Empty City

Union Station, Toronto, May 2020

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.

Toronto, May 2020

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.

Toronto, May 2020

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.

Toronto, May 2020

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.

Toronto, May 2020

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.

Toronto, May 2020

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.

Toronto, May 2020
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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
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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
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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
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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.

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