THESE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO WE HAVE SEEN MORE OF (BESIDES OUR FAMILY) THAN ANYONE ELSE IN THE LAST THREE AND A HALF MONTHS. More than friends and extended kin, co-workers or schoolmates. As Covid shrunk our world down to a couple of blocks in any direction from our home, our neighbours became the people we came to know with unexpected and offhanded intimacy. Not that we’re complaining; perhaps some people might, but I can’t speak for them. Maybe we just have really nice neighbours.
When lockdown hit all of my work, actual or potential, pretty much dried up. A portrait series I’d only just begun had to be put on hold, and while there was always still life work and street photography to fill the weeks, I missed doing portraits. Frankly, I’m amazed it took me as long as it did to realize that the most appropriate subjects of all were within walking distance, waiting out the lockdown as eagerly as we were.
Using email, the neighbourhood Facebook page or just stopping people as they walked by the house, I began making appointments for quick portrait sessions. The rules were simple: I’d take the photos at either the front or back door of the homes where they’d been sheltering in place. They could choose how they wanted to dress and present themselves.
My camera and tripod would be set up a minimum of the acceptable socially distancing standard of six feet, if only to respect one of lockdown’s most sacred rituals. My oldest child acted as (paid) assistant, and bookings were made around when the sun wouldn’t be in the eyes of my subjects.
These are portraits of people near the end of lockdown. They have pushed past the uncertainty and improvisation of the first weeks and settled into a conditionally comfortable but decidedly ad hoc lifestyle that all of them, I’m certain, can’t wait to leave behind. Some of them have become better cooks. Many of them have watched far more television than they imagined. Their dogs have been living in a paradise of attention and exercise since winter ended, bonded more tightly than ever with a pack that never seemed to leave them.
We are Torontonians. We are polite people who don’t like to intrude, and will politely discourage intrusion. And yet we’ve become familiar with everybody’s regular habits, enthusiasms and preferences, mostly by simply observing our comings and goings, and those of our delivery people. I have, quite against lifelong habit, developed a real fondness and fellow-feeling for my neighbours, the result of living through what we were meant to understand was a lethal threat, in the comfort of our homes. We have bonded by experiencing what I can only understand now as a combination of a horror movie and a vacation.
NOT LONG AFTER THE TOILET PAPER PANIC, WE ALL STARTED WORRYING ABOUT WHAT WE WERE GOING TO EAT. Which sounds, on the surface, like we had things backward right from the start. It remains to be seen if lockdown will have long-lasting effects on the way we consume things – whether the supply chain and retail have been transformed, and whether what and how we get the things we need will be different in ways that weren’t predictable, or were going to change anyway, just not as quickly.
The first few weeks were very improvisatory, involving furtive trips to the grocery store with masks and gloves, and random tests of various grocery delivery options. Some were already established, others still finding their legs when owners of storefront businesses had to pivot to a new business model. Eventually we settled on a whole range of services, from a major home grocery delivery service we’d used before, to new ones set up by our local Italian deli/bakery, and a business just up the street that, until the lockdown, sold mostly to restaurants. Even beer and coffee was being delivered, courtesy local suppliers, many of them friends.
At work in the lockdown kitchen studio, May 2020.
It wasn’t long before these deliveries became the source of my still life subjects, after I’d shot all the flowers (dead and alive), skulls, scrapbooks, spring foliage and trash I could find. With so little else to think about, groceries became central to our lives within these four walls, so it seemed fitting (to me, at least) that they should be immortalized as they came over the threshold.
Every new box presented a challenge – tableaux or high-key? Portrait lighting or product? Soft light or hard? I hadn’t shot this much still life work in decades, so every session over the course of a busy month was a new technical challenge, and I had to dust off lighting schemes I hadn’t worked with since I had my old studio in Parkdale.
I often had just an hour or two to work with my subjects, not as much because they’d lose their freshness under my studio lights – I’m working with LEDs, so heat from light sources isn’t the issue it used to be – but because they had an appointment with the oven and stove just a few feet away from where I was shooting. On at least a couple of occasions, I’d finish with a subject, wash and chop it, then have it sauteing while I worked with another new setup on the kitchen table.
