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Photographer John Reeves at his home in Toronto January 23, 2012. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Photographer John Reeves at his home in Toronto January 23, 2012. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Photographer John Reeves leaves a legacy of revealing portraits Add to ...

Photographer John Reeves deployed his exuberant personality to put many a celebrity at ease during photo sessions. Even in a few pressured minutes, he managed to build trust and rapport with his subjects. To him, capturing a person’s essence in a portrait was far more than simply pointing a camera and shooting. It was an art.

During a career that spanned roughly 50 years, Mr. Reeves created more than 500 compelling photographs of international figures, including Margaret Atwood, Marshall McLuhan, Tony Bennett and Dizzy Gillespie.

The photographer’s work is included in public and corporate collections such as the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, the National Library of Canada, and the National Archives of Canada.

After Mr. Reeves died of cancer on Nov. 3 in Toronto, at age 78, Ms. Atwood remembered him fondly. “John was a wonderful photographer and a genial man,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Geniality, combined with a raconteur’s capacity to interweave stories, particularly ones about art and jazz, came to the photographer’s rescue more than once.

Mr. Reeves was permitted exactly five minutes in a New York hotel room with Dizzy Gillespie, eschewing what he called “the goofy shot” of the trumpeter, horn to mouth with cheeks puffed-out. He said “I wanted the genius, the great man.” Mr. Reeves came away satisfied.

Time constraints were also imposed for his shoot with singer/poet Leonard Cohen. As winner of the 2011 Glenn Gould Prize, it was incumbent upon Mr. Cohen to have his portrait taken. Mr. Reeves waited patiently at a hotel for several hours, only to be informed by Mr. Cohen’s manager that they were behind schedule and a sitting would be impossible. When the singer finally arrived and went to the lobby bathroom, Mr. Reeves followed and began chatting about Montreal. He’d spent a year in the city of Mr. Cohen’s birth, attending Sir George Williams (now Concordia University), where he studied painting and got to know the local arts scene. By the time they left the bathroom, the poet insisted the photographer be allowed 15 minutes with him. Favouring ambient light, enhanced by only a small strobe, Mr. Reeves managed to get several intimate close-ups of the aged icon, hooded eyes gazing thoughtfully from beneath the brim of his signature fedora hat.

During an interview for P.O.V. magazine with Vincenzo Pietropaolo, also a photographer, Mr. Reeves discussed the difficulties inherent in capturing the landscape of the human face. “It’s the gaze, or a gesture that happens in a fraction of a second which conveys something unforgettable about the person … that goes well beyond the physical recording and resonates emotionally with viewers.”

One of Mr. Reeves’s favourite portraits was that of novelist Robertson Davies. For this particular sitting, without time constraints and working in his studio, Mr. Reeves employed his mastery of lighting to create a dramatic effect on the writer whom Mr. Reeves regarded as “a theatrical guy.”

“John always said a great portrait is given, not taken,” Mr. Pietropaolo said. “He was never intimidated. He had a sense of humour and honesty that allowed him to connect with people very quickly.”

Mr. Reeves’s loquacious ebullience also put him in demand as a radio and television broadcaster. In the early 1970s, he hosted a short-lived half-hour arts and literature program, Toronto in Review, on CBC radio. Mr. Reeves could expound, at great length, on a vast array of topics, frequently wandering off-course to discuss such subjects as how to make a perfect gin and tonic.

Whenever Mr. Reeves was on air, the sound engineer frantically slid controls up and down to compensate for the host’s swaying back and forth, fidgeting and gesticulating as he made his point in front of the microphone. It was out of character – perhaps impossible – for Mr. Reeves to sit perfectly still if he had an audience.

At lunchtime on Fridays, beginning in the early 1980s, Mr. Reeves was frequently found at a Toronto restaurant in the company of broadcasters, writers and academics, a gathering known as P.O.E.T.S. The acronym stood for “Piss on Everything Tomorrow’s Saturday.” Not a fan of early mornings (noon being considered early), Mr. Reeves could show up for lunch in a rumpled way, tired, grumpy and perhaps slightly hung over. “He’d always order a ‘pony’ (little drink … big kick) of something and as it warmed him up, he’d warm to a topic and his wit would shine through,” one of the group’s attendees said.

