Neighbours

Shira, Calla, Chris & Gigi, Earlscourt, June 2020

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.

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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.

Juvan, Norah & Ginette, Earlscourt, June 2020
Joanne, Earlscourt, June 2020
Dan, Dora, Lea & Toby, Earlscourt, June 2020
Maria, Sandra, Sonia, Nicole, Emma & Linkin, Earlscourt, June 2020
Nick, Diana, Scarlet & Owen, Earlscourt, June 2020

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.

Heather, Nyiah, Isaya, Koa Béo & Mischa, June 2020
Peter, Sarah & Karen, Earlscourt, June 2020
Steve, Earlscourt, June 2020
Flavia & Mike, Earlscourt, June 2020
Durvalina, Antonio & Rex, Earlscourt, June 2020
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Groceries

Pears (Gossip), Toronto, May 2020

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.

Pears, Toronto, May 2020
Beets, Toronto, May 2020
Avocados, Toronto, May 2020
Garlic, Toronto, May 2020
Apples, Toronto, May 2020
Asparagus, Toronto, May 2020
Sweet Peppers, Toronto, May 2020

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.

Carrots, Toronto, May 2020
Button mushrooms, Toronto, May 2020
Onions, Toronto, May 2020
Potatoes, Toronto, May 2020
Shiitake mushrooms, Toronto, May 2020

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.

Pear, Toronto, May 2020
Asparagus, Toronto, May 2020
Boston lettuce, Toronto, May 2020
Carrots, Toronto, May 2020
Sourdough bread, Toronto, May 2020
Sprouted garlic, Toronto, May 2020
Ciabatta loaf, Toronto, May 2020
Sweet potatoes, Toronto, May 2020

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.

Apples (pinhole), Toronto, May 2020
Button mushrooms (Holga plastic lens), Toronto, May 2020
Pears (pinhole), Toronto, May 2020
Sweet pepper (Holga plastic lens), Toronto, May 2020
Avocados (Holga plastic lens), Toronto, May 2020
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