Photography

Mimic

Patty Osborne

In 1982 my brother Tom hung out with a group of artists who usually drank at the Lamplighter beer parlour in Gastown, the oldest part of Vancouver, but it was at a different bar, the Railway Club, that Tom’s friend Dorothy asked him if he wanted to make some money by posing for Jeff Wall, an up-and-coming local photographer who Tom had never heard of. When Jeff told Dorothy, who was also going to be in the photo, that he was looking for a “tough greasy type” to be her partner, she thought of my brother right away, even though, my brother says, he wasn’t particularly tough or greasy at the time. Jeff told my brother that he was looking for a blond man but that Tom would do, as long as he agreed not to cut or wash his hair or trim his beard before the photo shoot, which was to take place in two weeks. From then until the shoot, when Tom went to the bar, which he did often, he wore a handmade sign that said “I’m getting paid to look like this.”

The first photo shoot took place in the late afternoon on a summer day, behind the Waldorf Hotel on Hastings Street, a hotel that few people could remember the name of so it was known as “that bar on Hastings with the palm trees.” In the shot, Tom and Dorothy were to hold hands and walk along the sidewalk, and as they overtook Rod, a young man of Asian descent, Tom was to make a racist gesture by pulling on the side of one of his own eyes so it would “slant.” All of this action was to take place in one still photo, thus re-creating a scene that Jeff had witnessed when he didn’t have his camera set up to record it.

The actors and the photographer spent some time rehearsing the shot: first Jeff put a piece of tape on the sidewalk to indicate the place at which Tom was supposed to make the racist gesture, but it was impossible to coordinate the walk so that all three people ended up in the right place at the right time, so after many rehearsals, during which Tom and Rod muttered curses and racial slurs at each other to get in the mood, they settled on a starting point and then three steps and then the gesture and then the shot, and please, everyone, no more laughing. After that, Tom, Dorothy and Rod went to the hotel bar to have a drink and wait for Jeff to hurry in and urge them to get back out there because the light was just right.

It took two afternoons of shooting for Jeff to get the photo he wanted, not just for timing and framing but because of intermittent clouds and rain. Tom did not have a phone, so on each scheduled day, at about 4:00 p.m., Jeff had to search him out in the Lamplighter pub to tell him whether it was a no or a go. When the shoot was over, Jeff paid my brother three hundred dollars (the actors’ union rate) and asked if he could have the denim vest that Tom had pulled out of his drawer to wear in the photo.

The final print, which was given the name Mimic, is over six feet tall and has been known to startle several of Tom’s friends and relatives when they have come upon it in art galleries around the world. Tom never saw Rod again, and he lost touch with Dorothy—who, he was later surprised to find out, is the writer Dorothy Trujillo Lusk. Tom had not known her last name, because in the bars and studios around Gastown, unless you went by your last name (as did his friend Murphy), it was first names only. Dorothy remembers that Rod was an actor and model who Jeff hired through a local agency, but if she ever knew his last name she can’t remember it now.

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