With all this time to experiment, I had an opportunity to play around with my new pinhole “lens”, and with another new bit of gear acquired during lockdown – a plastic lens off of a Holga camera, fitted with a mount for my mirrorless digital camera. The results, sometimes uneven, were intriguing when they worked – something close to that painterly look I’ve been painfully edging toward for years.
AFTER NEARLY TWO MONTHS IN LOCKDOWN IT WAS TIME TO SEE WHAT’S HAPPENED TO MY CITY. News stories and tweets weren’t enough – Toronto is my hometown, and I was naturally curious about what it looked like when you took away its shopping and jobs. The only people I assumed were left downtown were the ones living there, and they had been told – like everyone else – to stay inside.
So on a sunny weekday morning I headed for Yonge Street, the city’s main drag, and started walking south. Up in midtown it was business as usual (except for all the closed stores), but as I got closer to the downtown pedestrian and street traffic thinned out where they would normally been bustling on a sunny day in spring.
I feel obliged to point out here that not everybody was masked. My estimate was that it was about half – less if they were working a strenuous job like construction (and there was a lot of construction going on, and why not, with the streets empty.) But masks are the totem of this unusual time – they’ll be visual shorthand for 2020 when it’s time to make movies set during coronavirus.
Yonge Dundas Square was also mostly empty, except for TV news crews filming b-roll footage, those hardy and/or reckless souls who’d be in the square anyway, or locals desperate for a bit of air and light. The big neon screens that make the square look like a tribute to Blade Runner were heavily on-message, broadcasting Covid-19 messages from banks and airlines and city government.
Street photography isn’t my long game, but I felt I had to get as many pictures of mask wearers as I could. Most of my shooting was done discreetly without looking through the viewfinder of my X30, shooting with the camera at chest level, hoping to get lucky with composition and timing. There was time for one portrait, however, with a couple I met while lining up for a coffee at one of the few open cafes.
There wasn’t much open, in an area full of stores, restaurants and hotels. I’m still trying to anticipate how bad the economic damage is going to be, in both the short and long term. For the most part it just looked like staff had cleaned up at the end of the night and locked the doors. Only a couple of shops had barricaded their storefronts, and I couldn’t help noticing that the most valuable commodity in this time of crisis is apparently sneakers.
The financial district was the emptiest area – the place where no one lives, while all the jobs done at desks in the office towers are currently being done on laptops in home offices and kitchens. But the eeriest spot was Union Station, where the trains were only barely running, and the arrivals and departures board was dark. Travel will probably be the last thing to resume at anything like its former vigor, but I’m having a hard time imagining just when that will be.
THE FIRST COUPLE OF WEEKS OF LOCKDOWN WERE THE MOST ANXIOUS, at least around here. There wasn’t much information, and what we did get was bad – rising death tolls, overwhelmed hospitals, panicked announcements from public officials who changed their stories daily. This was the period of toilet paper hoarding, and constant news reports of empty shelves in whatever stores were still open. It would be another week or so before delivery services rose to the new challenge – if you could afford them.
It was when we didn’t know if we could leave our houses, or what to do if we did. A new phrase – “social distancing” – was everywhere, but masks only seemed available for hospital workers. We watched videos on how to disinfect our groceries, if we could get a delivery slot. It certainly was a funny sort of apocalypse.
I wanted to go for a walk, but I had to stay away from people. (This wasn’t really a challenge – I try to avoid people at the best of times.) Luckily we live next to where rail and hydroelectric corridors meet, in Toronto’s old west end. Over several hikes, I ended up walking along the hydro corridor from just where “The Junction” is on the first map, due west to just past “Runnymede”, where they cross the CP Rail tracks by the Humber River. For most of these walks, I was almost completely alone.
For most of its length, the hydro corridor is bordered by the backyards of neighbourhoods like St. Clair Gardens, Silverthorne, Syme, Harwood, Rockcliffe-Smythe and Lambton. This is my city – the old west end where I grew up and where, ten years ago, we bought our house. These scrubby backyards, with their piles of apparent trash, beat-up bikes, slanted sheds, garden tools and patchwork DIY renovations, are a comforting sight to me most of the time, but they looked forlorn and abandoned on my walks, even though I was certain that homeowners were sheltering in place inside the adjacent homes.
