went back to writing again years later, but I think I was at my most efficient as a freelancer when I just shot; it’s nowhere near as time-consuming as writing, with all the research and re-writes and such.

CoC:  Do you have any formal training as a photographer?

RMG: None at all. I’m not saying I don’t think it’s useful; I just don’t see that it will help you much more than just shooting, shooting, shooting, and looking at a lot of very good work. There are a lot of technical things that you learn quickly in photo school, but unless you’re planning on working as a professional printer or lab person, they’re not that useful in the long run. Besides, there’s nothing you learn as deeply as something you discover yourself, through trial and error.

CoC: I notice that the majority of the work exhibited in your portfolio is in the ‘ideal’ format (6×6). You obviously enjoy working with medium format cameras and film (professionally, at least). Is there any particular reason for this?

RMG: My favorite camera is the Rolleiflex. It’s small, well-designed, easy to use and has fantastic optics. If I had to get rid of all my other cameras, I’d keep my Rolleis. There’s something so clean and precise and mathematical about the square. I really enjoy the way the little grid etched onto the focusing screen on the camera forces you to be more precise in your composition as well. I’m a dunce at math and science, but I have enormous respect, almost awe, for the kind of mind that can think that way, that can take something as hard and incontrovertible as numbers and think beyond the practical applications to the realm of abstraction. It’s immensely creative.

toby maguireCoC:  What do you favor in terms of equipment, cameras, and film?

RMG: A bright focusing screen, a wide aperture, and simple mechanics. That’s about all I ask for in a camera. Right now, I have the usual mixed bag of equipment. For most of my professional journalism, I have a Canon EOS Rebel Digital that the paper I work for bought for me to use. I’ll probably buy one of my own when they update the chip and make it a bit faster. I also have a Canon Elan 7E of my own that I barely use; it’s almost new, and the only time I think I used it was in Peru a couple of years ago, before I was given the Rebel.

The Rebel Digital is a consumer level camera— the other guys in the scrums with their Nikons and Canon EOS-1Ds look down on me for using it, I know —but it does the job, and I don’t have to worry about an expensive bit of hardware all the time. I’m not doing war photography, so I don’t need a titanium body or anything like that. With digital, as well, you have so much leeway to work on the image afterwards that you can live with slightly underexposed images if your lenses aren’t fast enough. It’s been a real revolution in that much, at least.

I have a couple of Rolleis with the 3.5 lenses, and a Bronica SQ. I have an old wooden 4×5 as well, and a couple of Holga plastic cameras that I love using. Also, an Olympus Stylus point and shoot—a really well-designed little camera.

CoC:  How much of your own processing do you do, if any?

RMG: We just moved, and I had to put my darkroom in storage after twenty years. It was kind of sad, but I have so little time to work in there these days that I doubt if it’ll make much difference. I’ve been sending my film out for processing for years now, but I do my own printing —I’ll just have to rent time at Toronto Image Works from now on, for as long as they have film darkrooms, at least. Until then, my enlarger and trays are all packed away.

CoC: Have you started working with digital? If not, are you feeling any ‘peer pressure’ from your professional colleagues?

RMG: It wasn’t so much peer pressure as necessity—I work for a daily newspaper, so turnover time is paramount. The technology took a little while to become really reliable—I had a horrible experience a few years back with one of those Kodak/Nikon hybrid digital cameras—but it’s great now, and I’m frankly grateful for it. I was once a lot more Luddite than I am now, but thank God I grew up.

You can make a lot of arguments for the loss of quality or depth with digital images, and you’d be right. There’s nothing like a beautiful silver print, but keep one thing in mind—the vast majority of silver prints you see are commercial grade, made on paper with the thinnest emulsion. Compare them to older prints from thirty, forty, fifty years ago, when emulsion was coated on much thicker, and printing was a much more laborious art. Or look at the platinum palladium prints that Penn uses for exhibition—they’re gorgeous, but no one can really afford to work that way, so the gap between regular silver prints and high-quality digital outputting is closing fast. Once again, you can take your Luddism a bit too far, and it’s really just an emotional response in the end, with no basis in the facts.

CoC:  Do you belong to any amateur or professional photographic associations?

Nope. It’s been my observation that photographers don’t particularly relish each other’s company. Besides, in a place like Toronto, at a time like now, the competition is just too fierce to imagine easy, convivial comradeship between photographers in the same line.

I also find most photographers I meet at scrums and the like to be rude and ignorant, sad to say; I’ve actually almost gotten into fights in the past year or two. So no—I tend not to associate much with my peers.

