Down on the Corner: Busking the Streets of Ottawa

Ottawa has had a long tradition of great street performers, but in recent years the number of acts hitting the streets has been declining and we have Big Brother Business to blame.

Busking used to be a great way for struggling musicians and performers to make a buck and maybe get yourself noticed, but now businesses want to take a cut. City of Ottawa requires buskers to cough up $200 a year for a buskers license in order to work the Byward Market… but it doesn’t stop there, each financial district has it’s own Business Association that can levy it’s own fee for buskers… you want to work the streets in front of Parliament, that’s another license… you want to work Elgin… popped again… Bank St pull out your wallet boys and girls.

When I came to Ottawa for University in ’99 the Market was full of amazing buskers from all over the world. Acts from Europe and Australia especially loved coming to the Capital, ten years later I walk around the market and in a good week I see one fresh face I haven’t seen before. Mostly it’s the same half dozen acts that to be honest, have gotten lazy. Those that can afford the license now seem to think they own the place and don’t really have to try anymore. Don’t get me wrong, there are still quite a few quality performers out there, the ones that really put on a show… engage the audience and really seem like they’re serious about it, Stunt Double Circus comes to mind. But you can tell there’s a lot of buskers that are pretty much just phoning it in now… it’s not enough to show up in dirty jeans and a t-shirt and bang out the same three songs all day if you want people to cough up their pocket change in a time where pocket change is getting harder to hang on to. And out of town acts are virtually non-existent so far this year, some struggle to just break even between room, board and travel expenses to tour different countries, being popped for a license on top of all that just doesn’t make Ottawa a financially attractive place to set up shop.

Busking has been integral to making the Market what it is today, and now business and industry is turning it’s backs on part of the reason the Market is so successful. Many great Canadian acts got their start busking, we wouldn’t have the Barenaked Ladies without it, but now it seems quality buskers might be a dying breed in this corner of the country. Be warned Ottawa, if this continues street theater will be gone from this town and it may never come back.

You can see more shots of Ottawa Street Music on my Flickr. If you see someone there, they’re worth checking out… throw them an extra buck or two. You may have seen my Stunt Double Circus pics already, but they’re definitely worth checking out in person if you get the chance.

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The Dinner Jacket features The Love Machine

It’s been a while since my last post; it’s been a fairly busy winter and a couple projects are nearly wrapped up that I’ll be featuring in the next few weeks. First on the list is a project I shot almost two months ago that’s been in the works ever since.

The day after New Years I shot The Love Machine at Club SAW.  Some of the photos appear in the latest issue of  The Dinner Jacket Magazine along with an article about the band; you can take a look at it here (p32-35).

Along with the standard band shots, I wanted something punchy for a full page photo to start the article. It’s difficult to get the whole band in on stage in such a way that everyone’s recognizable, especially in portrait orientation, so I decided to go with a photo montage of the band members. I wanted to do something special with this one and I’ve had a collection of old watches available to me for some time that I’ve been meaning to use for something, and this seemed to fit perfectly.

Shooting the watches was somewhat of a challenge as I had to shoot them pretty close with a macro lens and still be able to light them adequately to avoid nasty reflections. Most of my time was spent cutting and splicing different watch bits up in Photoshop and figuring out how to create the letters I was missing to spell out “Love Machine” from the letters stamped in the metal bits. In the end the composite was comprised of about two dozen layers and weighed in at a whopping gig and a half.

You can see some more shots from The Love Machine at Club SAW on my Flickr. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more band shoots and pics from Winterlude.

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Shooting Halloween at Mansion for ClubZone

Started a new steady photo gig this Halloween weekend. I’m now going to be shooting for ClubZone on a regular basis at various clubs and bars around Ottawa. They send me to the clubs to shoot the night and I post the shots the next day. The venue gets advertisement and exposure and the patrons get free photos of themselves and their friends.

I was a bit apprehensive as to how people would react to some guy walking around a club asking to take their picture, but Halloween proved to be the perfect time to start. Everyone was more than willing to show off their costumes. I shot both the Friday and Saturday night parties at the Mansion and people seemed really positive about it.

I was a little concerned about the technical side of shooting the night. I had a few ideas how I was going to light the shots in such a dark environment. Most clubs have really high or really dark ceiling, so bouncing a flash off it was pretty much out. I didn’t want to use straight flash and blind people either, plus it wouldn’t look much better than the point and shoot pics people can take themselves. Turns out my new ring flash was a god send. It’s not that light efficient, but in an almost completely dark club it had more than enough power. In the end I was able to find a really nice compromise between ambient and flash that gave nice even illumination without killing the atmosphere. Best money/value buy I’ve made this year.

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Nick Cave at The Ottawa Writers Festival

I was going to write about the juried exhibit I got accepted to, but that will have to wait, I couldn’t pass on doing a quick write up on seeing Nick Cave at the Ottawa Writers Festival.