I’ve always been fascinated by hydro corridors – common infrastructure in this city, and usually more accessible for walking than the rail corridors that are just as ubiquitous. I’ve never lived very far from one or the other, and now I live within sight of both. There’s something very H.G. Wells about the skeletal pylons striding, alone or in pairs, across the landscape.
It was inevitable that a bit of an end times feel made their way into these photos. The last major public health scares were the polio epidemics that peaked in the early ’50s. There was apparently a major measles outbreak in the ’80s, but I guess I was probably either too drunk or stoned to notice, and AIDS was sold as a kind of subscription epidemic – you were either in that exclusive club or you weren’t. The big comparison was the Spanish Flu, over a hundred years ago, and almost no one alive today could remember that. Like everyone else, I was trying to process just what this could all mean, and thanks to decades of films and TV shows set in the aftermath of nuclear wars, alien invasions, plague decimations or zombie outbreaks, I suppose my eye was drawn to the sorts of things you see below.
LOCKDOWN WAS REALLY JUST AN EXCUSE FOR ME TO FINALLY START THIS SERIES. There’s a whole list of still life subjects I want to shoot, but this one got bumped to the front of the line by quarantine. I really had a good time taking these photos – they’d been thought about for so long that taking the shots went by too quickly. To get the full effect, click here or here and turn up the volume to have some idea what was playing in my head while I was shooting.
I collected my subjects several weeks ago, at the end of a two-week self-quarantine. Someone in our family came down with suspicious symptoms. (Thankfully it was only a false alarm.) We dutifully stayed inside, and by the end our world had shrunk to our property boundaries. Most of it came from the alleyway behind the house – one of the miles of parallel streetscapes here in Toronto.
It’s a whole other world in the alleyways. At night it’s mostly owned by feral cats, raccoons, and the pack of coyotes that recently moved into the cemetery behind our street. During the day it can be a low key party – people working on cars and other projects, or just enjoying an increasingly illicit smoke, an energy drink, a beer or two, or that most Canadian of beverages – Tim Horton’s coffee.
At first I just wanted to document each item like an artifact. But I can’t deny that Irving Penn’s street material still life series was an inspiration for all of this, so it was inevitable that groupings began suggesting themselves, little portraits of the detritus from all that back alley life.
Trash is a snap shot of a time and place – Penn’s street material is full of paper takeout containers and blue and white “Greek deli” coffee cups. I suppose one day my plastic water bottles and energy drink cans will evoke an era in consumer waste.
Penn’s cigarette trash is also peculiar to a time and place, featuring brands like Camel and Chesterfield. I haven’t smoked in years, so I was taken aback by these crumpled packages, obviously Canadian, perhaps local, and strangely generic. I can’t imagine how they’d entice anyone to want to smoke.
Picking trash like this can be called premature archaeology. When I was a boy I wanted to be an archaeologist, before I learned that most of the time I wouldn’t be digging up tombs but sifting through dirt for pot shards or evidence of ancient privies. Today that sounds exciting.
I found these pieces of tile in the gutter down the street. Rubble left over from a kitchen or bathroom renovation, they were missed by the garbage men; to my eye – trained after watching weeks of Time Team episodes during lockdown – they looked like tesserae, the busted floor of some Roman villa or a bath house on the other side of the ocean.
It might be harder to identify this metal disc. I know that I found it in the parking lot by the Portuguese karaoke bar at the bottom of my street, a piece of hub cap flattened by countless car tires. And perhaps I’ve lived in cities too long, but a little grouping like the one below is what I expect to see in the heavily-trafficked margin where constrained nature meets my street.
SPRING HAS BEEN TEASING US WHILE WE’RE STILL LOCKED DOWN. They say April is the cruelest month, but May is trying to compete, alternating between a few lovely warm days and then sleet, wind chill and frost warnings. There’s some sort of end in sight – maybe – which somehow makes the budding trees and early perennials pressing forward despite the weather even more poignant.
For weeks, of course, it was all just grey dirt and unraked leaves and the dried husks of last year’s flowers, still standing after the snow. They felt appropriate at the start of the era of social distancing.