CoC:  Your online portfolio features some particularly powerful portraiture. I find the images of Toby Maguire, Kenny Robinson, and Alan Rickman to be especially compelling. Can you explain how you approached these subjects, and how you prefer to approach your subjects in general?

RMG: Those are three very different shoots. Kenny Robinson was a studio
shoot—I hung my blue seamless and set up a wall of strobes around the camera, intending to do a very flat, graphic kind of shot. He walked in wearing a blue suit the same colour as the backdrop and I thought, “Well, this couldn’t have gone any better.”

Alan Rickman was such an arch, gothic persona, very bitchy and wry, that I just went with the mood he was giving off. I usually try to find a neutral corner in hotel rooms, but I went with the antique furnishings as a backdrop instead, to give him a bit of a decadent setting. It was just the room lighting, a light tripod and a shutter release.

I used to carry around a whole mini studio with me—flashes, stands, backdrop, the works. That ended up giving me bursitis in my right shoulder, so I cut down my shooting rig to the minimum—two Rolleis in a case and a lightweight tripod. I never use lights on location anymore if I can help it.

Tobey Maguire was even more basic; I found a brightly lit wall and put him up against it. He was like a cipher—his expression remained absolutely unchanged for most of the shoot, this sort of bemused stare. I left the room thinking, “That was a real waste—I’m sure there’s going to be nothing on that film worth printing.” I got home and found that, whether intentionally or not, he had done that thing that movie stars do best—conveying the illusion of depth and personality entirely through his eyes. I tend to be a bit harsh about the business of shooting celebrities, and actors in particular, but they bring something to the process that few other people can even understand.

CoC: Your work appears to be done both in studio and on location. What is your preference, or do you have one?

RMG: I loved having my own studio. For several years I lucked into a situation where I had a sizeable loft space that I could devote to studio space—I was able to learn a lot just having some decent square footage to play around with. As anyone will tell you, a studio is a real luxury, largely because it’s empty most of the time. I was never able to shoot large groups there in any satisfactory way, but it was just big enough to be able to create a nice landscape of lighting—for awhile I just tried to copy classic Hurrell-style Hollywood light schemes, which was the biggest challenge I’ve ever had, next to trying to duplicate various types of sunlight in the studio.

I’d love to have a studio again, one day, but right now there’s something liberating about carrying everything I need in a small shoulder bag, and using whatever light is available. I’ve gotten very good at shooting in hotel rooms—it’s amazing how much variation in light and mood you can discover in one, usually generic room. The one thing I miss the most about a studio though is being able to set up and shoot still-lifes whenever the mood strikes—a much harder task in an apartment with two kids.

CoC:  I notice a tendency to light subjects from the broad side in your work. You also chose to use Rembrandt lighting with Alan Rickman and Toby Maguire. What influences lead you to favor this type of lighting?

RMG: Most people call it Rembrandt lighting, but I prefer Vermeer, especially because his work was so vividly located in a specific place—those tidy rooms with their tapestries and solid furniture. Most of the time he includes the room, and even the window itself, in his compositions. I find him a remarkably modern painter, or rather, I find it easy to imagine inhabiting his world thanks to all the clues he leaves – contemporary is probably a better word.

When I realized how much I had to rely on windows for lighting, I had to study painters like Vermeer, and the centuries of portraitists who used windows to light their work. Once again—the frustrated painter.

CoC:  You have photographed some fairly big names. How do you find working with celebrities? Are they as temperamental as the media makes them out to be?

RMG: Some of them are. Most of the time their publicists and handlers are far more of a pain in the ass. Frankly, if you can explain what you’re trying to do, and don’t ask too much, then you’ll get your shot without any dramatics. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some people I’ve shot —I thought Patti Smith would be a nightmare, but she turned out to be a really lovely person, mostly, I think, because I talked about how I wanted to get something of the feel of Nadar or Julia Margaret Cameron in my portrait of her. Stanley Tucci was genuinely curious about what I was doing, and that was nice. Some people have been difficult, and mostly I’d just like to forget about the whole experience. That said, one of those difficult subjects ended up in my online portfolio, so it’s really all about the picture in the end.

CoC:  In a discussion thread at Nick Packwood’s blog last year, you lamented the decline of fashion photography. You opined that fashion photography culminated in the fifties with the work of artists like Brodovitch, Penn, Avedon, Horst, Dahl-Wolfe, and Parkinson. Would you care to elaborate on this?

