Whenever a notable Canadian artist (writer, painter, actor, designer, dancer, you name it) dies, one of the first ports of call for the astute obituary editor these days is the Toronto studio of John Reeves.
Need a beautifully composed, well-nigh definitive portrait of Josef Skvorecky? Rob McConnell? Jackie Burroughs? How ’bout June Callwood in her early 40s? Chances are good, very good, that Mr. Reeves has it in his files. Seventy-four in April, he’s been a professional photographer for so long for so many clients, extant and deceased – his first assignment, photographing important historic documents at Library and Archives Canada for the now-defunct Provincial’s Paper magazine, occurred a half-century ago this past month – that it’s likely easier to name those he hasn’t squinted at through his viewfinder than those he has. No wonder he’s prone to calling himself “the embalmer of slivered time.”
Admittedly, Mr. Reeves doesn’t do that much original shooting these days. Partly this is a reflection of time’s onward march and the vagaries of changing taste: “You aren’t gonna be at the top of everybody’s Rolodex forever,” he said with a philosophic shrug during a recent interview at his office/home off Queen Street East near the Don River. Partly it’s because “I have the luxury now of basically being able to do what I want to do” even if “the dough isn’t what it used to be.” One looming possibility is a session with Leonard Cohen, last year’s winner of the $50,000 Glenn Gould international prize. Mr. Reeves has been taking the official portrait of the winner at the behest of the Glenn Gould Foundation since the prize’s inception in 1990. In the meantime, “a lot of what I do is administering what I’ve already done.” Like sending the Times Literary Supplement a picture of Alice Munro he took decades ago to illustrate a recent review of her selected short stories. Or providing a 30-page section of portraits of Inuit artists for a book marking the 50th anniversary of the Cape Dorset print-making project.
Given the duration of his career and extent of his experiences, Mr. Reeves is, unsurprisingly, a fount of anecdotes, his language occasionally as imagistic as anything he’s ever caught in his camera. But he’s not one to rank his voluminous output according to favourites or what subject was the most prominent or the most difficult or the easiest or most intimidating. “I don’t, to my mind, have bad sessions,” he said. “In a way, they’re all favourites. Why? Because in most instances, I don’t know them and I want to. … It’s the process that interests me, the business of meeting people and trying to elicit information about them.”
While Mr. Reeves has done his share of environmental portraits over the decades – painter William Ronald with a nude (female) assistant in his studio, 100-year-old piano instructor Louise Murch at her keyboard – he’s perhaps best known for his up-close renderings of faces, sometimes so close as to deserve the term “pore-ous.” Mr. Reeves firmly believes “the face can tell the story a lot of the time.” But “you really have go in there and engage. It’s not me imposing my thing on them, playing with them, doing funny things to them. It’s me looking for them to decide what they want to do for the camera. They come up with what they’ve got and, hopefully, I’m into that giving moment. It’s there. It’s done. And then you might as well pack up.”
During the interview, Mr. Reeves voiced particular enthusiasm for a photograph/essay package he prepared on taxi dispatcher Ronnie Guglietti for Toronto Life in 1988. Mr. Guglietti is one of those personal canon guys – “the King of the Voice Dispatchers,” in Mr. Reeves’s words, whom he first encountered in the late fifties or early sixties when he was driving a cab while attending what is now the Ontario College of Art and Design University and wondering if “photography [was]something I should think about doing.” Mr. Guglietti never drove a car “but he had this impeccable map of the city in his head,” Mr. Reeves recalled. “You never argued with him about a location.” And, with a voice informed by close listening to Frank Sinatra records, he would authoritatively and mellifluously manoeuvre dozens of cabs hither and thither with nary a hiccup.
Mr. Guglietti, in short, embodies one of Mr. Reeves’s favourite things – “someone who understands what they’re doing in a very profound way … They’re inside their gesture.” It’s a description that easily fits Mr. Reeves himself. Indeed, 20 years ago poet-novelist-publisher-friend Barry Callaghan likened Reeves, a long-time and passionate jazz buff, to a great tenor saxophonist like Ben Webster or Sonny Stitt: “He can ripple all over the scales but what he really has is the casual sureness to hit the big whole note and hold it, and hold it, and let the silences gather and the stillnesses seep in.”