And then the first buds started to appear in the parks and yards, looking as surreptitious as we felt, breaking quarantine and heading out to get some sun and air.
Spring #2 & #3, Toronto, May 2020
I’ll give the lockdown some credit – I never would have noticed all this abundance, in all of its shapes and colours, if I hadn’t been stuck at home, desperate for material to photograph, and strangely, newly aware of everything I was seeing on my walks and hikes.
I’ve been desperate for subjects, and having run out of flowers I went for a walk with a pair of secateurs to harvest some cuttings in our backyard, and off the trees and bushes along the rail corridor by our house. Without their leaves, I couldn’t tell you what you’re looking at – perhaps a botany enthusiast reading this could hazard some guesses. Everything here was photographed in the lockdown kitchen studio, even if it might look like it was taken outside against a cloudless sky.
The two frames above are a testament to how robustly the new life is seeking a fresh start – the second photo is of the same cutting after spending a few days sitting in a glass of water in our kitchen. Even without roots, the imperative is to bud and grow, in whatever circumstances might be even slightly optimistic.
The shots below are little personal landmarks. The cutting from a neighbour’s tree was taken with his permission – it’s a tree that explodes in flowers every year when spring is finally established, covering the sidewalk with confetti-like petals just before the lilacs start to bloom. The one at the bottom is our own apple tree, a multi-grafted sapling that I planted a few years ago, in honour of the one my grandfather planted in the backyard of our house in Mount Dennis.
IF THIS THING KEEPS GOING INTO THE SUMMER, the best thing I can hope for is that at least I’ll have some things I can shoot growing in the garden. My next post will give you some idea of how desperate I’ve been to find subjects for my still life kitchen studio. When the lockdown started all I had was a vase of already dried-out flowers from Valentine’s Day. They were great, patient subjects but I finally had to admit that I’d squeezed everything I could out of them. Here’s a little Instagram tribute to those wilted blossoms:
Thankfully, a friend generously dropped off a bunch of surplus bouquets – roses, orchids and tulips. I hadn’t photographed newly cut flowers since last year; the best comparison I can make is doing portraits of young people versus older people. There’s a freshness and even beauty with youth that seems to make getting a flattering picture easier, but it doesn’t take long before you realize that the results can be a little generic. Real character emerges when the bloom starts getting overripe, and by the time the petals are brittle and wrinkled every flower head has its own personality.
This was my first time shooting orchids, which are both proof and exception to this rule. They’re a lush, striking flower – it’s hard to find a bad angle on either a single orchid or a thick bunch like these ones. The petals are meaty but the interior of the blossom has the look of a predator insect or an alien pilot. They do most of the work for you, so I felt obliged to feature a single wilted bloom on a thick stalk of flowers, just to provide some contrast.
Very much like tulips, orchids live only as long as their blooms are fresh, and their demise is both quick and total. Roses remain my favorite flower, though – the buds are demure, even coy, but as the petals open and then begin to subtly curl and discolour at the edges they become more interesting, with more surfaces to catch light. The sepals, with their serrated edges, curl and pull away from the petals they protected.
I’m shooting as much as possible with my new Kamlan 50mm f1.1 lens, both to get used to it for portrait work, and because it has a character of its own as a close-up optic, especially when wide open. I’ve noticed the glowing penumbra it produces when out-of-focus highlights contrast against a darker background, but something about these shots, seen through the viewfinder, stirred a memory that made it easier to decide to press the shutter.
It took me a while to realize that the colour palette in these shots came straight off the cover of Todd Rundgren’s classic 1972 double album Something/Anything?, which was once one of my favorite records to play during long overnight darkroom sessions in my old Parkdale studio.
After about a week the orchids were dropping flowers and the tulips were just past their peak. Tulips are fairly generic when we find them for sale in florist’s shops, tight buds distinguishable only by colour and varieties of petal shapes in fancy varieties. In front of my camera, they always appeared at their most vegetal at this stage (look at the photo near the top of this post.) It’s easy to see that they’re from the same family as garlic and onions, with their thick stalks and meaty leaves.
