Plague Walks

Lavender Creek Trail, Toronto, March 2020

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.

Plague Walk, Toronto, March 2020

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.

Plague Walk, Toronto, March 2020

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.

Plague Walk (Transmission corridor), Toronto, Spring 2020

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.

Plague Walks, Toronto, Spring 2020
See my published books

Trash

Trash (Card Party), Toronto, May 2020

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.

Trash, Toronto, May 2020

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 (Coffee Break), Toronto, May 2020

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.

Trash, Toronto, May 2020

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.

Trash (Smokes), Toronto, May 2020

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.

Trash (Archaeology), Toronto, May 2020

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.

Trash (Windblown), Toronto, May 2020
See my published books

Spring

Spring #1 (from a neighbour’s tree), Toronto, May 2020

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.

Spring (coneflower husk), Toronto, May 2020

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.

Spring #4, Toronto, May 2020
Spring (Blackcurrants), Toronto, May 2020
Spring #5, Toronto, May 2020
Spring #6, Toronto, May 2020
Spring #7, Toronto, May 2020

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.

Spring #8 (before), Toronto, May 2020
Spring #9 (after), Toronto, May 2020

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.

Spring #10 (from a neighbour’s tree), Toronto, May 2020
Spring #11 (Apple blossom), Toronto, May 2020
Check out my books

Flowers

Orchids, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Rose, Toronto, April 2020
Tulips, Toronto, April 2020
Rose, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Orchids, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Rose, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Roses, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Tulips, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Tulip, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Aoi Yamaguchi, “Kun-puh”

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.

Rose, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Roses, Toronto, April 2020

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.

See my published books

Pinhole

High Park, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Skull #4, Toronto, April 2020
Skull & onions #2, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Roses, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Roses, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Orchids, Toronto, April 2020

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.

High Park, Toronto, April 2020

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.

High Park, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Lavender Creek Trail, Toronto, April 2020 (click to enlarge)

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.

Lavender Creek Trail, Toronto, April 2020
Check out my books

Skull

Skull and onions, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Skull #1, Toronto, April 2020
Skull #2, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Skull close-up, Toronto, April 2020
Skull dome, Toronto, April 2020
Coronal and Sagittal sutures, Skull, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Skull and onions #2, Toronto, April 2020

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.

Skull #3, Toronto, April 2020
See my published books

Victorian Scrapbook #1

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.

(click on any image to enlarge)

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.

(click on any image to enlarge)

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.

(click on any image to enlarge)

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.

(click on any image to enlarge)

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.

See my published books

Roses

Rose, Toronto, March 2020

PRETTY SURE MOST OF US DIDN’T SEE THIS COMING. By which I mean being voluntarily locked down at home, testing the technical limitations of telecommuting and the strength of the emotional tether connecting us to our loved ones. We had to cancel a family trip to NYC at the last minute and go to earth with everyone else. I am not, by temperament, a people person, so the emotional hardships have been marginal for me. The challenge, of course, is staying creatively occupied.

Which for me means still life photography. If I could have predicted self-quarantining lasting weeks, even months, I might have laid in a supply of subjects for the duration – a quick trip to a florist, or to the bone and taxidermy shop downtown. In any case, there was a vase of roses drying on a shelf in the kitchen – the Valentine’s Day bouquet for my wife, ready and waiting to become the focus of so much pent-up energy.

Roses, Toronto, March 2020

Before the social distancing got serious I managed a trip to the craft store for black foamcore and Home Depot for plywood and hinges. The foamcore was intended to build a selection of light baffles; since the kitchen table had to become my studio, I needed walls and bounce panels and modifiers to shape the rather broad light coming from my Westcott LED heads. I’d had an idea for an adjustable baffle for months, sketched on a desk notepad – time to build the thing.

With all my previous kitchen floral still life sessions, I’d been working up the complexity of my lighting – from natural light, to single soft sources to spotlighting with LED flashlights. At this point I’m treating each dried flower like a portrait subject, working to find that point where their best side meets the nicest light. In a portrait session that means manipulating light and shade and backdrops over a whole room; at home it’s a matter of moving panels on a tabletop a few inches, and shifting my light behind a thin slit cut into a board until it falls on the right bit.

Roses, Toronto, March 2020

I spread these shots over two separate sessions a week apart. At the end of the second session I ran upstairs to grab a new toy – a Thingyfy Pinhole Pro X that I ordered from Kickstarter last year and only received in the mail from China a couple of weeks before the lockdown hit. I fitted it to my Fuji X-T2, pulled the light in as close as possible to the rose I had on the table and calculated an exposure of about 30 seconds.

The results are … intriguing. Not what anyone would call sharp, but technically in focus, which is the peculiar quality of pinhole photography as I understand it. I never went to photo school, so I didn’t get to build a shoebox pinhole film camera in first year or any of those elementary exercises. Thirty-five years later I get to play with the most basic kind of camera of all, and I have all the time in the world to see where this leads.

Rose, Toronto, March 2020
See my published books

Motorama

Motorama, Toronto, March 2020

JUST A DAY BEFORE THE CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWN STARTED TO TAKE EFFECT, I went with my friend Alex on our annual pilgrimage to Motorama, the big local custom car and hot rod show. It’s a good thing we went on the first day, because the organizers decided to close the doors on the third day under pressure from the authorities. It was a big hit for them, and for the vendors and exhibitors – I hope they can all recover from it. So if you wanted to go but couldn’t make it, here’s my little digest of what were, to me, the highlights, as seen through my camera.

