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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.