Now overripe and wilting, this is my favorite time to photograph tulips, but it only lasts about a day. A week previous they’d been a huddle of buds standing alert; in the shot above they look more like a selfie taken at a raucous party.
Hours away from dropping their petals, tulips finally become really expressive and much more graphically interesting. A single line thrusting upward gives way to curves in several different directions, and the anthers, stigma and ovary are fully exposed.
This is a kind of photo I’ve been trying to take for years now – since (like so many other people) I became interested in Japanese art in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and in particular shodo calligraphic art. Back when I was looking for a way to clean up and simplify my compositions, I found inspiration in these kanji characters, quickly and economically rendered with brushes and even mops. I’m always looking for a way to reduce a photo to just a few, or perhaps even just one, simple line.
Finally, I thought it was time to start experimenting with colour. I began with red and green gels on LED lights aimed in a crossfire – a classic setup that used to be big back in the days of pre-grunge indie rock and cross-processed film. On a red rose, however, this is hardly a complex lighting equation – the petals absorb the red light while the green only renders on highlights before it plunges into black in the shadows. I might need to play around with other colour combinations – or get my hands on other colours of flowers.
In the meantime, the roses are drying out, in anticipation of at least a couple more weeks in lockdown and their next moment in the spotlight in the kitchen studio.
THIS SUNDAY IS WORLDWIDE PINHOLE PHOTOGRAPH DAY. It’s not an event I would have noticed or taken part in until this year, mostly because I didn’t even own a pinhole camera of any kind until about a month and a half ago. I didn’t go to school for photography, or even have any interest in taking photos until around the time I dropped out of college, so I never built a shoebox pinhole camera for fun or learned about basic optical theory – camera obscuras and near- and far-field diffraction – as part of a foundation course.
In the days of film, building a pinhole camera seemed like a lot of bother, and perhaps (shudder) a bit of math. Even when simple pinhole “lenses” (and yes, I know, a pinhole doesn’t have any glass in it so it’s not really a lens) became available for digital cameras I barely noticed. I suppose it was only in the last year or so, when my interest in getting something more (or, really, less) than a technically correct, “sharp” image returned again after twenty years, did I start shopping around for options to create “technically incorrect” photos.
Late last summer I saw a Facebook ad for a pinhole zoom “lens” on Kickstarter. Made by Thingyfy in China, it seemed novel and a bit more flexible than other pinholes – basically just body caps with holes – so I pledged my money and waited. And waited. It finally arrived after spending months in transit and just in time for the coronavirus lockdown. I sat and stared at it for a week or so and finally pressed it into service while shooting several still lifes in my ad hoc kitchen studio.
The raw images were a bit daunting – very, very soft and marked with many small concentric circles: marks from dust on either the UV filter you have to use with pinholes or on the camera’s image sensor. (I had been warned about this – nobody’s camera is perfectly dust-free, and with an aperture of roughly f165 the technical focus extends from infinity to the film plane.) After some work put into spotting the images in Photoshop – nothing I wasn’t used to doing with old scanned film negatives for years – I had to contend with the peculiar nature of pinhole images: While not technically out of focus, they’re nowhere near what you could call “sharp.” A friend and fellow photographer compared them to certain old, uncoated film lenses. But worse.
Now, the look of old, uncoated lenses is something that interests me, but a lot of work had to be done both during and after pressing the shutter to get these images close to what I had in my mind. The first thing that was obvious was that contrast – often harsh, close to blown-out contrast – was going to be my friend, as the lack of glass to focus light on any spectrum meant an extremely diffused image. I needed a way to get deep blacks to take hold somewhere in the frame, since they were the only thing that was going to give the illusion of detail.
It took three or four still life sessions to start producing frames like the one above – still holding detail in the middle of the tone spectrum, enough to create a sense of something sharp floating amidst all the ethereal softness native to the pinhole image. This also demanded a lot of work in Photoshop, using layers and the Unsharp mask to pull that detail out of the clouds and mud. I’d panicked a bit when I saw those first raw images, but after a couple of weeks of solid work – a gift that came with all the time and lack of distraction in lockdown – I began to find a formula that edged close to the peculiar “technically incorrect” goal that inspired all this effort.
