10×10 Project: Ann-Marie and Alisa
December 13, 2012
How did I get myself into this? I was in panic mode, throwing everything but the proverbial kitchen sink into my car, hoping to stave off any chance of photographic failure.
“Why does it have to be so WINDY? And so SUNNY?” I worried, knowing that my scrim and stand would be no match for this particularly gusty day, while my patient wife helped me test alternatives. I was about to meet and photograph two accomplished Canadian artists I admired, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. This was no typical shoot day.
A year earlier, my friend James Fowler asked me to participate in a project he’d launched called “10×10″. The concept was to have ten LGBTQ photographers make portraits of ten LGBTQ Canadians in the arts on an annual basis, never repeating a photographer or a subject over the course of ten years. Each year’s images would be hung in a gallery and published in a book, with a portion of sales going to an arts program for LGBTQ youth. See the website here: http://10x10photographyproject.com/
Although intrigued by the idea, I felt I had to refuse a spot as a photographer. “I’m a bad lesbian,” I half-joked, “I don’t have any gay friends, let alone gay friends in the arts.” In truth I had one, and when he ended up becoming one of the inaugural 10×10 photographers, I found myself on the other side of the camera as one of his subjects. Attending the gallery show in June 2011, I was amazed to see the wildly different approaches each photographer had taken. It occurred to me as I viewed the portraits of some well-known Canadians that there was no reason I couldn’t request sittings with people I didn’t personally know. The possibilities excited me, and when James asked me to participate in the second year of 10×10, I jumped at the opportunity.
I began making inquiries with potential subjects soon after the Christmas holidays, and I aimed high! I had admired Ann-Marie MacDonald ever since the publication of her first novel “Fall On Your Knees” in 1996. I’d seen Ann-Marie perform a play of hers recently at the Tarragon Theatre, so I reached out to them to ask for help in contacting her. She kindly responded to say the project sounded “like fun”, and she was in. When I subsequently asked whether her wife (the accomplished theatre director Alisa Palmer), might also like to participate, I was elated to receive the response that she would.
It took a month to work out the details and timing. I decided I wanted to reuse the location I’d seen in the PSA “It Gets Better Canada”, which I guessed was their home:
Ann-Marie and Alisa both participated in the campaign aimed at LGBTQ youth in the wake of recent suicides (further cementing their place in my heart). Ann-Marie confirmed that the spot was indeed their front porch, and the idea of showing my subjects in a setting that was meaningful to them really appealed to me.
And now here I stood, outside their home, trying to compose myself as I did some preliminary test shots. Within seconds a very excited woman flew at me from across the street. “Are you taking listing photos?” she asked breathlessly. “No,” I told her, “just setting up to take portraits of the people who live here.” “Oh, that’s too bad. I’ve been dying to see inside this house for years!” I did my best to make polite conversation until she went on her way.
Taking a deep breath—nervous to meet these accomplished women, and nervous because the light kept changing every two minutes—I finally rang the bell. There was immediate frantic barking within, and I smiled. Dog people.
Ann-Marie answered the door with one hand while holding back the dog with the other, and invited me into her home. Once the door was closed, she held out her hand to shake mine and said easily, “Hi, I’m Ann-Marie.” I introduced myself as well, and thanked her for agreeing to participate. We broke the ice talking about the dog between our feet, Chester, who was rescued by them the year before, and the four pets I had at home.
She asked me experienced questions like whether I wanted her wearing a jacket or glasses, how I wanted her posed, and once we began working, she responded to direction like the seasoned pro she is. I knew when I had the shot I’d originally envisioned on the porch, but wanted a second scenario at the sweet front gate. I thought it was somehow appropriate to show this author of big family sagas welcoming the viewer to her own home.
I finished within the 15-minute time frame I’d given Ann-Marie, and told her I was sure I had what I needed. Back inside her home, she popped upstairs to get Alisa, but returned alone and offered me a coffee—while I heard the unmistakable sound of the shower turning on above. Since Alisa would obviously be a few more minutes, I asked if we could step back outside with Chester. Ann-Marie was a great sport, and put her coat back on. Chester was distracted by his surroundings, but allowed for a few frames.
I stood in the doorway of the kitchen, and we chatted while she tidied up her kitchen. Ann-Marie was quick and purposeful with her movements, darting around like a hummingbird. She was even tinier in person than she appeared on television. “Glamorous, isn’t it? Did you want some pictures of me loading my dishwasher?” she joked. Actually I did, I would have loved to pick up my camera and take some candid photos, but I was too afraid of imposing. It was a great space, filled with light from large windows, and painted in strong colours.