When I first heard he was going to be in town, I assumed it was going to be with The Bad Seeds, but it turned out he’s on a book signing tour for his new novel The Death of Bunny Munro. Nick Cave is still Nick Cave so of course we went, and I’m glad we did.

Nick’s hilarious, and the excerpts he read from his book has convinced me to go pick it up. His talk wandered from his history with The Bad Seeds to his new band Grinderman, his previous book, And the Ass Saw the Angel, and even his failed attempt at pitching a script for Gladiator II (long story short, Russell Crowe beats up purgatory, then the Christians, then goes on to fight every war in history… alone).

I was in a pretty good position this time, last time at this venue I was mostly behind a three foot thick cement column. The light was pretty low and really pushed what Image Stabilization and the excellent hi iso capabilities of my 50D, it’s still comes as a shock that I can go all the way up to iso 3200 and still get usable files.

Definitely check out The Death of Bunny Munro if you get the chance, or pick up the audio book read, scored and with sound effects all by Mr. Cave himself. You can see a few more shots of Nick Cave on my Flickr.

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Loudlove in the Studio

Loudlove in the Studio by J B Hildebrand

Last week I was on assignment for the Kitchissippi Times out to shoot Loudlove, who are in the middle of recording a new album here in Ottawa at the Liverpool Court Studios. I managed to slip in for a quick shoot while the band was taking a break from recording. I went in to this job blind and on short notice… which is never ideal… but luckily the guys were very accommodating. I was expecting to grab some shots of the band while they where laying down a track, but by the time I got there they where already done playing and about to work on the mixing.

I ended up lining them up behind the mixing board, which had a nice wall behind it and some cool stuff piled on the sides to create a nice frame for the image. It’s always nice to shoot a band that isn’t camera shy. They basically just goofed off for ten minutes while I snapped away, which from the short time I spent with them seemed to be their base state of being.

I’ve been asked by a few other photographers why I usually carry about three times more gear than I will ever need for a shoot… this is why. I often have no idea what I’ll need till I get there and I’ll take a sore back if it means I have what I need to get the shot. Also, people seem to take you more seriously the more gear you lug around even if you never touch most of it during a shoot… it’s one of those psychological things I don’t quite understand but am happy to take advantage of.

I ended up getting what I needed and the article will be out in the Kitchissippi Times today. If you can’t wait for the album they’re laying down now you can see Loudlove at the Ottawa Reggae Festival this Sunday at 8:00pm. You can check out my Flickr for some more shots from the shoot with Loudlove.

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Street Photography in the Byward Market

Busker in the Byward Market

I love working in the Byward Market. Everyday I walk around at lunch and there’s never a shortage of things to shoot. Summer is busker season and the market attracts professional street performers from all over the world. The man in the photo was from Australia, he comes to Canada most summers and busks his way across the country.

The nice thing about the Byward Market is that it’s full of tourists with cameras so no one thinks twice about someone taking their picture. Unfortunately there seems to be a stigma attached to street photography in some peoples eyes. They’ll go to galleries and admire the work of Bresson or Capa, but give a dirty look when someone takes their picture on the street. Street photographers record the mood and culture of the times in a raw and unscripted fashion… giving a true face to period of history. Reading the history books is great but it can be hard to sort out fact from propaganda and pop culture.

Luckily, living in Canada I haven’t encountered the type of harassment photographers in the UK and the US have to deal with; being accosted by security guards or police for taking pictures in subways or bus stations. It’s gotten so bad in the UK that photographers have banded together to try and bring attention to the almost police state mentality that’s sprung up concerning photography. Visit Not A Crime to see what I’m talking about. It’s getting pretty scary to be a photographer in some countries and unfortunately its historic record that will suffer the most in the end.

You can see more of my street photography on Flickr.

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Environmental Portraits

I’m a huge fan of environmental portraits. You wouldn’t shoot a duck on a stool in front of a textured backdrop if you were trying to portray “duckness”… maybe if you were taking a picture for a biology textbook, but to evoke an emotional response you’d make sure the duck was in a stream or pond… maybe with some reeds or lily pads, a few trees and maybe a rock or two… all the things that tell people what that duck’s world is like.

Same goes with people. The best portraits I’ve taken are at times when the last thing I was looking for was a portrait. As soon as someone knows “now is portrait time” they clam up, paste on their plastic smile and look as little like themselves as possible. Most people at least… I’m convinced the entire basis of being “photogenic” is just the instinct to relax and be natural in front of a camera instead of going into smiling-deer-in-headlights mode.

Good portraits tell the viewer things about the subject beyond what they look like and one of the best ways to do this is to capture the subject around things that speak to their personality. Mike here on the left is fun and easy going and this portrait was taken in the crowd of an indie show at a local cafe.

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