This milestone reached, I decided to take my digital pinhole out into nature – the place where most pinhole photographers seem to use theirs, as bright daylight is pretty much the only place you might be able to take a shot at less than half a second exposure – perhaps even handheld if you push the ISO high enough. My original goal was Mount Pleasant, the city’s most picturesque cemetery within hiking distance of home. But complaints about violations of social distancing saw management padlock the gates, as well as those of Prospect Cemetery, conveniently right next to our house.
My fallback was Mount Hope, the midtown Catholic cemetery where my grandparents are buried, but that also got shut down, so I was obliged to return to High Park again, just a few months after I’d hiked it with my Holga plastic camera shooting an assignment for the Shacklands Camera Club. The park was also supposed to be closed to the public, but with 400 unfenced acres, that’s not really possible, and when I arrived there on a bright Saturday it was hardly empty, though the hikers, bikers and dog walkers were largely masked and responsibly apart from each other.
By this point I realized that hoping for shadow detail with the pinhole was mostly wishful thinking, especially when rich, black shadows were the only way to make sure you created any defining image detail at all. So I arrived at High Park (a 14km hike there and back from our house) with my tripod and camera prepared to look for striking silhouettes; another lesson you learn quickly with a pinhole is that composition matters more than ever.
I know the park pretty well; I’ve been going there since I was a child, and it’s a reliable source of inspiration. But even on this bright spring day most of the best images I got (apart from the one at the top of this post) were decidedly crepuscular; almost “day for night” in look, the afternoon sunlight transformed into moonlight, and surprisingly like the old storybook illustrations I’d been trying to take in the park for literally decades.
This was enormously satisfying. I’ve said for years that I’m basically a graphic artist hiding behind a photographer. (The sad part, of course, is that I’m actually a late 19th century graphic artist hiding behind a 1950s photographer. Try living with that identity crisis.) Finally, after several false starts when the sun and clouds refused to cooperate, I returned to a spot I’d noted on a hike a few weeks ago where I suspected there’d be a nice sunset.
So far the experiment with the pinhole – pushed along by an unexpected gift of time and motivation – has been pretty successful. I’m not sure if this “lens” will become a permanent fixture in my camera bag, but it certainly expanded the palette of potential pictures I might take in either personal or commercial situations. I still need to see how useful it is for portraits, and that’s an experiment that’s going to have to wait until “normal” – whatever that might be – returns.
THIS ISN’T MEANT TO BE MORBID OR PROVOCATIVE. Or maybe it is and I’m just unable to acknowledge it for myself. The truth is that I’ve had a list of still life subjects pending for a long time now, and with the pandemic lockdown in effect, that list has suddenly been given priority, along with subjects like this one – a human skull I have had in my possession for at least twenty-five years now.
I bought it from an antique and interior decor store across from my favorite record shop on Queen West. I had wanted a skull for many years, ever since I became fascinated with vanitas still life paintings and the whole idea of the memento mori. I had a bit of extra money and, to be blunt, the price was right. It came home, wrapped in newspaper and carried in a shopping bag and it’s sat on my desk since then.
Shooting happened, as usual, in the kitchen – my lockdown studio for the duration. I worked late at night, over the course of two days when everyone was asleep, not because I thought the subject matter was disturbing but because I didn’t want any stray light from the kitchen windows to interfere with the very controlled setups I planned on using. One night was devoted to a more painterly lighting setup, the other to a brighter “high key” look. Over the course of the two nights I used every LED light I had along with all the gear I could find or build.
I’m a portrait photographer who has no subjects, so I felt obliged to get up close with the thing that’s always there, just underneath the skin of everyone I photograph. The skull has enormous resonance, as a symbol and an icon, but it’s a remarkably generic object at first glance – it’s hard to tell them apart without special knowledge of anatomy and forensics. I ended up concentrating on the peculiar textures of this skull – the cracks and seams and sutures. And I ended up with one shot that reminded me of the cover of Isaac Hayes’ 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul.