RMG: I don’t imagine that anybody can look at an old issue of Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue without marveling at the elegance and vision. Never mind that the clothes were lovely, or that the models gave off a maturity that’s been banished today. The compositions were marvellous, and the layouts magnificent. I think that Brodovitch and Carmel Snow were great artists, really—they made the work of people like Penn and Avedon really shine. The late Fabien Baron came close to their level of genius. There’s no one like that working today, as far as I can tell.

RMG: What artists have inspired you? Is there a particular artist or teacher you would like to single out for making a difference in how you look through a viewfinder?

Penn, without a doubt. I’ve never met him— he’s a notorious recluse—but my friend Chris and I once made a pilgrimage to his studio in midtown Manhattan. It was closed, naturally, but we took a picture of his nameplate on the door, and of ourselves on the floor, worshipping the door. The sort of silly thing you do when you’re young, but it pretty much encapsulated how I felt about the man.

CoC:  What other sources of inspiration do you draw from for your photography?

RMG: I once studied a lot of Japanese calligraphy and brush painting when I was looking for a way to simplify my style. A single brushstroke bisecting a space, a few strokes delineating a bird, or a man carrying a heavy bundle. Something to imagine while you’re trying to cut out distracting elements from a composition.

CoC:  Are you working on any current photography projects that you are interested in sharing about?

RMG: For the last few years I’ve been trying to wander around the old working-class west end neighbourhoods I grew up in here in Toronto— Mount Dennis, Earlscourt, Silverthorn—and document the buildings and details, sort of like Atget trying to document a disappearing Paris, but nowhere near as romantic. There are all these little old houses, many of them built by their original owners, that fit so neatly into a 6×6 frame. I can only shoot in the spring or fall, when the light is just right—it’s too harsh in the summer, and impossible for a lot of obvious reasons in the winter.

I find homes so moving—certainly where I grew up, people cherished their homes, and didn’t regard them as just “real estate”, to be traded and upgraded. I’m also trying to capture something of our time, when there are still a lot of old things in the streetscape that haven’t been renovated or self-consciously “preserved”. Think of all the snapshots, old newspaper archive photos and bits of street photography that are so cherished now—little portraits of the past that probably looked incredibly mundane when they were shot. That’s what I’m trying to do, I think.

CoC:  Imagine that you have access to a time machine and a complete freedom from any personal commitments. You are able to go back and live at any point in the past, but you will not be able to return to the future. Would you go back, and to what year? Why? Is there a particular photographer that you have always wanted to be an assistant to? A magazine that you have fantasized about working for?

RMG: I would love to have lived in New York in the 40s and 50s, working for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Look, whatever. Shooting album covers for Atlantic Records. A nice fantasy.

CoC:  You mentioned your Catholic faith in a recent MetroNews column. Faith has profoundly affected many artists, from Michelangelo to Mel Gibson. Have you found yourself similarly affected?

RMG: The most obvious thing would be the iconography—the rich heritage of art and ritual, the beauty of old church architecture and the Latin Rite. All that lovely old choral music. Those are the obvious things, I suppose—feeling connected to two millennia of history. The other thing would be the grounding I’ve gotten with the Church, especially since I returned to it after years of wavering and largely unconvinced agnosticism. It’s hard to describe the gift of faith to people who don’t share it, but it’s like having a constant companion, a place you can go to when you’re alone to look at yourself and your life, and have some means and standards by which to judge and analyze your actions. Words like morality don’t seem to do it justice, and grace is a term that seems too abstract sometimes.

CoC:  All photographers have their photographic ‘pet peeves’. What are yours?

RMG: I think Annie Liebovitz has a lot to answer for. Her high concept style of photography, all props and costumes, was a bit of a creative dead end, even though it had its imitators, like Mark Seliger and Dave LaChappelle. Even she got tired of it after awhile, and started going back to starker black and white work. For years it created a sort of standard in magazine work—a very stage-managed sort of work that incurred a lot of expenses for photographers, which wasn’t always recoupable in their fees. It was very popular when I was starting out, and there was always a pressure from editors to try that sort of style, and I always resented that.

CoC:  Your online portfolio features mainly your portraiture, with the ‘places’ and ‘things’ categories stating that more content is coming soon. What else do you like to photograph when the opportunity presents itself?