We talked about the house, and I mentioned that real estate was my wife’s line of work. Ann-Marie shared that it was the first house they’d seen; they loved it on sight and bought it twelve years ago. She said she particularly liked the open view from her kitchen window, being that they were situated on a corner lot, with no building next to them. I asked when she’d moved to Toronto (1980), then whether she’d felt supported in the community. She said, “Yes…but I’ve been out a long time.” Then she turned the tables and asked the same of me. I explained how I’d only met my wife and come out four years ago, realizing late in life what had been missing all those years. I explained part of the reason I wanted to participate in the 10×10 was to feel more connected to our community. She had an intense yet friendly way of looking directly at me as we spoke, and I felt fully engaged in our conversation.
I couldn’t help but ask Ann-Marie the question any reader would ask, which was whether she intended to write another novel (knowing that she’s been busy writing plays). She replied “I’m trying”, with what appeared to be a bit of a tight smile, so I moved on. “Would it be terribly cheesy for me to ask you to autograph your book for me while I’m here?” “It’s not cheesy at all, it’s what I do,” she said, taking the book from my hand, and signing it.
Ann-Marie asked me to have a seat at her kitchen table while she returned some e-mails. A short time later Alisa came rushing down the stairs, and swept dramatically into the room. She apologized for keeping me waiting, having been confused about the time, and asked “Does it matter what I wear on my feet?” I said no, it didn’t matter to me, but her feet would probably be visible in some of the shots so she should wear whatever was most comfortable for her. She disappeared, and the next thing I knew this redheaded Amazon reappeared in thigh-high killer boots, and said “Ok, let’s go.”
As I set up on the porch, I told her about the neighbour accosting me in front of her house. Alisa threw back her head and laughed, saying “why didn’t she just come and knock on the door?” I could think of a couple of reasons, given that Ann-Marie said the neighbourhood all knew who they were. “Well, we love the house, and we aren’t going anywhere just yet.”
Alisa was personable, self-deprecating, witty, and incredibly warm to me. She admitted that she used to hate being photographed until quite recently, when she decided to “just let it go”. A shoot with a famous photographer she’d trusted had gone badly, and she felt awful about the way she’d looked. I confessed that I found it stressful too, because I’m always nervous about letting people down. She seemed genuinely surprised, saying she’d never thought about it that way. I hoped we would both feel good about this experience when all was said and done. I found her so easy to work with, again a total natural in front of the camera. She was such a character: one moment she was all drama, the next she was all laughter.
When I was satisfied I had enough frames to combine with Ann-Marie’s, I finally relaxed. I checked the focus, showed Alisa some frames as I had with Ann-Marie, and made sure everyone was comfortable with what I’d done. Now I wanted to have a little fun.
We asked Ann-Marie to join us outside, so I could take some shots of them together, although one of the stipulations of the 10×10 was that each subject had to appear in their own frame. I wasn’t sure what I would end up with, perhaps I could crop or split them apart in the printing, but I decided to play it by ear.
As soon as Ann-Marie walked out onto the porch, Alisa grabbed her and wrapped her arms around her. I barely had time to lift my camera and snap a couple of candid frames.
Ann-Marie was standing on the top step with Alisa a foot below her, inspiring Alisa to joke that their courtship was “done entirely with Ann-Marie sitting down.” Alisa said, “I asked her to marry me, she stood up, and I said hey wait a minute!” Ann-Marie just rolled her eyes and laughed. I asked, “How long have you two been together?” and at the very same moment they responded, “Feels like forever/Not long enough”. They looked to be very genuinely in love.
When I asked if they would mind sitting down on the steps again, Alisa responded, “Can we keep hugging?” Yes, yes you can.
When I felt I’d taken enough of their time, and had all the frames I could have hoped for, I walked back to my car to get them a token of my appreciation. Having read in an interview that Alisa enjoyed “a full-bodied red”, my wife and I had picked up a beautiful bottle of Tuscan brunello for them. As Alisa tried to remember where she’d admitted to this indulgence, Ann-Marie said, “you ARE a full-bodied red!!” They told me we shouldn’t have done it, but they were glad we did. We chatted a bit longer about Italy, but I was incredibly conscious of time passing and not wanting to overstay my welcome. I bid my goodbye with the two of them still sitting on the front stoop.
Thank you, ladies, for what has thus far been the best single hour of my professional life.