I’m not superstitious about the skull. I’m aware that it was once part of a person, and I’m sure the supply chain that delivered it to my was probably pretty dubious, but if you believe in a soul it’s hard to imbue much to the bits and pieces we leave behind. I try to treat it with appropriate respect. (Though I haven’t given it a name – I’m not that much of a ghoul.) But it’s hard to resist the temptation to create my own simple vanitas, albeit with the scant supplies in the larder during this lockdown.
There’s no great implied meaning to these photos. Of course people are dying – this week has been notable in my own circles for the passing of John Prine and Hal Willner due to Covid-19. So it’s inevitable that this choice of subject will have some inescapable resonance. If I was a medieval painter or a monk illuminating a book the message would be clear enough. And it occurs to me that this post is going up on Good Friday; as a churchgoing Catholic I guess I just have to say “Golgotha” and let that hang in the air. But I can’t control what meaning someone might read into an image, so here’s this week’s contribution to this brief, uncomfortable but vivid moment in history.
THEY SAY THIS THING COULD GO ON FOR ANOTHER TWO MONTHS, MAYBE THREE. I can’t say we’re suffering here – I’m one of those insufferable Gen-X types who can brag about social distancing since I was a kid. (Being a misanthrope also helps.) But my big worry is running out of things to shoot. That’s the one thing that could end up making me long for a “return to normalcy.” I don’t miss people, but I sure miss doing portraits.
I started collecting old scrapbooks and other paper ephemera a while back, when the potential of Mrs. Edward Cross’ address book became obvious. I found this one at an old paper show; they’re harder to find than you think – most people just throw them out when going through the hoarded belongings of dead relations and estate sale job lots. Photo albums have been hot for a while now, but as a photographer I don’t get much spark from shooting other people’s photos. Scrapbooks are another thing altogether.
I’m assuming it was put together by a young lady – probably unmarried, but I could be wrong. The book itself started life as a Province of Ontario geography textbook, and part of its charm is how the old maps and text peek through behind the pasted-in poems and newspaper clippings, engravings and scraps of colour product packaging, all carefully cut out and assembled according to a logic only the original owner could explain.
What always draws me into these old scrapbooks are the accidental juxtapositions, left stranded on the page long after context was obvious. It’s the sort of material that artists like Max Ernst and Joseph Cornell would refashion into surrealism, using the same sort of paper ephemera, back when the pre-WW1 world still resonated in living memory – past, but not distant past.
Now, of course, this is the very distant past – as far back from our world today as the French Revolution was from the person who put this together. It’s tempting to try to understand a scrapbook made when mass media was mostly printed matter as a sort of proto-Pinterest. My wife pointed out that this is also the sort of project that would get started during not-infrequent periods of isolation and quarantine – slow-moving summers away at a cottage or relative’s house by the seashore or in some distant rural enclave, or when an infection was suddenly raging away either locally or nationally, in an age before widespread vaccination and herd immunity. Which makes this all feel at least a little timely.
It’s hard to ignore the feminine preoccupations throughout this scrapbook – the sentimental poems and illustrations, the pictures of babies, kittens and puppies, the recurring interest in fashion, courtship, marriage, faith and family. It’s not fashionable to talk about gender stereotypes these days, but they’re hard to ignore as you go through these pages looking for some particular clue to help make the person who assembled all these scraps and clippings come into focus.
The only glimpse of an actual person appears just once – a pencil doodle of a shifty, skulking figure in the margin of a page. It might not have been put there by the owner of the scrapbook – it’s probably an artifact of one of the original users of the volume when it was still a geography textbook. Apart from that, the only other evidence of the book’s provenance or past is near the front, where bookworms or some other bugs have made a meal of the corners of several pages, creating another accidental juxtaposition in this ragged cross section of pages.
The book looks and feels undeniably late Victorian. There’s almost nothing to give it a specific date except for the inclusion of an anti-Boer poem, “Kruger and the Lion,” on the last page before the back cover – a little sliver of Imperial jingoism aimed at Afrikaaner politician Paul Kruger, “Slippery as a wiggling eel” and a “cowardly lion” according to the poet, one Linton West, himself now utterly obscured by history. It could, of course, have been made later, from piles of already-yellowing newspapers, magazines and catalogues pulled down from an attic by a bored young woman staring down many endless days with little to occupy herself.