RMG: That’s about it—besides portraiture, I love shooting still-lifes and landscapes. There’s not much else that interests me. Actually, that’s not true. I almost applied to the Canadian Armed Forces war artist program awhile ago—I’m not sure if it ever actually happened, but it was a program that tried to revive the great body of painting, by people like Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, Alex Colville and others, done during the two World Wars. Artists would have been sent out to document the work of troops in the field—in Afghanistan, Kosovo or wherever—and have the work join the national collection. I loved that tradition so much that I wanted to be a part of it. Two things stopped me, though. One—my wife was pregnant, and I couldn’t imagine leaving her. Two—you would have to support yourself; there was no stipend, wage or grant offered, except maybe for materials. I just couldn’t afford it, in terms of money or time. I’ll probably always regret it a little, though it might have been a big disappointment. But I’ll never know.

CoC:  Are there any horror stories, or tales of photographic woe that you are willing to share?

RMG: Never use a fixer without an emulsion hardener. That’s all I’ll say. And never let junior art directors talk you into doing paparazzi or party shots just because you want to get your foot in the door at some magazine. Get hired to do work you want to do, or not at all— you’ll regret the compromise.

CoC:  Do you plan on publishing any books of your work in the future? If so, what will they feature?

RMG: I’d love to publish a book of my photos of houses and buildings—the neighbourhood project. I don’t know that anyone is all that interested, or that any publisher would touch it, but that’s one thing I’d love to do. A book of still life work, perhaps. It’s a funny thing about the portraits—they comprise the majority of my work, and I could care less about them in the long run.

CoC:  What advice would you share with any up and coming photographers who are looking at going the professional route?

RMG: You’d better love taking photos, because the money is pretty sporadic, and the frustration ample. And you’d better have a tough skin, because the whole process of selling yourself to editors, art directors and agents— especially portfolio drop-offs and go-sees—are hardly pleasant. If you can bring yourself to do weddings, it’s not a bad way to pay the rent.

CoC:  What was the last photography book you read? Would you recommend it to others?

RMG: The most inspiring book of photography I’ve read in years was Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs Of Charles Jones, published a few years ago. Jones was a gardener who took up photography to document the vegetables and flowers he was growing. What remained of his work was found in a trunk at an antiques market, and bought by a photo dealer and historian who recognized the elegance of what Jones had done. There’s not much known about him, and that trunk was all we’ll ever know. Lovely work.

CoC:  If you had to point to a single image that you are most proud of or that holds the most meaning for you, which one would it be, and why?

RMG: I did a still life of my mother’s old Pyrex mixing bowls a few years ago—a simple, high-key shot. Those bowls remind me of her, of the kitchen of the house where I grew up.

CoC:  Most photographers suffer from ‘the blahs’ at one point or another. It seems like all the good images have already been made and there is no point in picking up the camera and leaving one’s home. How do you work past this when it happens to you?

RMG: I’ve never thought that all the good images were already taken, but I’ve definitely felt like I didn’t have any left in me. I took a break that lasted almost two years when the frustration and fatigue overwhelmed me. It’s not practical unless you have a nest egg, or something else you can do—for me, it was working as a photo editor, ironically. I got to look at work without having to agonize over my own photos, and it was a lifesaver. When I picked up a camera again, it actually felt exciting for the first time in years.

CoC:  Do you ever feel a need as an artist to ‘re-invent’ yourself and break with your old style every so often? Have you ever successfully done this?

RMG: I’ve been doing very little work with my old Rolleis since I started shooting digitally, which has forced me to think about the work differently, breaking old shooting habits. The results are on the “recent work” annex I’ve added to my website, and I’m pretty proud of them. It’s fast, fast work—a few minutes at best in hotel rooms, mostly – and hardly up there with good studio portraiture, mine or anyone else’s, but I still think they’re a great solution to a tough problem—the limited access everyone but the biggest names are given to subjects.

CoC:  What is your opinion of the current state of professional photography? It seems there is no shortage of professional photographers lamenting the ‘hordes of idiots with digital cameras who are ruining things for everyone’. Are you concerned with the direction of the professional photography market?

RMG: I don’t know what digital cameras have to do with anything, really. Either good photos are being taken or they’re not. I’m seeing some decent work out there, and a lot of dull stuff, but that’s no change. Complaining about a change in technology—or a new generation muscling in—sounds pretty tired to me. The profession has always been about technological and generational changes. I can’t be bothered with the sour grapes.

CoC:  If someone asked you to explain to them in fifty words or less what photography means to you, what would you say to them?

RMG: Light. The same thing that inspired Turner, who was supposed to have died saying “The sun is God”, or something like that. It’s all about light. That’s about it.
by Sean & Jennifer McCormick