I’ve come to enjoy Motorama more than the big, established auto show just a month beforehand every year. I certainly ended up with more shots worth sharing this year – the usual little details and near-abstract shots that I’ve been drilling down on since I started shooting cars a bunch of years ago. This is where my eye is always being drawn – to the angles and surfaces and colours that I’ve found captivating since I was a kid checking out the rides parked in my neighbours’ driveways in Mount Dennis.

A family trip we planned to NYC this week was postponed, naturally, and school has been canceled for a further two weeks after March Break as governments act with what you might consider either panic or prudence. In any case, it doesn’t look like like we’re leaving the house much for the next few weeks, which means a whole bunch of still life work in the kitchen for me. Stay tuned – and if you’re stuck at home, too, now’s a good time to buy some of my photo books. Links in the sidebar and below.

Motorama, Toronto, March 2020
Check out my books

Camera Club

High Park, Toronto, January 2020

I DO NOT MISS SHOOTING FILM. Which is why joining a camera club to shoot and develop film would seem like a strange thing to do, right? Yet that’s exactly what I’ve done, for reasons that it’s going to take a whole blog post to explain. It’s a good thing I have a lot of photos to share to try and make a point that, if I’m honest, I’m not completely sure if I understand myself yet.

I suppose it all begins at the beginning, with Kodak. I grew up a few blocks away from the Kodak Canada plant in Mount Dennis, a working class neighbourhood of Toronto, where my family began working back in the ’20s, when my mother got a job there. Which meant it was inevitable that someone, some day, would give me a camera, like this one:

This isn’t that first camera – a Christmas gift back when I was about ten years old – but an identical Instamatic I bought at a junk shop a few years ago. (That original camera is long gone, left behind when the house I grew up in was sold.) I’ve told this story a couple of times now when I’ve given talks about my work, but I loaded it up with a couple of rolls of 126 cartridge film and headed out into the snow in pursuit of some idea I had in my head.

Once I was done I took the film to mom to ask if she could have it developed. She asked what I’d shot; I told her it was just things I’d seen – snowbanks and bushes and trees and road – whatever was within walking distance of the house that looked like the images I had in my head. She seemed puzzled – why take photos of anything that isn’t family or trips or parties or special occasions? That was, after all, what was in nearly every photo in our house. In any case those rolls got shuffled into a drawer and were never, as far as I can recall, sent to be developed.

And that was it for my career as a photographer for at least a decade.

Fast forward thirty years or so. Work was getting scarce and my creative confidence was taking a hit and I needed something to help me clear my head and reconnect with whatever inspiration I once had, and for some reason I decided that the best way was to find a camera as close to that long-lost Instamatic as possible. Which meant a Holga – a cheap plastic camera made originally for the Chinese market that had become a staple of what became known as Lomography.

This isn’t that camera. My first Holga 120S fell out of a bag while while trying to get our kids off of a plane after a summer trip to Nova Scotia. I ended up falling hard for the serendipitous process of shooting with a camera with a fixed aperture and only notional control over focus. Even after I (gratefully) gave up my darkroom and switched to digital, I kept a Holga around and would occasionally run a roll or two of film through it.

But I’d send the film out for developing – no more messing around with chemicals. And then last year Dave Watts at Shacklands – the west end brewery where I had my book launch party late last year – told me he was starting up a camera club for anyone interested in shooting and developing film, which began meeting on the first Wednesday of each month last December.

I showed up at that first meeting with two boxes full of my old film tanks and reels, which included a tank loaded up with two rolls of 120 I’d shot on that original Holga two decades ago that, for whatever reason, I’d never developed. They ended up being the first rolls of film I’d develop since I packed up my last darkroom in the dusty basement of the house on Macdonell, where we moved after I gave up my studio. Until I’d finished souping these rolls in the sink at Shacklands I didn’t even know what was on those rolls.

Georgian Bay, 2002?

They turned out to be shots taken in Georgian Bay, while visiting a friend’s cottage, and out on Cherry Beach in the Port Lands, during one of the walks I’d taken out there looking for inspiration. Light leaks had fogged the edges of some frames, but otherwise they were still more than usable- not that I went all the way and printed them with an enlarger.

Cherry Beach, Toronto, 2005?

Those undeveloped rolls were an unfinished bit of business that had haunted me since I stopped developing film, so finally running chemistry through them felt cathartic. But part of the camera club’s mission was to shoot film. And since all of this was happening at Christmas, the memory of that first Instamatic came to mind and I decided to wait until a suitably snowy day, like the one during that long ago holiday break where I headed out with my present.

High Park, Toronto, January 2020

My destination was another place of hometown inspiration – High Park, where I’ve been going since I was a child. The cold and a recent snowfall had emptied most of the park except for dog walkers, so I had the place mostly to myself as I looked for compositions strong enough to work with the strong technical limitations of the Holga – the indistinct focus, the blur and vignetting at the edges of the frame, the uncertain sense of precise composition in the very primitive viewfinder.

High Park, Toronto, January 2020

As an experiment, I tried to duplicate compositions I’d shot on the Holga with my cell phone. The frames above and below are fairly decent examples of the unique qualities available when you shoot with the most basic camera this side of a pinhole and a marvel of miniaturization and photo software.

I also brought along a “real” camera – my much-loved Fujifilm X30. The frames below are the sorts of photos I could take all day, every day, and while I’m hardly complaining, there’s something that makes me try to work harder, and avoid the easy path. The Shacklands camera club is an opportunity to force myself to think outside the digital realm, with all of its many conveniences. So the Holga will be taken off the shelf again, as I try to get the confidence to haul out my 4×5 view camera again for the first time in nearly twenty-five years. Stay tuned.

High Park, Toronto, January 2020
Check out my books