His lifelong friend Michael Hood recalled their meeting more than 70 years earlier at Strathcona Public School, in Burlington, Ont.

“Even as a child, John was always a ‘little man.’ He echoed the mannerisms and opinions of the adults in his life so he was rather a unique fellow and remained so throughout his life,” Mr. Hood said. Being two grades ahead, Mr. Hood looked out for the younger boy to protect him from being picked on.

John Alexander Reeves was born on April 24, 1938, in Hamilton, Ont. He was the only child of Walter Reeves, a vacuum cleaner salesman from England, and his Canadian wife, Jean, who’d earned a degree in food sciences from Montreal’s McGill University.

In the early 1940s, the Reeves family moved to a farm in Burlington. As an adolescent, influenced by his older friend, John became enamoured of jazz. To his parents’ chagrin, he took up drumming. “He nearly drove his parents crazy with his practising. Anything he took up, he took up seriously,” Mr. Hood said.

Mr. Reeves occasionally told friends he wished he’d become a McCoy Tyner or Zoot Sims, a couple of the jazz giants he revered. Instead, the world of the visual became his calling.

In his early 20s, driving a taxi to support himself, Mr. Reeves enrolled at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University). When he realized the potential of photography to document culture, the camera became his preferred tool. Not a good student by nature, Mr. Reeves persisted in his studies, graduating in 1961.

The 1960s were a halcyon era for photography, during which magazines regularly featured five or more pages of photo essays. Photography and writing by Mr. Reeves appeared in almost every prominent Canadian magazine of the day, including Toronto Life and Maclean’s. He contributed to several National Film Board coffee-table books, and served as a special consultant on the NFB book Between Friends/Entre Amis published to acknowledge the American bicentennial, in 1976.

During the United Nations’ International Women’s Year, in 1975, Mr. Reeves documented a Who’s Who of Canadian women for the NFB. Unlike his earlier portraits, he shot this series in colour and included the context of the women’s homes or places of work. Mr. Reeves explained in his P.O.V. interview that he was replacing the multipage essay with a single “feature” picture. He wanted the women wearing their own clothes in an environment of their choice. “It wasn’t like when I used to shoot for Chatelaine and they had to do their hair. They would [have to] wear a red jacket – ‘our readers love red’ – you know. Just dreadful stuff.”

The resulting series, Portraits of Women 1974-77, was exhibited at the Déjà Vu Gallery in Toronto and eventually housed in archives at the University of Saskatchewan. For his next major project, the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council invited Mr. Reeves in the late 1970s to document Inuit artists of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, in Cape Dorset. The result was an extensive photo essay exhibited in 1981 at the Canadian Centre for Photography. It was the first of three trips to the Arctic where Mr. Reeves was fascinated by the artistic possibilities of photographing the “scale-less, apparitional landscape.”

Also in the 1980s, in collaboration with jazz writer Gene Lees, Mr. Reeves successfully pitched the idea for a book called Jazz Lives to publisher Jack McClelland. For the next few years he travelled the world capturing portraits of his musical idols. He called it “The greatest experience of my life as a photographer.”

Later in life, Mr. Reeves kept busy administering his archives and copyrights with the assistance of his long-time common-law partner, Beverley McGhee. Ms. McGhee, a divorced supplier of commercial lighting to the retail trade, met Mr. Reeves in 1995, when they were introduced by a mutual friend. As she got to know the photographer she observed how much he hated change in his home/studio. “When he suggested that a tiny kitchen at his house might make a good clothes closet for me, I thought ‘My God, I just got married again.’”

Mr. Reeves leaves Ms. McGhee and Adam, her son from a previous marriage.

In 1990, close friend and writer Barry Callaghan published a book of Reeves portraits for his imprint Exile Editions. Almost 25 years later, Toronto filmmaker Pierre Ouellet collaborated with the photographer on a documentary about Mr. Reeves’s life. The title of Mr. Callaghan’s book was so fitting that Mr. Ouellet could find none better for the documentary. About Face will be released next year.

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